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Understanding Marital Status Discrimination as Sex Discrimination

Mie Lewis,
Women's Rights Project
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March 22, 2013

Last month, we filed a complaint on behalf of Jennifer Maudlin, a single mother who was fired for becoming pregnant while unmarried. Jennifer's case is one of a growing number of challenges to employers who fire unmarried workers for becoming pregnant or for using reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization. Marital status discrimination against pregnant women and parents is widespread, and the number of Americans who may at some point be its targets is huge. According to the Census Bureau, about a third of pregnant women are unmarried, and the number of unmarried parents is over 13 million. Of unmarried parents who live with their children, women outnumber men by a factor of nearly 6. In addition, many parents, about 2 million, choose to raise their children together while unmarried.

Women are disproportionately affected by this form of discrimination, in part because they are more often the heads of unmarried households. Women's ability to become pregnant also makes it easy for employers to discover that an unmarried woman employee is an expectant parent, while an unmarried soon-to-be-father would escape detection. Stereotypes also shape employers' perceptions of single parents. One study, carried out in the 1980s, found that hypothetical job applicants who were identified as single parents were viewed as less competent than their married, childless counterparts, even when their qualifications were the same.

Politicians also have a long history of vilifying unmarried parents, and especially single mothers. In recent decades, single motherhood has been scapegoated as the cause of child poverty, urban crime, and a host of other social ills. Just last year, a Wisconsin lawmaker introduced a bill that would have designated the unmarried status of a parent as a contributing factor to child abuse and neglect.

This Women's History Month is an opportunity to consider discrimination against unmarried parents and the needless suffering it inflicts on hardworking parents and their children. It's time to start understanding marital status discrimination as a form of sex discrimination that has no place in a diverse society encompassing families of every shape and size.

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