Here’s the problem: In all of their efforts to ensure capitalism would remain free from governmental intervention they didn’t plan for the fact that economic growth relied on women (over 80 percent of whom become mothers) to do the work. The tidal wave of women entering the workforce in the 1980s became, a decade later, another tidal wave of women who were forced to leave once they became mothers. We women had invested time and money into our careers, and yet we couldn’t raise our children and stay on track with those hard-won careers. We needed help, but anti-taxation sentiment was so high, there was no way our collective tax dollars would be used to underwrite supporting mothers in the workforce by giving us, at the very least, paid maternity leave or nationally subsidized day care.
By the 1980s and 1990s, as college-educated women entered the workforce in droves, the burden of caring for our young moved completely from society to the individual, where it has remained ever since.
That’s why, in 1993, when President Clinton passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, he didn’t ask taxpayers to cover the cost of maternity leave; he placed the burden on employers and employees. The employer pays by not having someone working during the twelve weeks of federally allowed leave. The employee pays by being forced to either go without her salary during said leave or by not taking leave at all. Some women are able to use paid sick or vacation leave or buy into disability insurance that covers some but not all of their salary while they are home caring for their newborns, but the vast majority of Americans don’t have access to these offerings. By the 1980s and 1990s, as college-educated women entered the workforce in droves, the burden of caring for our young moved completely from society to the individual, where it has remained ever since.
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It’s interesting to note that in the early 1990s, the country was reeling again from a recession. In fact, in 1992, the percentage of stay-at-home mothers hit its lowest point in our history, bottoming out at 23 percent of all mothers.134 Women were working not only because they wanted to, but because they had to. We may have still been fantasizing that women would just go back home when they became mothers, but we finally understood our economy needed women for it to grow. So, it wasn’t the notion of gender equality that helped pass the anemic and arguably punishing FMLA; it was the economy.
Say what you will about his personal foibles, during President Clinton’s reign, the United States experienced one of the largest economic expansions in history. When he was elected in 1992, 10 million Americans were unemployed, the country faced record deficits, and poverty and welfare rolls were growing. After he took office, the economy grew for 116 consecutive months, the longest period of economic expansion in history. Bill Clinton can claim more jobs were created in his eight years in office than under any other single administration, even more than when Franklin Delano Roosevelt used his New Deal to get the country out of the Depression.
But all that largesse did not result in sweeping benefits for mothers working outside the home. We didn’t secure paid maternity leave. Our husbands didn’t get paid paternity leave. Our children didn’t get high-quality, universal day care. All that money, all that opportunity. There is something more than the economy that’s keeping us from supporting families.
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