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The History Briefing on Pregnancy Discrimination: What Historians Had to Say About This Week’s News

Editors note: This is part of a series called The History Briefing. Contributors, primarily HNN internships, historically contextualize the week's top headlines by summarizing how different historians have added their unique perspective to enhance news coverage. 

United States Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren made headlines this week over a story she has told on the campaign trail. In the early 1970s, Warren was fired from a teaching job because she was pregnant. While she was initially offered an extension of her job for the next year, after she was visibly pregnant, the job went to someone else. This account was originally questioned by a writer for Jacobin magazine, was then picked up by right-wing websites, and eventually was covered in the national news. Not only has Warren’s story sparked a conversation among the media and women who experienced similar discrimination, but it also inspired many historians to add clarity and context to pregnancy discrimination. 

Historian and writer Joshua Zeitz Tweeted his input earlier this week. He explains that “to believe Warren is lying, one need be blind to the history of discrimination in 'pink collar' professions…” In the remainder of his Tweets, Zeitz describes the New Jersey state laws that prohibited the expulsion of pregnant teachers which were put in place a few years after Elizabeth Warren left her teaching job. While many pregnant teachers in the late 1960s, or even early 70s, faced less workplace discrimination in comparision to other professions, the fact that laws had to be enacted to legally bar pregnancy discrimination against teachers shows it was rampant.

History professor and Huffington Post contributor David M. Perry added nuance the historical analysis of pregnancy discrimination via Twitter. Perry tweeted: 

Actual news: Over 60 women have now accused Donald Trump of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape.

NYT A1: We're launching a week by week coverage of Elizabeth Warren's pregnancy as it happened all those years ago, probably

Satirical in nature, Perry’s joke has a serious message about the treatment of women in not only the workplace, but also in the media. The rampant sexual harassment and assault women experience is a minor story while questioning the veracity of a woman's experience of discrimination is headline news. While Perry's tweet is short, it helps us question the media's narrative and how it is rooted in historical sexism. 

Historians and journalists have discussed the issue of pregnancy discrimination long before it made headlines this week. In Lily Rothman's article “The Complicated History Behind the Fight for Pregnant Women’s Equality,” Rothman chronicles the history of discrimination that soon-to-be mothers have faced in the workplace and emphasizes that pregnancy discrimintion is still a big problem today. In 2014, for example, the Supreme Court heard the case of Penny Young who sued UPS because she was given unpaid leave for not being able to complete the laborious tasks required for her job while pregnant due to a recommendation from her doctor. As Rothman explains, the case hinged on the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.

Nancy Woloch, a professor of History at Barnard College, previously wrote a piece for HNN on paid maternity leave. Woloch's article outlines the evolution of legal protections for people working while pregnant. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevented "employment discrimination on the basis of sex”. The Medical Leave Act of 1993 ensured that pregnant women can take time off work without fear of retribution from the company.