On the 2016 campaign trail, candidate Donald J. Trump became the first major Republican party candidate to promise six weeks of paid maternity leave for mothers whose employers do not already provide it. In the ensuing chaos of the Trump administration, we haven’t heard much about this proposal, which is obviously a shame: With a scant 14 percent of all civilian workers currently getting some form of paid leave, a national paid maternity leave program could wind up covering a lot of women. Though six weeks isn’t much time to recover from the trauma of birth and bond with an infant, it’s certainly better than the current reality: One Department of Labor study found that 1 in 4 women return to work within two weeks after giving birth.
But let’s be honest: Paid “maternity leave” is a bad idea.
That’s because policies aimed at only one gender, such as maternity-only leave, don’t operate in the same way as neutral benefits such as paid vacation days, 401(k) plans, or paid family leave. Neutral policies assume that all workers—not just women and biological mothers—have basic human needs, which may include family or caregiving responsibilities. “Maternity leave,” as opposed to “family leave,” is a bothersome accommodation for a lesser worker and only serves to reinforce traditional gender roles.
In the 1940s, when the Women’s Bureau recommended that all pregnant women stop working six weeks prior to delivery and two months afterward, several states adopted laws making the time off a requirement in order to “protect maternal and child health.” But as legal scholar Lucinda Finley writes, because few leaves came with job security or pay, women were “protected” right out of their jobs.
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