Maternity Leave: A Policy History

Erin Kelly and Frank Dobbin of Princeton University researched a 30 year span of maternity leave policy from 1955-1985 in their article “Civil Rights Law at Work: Sex Discrimination and the Rise of Maternity Leave Policies.” According to their study, “in the late 1950s, only 5% of those in our sample of medium and large employers offered maternity leave; by 1985, over half offered it.” This is a significant increase over time. However, there were still many barriers to women getting maternity leave benefits.

In 1960’s the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were passed which both included measures to help end workplace discrimination based on sex. However, as the flight attendant newspaper articles show in another post, there was confusion, or at least justification arguments that laying off pregnant women on account of their pregnancy was not sex discrimination. As Kelly and Dobbin state, a few years after this legislation was passed, “A 1967 study of large employers, conducted by the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), found that 18% still required pregnant employees to resign.” Although there were efforts being made to gain acceptance of maternity leave policies and official legislation, it still was not reaching all working women. Because neither of the acts “mentioned maternity or pregnancy” it was still possible for such discriminatory workplace behavior to be legal. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “told employers that it was not illegal to exclude maternity from disability leave programs.”

However, these loopholes were narrowed in 1972 and the EEOC clarified its policies for employers. Kelly and Dobbin explain: “The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled that employers who allowed leaves for disabling medical conditions must allow them for maternity. Failure to do so constituted sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” This finally made some clear connections between maternity leave and discrimination that gave women legal backing for cases.

Another major legislation for maternity leave occurred with the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. This provided women an opportunity to seek a leave of absence for extenuating circumstance which could include childbirth if an employer was not already willing to provide such an absence from work. This legislation is still in effect today to help families in various strenuous circumstances and those who are still denied maternity leave benefits from their employers.


Kelly, Erin, and Frank Dobbin. “Civil Rights Law at Work: Sex Discrimination and the Rise of Maternity Leave Policies.” American Journal Of Sociology 105, no. 2 (September 1999): 455. America: History and Life with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed November 23, 2016).



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