Earlier this month, a controversy started brewing over whether Sen. Elizabeth Warren lied about being fired for being pregnant. But, does this discussion miss the point?
Multiple times on the campaign trail, Warren mentioned a personal story where she was fired from her speech pathologist job by the Riverdale Board of Education of New Jersey in 1971 because she was pregnant. However, on Oct. 7, 2019, the conservative Washington Free Beacon published a story alleging Warren’s account was contradicted by minutes from a Riverdale Board of Education meeting. According to the minutes, on April 21, 1971, the Board voted to extend Warren’s teaching contract, and two months later, Warren’s resignation was “accepted with regret.” In addition, a 2007 interview with Warren surfaced in which she says she resigned from her job to pursue graduate education. In response, Warren and her campaign stood by her account, with Warren saying of the 2007 interview that she “opened up more about different pieces in my life” after becoming a public figure.
So the obvious question is: Is the Free Beacon right to suggest Warren changed her story? Not necessarily. As Vox pointed out, when Warren’s contract was extended in April, she was only four months along and thus likely not visibly pregnant. However, when she was fired or resigned in June, she would have been visibly pregnant. In addition, claiming that she is more comfortable opening up now but not in 2007 seems plausible. In 2007 she was still working as a professor at Harvard, and she may have felt rocking the boat on pregnancy discrimination would diminish her future job opportunities. Most importantly, the minutes presented by the Free Beacon were not given context, so it’s hard to know what to make of them without more information.
However, the broader topic I want to discuss is that the debate over whether Warren lied misses the point. Whether she was personally a victim of it or not, pregnancy discrimination in the workplace is a real phenomenon, and it’s one we need to address. According to a New York Times investigation, “many of the country’s largest and most prestigious companies still systematically sideline pregnant women.” The number of cases filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for pregnancy discrimination is close to an all-time high, and a study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst estimates each child reduces a woman’s wages by 4 percent. By contrast, men’s wages go up by 6 percent after they become a father.
There are valuable discussions to be had about discrimination and societal bias against mothers in the workplace, and this is what Warren hoped to stimulate by telling her story. But when we make the conversation about whether or not Warren was telling the exact truth, we lose that purpose and make it into a backdrop for partisan bickering. Regardless of the accuracy of Warren’s story, we need to combat pregnancy discrimination. While the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 does ban this practice, that does not mean it goes away. Women who think they are being discriminated against based on pregnancy need to file with the EEOC if the law is to be enforced. Rigorous enforcement and a national conversation on how society views working mothers are what we need to solve this problem.
Debating a presidential candidate’s discrimination story accomplishes nothing.
Jason Zappulla is a UF history senior
FILE - In this Oct. 21, 2019, photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks to students and staff at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa. For Warren, it was supposed to be another big idea in a campaign full of them: A promise that everyone could get government-funded health care, following the lead of her friend and fellow White House hopeful Bernie Sanders. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)