Elizabeth Warren has a personal anecdote that she shares on the campaign trail, about being fired from her teaching position after becoming pregnant. As Warren tells it, the story demonstrates the type of systemic unfairness that she has made her career fighting against. “By the end of the school year, I was pretty obviously pregnant,” Warren wrote in her 2014 book, “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 for the next school year, and hired someone else for the job.”
On Monday, a conservative website published a report seemingly contradicting Warren’s story. Specifically, it found minutes from a board of education meeting in which Warren’s contract was unanimously renewed. Other critics of Warren, who is now the Democratic presidential front-runner, have pointed to an interview in which she presented her departure from education as a choice. “I had a baby and stayed home for a couple of years,” Warren said in a 2007 appearance at the University of California-Berkeley.
Warren’s story, in all its ambiguity, is surprisingly typical. As scholars of education and the law have documented, female teachers throughout the 20th century commonly had their careers derailed. In light of that, Warren’s story is credible historically. But perhaps more importantly, the questioning of her story reveals the way that gender discrimination continues to thwart the professional ambitions of women — even those running for president.
As scholars of education and the law have documented, female teachers throughout the 20th century commonly had their careers derailed.
Let’s start with some stark historical facts. In the first half of the 20th century, female teachers were commonly fired upon marriage. In 1930, for instance, an author in the Texas Outlook, a magazine, wrote “A Plea for Married Women Teachers,” arguing that the common practice of firing married women was severely limiting the pool of available teaching talent. Two decades later, an author writing in the Minnesota Journal of Education stated bluntly that “if [teachers] marry, they will be automatically fired.”
Never mind pregnancy; marriage alone was cause for dismissal. Why?
Perhaps chiefly, because married women already had breadwinners in the household: their husbands. In a perverse sort of logic, providing jobs to married women was seen as discriminatory practice that denied opportunity to men. As the authors of "Sex Bias in the Schools" wrote in 1970, “The attitude of most men in education regarding women teachers’ salaries has been condescending, since so many women in teaching are married, ‘their salary often is considered a second income.’”
The other reason married women were dismissed from their teaching positions concerned pregnancy. The presumption was that once women married, they would begin a lengthy period of child-bearing and child-rearing. Without robust access to childcare, women would need to stay home until all of their children reached school age. And even if male partners expressed a willingness to care for children, families faced the fact that women were, according to a 1970 study, “paid a low salary because of the economic discrimination.”
School leaders, then, were making a rational calculation in firing married or pregnant teachers. As they saw it, a man would be a consistent employee, whose wife would care for his children. A woman, by contrast, would likely be in and out of the job for roughly a decade. Plus, she likely didn’t need the income anyway.
The women’s movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s began to challenge this state of affairs. And one way it did so was through campaigns against pregnancy dismissal policies. According to legal historian Deborah Dinner, “pregnancy discrimination cases mushroomed in the federal district courts during the early 1970s.” In 1970, the year before Warren says she was fired, the National Education Association found that most school systems required teachers to take mandatory, unpaid maternity leaves, without guarantee of having a position when they returned. A year later, a case challenging pregnancy discrimination in employment finally reached a federal district court.
Did Warren resign from her position? Perhaps. As a 1966 education textbook noted, “Pregnancy is a frequent cause of resignation.” Yet knowing that her job would not be held for her, understanding the widespread practice of firing pregnant women, and perhaps encouraged by leadership to stay home, what other choice did she have?
... we should also take care to note the way that gender continues to shape the nature of credibility.
As Warren recently told CBS News, “When someone calls you in and says the job that you’ve been hired for, for the next year, is no longer yours, ‘We’re giving it to someone else,’ I think that’s being shown the door.”
In short, we should take Warren at her word. There is nothing in the historical record that suggests she isn’t telling the truth.
Yet doubt will likely persist. Why? Partisan politics, for sure. Perhaps also because of Warren’s progressive politics, which have long inspired animosity on the right.
But we should also take care to note the way that gender continues to shape the nature of credibility. Do we believe women the way we believe men? The way we respond to this present controversy will tell us something about how far we’ve come, or about how far we have yet to go.