Maternity Leave: 1990’s Data and the “Mommy Tax”

Ann Crittenden, an economics reporter for the New York Times, Ann Crittenden published an article called “The Mommy Tax” in which she analyzed data from the 1990’s and articulated some of the problems that women face as they try to balance work and child-rearing choices. This article published in 2001 provides insight into how some people were talking about working women around the turn of the century. “The Mommy Tax” as Crittenden uses is refers to a variety of costs women pay when they choose to bear and raise children whether they continue working or not.

Crittenden opens the article with an interesting story that reveals some of the tensions around working women and maternity leave between feminists and anti-feminist groups:

“On April 7, 1999, the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative anti-feminist organization, held a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Displayed in the corner of the room was a large green “check,” made out to feminists, for ninety-eight cents. The point being made was that American women now make ninety-eight cents to a man’s dollar and have therefore achieved complete equality in the workplace.”

Pleased with the progress that has been made for working women, Crittenden, looking at the unique plea of working mothers, was not quite satisfied. She argued, “Mothers are the most disadvantaged people in the workplace. One could even say that motherhood is now the single greatest obstacle left in the path to economic equality for women.”  Crittenden herself had left work for a time in order to have children and felt that it had cost her financially and in her profession. She also cited data from 1990’s studies that further explained the issue. In 1998, there was a study conducted which found that the United States was, “one of only six nations in the world that does not require a paid [maternity] leave.” This claim shows how people viewed the American lack of intervention with maternity leave as backwards (a view which many continue to maintain). Crittenden links the fact that women do not have paid maternity leave and could be making much more money if they stayed in the work force longer before having children with the phenomena that, “women are having fewer children, later in life, almost everywhere.” Data from the CDC shows that birth rates in the late 1990’s where Crittenden was drawing her research from matched some of the lowest the country had seen for several decades.

Another issue with maternity leave that has not been resolved is the plea of working class and part-time employed mothers. As Crittenden highlights, this is a major issue for women who are not guaranteed the same benefits as full-time employees with status in the workplace. A study in 1997 revealed that at the time “close to 65% of part-time workers are women, most of whom are mothers.” The survey found that 75% of the women in their study working part-time “were doing so because of child-care obligations.” This data shows the limitation of economic choices women in the 90’s were facing as mothers, including the push to only work part-time for less pay and benefits.

Crittenden argues that the “ultimate mommy tax” for denying women a paid maternity leave and other benefits as mothers was that women chose not to have children at all. She concluded by lamenting that the U.S. policy attitude essentially sent a message to women that “You’re on your own.” Her framing of the issue is in stark contrast to the message she presented at the beginning that women have reached equality. This article demonstrates some of the contrasting perspectives people had in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s as the viewed the plight of working mothers.


Kirk, Gwyn, and Margo Okazawa-Rey. Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives, Sixth Edition.  McGraw Hill, 2013. (342-350).


4 thoughts on “Maternity Leave: 1990’s Data and the “Mommy Tax”

  1. Where did the conservative women’s group (mentioned at the beginning of the post) get their data that women make 98 cents per dollar a man makes? I’ve heard and read that white women today actually only make 79 cents per every dollar that a man makes? I know that this wasn’t the emphasis of this article, but not only was their information off, but they weren’t even considering the fact that women of color make even less than white women do.


  2. It’s eye-opening that in thinking about equality in the workforce so many people only consider wages, when in reality there are many other aspects that factor into what true equality is, such as the way pregnant women are treated.


  3. The maternity leave debate makes me think about current questions of whether women should be granted menstrual leave. A lot of men see that as some sort of favoritism or extra leniency toward women– that “if they want to be in this world they have to do the same as us” and things like that. Is greater acceptance of maternity leave paving the way for changes like menstrual leave?


  4. It is sad that the “ultimate mommy tax” was women not choosing to have children at all because of work obligations. Did the author give numbers or statistics on how many women had to make this difficult choice because of lack of maternity leave?


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