Paid Family Leave was Invented in the US, But We Still Don't Have ItHistorians in the News
tags: social welfare, Parental Leave, Paternity Leave, Maternity Leave
The women came to Washington from across the globe — from France to Japan, Argentina to India — to demand better working conditions.
They addressed equal pay, breastfeeding breaks and paid parental leave, and one delegate even proposed that housework should be counted as part of a standard eight-hour workday.
“Women are the builders of the race,” Margaret Dreier Robins said to about 200 women during the first session of the International Congress of Working Women.
“To us is entrusted the protection of life,” Robins said. “The social and industrial order must meet this challenge. There can be no compromise with the exploitation of women.”
Though these are the same arguments being made on Capitol Hill today as Congress turns its attention to a $2 trillion social spending bill, Robins spoke to this conference of women in November 1919.
And in that sweeping, revolutionary conference of women, a blueprint was created for the kind of paid maternity leave that the rest of the industrialized world adopted and has followed for a much of the past century. It’s been adopted everywhere except the very place it was born — the United States.
The International Congress of Working Women was formed when it became clear that the International Labor Organization (ILO) — a boys’ club that would set the international standard for workers — had little consideration for women who weren’t going back home after becoming part of the industrialized workforce during World War I.
In early 1919, as the ILO was building a foundation for international labor standards, women gathered in Paris to protest their lack of representation. After speeches and petitions and meetings, the ILO eventually included language about equal pay in its charter. But it punted on the idea of paid parental leave.
So Robins, who was head of the Women’s Trade Union League in the United States, organized an international gathering of women in Washington to preempt the coming ILO session planned here for October 1919.
The women arrived by ship from Europe and Cuba, from North and South America. The delegate from Japan, Tanaka Taka, caused an uproar among Japanese men because she was four months pregnant and traveled alone, according to Dorothy Sue Cobble’s book, “For the Many: American Feminists and the Global Fight for Democratic Equality”. Other women made the journey with their young children in tow.
They debated what their demands should be. The French were in favor of half-hour breastfeeding breaks at work; the Americans and British were not. The Belgians said women should have Saturday afternoons off for housework and shopping. Women from France and Italy argued for day cares. The delegates from Norway and Sweden believed women shouldn’t be allowed to work at night — it was too dangerous. And the Czechoslovakian delegate believed that housework should be counted as part of an eight-hour workday (no one seemed to agree with her). All of them agreed that women should get paid time off before and after giving birth.
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