Maternity Leave: Redefining Women as Mothers

While seeking better opportunities and a greater degree of respect and safety, women have had to navigate through pros and cons in a series of trial and error. One major question many women have faced is how much must they emphasize similarities or differences from men in order to get the best outcomes. They have also had to negotiate between motherhood as a private and personal work and motherhood as a social function. Women have made different strategic decisions overtime. Lise Vogel in her book Mothers on the Job: Maternity Policy in the U.S. Workplace describes the development of these types of questions and how they have been responded to over time.

Some of the earliest legislation that would distinguish women from men in workplace policies was in Massachusetts in 1853 which restricted the maximum hours a woman could work in a day to 11. Later however in 1907, the New York court openly rejected this type of differentiated legislation for women in the workplace stating:

An adult woman is not to be regarded as a ward of the state, or in any other light than the man is regarded, when the question relates to the business, pursuit or calling. She is entitled to enjoy unmolested her liberty of person and her freedom to work for whom she pleases, where she pleases, and as long as she pleases, within the general limitations operative on all persons alike.

Although New York and other courts refused to differentiate workplace laws for women, there were those that began passing more legislation that spoke about women as different and needing special policies. In 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the matter in the case Muller v. Oregon. This case looked very similar to the Lochner v. New York which clearly established the right of workers to create their own contracts with employers and denied the right of state intervention for what might be excessive hours. As a laundry businessman, Muller wanted the same logic to apply to his female employees in which they could work more than the state maximum of 10 hours. According to Vogel the Supreme Court decision was unanimous in voting against Muller and supporting female-specific legislation.

The Court rejected the same logic of the Lochner case and stated that, “Woman’s physical structure, and the functions she performs in consequence thereof, justify special legislation restricting or qualifying the conditions under which she should be permitted to toil.” Vogel emphasizes how the language used to justify the Court’s decision heavily centered on women as mothers and the need to protect them for the good of society. She explains that this is part of a larger shift in which Americans were focusing on women’s roles as mothers more than as wives and daughters. Vogel quotes historian Anna Davin who while noting a similar shift occurring in England stated, “The family remained the basic institution of society, and woman’s domestic role remained supreme, but gradually it was her function as mother that was being most stressed, rather than her function as wife…Child-rearing was becoming a national duty not just a moral one; if it was done badly the state could intervene.” As other posts will show, this shift and greater commitment for motherhood in many ways hindered openings for maternity leave policies as people have continued to debate if mothers should be in the workplace at all.


Vogel, Lise. Mothers on the Job: Maternity Policy in the U.S. Workplace. Rutgers University Press, 1993.


3 thoughts on “Maternity Leave: Redefining Women as Mothers

  1. I think the focus on women as mothers is interesting in terms of this legislation. It was discriminatory, but with good intentions as to make sure women were able to fulfill their responsibilities to their children. Some probably saw this as a blessing. Unfortunately, though, it hurt women who were not mothers, as well as mothers who needed to work to support their families or find fulfillment for themselves.


  2. Looking at the way the law treated women in the workplace is an interesting way to frame maternity leave, because it brings up the question of how far should legislation go in protecting working women, as well as the reasons why working women should be protected. These were salient issues even before maternity leave became an issue in the US, and understanding them helps us understand more about the history of maternity leave.


  3. Assumptions and generalizations about women as child-bearers seem now to be so blind and ignorant. But with the political machine in this era being dominated by white males who grew up in middle-class homes, it is no wonder that they were inconsiderate of the needs of women who were not married or having children.


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