Column

Believe Elizabeth Warren or Believe Sexists

Conservative outlets want us to be skeptical that Warren was fired over her pregnancy. But to doubt her claim is to deny reality.

A photo of Elizabeth Warren with her hands raised.
A photo of Elizabeth Warren with her hands raised.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at the SEIU Unions for All Summit on October 4, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

OfOf all the dumb smears directed at female political candidates, the idea that Elizabeth Warren fabricated her experience of being fired because of her pregnancy is perhaps the dumbest.

Warren has long told the story of how she was “shown the door” by the principal of the New Jersey school where she taught after her pregnancy became visible, in 1971. Other teachers from that time have come forward to bolster Warren’s story, claiming the district regularly enacted such a leave policy. “The rule was at five months you had to leave when you were pregnant,” said one former employee.

This week, however, Warren’s experience gained new life after conservative outlets came forth with what they believe is a smoking gun: official school board notes listing Warren’s exit as a resignation. (Not to be outdone, Fox News appears fixated on the fact that Warren hasn’t always mentioned the dismissal when talking about her time as a teacher.)

Let’s make this easy: Yes, women were fired for being pregnant in the 1970s. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act didn’t pass until 1978, and even then — even now! — women were, and are, regularly forced out of jobs because of their pregnancy status. I have many, many friends who, when interviewing for jobs, hid the fact they either were pregnant or hoped to get pregnant for this very reason.

Warren’s ouster wouldn’t have registered among the public as noteworthy — certainly not something worth writing down for the record.

Now, conservatives often react to women’s stories of sexism with skepticism, but this smear job rings especially hollow: Do we really believe a school would have spelled out the reason for her departure? Do we really think that because the school board at the time didn’t write, “FIRED FOR PREGNANCY” her story lacks credibility? That’s like not believing Harvey Weinstein’s victims because his company didn’t write “terminated for not sleeping with Harvey” in the employment records.

In truth, at that time women were expected to vacate their posts when they became pregnant — better, the thinking went, for them to focus on “starting a family.” Warren’s ouster wouldn’t have registered among the public as noteworthy — certainly not something worth writing down for the record.

We should believe Warren, not just because her story lines up with everything we know about women, work, and pregnancy discrimination at the time. But also because the “believe women” slogan is not just about sexual harassment and assualt: It is about trusting women when they talk about their experiences with sexism. Because oftentimes the “official record” will not match what actually happened — sometimes an institution is trying to cover up something illegal or unprofessional, and sometimes sexism is so embedded in a culture that no one thinks of it as particularly noteworthy. We wouldn’t solely trust an employers’ account of a sexual harassment case, nor would we only want to hear from school officials on a Title IX or campus rape complaint.

This is why we listen to women’s stories: to understand how common sexism was, and still is. When it comes to the misogynist slights in their lives, women are the experts. Take Warren at her word.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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