This article was cross-posted with permission from the Center for American Progress.
The Family and Medical Leave Act was signed into law 20 years ago today and was a great first step toward supporting workers and workplace fairness. The law ensures that employees can receive 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave to recover from a serious medical condition, provide care for a seriously ill family member, or care for a new child. Workplace leave, however, is not just an employment issue — it is also a matter of reproductive justice.
Reproductive justice stands at the intersection of traditional reproductive rights concerns, such as the decision whether to become a parent, and social justice issues. In addition, it centers on the reproductive health needs of the most marginalized populations, including women of color, low-income individuals, and individuals with disabilities, among others. In our 2006 report, “More than a Choice: A Progressive Vision for Reproductive Health and Rights,” we set forth four cornerstones essential to a progressive reproductive health, rights, and justice agenda, including policies that support the ability to become a parent and to parent with dignity — meaning being able to financially, emotionally, and physically support a child’s basic needs — and the ability to have healthy and safe families and relationships.
Workplace leave is crucial for all people, but especially for low-income individuals seeking to become parents and have healthy families — a right to which we are all entitled. Historically, though, some parenting has been privileged at the expense of others, and not everyone has been able to exercise this right.
Laws and social movements, for example, encouraged white women to stay out of the workforce in order to provide full-time care for their children, while driving women of color — especially black women — into paid work, thus preventing them from being full-time stay-at-home caregivers to their children. Harvard Law Dean Martha Minow has documented how welfare policy for mothers in the late 19th century provided income support for them to stay at home. When access to such income support became increasingly available to black women during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, however, the rhetoric surrounding welfare became more negative. University of Pennsylvania Law Professor Dorothy Roberts explains that, “The central message of welfare reform is that recipient mothers are deviant for staying home and would better serve their children by finding jobs.”
To this day, programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides income support for families living in poverty, require work in the formal economy — or training for it — driving low-income parents into the workforce. Unpaid work within the home, including caring for families, does not satisfy the program’s requirements. This is not merely a historical remnant of former cultural biases — as recently as the 2012 presidential election, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) claimed that he would require mothers receiving income support to either work outside the home or lose the support.
Furthermore, parenting itself is highly gendered in law and society, making it difficult for men to assume caregiving roles. Sex-role stereotypes, often historically codified in law, cast white women as caregivers and white men as breadwinners. Masculinity throughout the 20th century was defined by this stereotypical family wage system, even though working-class men and men of color were largely excluded from that system.