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The Fight for Paid Family Leave

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The U.S. has a pathetic family leave program. The Family and Medical Leave Act was a fight to the death with Republicans over something that was barely a social welfare program at all. Three decades later, we are still fighting to expand it and it seems unlikely it will make it through whatever Joe Manchin and Josh Gottheimer allow. But let’s be clear–paid family leave is something activists for which have fought hard for over a century.

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, 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.

How has the U.S. done since this international conference?

Those standards became the ILO’s Maternity Protection Convention, 1919. And in less than a century, 37 of 38 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development based their paid parental leave on these 1919 demands.

Some are more generous than others, with the Slovak Republic guaranteeing 164 weeks of paid leave and Mexico offering the 1919 benchmark of 12 weeks.

All of them, though, are more generous than the United States, which is the 38th nation on that list and offers zero weeks of paid parental leave. Still.

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