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Paid Family Leave's Conservative Lineage

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.
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When the Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio unveiled a proposal last month to subsidize family leave via a system of tax breaks for businesses, Democrats scoffed. Expanding protection of mothers and infants? Isn't that Democratic turf?

Before Democrats get too indignant, they should remember that when it comes to family leave -- and maternity leave in particular -- conservatives, not liberals, have historically taken the lead. 

The origins of such programs can be traced to the industrial revolution in Europe, when conservative reformers began to worry about the effects of factory employment on women. As early as 1833, Peter Gaskell said factories were “hotbeds of lust,” where women risked falling prey to sexual temptation.

This concern was distinctly paternalistic. In fact, a growing number of men fretted that working would do more than stain women’s virtue. It would also prevent them from living up to their divinely ordained roles as mothers. 

Thomas Oliver, a British doctor, declared before a 1913 meeting of the Eugenics Education Society that “women’s work becomes the cause of physical degeneracy and of inability on the part of women to rise to the dignity of the completed act of motherhood.” This was a national calamity: Britain’s strength, he declared, was “measured by its reproductive power.”

The battle lines were drawn accordingly: As soon as Parliament began to seriously contemplate maternity leave in the mid-19th century, women’s rights groups organized to block the legislation, arguing that it discriminated against women by foreclosing opportunities for employment. One group, the Vigilance Association, disputed the idea that “a woman is merely a piece of childbearing mechanism.”

Nonetheless, by the time World War I broke out, almost every European nation had passed maternity leave laws. Switzerland was the first, with a 1877 measure that mandated eight weeks of leave before and after a mother gave birth. Germany enacted a similar mandate a year later. It was followed by a much stronger law in 1883 that provided some measure of paid leave.

Yet holding up these achievements as evidence of the backwardness of the U.S. overlooks the retrograde intent of the European laws. Many of them made maternity leave mandatory, meaning women couldn't choose whether to take a leave. And women who took leave often found that their former jobs had disappeared.

The drive for reform also had a nationalist, conservative motif. French proponents of a maternity leave policy passed in 1913 couched the legislation as a way to protect the lifeblood of the nation: France needed babies for its “defense and maintenance.” Women needed to step up and do their part, and they wouldn't be permitted to work after they gave birth.

As a consequence, historian Eileen Boris has observed, “maternity policy belonged to the realm of labor regulation and social reproduction more than women’s right to work.” 

The issue, however, remained largely invisible in U.S. politics during much of the 20th century. The only exception: During World War II, the War Labor Board required government contracts with companies doing defense work to contain some provision for maternity leave. This became moot once the war ended.

Unions did manage to secure maternity leave, largely unpaid, for many of their workers in the immediate postwar era.  But the idea of a national, government-sponsored maternity leave policy proved elusive, or arose from unexpected sources.

In 1948, for example, Senator William Langer introduced “maternity relief for government employees.” He was hardly a liberal lion. A Republican, he was best known for his isolationism in the 1930s and his refusal to support the creation of the United Nations in the 1940s. When he reintroduced his bill in 1953, he declared that “the greater conservatives" in the Senate "voted in favor of maternity leave and said that our government should pay for the care of the babies.”

The bill went nowhere and the question became dormant again, though some states enacted laws stipulating unpaid leave.

In Europe, however, maternity leave policies became increasingly generous. In recent decades, Finland, Austria, Germany, Norway and France have established paid leaves for men and women after childbirth that are measured in years, not weeks or months.

But even these bountiful benefits don't necessarily reflect a triumph of progressive politics. A fascinating article by the sociologist Kimberly Morgan and Kathrin Zippel reveals that these programs were overwhelmingly created under the auspices of center-right political coalitions, including far-right groups such as Austria’s Freedom Party. As a result, they write, despite paying lip-service to coverage for both men and women, these measures “value mother care and respond to a constituency that favors extended homemaking for women.”

That sounds a lot like modern-day America's “family values.” Rubio said he wants to expand the landmark Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 -- one of former President Bill Clinton’s enduring legacies.

His choice of venues for announcing his plan was perhaps revealing: the Values Voters Summit, the gathering of the social conservatives in the Republican Party.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net