How the Fight for Paid Leave Has Quietly Become One of the Most Successful Movements of Our Time
After I tell people that I write about issues surrounding parenthood, the conversation tends to veer toward paid leave and why Americans don’t have it. “I don’t understand. Why aren’t women doing more?” I’m often asked. My interlocutors, who have included foreigners, fellow working moms, prominent older feminists, and prominent younger feminists, all mean well. They see an injustice and want it to come to an end.
What many of them don’t realize is that the fact they even thought to ask the question, and that they view our current unpaid leave policy as an injustice, is the direct result of women, and men, doing quite a lot. It might not be the kind of work they recognize as activism, or the sort of activism covered by the news, but still, work has been done. So much so that in recent years, paid leave—including both parental leave and sick days—has gone from a fringe issue to part of the national dialogue. Could women be doing more? I suppose. But before asking that question, we should stop and praise them for all they’ve done.
California was the first state to pass a paid family leave policy, back in 2002. Since then, New Jersey passed one in 2009, Rhode Island followed in 2013, and in 2016, New York passed the most generous policy to date. Washington D.C., Massachusetts, and Minnesota all have active bills in the works, and a number of other states, including Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Hawaii, are actively exploring paid leave. In the last two years, 27 states and cities have passed paid sick days policies, a big jump from the 7 paid sick days wins that took place between 2006 and 2013. And for the first time ever, the Democratic presidential nominee is running on a platform that guarantees 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for all Americans. Even better, prominent advocates think it is plausible, should she win, that such a policy could be enacted in a couple of years. This is a massive change, one that occurred not because lawmakers had a sudden change of heart and decided to care about working families, but because working parents demanded it. They did this by writing letters, signing petitions, sharing their stories, and speaking with elected officials to make themselves heard.
According to a number of activists I spoke with, the recent surge of interest in paid leave was jump-started in 2013 on the 20th anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act. This bill guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave to eligible workers (around 60 percent of the workforce) and took eight years and two vetoes to pass. In a speech to the Department of Labor commemorating the anniversary, Bill Clinton, who signed the law into act, pushed for an expanded version of the act that would include paid leave.
“I’ve had more people mention the family leave law to me, both while I was in the White House and in the 12 years since I’ve been gone, than any other single piece of legislation I signed,” Clinton said.
“It took a really big effort to get people to say ‘the FMLA is not enough,’ ” said Vicki Shabo, vice president at the National Partnership for Women & Families. “And then they did, and a lot of people began to realize how much more work there is to be done.”
Before long, advocates gained two more advantages in the fight. The first was a 2014 report by Columbia Business School professor Ann Bartel, which showed that despite many business owners’ fears, California's paid family leave policies haven’t hurt business and might even be good for it. The second was the reframing of paid family leave as something everyone would benefit from, not just mothers.
“It was a big moment when Andrew Cuomo, in his  State of the State address, spoke about how ‘I kick myself every day for not spending more time with my father at the end of his life.’ Also, we saw Vice President Biden talk about taking time off to take care for a dying adult child,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work. “The more we hear stories like this, the more we understand how these policies affect all of us.”
Shifts in media also helped make the paid family leave movement more prominent in recent years. Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at New America and the author of the best-selling book Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, says there are more avenues for academic research to get out into the mainstream.
“There were these maps created about paid leave showing who has it and who doesn’t, and they started showing up in blog posts everywhere. They made our situation as one of the only countries in the world with no paid leave very easy to understand,” Schulte said.
The other change was the feminist blogosphere, which not only gave women a space to share their stories and write about these issues, but proved to the traditional press that readers cared about these issues, too. “Before news went digital, a lot of the gatekeepers in the traditional press were still men, and the women who had power tended to not have kids because they had to act like men,” Schulte explained. “To them, reading about these issues was like watching paint dry.”
So why, despite the political gains, dozens of activist organizations, and the thriving online conversation do some tend to overlook the vibrancy of this movement?
“There are a lot of moms fighting for paid leave but advocacy by moms tends to be discounted,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director/CEO of MomsRising. She and Joan Blades co-founded the women and family rights advocacy organization in 2006 with a handful of members. Today they have more than a million active members.
Many still associate effective activism with Occupy Wall Street-style protests or marches, the latter of which tends to have little impact these days. The fight for paid leave has not been fought this way, largely because those who need paid leave the most, workers who also care of others, tend to have the least amount of free time. MomsRising does what it calls “layer cake organizing,” and offers individuals a number of ways to fight for a cause, including one-click letters to elected officials, collecting signatures for petitions, and stroller brigades outside City Halls.
“Around 80 percent of workers have no access to sick pay. If you don’t have time off to barf, you don’t have time off to go march,” Rowe-Finkbeiner said. “The more ways we offer women to get engaged, the faster we have been able to advance these policies. Every bit of engagement matters.”
And it’s worked.
Joe Biden Will Appear on Law & Order: SVU to Bring Attention to the Backlog of Untested Rape Kits
On Friday, Vice President Joe Biden will make an unusual personal appearance that will be seen by millions of people later this fall. He’s in New York to tape an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that involves a storyline focusing on America’s backlog of untested rape kits.
Across the country, hundreds of thousands of rape kits—the collection of photographs, medical examination results, and DNA swabs taken when someone reports a sexual assault—sit unprocessed because of resource shortfalls and, perhaps, a failure to prioritize the prosecution of sexual assault. Mariska Hargitay, who is heading into her 19th season playing Detective Olivia Benson on SVU, became passionate about the issue after acting in hundreds of episodes on the theme of sexual violence. She set up the Joyful Heart Foundation, which runs an advocacy program called End the Backlog, focused on drawing attention to this issue.
A Q&A With the 91-Year-Old Who Made 1995’s “Someday, a Woman Will Be President” T-Shirt
When psychology professor Ann Moliver Ruben put the phrase “someday, a woman will be president” on a T-shirt in 1995, she considered it a symbolic statement on gender equality, not a realistic prospect for the near future. Inspired by the character Margaret from Dennis the Menace, Ruben sold a couple of hundred shirts to her local Miami-area Walmart to help break down stereotypes that erode girls’ confidence and teach young boys sexism.
The prospect of a hypothetical woman hypothetically becoming president at some undetermined point in America’s future was such a radical notion to one Walmart buyer (and, allegedly, a few customers) that she pulled the shirt from the store’s shelves. It quickly became a national scandal with Ruben at its center. (Earlier this week, Walmart spokeswoman Danit Marquardt sent me this statement: “Wow, it still pains us that we made this mistake 20 years ago. We’re proud of the fact that our country, and our company, has made so much progress in advancing women in the workplace and in society.”)
Now 91 years old, Ruben is amazed and elated that she’s lived to see a woman ascend so close to the presidency, and her political activism hasn’t slowed down. In March, months before Donald Trump became his party’s official nominee, Ruben wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette comparing him to blustering bully Dennis the Menace.
I spoke by phone with Ruben, who is now retired and living in Pittsburgh, on Thursday afternoon about her introduction to feminism, her feelings on Hillary Clinton, and her plans for next January.
The Miramar Walmart may have taken your shirts off its shelves, but it seems like the backlash was powerful—women from all around the country spoke out to support you. How did that feel?
I was a member of the American Association of University Women, and they came and they marched to protest Walmart’s decision to ban the sale of the T-shirt. They didn’t just march: They put notices on the cars that were parked there, telling people “Don’t shop here, they’re banning this wonderful T-shirt.” So, you talk about support! There it was for everyone to see.
That’s how Walmart ended up being shamed into buying [tens of thousands] more T-shirts. And I want you to know that the profits from that sale took my husband and me on a European cruise. We had such a good time. We went to Italy, oh, we went to France. As I look back on it, they were just wonderful moments.
But you know, today is a wonderful moment, too, just in reflecting on these happy times. And I’m grateful that I have reached 91 years and this wonderful Hillary Rodham Clinton is going to fulfill my dream. I’m excited.
What do you foresee for little girls who might spend their whole childhoods never knowing a white male president?
All I saw growing up my whole life was a white president, and when we got Barack Obama, I was thrilled. I worked so hard to see him elected. So I don’t know—I can’t foresee the future. I can only be content with what I have now.
When my cousin told me when I was 8 years old that a girl could never be president of anything, I became a feminist—that word wasn’t even invented yet. My little cousin Irwin grew up in an age where most of the boys were like Donald Trump. They thought they were great, and they thought little girls were nothing. That’s how my cousin Irwin learned that to tell me that a girl could never be president and a boy could never be a secretary—and that’s something Donald Trump would say today.
How have you seen the world change for women between that moment and this one, the age of Trump?
I think that women like Gloria Steinem—and look at [Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader] Ginsburg! Look at Ginsburg speaking out! I mean, what a wonderful thing it is to have a woman on the Supreme Court. My God, did you ever think—I never thought we’d ever see that. So women are finding their voice. I have found mine. And I’m so thrilled that I went ahead and put that message on the T-shirt. It has brightened my life and has made me feel so damn good that I went to the University of Pittsburgh and took 25 years to get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a Ph.D. so I could be looked upon as an educated, honorable woman. I look in the mirror and I love what I see.
So you had to get three degrees to get the respect you wanted. Do you think Clinton’s had to work harder than the other candidates to earn respect?
Of course. We demand that she be perfect.
Tell me about the origin of your fabulous T-shirt.
My husband read the Dennis the Menace cartoons every Sunday, and I used to watch him laugh out loud. And one day he said to me, “Annie, you have to read Dennis the Menace today. It’s right up your alley.” And I got the comics section, and there was Margaret asking Dennis, who is building a clubhouse in the tree, if she could join his club.
He said, “No, Margaret, my club is for boys only.” And she said, “Dennis, this is 1993. You’d better get with it.” And it shows Margaret flying in space. It shows Margaret dressed up as a police officer, as a firefighter, as a member in Congress, giving a speech in Washington; and the next to the last picture shows Margaret saying enthusiastically, “someday a woman will be president!” Dennis says to her, “You can be anything you want to be Margaret, but you can’t be a member of my club.”
So I wrote to Hank Ketcham, the cartoonist, and said, “Can I use that one frame of Margaret and put it on a T-shirt?” And he told me what I had to do to get it approved and licensed, and I paid whatever money it took to do that and I’m thrilled that I did it. And this year, I donated 100 of the children’s T-shirts to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, and it gave me such pleasure to think I might be putting a smile on a little girl’s face.
When you created that shirt, could you envision a future when a woman would become a major party’s nominee for president?
No. I never thought about it. I really didn’t. I just knew that whatever I could do to make little girls feel good about themselves, I wanted to do that. And no, honest to God, I never thought that I would see it happen. But I want you to know that even though I’m not so keen on traveling anymore because it’s difficult for me, I’m going to wear my T-shirt and I’m going to be in Washington, D.C. to see Hillary sworn in as our president. Isn’t that a wonderful thing for me to be able to tell you?
Russia Finally Passed a Law Banning Domestic Violence, but the Police Haven’t Earned Women’s Trust
On July 8, 2016, a Ukrainian social worker named Anastasia Melnychenko wrote a list of every incident of sexual harassment and violence she had experienced since the age of six. She posted the list on Facebook, adding the hashtag #яНеБоюсьСказати(#IAmNotAfraidtoSpeak.) A week later Facebook suspended her account, owing to a flood of complaints, she suspects. But by that time, it was too late to stop the spread of her message. Melnychenko’s post had been shared hundreds of times, and women all over Ukraine and Russia were inspired to share their own stories of sexual abuse using the same hashtag.
Not everyone was inspired by the hashtag. Plenty of commenters greeted the “flashmob” of first-person narratives with skepticism and scorn. “Women tend to fantasize. Especially when a woman reaches a certain age,“ was one of the comments on Melnychenko’s post, referring to the gymnast Olga Korbut, who publically accused her coach in 1992 of raping her on the night before she competed in the 1972 Munich Olympics. (Her coach was never prosecuted).A young man named Gera called Melnychenko’s post “disgusting” and sarcastically wrote, “In my childhood, my grandmother would kiss me, saying, ‘Son, father, holy spirit’ ... Maybe she molested me, do you think?”
Chelsea Clinton Shows the Trump Kids How It’s Done
The job of a candidate’s son or daughter speaking at a political convention is an unenviable one. They must give a personal speech, the content of which boils down to “I love my dad/mom!” but also somehow makes a case for a universal action: “Vote for my dad/mom!” As tricky as this task is, it’s also straightforward, and it’s noticeably awkward when a child can’t pull it off. When Tiffany Trump tried to humanize her dad at the Republican National Convention last week, she couldn’t come up with much more than the fact that this one time he called her on the phone after a loved one died. The three other Trump kids who spoke made their father sound inspirational but barely involved in their lives.
Thursday night, Chelsea Clinton showed the Trump family how it’s done. Introducing her mother’s acceptance speech, she started with deceptive shagginess, by talking about her own two children. Charlotte loves Elmo and blueberries, she informed us, and no big deal, I just gave birth to another kid five weeks ago. Bad-ass bona fides established, she shifted into introducing us to her “wonderful, thoughtful, hilarious mother.”
The DNC Is About to Attempt a “Card Stunt,” and We Are Afraid
What is about to go down at the DNC? Should we be worried?
“Get ready to hear about your exciting role in this historic celebration,” said a calm, stern voice over the intercom. “You will be performing a card stunt.”
We will? A what now?
What followed was a series of audiovisual instructions at least as complex as an in-flight spiel about flotation devices and only slightly less Baroque than the rules for Happy Fun Ball.
“You have your card for the stunt folded in a bag on your seat. Do not remove or open it yet. Each card is assigned to your specific seat, so make sure your card stays at your seat.”
The cards, the voice said, will create a “unified patriotic picture” in the arena when they’re all lifted at the cue of “audience leaders.” This seems like a bad, no-good, horrible, terrible idea. With all the ex–Bernie supporters groaning in the audience with their glow-in-the-dark T-shirts, this “card stunt” seems ripe for sabotage. And anyone who’s attended a college basketball game knows, if there’s even a little alcohol involved in the proceedings, a simple card stunt can easily devolve into a mess of poster board papercuts and unfortunate misspellings.
What in the world could this patriotic picture be? Will it be hundreds of identical, yonic woman cards? A giant likeness of Hillbot Katy Perry’s left shark? A hammer and sickle? A grotesquely enlarged pocket Constitution? What did the DNC’s emails have to say about this?
More importantly, if Democrats couldn’t figure out how to fully extricate hanging chads, how will they properly execute an arenawide stunt? Next time, maybe settle for the wave.
Update, July 28, 11:40 p.m.: The card stunt involved various patterns of red, white, and blue, which formed giant words unintelligible from C-SPAN's utilitarian camera angles. Waste of announcer labor, waste of instructional video, waste of paper. Let’s not do that ever again.
Reminder: Hillary Clinton Fought for Plan B Contraception During the Bush Era
In a rapid-fire lineup of all the Democratic women in the Senate, Patty Murray of Washington reminded viewers that Hillary Clinton isn’t just pro-choice. She’s been a leader on abortion rights and access to reproductive health care for her entire political career.
At the Democratic National Convention on Thursday night, Murray recounted serving in the Senate with Clinton during George W. Bush’s presidency in 2005. A top Food and Drug Administration official had just resigned after accusing the Bush administration’s appointees of bringing politics into medical matters. The agency had stalled on deciding whether to make Plan B contraception—the morning-after pill—available over the counter.
Together, Clinton and Murray blocked Bush’s nomination of Lester Crawford to head the FDA until the agency made a decision on Plan B. Murray recalled on Thursday:
When the Bush administration tried to block women’s access to Plan B contraception, Hillary was by my side and ready to fight. Our demand was simple: Base decisions about women’s health on science, not political ideology. Together, we stood up to an administration ruled by special interests and the extreme right. We refused to back down until the FDA did their job and put science and women first. Now, women across America are free to choose safe emergency contraception.
Reproductive-rights advocates haven’t forgotten Clinton’s battles on women’s health issues. Stories like these are why Planned Parenthood got behind Clinton early in the race in its first-ever primary endorsement.
What Bad Moms Gets Wrong, and Right, About Motherhood Today
Bad Moms is a cliché-laden, gummy satire of present-day motherhood. I, a present-day mother, loved it anyway.
The film tells the story of Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis), a wife and mom of two whose life is going to pieces. Her young boss, who doesn’t respect the fact that she is only paid to work part-time, fires her, and her husband is a louse who puts more energy into his online affair than he does helping out around the house or with their children. The script solves both of these problems with relative ease, leaving Amy with plenty of time and energy to take on what the movie poses as her biggest problem: the cult of the perfect mother, embodied in the character of her nemesis Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate). Gwendolyn is the film’s resident bake-sale-policing, perfectly coiffed alpha-mom; every move she makes is calculated. She’s also the PTA president, a position Amy attempts to commandeer in order to liberate all the “bad,” which is to say normal, moms. This creates the central tension of the film.
Feminist Writer Jessica Valenti Takes a Break from Social Media After Threat Against Her Daughter
On Wednesday morning, prominent feminist writer and founder of Feministing.com Jessica Valenti announced she was taking a break from social media after receiving rape threats against her five-year-old daughter. “That this is part of my work life is unacceptable,” she wrote in a series of tweets announcing her hiatus. “I should not have to fear for my kid’s safety because I write about feminism.”
Just a year ago, in a Washington Post interview with Slate’s Michelle Goldberg, Valenti said that if she were starting over as a feminist writer, she would consider doing it anonymously. And who could blame her? Even before the direct threat against her child, she experienced massive waves of online abuse for her ideas. (Not to mention real-life harassment, as detailed in her new memoir Sex Object.) Threats against women on the Internet—especially women who write about feminist issues—are the norm. In a still-relevant 2014 article called “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” Amanda Hess persuasively makes the case that a disproportionate number of women are harassed or stalked on the Internet. The shocking thing isn’t the vile nature of many of the comments made against women, it’s how common they are.
Prince Harry Broadcast His HIV Test Live on Facebook, Was Totally Adorable (and Educational)
While his brother keeps busy producing and stewarding a series of flawless offspring, Prince Harry has turned his efforts to the cause of HIV prevention and care. On July 14, Harry visited a London sexual-health clinic to take an HIV test and broadcast the whole thing on Facebook Live.
More than 2.3 million people watched the video, in which the prince explains that people should get tested even if they’re not considered at-risk. “It’s completely normal for me—even if I’m not from this part of London, or, ah, the, you know, being the person that I am and the people that I end up being around, I’m still, I’m still sitting, I’m sitting here and I’m still nervous,” he stutters. It’s great fun to watch him try to talk around what he’s actually saying: that he’s a prince who only sleeps with prince-adjacent people, and no one would expect princely or prince-adjacent people to contract HIV.