Pregnancy, disability, and maternity leaves Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Federal and employer-sponsored policies used primarily by working women for childbirth and/or disability related to childbirth.

The historical treatment of pregnant working women stems from the traditional societal attitude that the role of a woman is exclusively one of wife and mother. As women began entering the workforce during the Industrial Revolution, many states attempted to protect women from the unhealthy working conditions existing at that time. States enacted statutes that attempted to shield women by limiting hours of work, specifying maximum weights to be lifted, and prohibiting them from performing certain types of work.Pregnancy Discrimination Act

In Muller v. Oregon[case]Muller v. Oregon[Muller v. Oregon] (1908), the Supreme Court upheld an Oregon statute prohibiting the employment of women for more than ten hours a day in any factory or laundry. By this ruling, the Court endorsed laws restricting the employment of women only as permissible for everyone’s benefit. Justice David J. Brewer, speaking for the Court, stated: “That a woman’s physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious.…As healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of women becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.”

In the 1920’s, the numbers of working women grew; however, no legislation protected the rights of pregnant workers or working mothers. Most women workers assumed that childbearing responsibilities would remove them from the workplace. Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s the public rejected the idea of working mothers. However, World War II created a worker shortage, and nearly one-third of the female population over age fourteen mothers included worked outside the home. After the end of the war in 1945, many of these working women lost their high-paying union jobs to returning veterans. In the 1950’s, many women chose to be homemakers rather than to join the workforce; however, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, many women entered the workforce, and more women chose to keep working after pregnancy and childbirth.

Women’s Work and Maternity Leave

In Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur[case]Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur[Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur] (1974), the Court held that mandatory maternity leaves for schoolteachers, which required a woman to begin maternity leave without regard to her ability to work, were unconstitutional under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, that same year, in Geduldig v. Aiello[case]Geduldig v. Aiello[Geduldig v. Aiello] (1974), the Court determined that exclusion of pregnancy from disability insurance plans did not violate the due process clause and did not involve gender discrimination because pregnancy is a “condition.” Further, in General Electric v. Gilbert[case]General Electric v. Gilbert[General Electric v. Gilbert] (1976), the Court accepted the Geduldig rationale that disparate treatment of pregnant women did not always constitute sex discrimination.

The General Electric decision prompted a broad coalition of activists to lobby for legislation protecting the rights of pregnant women. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in March, 1977, to amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include pregnancy-related disability. The act required that employers treat pregnancy like any other physical condition.

In California Federal Savings and Loan Association v. Guerra[case]California Federal Savings and Loan Association v. Guerra[California Federal Savings and Loan Association v. Guerra] (1987), the Court ruled on a California state law that required employers to grant up to four months’ unpaid pregnancy disability leave. A receptionist for the savings and loan took her statutorily entitled pregnancy leave, but her employer filled her position, preventing her from returning to work. The savings and loan fought the California law, stating that it was preempted by Title VII. The Court upheld the California law, finding the act “to be a floor beneath which pregnancy disability benefits may not drop not a ceiling above which they may not rise.” The Court ruled that employers must give women disability leave for pregnancy and childbirth and that they must guarantee them reinstatement to their jobs. This “special treatment,” it ruled, was permitted by Title VII’s legislative history.

In 1993 Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave ActFamily and Medical Leave Act, which allows parents (mother and father) to take up to twelve workweeks of unpaid leave for the birth and care of a newborn child and return to their previous position. The act entitles workers to take a leave for “health conditions.” These conditions are usually related to extended illness, workers’ compensation claims, or terminal disease and do not specifically include pregnancy; however, nothing in the act excludes the taking of medical leave if a woman is unable to work or is medically incapacitated by pregnancy. The Court did not rule on the constitutionality of this act in the 1990’s.

Further Reading
  • Blank, Robert. Fetal Protection in the Workplace: Women’s Rights, Business Interests, and the Unborn. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
  • Crampton, Suzanne, and Jitendra Mishra. “Family and Medical Leave Legislation: Organizational Policies and Strategies.” Public Personnel Management 24, no. 3 (1995): 271.
  • Merrick, Janna, and Robert Blank. The Politics of Pregnancy: Policy Dilemmas in the Maternal-Fetal Relationship. New York: Haworth Press, 1993.

Due process, substantive

Employment discrimination

Family and children

Geduldig v. Aiello

Gender issues

Muller v. Oregon

Categories: History Content