Here’s a simple equation: The Family and Medical Leave Act = family values. For the past 20 years, this law—intended “to balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families”—has measurably strengthened millions of families by allowing workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for seriously ill family members or new children. Thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act, millions of Americans are no longer forced to choose between their job and their family. Though the law is not perfect—it needs to be strengthened by including paid family leave and expanding its eligibility—it has provided sturdy ground on which to build.
As we celebrate the law’s 20th birthday, it is important to remember—and also celebrate—the many advocates who worked tirelessly for the bill’s passage. Leading the effort was the National Partnership for Women and Families, which refused to give up the fight for workplace fairness for women and their families despite congressional defeats, intense opposition, and presidential vetoes. A key theme in the partnership’s campaign was the importance of motherhood and family—a values-based message that brought on board faith groups such as the National Council of Jewish Women and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The partnership’s values message also divided “pro-family” religious-right opponents, many of whom objected to women in the workforce and fought policies that would make their working lives easier. William Mattox of the conservative Family Research Council called the Family and Medical Leave Act “a handout for yuppies” and a give-away to “fast-track careerists.” Mattox also said that families in the 1990s should harken back to the days of “Colonial Williamsburg … when there was a sharp division of labor” between mothers and fathers.
It may be surprising to some that the Catholic Bishops were key allies in the fight for the Family and Medical Leave Act, since it meant collaborating with the National Partnership for Women and Families, a strongly pro-choice group. In the years since 1993, however, the bishops have unfortunately backed away from important coalitions like these and have shown a strong aversion to being linked—no matter how remotely—with any group that supports reproductive rights.
But back in the 1990s the Catholic Bishops recognized the importance of looking past differences to achieve a common goal of strengthening families. In fact, many saw the Family and Medical Leave Act as a pro-life issue. The bishops recognized that antichoice groups “simply could not insist that women carry babies to term and simultaneously ignore the economic consequences for those women.” Even the late former Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), a conservative Catholic whose Hyde Amendment has denied insurance coverage for abortion care to Medicaid enrollees since 1976, voted for the Family and Medical Leave Act.
While we celebrate how far we have come in the past 20 years, looking ahead to the next 20, we must recognize how far we still have to go to make the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act available to all working women who need it.
Today’s coalition to strengthen our nation’s family leave policies includes many faith groups—Jewish Women International, the National Council of Jewish Women, Interfaith Worker Justice, the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, the Catholic social justice group NETWORK, the Washington office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and others. Millions of women find strength and fulfillment in their faith—as well as in their family and work—which is why the leadership of faith-based organizations is crucial to this policy debate.
Women long to connect the different aspects of their lives into a coherent whole and to find the support they need to meet the challenges of their daily lives. For the many women who cannot afford to take unpaid family leave, providing paid leave will help strengthen their families. So too will expanding access to the Family and Medical Leave Act for the many women who are not currently covered.
Happy 20th birthday, Family and Medical Leave Act! May you grow in strength this year and in the years to come.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Eleni Towns is a Research Assistant with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.