When I was in the third grade, my mom gave me a button to wear to school that said “I’m a mini-feminist.” Yes, it was the 1970s. And yes, I got teased. When I came home from school in tears, my mom explained that wearing the button was an important way to speak out for equality.
That simple lesson had a profound impact on my life: not only did I wear the button on my book bag from that day forward — I also have dedicated my professional life to the fight for equality for women.
Now, in the second year after becoming a mother myself, I am struck more than ever by how far we have left to go, and in particular, by the clash between our reverence for and idealization of the institution of motherhood, and our nation’s laws and policies. No matter how you look at it, we are quite simply not a mom-friendly nation.
Here are just a few examples:
- Although the federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave after child birth, there is no requirement for paid parental leave. In fact, in one recent study of 190 countries, the U.S. was one of only three countries (along with Papua New Gunea and Swaziland) that failed to offer paid leave, and we are alone among developed nations in failing to provide it;
- More than 50 million workers do not have paid sick leave to care for sick children. Only 61 percent of private-industry workers have any paid sick leave at all to care for sick children or other family members. This problem is particularly acute for women on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. As Joan Williams has put it, such workers are often “one sick child away from being fired.”
- According to one report, "women are half of all U.S. workers and mothers are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families." But despite this fact, there is a persistent pay gap between women and men that only increases when women become mothers—a phenomenon known as the “motherhood penalty”;
- Low-income women who are full-time moms are demonized as “welfare queens,” and our nation has acq uiesced to policies like the “family cap” that penalize such women for having children;
- There is a stark lack of options for affordable, quality child care that is worsening as cash-strapped states make cuts to early childhood education programs;
- The states have unleashed an onslaught of restrictions on abortion and birth control that will result in women being forced to have children against their will.
Geez, this is depressing. Someone get this mom some chocolate, fast!
There has been some progress for women’s equality in recent years—the 2009 enactment of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which restored employees ability to have their day in court for ongoing wage discrimination, and more recently, the enactment of the new heath care law, the Affordable Care Act. The health care law has provisions protecting the rights of nursing mothers covered by federal wage and hour laws to reasonable break time and a private location to “pump” breast milk on the job.
But we need to go much, much farther. We need real pay equity in the workplace, and must advocate for passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. We need paid parental leave and a guarantee of paid sick leave that covers caring for sick children or other family members. We need to ensure that every woman who becomes a mother does so by choice, not through coercion or lack of legal and accessible options.
We cannot hope to achieve full equality for women until our nation’s policies recognize the value of caregiving work, and adapt to the reality that pregnancy, childbirth, and caregiving are a part of the lives of many women in the workforce. And until all women have a meaningful choice whether to become mothers in the first place.
We clearly have a long way to go. So yes, by all means, get your mom that chocolate. But why not also honor her — and all moms — by working toward lasting change? No matter how you do it — be it wearing a button, calling your elected representative, or volunteering — on Mother’s Day, speak out for equality.