Women Know How to Do This Now

Elizabeth Warren’s pregnancy discrimination “scandal” explains how identity politics have changed since 2016.

Warren seated onstage, holding a mic.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren at the 2020 Gun Safety Forum in Las Vegas on Oct. 2. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren’s story, which she’s recounted in several campaign speeches, goes something like this: After graduating from college, she worked for a year as a special needs teacher in New Jersey. “But at the end of that first year, I was visibly pregnant,” Warren said when she repeated the anecdote in the most recent Democratic debate. “And back in the day, that meant that the principal said to me—wished me luck and hired someone else for the job.”

Over the past week or two, Warren critics on both the right and the left have suggested that she’s not telling the whole truth: The Washington Free Beacon surfaced minutes from a board of education meeting in April 1971, when Warren would have been about four months pregnant, that said the board had voted to extend her contract for another year. (Meeting minutes from June of that year say Warren opted to resign instead.) A Jacobin journalist also pointed out that Warren has previously described the circumstances of her school departure a bit differently: In the summer of 1971, she said in a 2007 interview, “I went back to graduate school and took a couple of courses in education and said, ‘I don’t think this is going to work out for me.’ I was pregnant with my first baby, so I had a baby and stayed home for a couple of years.”

The “discrepancies” between these stories prompted CBS News to look into the whole “controversy.” Warren explained that the difference was simply the result of her decision to open up more once she went into politics. CBS also found two retired teachers who worked at Warren’s school at the time and affirmed that there was a “rule” that expectant teachers had to step down around the fifth month of pregnancy. A year after Warren’s departure, the Associated Press wrote that a new state rule would prevent pregnant teachers from being “automatically forced out of New Jersey classrooms.”

In other words, the evidence supports Warren on this. But there’s more to say about the fact that she started telling the anecdote differently around the time she started running for office. It’s possible that Warren didn’t interpret her dismissal as pregnancy discrimination in 1971, or that, with no grounding in progressive politics, she didn’t see it as a noteworthy injustice. It’s even more likely that when she explained her career path to others, as she did in her 2007 interview at the University of California, Berkeley, she didn’t want to be seen as a victim. Some may see Warren’s rephrasing as the mark of a lie or as a cynical play for political points. I see it as an indicator of the changing ways stories of gender-based mistreatment get told in mainstream politics.

To be taken seriously as leaders in politics and business, women have historically been told to project strength and power, to play down any parts of their histories that might encourage voters to imagine them as fragile, exploitable, or overtly female. Just last year, New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait argued that Sens. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand were falling into a “victim trap” by presenting themselves, or allowing themselves to be presented, as people who’ve experienced sexism. “Within the ecosystem of the left, demonstrating that you have suffered harassment or microaggressions is a big win,” he wrote. “But among the country as a whole, the dynamic is very different.” A woman may find it harder to convince the nation she’s “a figure of presidential stature,” Chait went on, if voters think of her as someone who needs protecting, rather than as a protector.

Here’s the interesting thing about the response to this Warren “scandal,” though: Women responded not with sympathy for a woman who’s suffered, or with general fist-shaking at the patriarchy. They related to Warren with deep-seated anger, born of personal experience. They flooded Twitter with stories of pregnancy and the workplace. Some said they’d been demoted or passed over for promotions when it became clear that they were expecting. Some repeated diminishing comments they’d heard from managers when they’d showed up visibly pregnant to job interviews. Some shared the stories of their mothers, who were ushered out of the workforce when they became parents in the years before pregnancy discrimination was outlawed nationwide in 1978. Others told of mistreatment that still afflicts pregnant working women, or any working woman of reproductive age, given that employers suspect she might get pregnant, someday.

By a few minutes after midnight on Wednesday morning, Warren had turned some of these anecdotes into a campaign video. “It’s important to tell these stories,” she said to the camera, after reading a few of the tweets. “This is how we make real change. We do it together.” It had taken her just over a day to turn the initial allegations that she was lying into a rallying point for political action.

It’s worth noting that it wasn’t Warren who prompted women to excavate their own stories of pregnancy discrimination. The campaign did send a fundraising email about “telling our stories” to fight those who “dismiss our lived experiences”—but not until late Tuesday night, after hundreds of women had already aired their anger and shared their memories on social media. This was an organic upswelling of fury. It was an indignant response from a population that has become well-practiced in identifying and responding to sexist political attacks.

This was, I believe, another manifestation of the women-led activism that has followed Donald Trump’s election, enabled the Democratic takeover of the House, and driven an ongoing, unprecedented movement against sexual harassment and assault. The definition of strength that demands a person never fall on the wrong side of exploitative power structures—or, at least, pretend they never have—doesn’t just privilege white, wealthy men over all other candidates. It overlooks the political skills and the personal resolve it takes to succeed in spite of those structures: in spite of being sexually harassed in the Senate, interrupted in a hearing, or let go because of a pregnancy early in one’s career.

After witnessing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, the Women’s March and its attendant activism, the #MeToo movement, and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, female voters have a much better sense of themselves as a potential voting bloc and wielders of political power. Having endured sexist discrimination or abuse is no longer the blot of vulnerability or victimhood it once was—women understand, now, that it can be just as much a marker of fortitude and grit. When women began spontaneously sharing stories of pregnancy discrimination in response to the Warren allegations, they weren’t just telling her that they believed her. They were backing her up on an issue with which they have deep, intimate connections and, in expressing their solidarity, helping her explanation look like the demonstration of strength it is.

They were also proving that the set of issues often minimized as “identity politics” comprise real problems our presidential candidates can benefit from engaging with. Far from being petty, they are instead the exact substance of politics: Pregnancy discrimination is a labor issue, a social problem, exacerbated by the incentives of capitalism, that deepens existing inequities and demands a heavily enforced policy solution. In other words, it’s right in Warren’s wheelhouse. And women are less likely to worry that a presidential candidate will take their claims of discrimination seriously when they know she’s experienced it herself.

Warren doesn’t need to convince every single American that she experienced pregnancy discrimination. (Considering the way this story got started, it seems that some people will accept nothing less than cold hard proof, even though such a thing wouldn’t even exist.) She needs to consolidate Democratic support and gin up real enthusiasm from the base. Right now, even as she leads the primary polls, she has a lot of room to grow among female voters. Giving them an opportunity to rally behind her on an issue with a strong emotional valence might help her capture their support. Her detractors might have envisioned this news cycle as a bloodbath for Warren. Instead, it seems to have been a gift.