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Even the Right to Unpaid Family Leave Was Once Revolutionary

One speech from then–Sen. Al Gore changed the debate.

Al Gore.
Al Gore.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images.

There are moments when you can almost feel the ground shift beneath you. When then–Sen. Al Gore took to the Senate floor to describe his 6-year-old son Albert’s terrifying 1989 accident, it was a pivotal moment not just for the Gore family but also for the country.

Albert Gore had been hit by a car outside Memorial Stadium in Baltimore following an opening day Orioles game. The accident was near catastrophic: The child had a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken thighbone, a ruptured spleen, a concussion, and a bruised lung, kidney, and pancreas. Sen. Gore and his wife, Tipper, spent almost a month at their son’s hospital bedside before he was sent home in a full-body cast.

The family, of course, was severely shaken. But what Sen. Gore did afterward is what changed the dialogue about family and medical leave forever. He took to the Senate floor to discuss what it meant to him to be able to be by his son’s side during those desperate days. “That experience changed me forever,” Gore would later say. “When you’ve seen your 6-year-old son fighting for his life, you realize that some things matter more than winning, and you lose patience with the lazy assumption of so many in politics that we can always just muddle through. When you’ve seen your reflection in the empty stare of a boy waiting for a second breath of life, you realize that we weren’t put here on Earth to look out for our needs alone; we’re part of something much larger than ourselves.”

It was what we today might call a “Jimmy Kimmel moment,” because Gore talked about the flexibility senators enjoy and what life was like for others—parents who risked losing their pay or their jobs if they took time off to care for children who, like Albert, were sick or injured. That speech transformed the debate—in Congress and in the country—about family and medical leave. It made it personal and relatable. It was a giant step forward at a time when our country didn’t have a single national law designed to help people meet the dual demands of work and family.

That changed, of course, on Feb. 5, 1993—25 years ago this week, when President Bill Clinton made the Family and Medical Leave Act the very first bill he signed into law. At the time, our organization was called the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, and we were the group that had drafted the legislation (on a typewriter!) and worked tirelessly alongside our allies to turn family and medical leave from a revolutionary concept to a national law. For us, that moment was the culmination of years of work. For the country, it was a giant step forward in challenging stereotypes that held back women in the workplace and in advancing gender equality.

The road to passage had been long and difficult. The FMLA had been introduced in Congress every year since 1984, but—even as public support grew and more states adopted leave laws of their own, proving their efficacy and benefits—powerful opponents managed to block it time and again. Congress passed the bill twice, but both times, President George H.W. Bush vetoed it. It was heartbreaking, because each veto meant more talented women unable to enter or stay in the workforce, more families struggling to make ends meet or falling into poverty, and more years during which our economy would be deprived of the contributions of millions of women.

But in the wake of those vetoes, the broad-based coalition that supported the FMLA grew stronger and even more determined, and when President Clinton and Vice President Gore were elected, the political stars aligned and the FMLA became law. In the end, it was bipartisan, with dozens of Republicans joining Democrats in voting for it.

In the years that followed, every argument opponents used to block its passage was disproven. Businesses adapted to it with relative ease, worker abuse of the program was a nonfactor, and neither the economy nor the sky fell. In fact, in the years after the FMLA took effect, our country had its strongest peacetime economy in history.

The law has been transformative. In the years since it took effect, workers have taken the unpaid leave it provides more than 200 million times. Equally important is that the FMLA changed our culture forever, making it clear that female and male workers are also family members with caregiving responsibilities, that flexibility and leave benefit employers too, and that stereotypes that have been used to deny opportunities to women for generations are baseless.

But the FMLA was always designed as a first step; we are pained by the fact that millions of workers cannot afford to take the unpaid leave it provides. We urgently need to update our national leave policy to reflect the financial realities facing millions of women and working people as well as the families that rely on them.

Twenty-five years later, we see real reason for hope. We believe the country is on the cusp of another watershed moment with a national paid family and medical leave program on the horizon. Why? Because, from California to New York, states are demonstrating that paid leave programs work. From Starbucks to Adobe to Deloitte, private businesses are adopting paid leave programs too. Public support is strong and bipartisan, and more lawmakers across the political spectrum are acknowledging the need for paid leave.

This #MeToo and Time’s Up moment is heightening attention to fairness in the workplace—and increasing the urgency to make change now. We intend to seize the moment and not let tired, disproven arguments from opponents hold us back. Nor will we let those who oppose progress sell us sham proposals or inadequate half-measures that would do more harm than good. And we will not be satisfied with scattered progress in some states and from some employers, no matter how hard-fought and meaningful each advance is.

Without a national paid family and medical leave program, too many families will continue to be left behind. That’s why so many of us who fought for the FMLA also support the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, sponsored in Congress by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, because it’s the only plan that would cover all working people for the full range of serious caregiving and medical reasons. It will bring a stronger economy, healthier families, stronger businesses, and the greater workplace equality our country needs. It’s time.

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Judith L. Lichtman was the National Partnership for Women & Families’ first paid staff person and served as its executive director for 30 years. She is currently its senior adviser.
Debra L. Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.