The XX Factor

How the Fight for Paid Leave Has Quietly Become One of the Most Successful Movements of Our Time

This is what an activist looks like.


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 [2016] 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 low-wage 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.

*Update, Aug. 1, 2016: This quote has been updated to clarify that Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner was speaking about low-wage workers in this context, rather than all workers.