Pregnancy Discrimination Is Insidious by Design

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If you’ve seen Elizabeth Warren speak on the campaign trail or the debate stage, then you’ve probably heard her tell the story of how she was pushed out of her first teaching job in 1971 after school administrators found out she was pregnant. “By the end of the school year, I was pretty obviously pregnant,” Warren wrote in her 2014 memoir, A Fighting Chance. “The principal did what I think a lot of principals did back then—wished me good luck, didn’t ask me back the next school year, and hired someone else for the job.”

But a report from the conservative publication the Washington Free Beacon suggests Warren’s part-time teaching contract was actually renewed for a second year. Minutes from an April 21, 1971 meeting of the Riverdale Board of Education were obtained by the Free Beacon, and indicate that Warren was included on a list of non-tenured teachers who were granted contracts.

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But Warren contested the framing, telling CBS News on Monday: “All I know is I was 22 years old, I was 6 months pregnant, and the job that I had been promised for the next year was going to someone else. The principal said they were going to hire someone else for my job.”

Warren went on to say that, as the minutes show, she was officially offered the job. But that offer was later rescinded after she became more visibly pregnant, she said. More from CBS:

“In April of that year, my contract was renewed to teach again for the next year,” Warren said. She also said she had been hiding her pregnancy from the school.

“I was pregnant, but nobody knew it. And then a couple of months later when I was six months pregnant and it was pretty obvious, the principal called me in, wished me luck, and said he was going to hire someone else for the job,” Warren said.

CBS News also spoke to two retired teachers who worked at Riverdale Elementary during Warren’s brief stint. While neither recall anyone explicitly fired over pregnancy—which is common, since pregnancy discrimination is often insidious—they admitted that an employee like Warren would have very little protection if she were to become pregnant on the job. One of the teachers, Trudy Randall, told CBS News: “The rule was at five months you had to leave when you were pregnant. Now, if you didn’t tell anybody you were pregnant, and they didn’t know, you could fudge it and try to stay on a little bit longer. But they kind of wanted you out if you were pregnant.”

Warren was also working at Riverdale Elementary before the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which made it, at least according to the letter of the law, illegal for employers with 15 or more employees to discriminate “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”

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But anyone expecting to find a smoking gun here is being foolish. The school board wouldn’t mark Warren’s file with a bold, red stamp that read FIRED FOR BEING PREGNANT. Pregnancy discrimination rarely works that way. It was, in 1971, just as it is in 2019.

Earlier this month, a woman in Austin filed a lawsuit against Omni Hotels Management Corporation, claiming she was let go for being pregnant. According to that suit, when the spa temporarily closed while undergoing renovations, Teague—an award-winning marketing director for the facility—was told that her position was being eliminated while her male colleagues were transferred to other Omni facilities. Her baby was due in one week. Her supervisor allegedly told her, “Well now you’ll have more time with your baby,” a line Teague found unamusing.

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According to the suit, four weeks after Teague’s job was eliminated, she was informed that the job was up for suddenly available again. When she applied, she was told that she was “unqualified” and that the “job’s expectations had changed.”

There are cases like this all through the decades, all over the country: at fast food chains, “feminist” startups, and big box stores. In each case, the discrimination is often experienced as a series of subtle pressures, missed opportunities, and low-grade hostilities from management. Piecing it together can be hard—which is often the point. Warren also addressed these subtleties in a comment on Tuesday morning:

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There’s good reason to treat presidential candidates’ stories with real skepticism, and Warren has misrepresented her past before—but the meeting minutes don’t mean that the discrimination she described didn’t happen. Pregnancy discrimination is often subtle—even more so now that it’s ostensibly illegal. It is not hard to imagine that Warren was quietly let ago after becoming visibly pregnant, even after having her contract renewed. Then as now, the whole point is to leave you questioning what happened. That’s by design.

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About the author

Ashley Reese

Staff writer, mint chocolate hater.