If the goal was to smear Warren as a liar, it has backfired spectacularly. All over the country, women have spoken out to say this is how discrimination works
The contours of the scandal are this: on the stump, Warren has taken to telling the story of being fired from an early teaching job for being visibly pregnant. Pregnancy discrimination wasnt illegal at the time; now it is, but pregnant women are still routinely sacked for having the audacity to reproduce. Meagan Day, a writer at the left-wing magazine Jacobin, has, along with several other Jacobin writers, assessed Warren as the biggest threat to her candidate of choice, Bernie Sanders, and has been on a mission to take Warren out to clear the path for Sanders. The latest iteration of that strategy has been to suggest that Warren is lying about experiencing pregnancy discrimination. Warrens story changed, Day said, because Warren had previously said she left her position to go back to school. Right-wing websites picked up the baton from there, digging up schoolboard minutes saying that Warren had in fact been invited back to teach another year.
Warren, though, didnt lie; her story just became more specific. She wasnt visibly pregnant when her contract was renewed. Once she was, the principle wished her well and sent her off. Another former teacher at the school has confirmed that this was standard protocol when women became pregnant.
If the goal was to smear Warren as a liar, it has backfired spectacularly. All over the country, women have spoken out to say yeah, this is how pregnancy discrimination works. Theres not a paper trail. There is plausible deniability, and there is the shame and fear that comes with losing a job. And back when Warren was pregnant, firing pregnant teachers was standard practice across the country it was unusual to not be let go if you were having a baby.
Why, then, didnt Warren tell this version of her story earlier? Because being a woman in politics has changed dramatically throughout the course of her career. Even a decade ago, being seen as a mom was a political liability. Showing humanity or vulnerability would be read as weakness, a big no-no for women in politics. And saying you had experienced discrimination? Forget it no one wants to elect a victim.
Thats changed, thanks to a resurgent feminist movement, more women in office than ever before, and the recognition that women are half of American voters and speaking to our experience works. That Warren wasnt telling this story in 2007 doesnt mean she didnt have a story to tell; it means that there were real political and cultural reasons to keep the discrimination aspect of it quiet.
Weve seen a similar dynamic with the #MeToo movement: acts that happened many years ago are taking shape through a new language and coming to the public fore. That doesnt mean that the women speaking out now are liars. It means that the landscape has changed, and women are increasingly able to tell the whole truth.
But change is slow, and it requires representation. We wouldnt have laws against pregnancy discrimination if women hadnt first gone to law school in large numbers, entered the workforce, and pushed for change. We are still far from gender parity in the United States (and everywhere, too). And certainly a female president doesnt mean weve reached equality and feminism has accomplished its goals.
But it would be an enormous step. Part of the problem of American politics and gender is that men have dominated them forever, and men simply arent women they dont experience life, and certainly reproduction, the same way. They see their own lives and experiences as normative and standard, and womens experiences as different or divergent. Thats why for so long, pregnancy was treated as an inconvenience meriting termination of employment, not a normal part of life that should be accommodated and planned for. Without a critical mass of women in power not just a quarter of us, but fully half, or more our ideas of whats normal wont change, and our laws and policies wont fully reflect the lives most of us live.
Pregnancy discrimination remains so misunderstood, and womens experiences so marginalized and even disparaged, that even a self-identified leftist saw fit to accuse Warren of lying. That may be the best argument yet for the necessity of more women in power including a woman in the White House.
Jill Filipovic is the author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness