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The Fight for Family Paid Leave: From 1919 to Today

Collage by Sarah Quiat.

It’s a man's world. The evidence of this fact is prevalent in our everyday lives: from the gender pay gap to medical inequality, women continue to face systemic oppression and discrimination. For years, starting with activists like Rose Schneiderman in 1919 to activists today advocating for the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill in Congress, people have been trying to change the system. However, historically (and let's be honest, sometimes today) women’s designated societal purpose has been to give birth to and raise children. So why aren’t women given the proper means to adequately raise their children? 

Although the United States is the birthplace of the idea of paid maternity leave, it still doesn’t actually have one. America is one of only six countries in the world, and the only developed country, that doesn’t have some form of national paid maternity leave.

The battle for paid maternity leave has been brewing for over a century. In 1919, in Washington D.C., the International Congress of Working Women (ICWW) introduced the concept of paid maternity leave. Their unofficial convention took place down the street from the International Labour Conference (ILC) and consisted of 200 women from nineteen different nations. This conference was not official and was only organized after the ILC began. While there were a few women present at the ILC, none of them were voting delegates—many even had to sit with the audience of the conference instead of with the other non-voting members of their respective delegations. One of the American representatives at the women's convention was Rose Schneiderman.

At this point, Schneiderman had already made a name for herself in the women’s labor movement, having organized unions, held leadership roles in different union organizations such as the U.S. Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) and the New York Women’s Trade Union League (NYWTUL), and paving the way for the Uprising of 20,000. Her impassioned public speaking skills helped cement her fame, being dubbed “the Red Rose of Anarchy” by her “enemies” who were inspired by her fiery red hair, so it was no surprise that she was present at the women’s convention. Schneiderman and the other representatives from the United States supported a multitude of initiatives including an eight-hour workday, a 44-hour work week, prohibiting night work for all laborers, and outlawing child labor for workers under the age of sixteen. In regard to the International Labour Organization (ILO), they supported creating a women's bureau in the International Labour Organization, writing amendments to the ILO constitution providing for voting rights and proportional representation guarantees for women. They also supported more generous maternity provisions such as free medical, surgical, and nursing care to be available to every woman regardless of employment or marital status. Although this wasn’t an official convention, the work of the women at the ICWW influenced the ILC, thus assuring the coordination of an ILO maternity convention.

As it was then and still is today, the fight for maternity leave isn’t solely about the mother’s health or recovery time. Paid maternity leave is also about removing obstacles for women and acknowledging that the work of homemaking and motherhood is just as important and vital as paid work is. Although nowadays the concept of the nuclear family is dusty and outdated, there remains a societal expectation that mothers should be able to both hold full-time jobs while also raising and caring for her children. In today's world, this is deeply unrealistic. For the most part, in order to support a family, both the mother and her partner need salaries from full-time jobs. To do so on top of being solely responsible for child rearing is incredibly difficult, and in some cases, impossible.

Recently, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed a two trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, which finally received presidential approval. The wait time for this bill to pass was lengthy, in part due to the bill’s paid leave section. The Democrats had originally proposed twelve weeks of paid leave, but due to budget cuts and opposition (specifically from Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona), this leave has been whittled down to merely four weeks. This is despite the reality that, as studies show, three to six months of maternity leave is highly beneficial to both the parent and the child, and that a majority of voters do in fact support paid maternity leave. We also have yet to see what comes of this bill, and if a national paid maternity leave is instituted at all.

This bill, however, does symbolize progress. In a country that has been fighting for paid leave for over 100 years, finally receiving provisions is revolutionary. We have countless activists to thank for this development, from Schneiderman to Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

Even though Rose Schneiderman and her cohorts fought for maternity leave and equality in the workforce 100 years ago, frustratingly, we’re still engaged in the same battles today. Although the American workforce has undergone extraordinary social change, women know that the fight for true equality is an age-old struggle that won’t be resolved any time soon. As we continue to strive towards our rights, we can learn a lesson from Schneiderman—“the Red Rose of Anarchy” herself—and her fellow representatives back at the ICWW of 1919. Even though we might face opposition, we must keep fighting for gender equality in the workforce, and in all aspects of society.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Eras, Mira. "The Fight for Family Paid Leave: From 1919 to Today." 31 January 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 9, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/fight-family-paid-leave-1919-today>.

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