(Bloomberg View) — When the Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio unveileda proposal last month to subsidize family leave via a system of tax breaks for businesses, Democrats scoffed. Expanding protection of mothers and infants? Isn’t that Democratic turf?
Before Democrats get too indignant, they should remember that when it comes to family leave — and maternity leave in particular — conservatives, not liberals, have historically taken the lead.
The origins of such programs can be traced to the industrial revolution in Europe, when conservative reformers began to worry about the effects of factory employment on women. As early as 1833, Peter Gaskell said factories were “hotbeds of lust,” where women risked falling prey to sexual temptation.
This concern was distinctly paternalistic. In fact, a growing number of men fretted that working would do more than stain women’s virtue. It would also prevent them from living up to their divinely ordained roles as mothers.
Thomas Oliver, a British doctor, declared before a 1913 meeting of the Eugenics Education Society that “women’s work becomes the cause of physical degeneracy and of inability on the part of women to rise to the dignity of the completed act of motherhood.” This was a national calamity: Britain’s strength, he declared, was “measured by its reproductive power.”
The battle lines were drawn accordingly: As soon as Parliament began to seriously contemplate maternity leave in the mid-19th century, women’s rights groups organized to block the legislation, arguing that it discriminated against women by foreclosing opportunities for employment. One group, the Vigilance Association, disputed the idea that “a woman is merely a piece of childbearing mechanism.”
Nonetheless, by the time World War I broke out, almost every European nation had passed maternity leave laws. Switzerland was the first, with a 1877 measure that mandated eight weeks of leave before and after a mother gave birth. Germany enacted a similar mandate a year later. It was followed by a much stronger law in 1883 that provided some measure of paid leave.
Yet holding up these achievements as evidence of the backwardness of the U.S. overlooks the retrograde intent of the European laws. Many of them made maternity leave mandatory, meaning women couldn’t choose whether to take a leave. And women who took leave often found that their former jobs had disappeared.
The drive for reform also had a nationalist, conservative motif. French proponents of a maternity leave policy passed in 1913 couched the legislation as a way to protect the lifeblood of the nation: France needed babies for its “defense and maintenance.” Women needed to step up and do their part, and they wouldn’t be permitted to work after they gave birth.