Once the Pregnancy Discrimination Act reached Congress in bill form, Dinner writes, its political popularity held steady but subtly evolved. The enthusiasm for its potential to promote gender equality in the workforce gave way to enthusiasm for its potential as a non-welfare way to encourage family economic security—a popular objective at the time, Dinner notes. As Williams, a New Jersey Democrat who chaired the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, put it, the threat the Supreme Court’s rulings posed to the “security of the family unit” was “far more important” than the setbacks they created for women’s rights. On Halloween of 1978, in a Congress ruled by Democratic supermajorities in both houses, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was signed into law.
The inspiring power of the pregnancy-discrimination cause to unite people across aisles and ideologies, however, is cold comfort in the face of how often pregnancy discrimination still happens in the real world. When I asked Dinner—who’s spent much of her career working to understand and educate others on the legal framework in place to prevent pregnancy discrimination—how it felt to read the June New York Times report on how “rampant” pregnancy discrimination still is in the U.S., she paused for a long moment and sighed.
“I shouldn’t have been surprised,” she finally said, with a grim laugh. “It’s an important reminder that even though the PDA was a feminist victory, the victory isn’t complete when we get the legislation.”
In today’s conversation about pregnancy discrimination, Dinner says, “unfortunately, many things are still the same.” For instance, “the gender stereotypes that underpinned pregnancy discrimination, [like] that new mothers will be less dedicated to a workplace, persist today.” Today, however, the rise of the gig economy has created new challenges in curbing pregnancy discrimination, in that large sectors of the workforce now lack full-time employment and thus are not covered by Title VII, or by extension the PDA, at all.
The unlikely, sometimes delicate alliances that form in the fight against pregnancy discrimination persist, though—and so do the subtle differences in interpretation of what its goals really are. Progressive and feminist-aligned groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, still consider pregnancy discrimination a hindrance to gender equality in the workplace: “Our workplaces are still designed … on the model that there's a heterosexual couple; the husband-father works and earns the bread and butter, the paycheck, while the wife-mother is at home taking care of the kids,” says Lenora Lapidus, the director of the ACLU’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg-founded Women’s Rights Project. “The twenty-first century reality is, the majority of women work. The majority of women who have children work. Workplaces need to change so that pregnancy is just a normal condition of the workplace.”