Teaching Profession

Yes, Teachers Once Could Be Fired for Being Pregnant. Here’s What You Should Know

By Madeline Will — October 10, 2019 6 min read
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During her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has said repeatedly that she was forced out of her teaching position because she was “visibly pregnant.”

Several media outlets have cast doubt on Warren’s story, arguing that there are some contradictions with the school board documents and past interviews she has given. Warren has stood by her story, saying that it was an experience that “millions of women will recognize.”

Indeed, many women, including former teachers, have since come forward saying that they, too, were pushed out of their jobs for being pregnant in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Whatever discrimination there was against women who were teaching was part of discrimination against women, period,” said Joan O’Reilly, who was pregnant as a teacher around the same time as Warren.

O’Reilly taught high school biology in the late 1960s. After she got married, the principal called her into the office and asked what kind of birth control she was using.

“It never occurred to me to ever say no or [ask] why,” she said.

She became pregnant in 1970. While she doesn’t remember there being an explicit rule saying that women could not teach when they’re pregnant, there was a “distinct impression” that a pregnant teacher would have to quit or be fired. O’Reilly was already planning to quit at the end of the first semester—before she started showing—to move for her husband’s job.

In 1983, Susan Mocarski was in her first job teaching choir part-time in Illinois. She and two other part-time music teachers in the district were pregnant. At the end of the year, when Mocarski was about four months along, the fine arts supervisor called the teachers into his office. He informed them they were all being fired because they were pregnant, Mocarski told Education Week. But if they pursued legal action, he said, their principals would list “other reasons” as a cause for termination.

“He told us that since it was a pilot program they couldn’t risk hurting the program in its beginning stages, so they wanted to hire teachers who would be more long-term—but I fully intended to go back to work,” said Mocarski, who recently retired from teaching after 35 years.

Mocarski did call an attorney to see what her options were, but was told that the most she could get out of a lawsuit was one year’s salary—and that would only be about $3,600, since she was part-time. It would cost five times that to fight the firing in court, she said.

Many other women have similar stories. Here’s what you need to know about the practice of pushing pregnant teachers out of the classroom.

How Often Did Pregnant Teachers Get Pushed Out?

Experts say it was extremely common for pregnant teachers to be forced out of the classroom through the 1970s. In fact, up until the World War II era, it was common for teachers to be asked to leave or be fired when they got married.

Many people on social media shared their stories, too:

This practice would also be dependent on local culture and context, said Jennifer Binis, a writer for the site Nursing Clio who studies the history of education and gender.

“In New York City, you were more likely to find a pregnant teacher because of how vocal the unions would be,” she said. “It was highly unusual in suburban New Jersey to see a pregnant teacher.”

Why Did School Officials Not Want Pregnant Teachers to Teach?

O’Reilly said that in her Kentucky school, a pregnant teacher was considered to be a “bad role model” for high school students. Binis said school leaders were also concerned that a pregnancy “would be embarrassing for the children.”

There was also the “mid-century version of concern trolling,” Binis said—with administrators saying that pregnant woman could not handle the physical or mental demands of teaching. Others worried that a teacher going on maternity leave would interrupt instruction for students.

And according to court documents in one case, a school board member said was “not good for the school system” to have visibly pregnant teachers because some students might say things like “my teacher swallowed a watermelon.”

How Would Teachers Be Asked to Leave?

Teachers might not have been explicitly fired, but rather pushed out in sometimes subtle ways.

For instance, Warren said her principal “showed [her] the door” when she was visibly pregnant—but the minutes of a school board meeting said her resignation was “accepted with regret.”

Binis said it was common for teachers to be pressured or influenced into resigning. “In 2019, there’s a semantic difference between fired and resigned that did not exist [then],” she said.

A National Education Association survey in 1970 found that most school districts required teachers to take unpaid maternity leaves when they were four or five months pregnant, and their job often wasn’t guaranteed when the baby was born. For example, the Cleveland school district required every teacher to go on unpaid leave five months before giving birth, and teachers were not allowed to return until the baby was at least three months old and the next semester began.

How Did This Practice Officially End?

Several teachers filed lawsuits against school districts for their dismissal. One such case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The 1974 decision in Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur found it unconstitutional to require pregnant teachers to go on maternity leave in advance of their due date.

And in 1978, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which prohibited workplace discrimination on the basis of “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”

Are There Still Barriers for Female Teachers Today?

Even recently, some women have said they felt discriminated against or pushed out of their jobs due to pregnancy. As Ryan Balch, a senior lecturer in education policy at Vanderbilt University, told Education Week, “Principals do have the ability to influence whether a teacher comes back or not in ways that are outside the formal system.”

In addition, just a handful of states provide paid parental leave for teachers. For the most part, teachers have to cobble together sick days to have some paid time off, and then supplement that with unpaid leave. Many educators say they are forced to return to the classroom before they’re physically or emotionally ready—and some might quit teaching instead. Among the teachers who leave the profession voluntarily, nearly a quarter say it’s because of personal life reasons, which include pregnancy and child care, according to the most recent federal data.

For those teachers who do return to work, pumping breast milk presents another challenge. Teachers told Education Week that it can be exceedingly difficult to find the time, space, and support to take 20-minute breaks every few hours to pump.

And it’s not just teachers. Binis noted that teachers’ aides and day-care workers—many of whom are women of color—are also likely to face discrimination for pregnancy.

She also pointed to the low rates of women in leadership positions in schools and districts. While women make up the vast majority of teachers and about half of principals, they account for less than a quarter of all superintendents.

“The people most likely to be moving up in the positions of leadership are the people least likely to be pregnant,” Binis said. Indeed, some research has shown that the gender wage gap is mostly a penalty for childbearing.

Image via Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.