Pregnant Teachers in the Classroom
By 1919, 86% of teachers were women. Some feared that the prevalence of women teachers would "warp the psyches" of boys. In response, some school districts passed rules barring the employment of married women as teachers. The Depression exacerbated this condition. Married women were not given jobs because men and single women were believed to need them more. Work, some said, interfered with the duties of married women to care for home and family. Many viewed married women as economically superfluous or believed that work endangered the reproductive capacity of women and risked the extinction of "the race." Only when World War II created a labor shortage were married women widely employed as teachers.
Though married women stayed in the teaching corps after the war, they frequently were not permitted to do so while pregnant. A 1948 National Education Association survey revealed that 43% of school districts had no maternity leave policies, but the rest had compulsory maternity leave, usually starting in the fourth to sixth month and lasting until well after childbirth. School boards opposing the presence of visibly pregnant women in classrooms feared that liability might arise in case of injury to mother or child, the sight of pregnant women would unfavorably influence students, or that pregnant teachers' minds would not be on their work or that the physical demands of teaching could not be met by pregnant women. Over the next 17 years, compulsory maternity leaves gradually were shortened and made more flexible, but the proportion of school districts adopting such polices increased. In general, these policies assumed that female teachers were incapable of making their own decisions about work, health care, and the needs of the nation's children.
A few teachers challenged compulsory maternity leave even before the 1960s. These challenges were based on contract theory and produced mixed results. Two Supreme Court cases, Goeseart v. Cleary and Hoyt v. Florida, had ruled against equal protection claims made by women using the rational basis test to permit discrimination against them. The outcomes of these cases discouraged pregnant teachers from bringing equal protection claims. With the passage of Title VII and the emergence of the women's movement during the 1960s, the time became ripe for pregnant teachers to argue that compulsory maternity leave was illegal.
In 1971, three teachers who wanted to stay in the classroom longer than their school districts' maternity leave policies allowed--Susan Cohen, Jo Ann LaFleur, and Ann Nelson--filed lawsuits against their employers. In LaFleur's challenge of the Cleveland public school leave policies, the school district claimed that the policy was instituted to protect the health of pregnant teachers. The teachers asserted that the policy had no legitimate purpose, that compulsory maternity leave violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, that teaching was safe for pregnant women, and that maternity leaves interfered with continuity in the classroom. The district court in LaFleur upheld the maternity leave, but Cohen, pursuing relief in Chesterfield County, Virginia, won her case at the trial level. Both cases were appealed and reversed by different Circuit Courts of Appeals. In 1974 the United States Supreme Court took on the cases and ruled that compulsory maternity leave was unconstitutional. The Court held that such rules deprived women teachers of due process by interfering with their fundamental rights, including their right to bear and raise children. The Court avoided the equal protection claims.
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