The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case that I find completely fascinating, and super important for all families. The case is brought by Peggy Young, a UPS employee that was denied her request to change work duties after being advised that she should not lift over 20 lbs. She was pregnant.
The details of her case can be found here, but in a nutshell there is a Pregnancy Discrimination Act (1978) that requires that employers give the same accommodations to women affected by pregnancy or child birth that it would give to employees that are temporarily disabled/injured. To be clear, the UPS will allow a change of duty not only for workers injured on the job, but also for workers who lose their license because they are convicted of a DUI. So drunk drivers can switch roles and continue to earn a living, but pregnant women made a choice and so they are shit out of luck. (Actual comment from NY Times op-ed: “Pregnancy isn’t a disease. In fact as I understand it, it is a choice. These women became pregnant due to their own actions. They can no longer do the work they were hired to do. Why is that such a big deal. It isn’t an injury.”)
I had a fascinating chat with my coworker about this case. She claimed that if what feminism fights for is gender equality, then you must err on the side of UPS. Because men cannot get pregnant, accommodating pregnant women is giving them preferential treatment. And she was hung up on that word, equal. As if equal here meant equivalent. But I don’t think equality means we all must be the same. And in my dream world where the patriarchy is dismantled, I do not imagine a world where men and women are alike. I imagine a world where your personality and your physical characteristics aren’t policed by societal gender norms. I imagine a world where everyone is free to express themselves compassionately, and explore interests that are close to their heart without any thought to what girls and boys are supposed to like or do. I don’t claim that men and women are the same, but it’s important to remember that making statements like “women can get pregnant and men can’t” as proof that we will always remain different/unequal erases women who are unable to conceive, or women who do not want to bear children, as well as a range of trans experiences. Not all women are able to bear children, not all women menstruate, and plenty of folks live outside of the bodily gendered binaries we assume. We mustn’t be biologically reductive.
And equality has never been about equivalency. Separate but equal was ruled unconstitutional for education, because being equivalent doesn’t always mean that the spirit of equality is being honored. I do not think that being injured or disabled is the same as getting pregnant, however in both cases the ableness of one’s body is compromised. We have determined that folks that are injured or disabled have a right to work, and that right should be extended to those who are pregnant.
And what is so interesting to me, is that this is actually a conservative issue. The state has a vested interest in regulating families, and in encouraging its citizens to procreate so that there are evermore citizens. It’s similar to gay marriage, an issue I am always confounded by. Marriage is a conservative value, and if you truly value the nuclear family and two parent home, then you should be an advocate for gay marriage. The more people creating those kinds of unions, the more those values continue to guide our society and the more regulated sex and the family continues to be by the state. The same with this issue. Encouraging women to become mothers by assuring that their jobs will be safe and they will be able to work and earn is not exactly a liberal fantasy. In this case, the state should recognize it’s interest both in regulating the family and encouraging the work force. It should be a no brainer.
And yet. I wonder how the justices will see this. They have seriously let me down recently, and I fear that people will conflate the issue of pregnancy advocacy, which is a feminist issue, with leftist liberalism and dismiss it. But it’s important to remember that feminism isn’t liberal or conservative, and that the interests of women across race and class lines span a broad array of values and belief systems. Reproductive rights don’t begin and end with abortion. Folks should be able to get or not get pregnant, to access the full range of care they need, to determine the state of their bodies, and to do so while pursuing their economic and personal goals. Peggy should not have been forced into unpaid leave because she was temporarily limited, while ‘light duty’ remains available for other workers. If the choice to drink and drive is accommodated, then the choice to create new life should also be accommodated. And yet, misogyny runs so deep that for some, any chance to demean or limit women must be taken. We do indeed treat pregnant women poorly, often limiting their autonomy and assuming they must be protected (or assuming they must be protected against.) It astounds me that some parties will vote against their own interests because something is seen as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’. Those two sides, they are made up, they are socially upheld and constructed. Kind of like gender (ZING!)
Separate but equal is bullshit, and thinking about equality and social justice in terms of equivalency and sameness misses the point entirely. Social justice is freedom from sameness, it is permission to be different and live on your own terms. It is a world where your choices aren’t determined by your gender, or your race, or your ability to participate as a cog in the capitalist machine. It’s a world where pregnant women can continue to work, where both families and single folks are supported. How hard is that to understand?