Neil Gorsuch’s statement on maternal leave matters, whether he said it or not.
By Kentina Washington Leapheart, Director of Programs for Reproductive Justice and Sexuality Education, Religious Institute
On Monday morning, I picked up my phone and began scrolling through the “breaking news” that had occurred overnight. This has become somewhat of a ritual the past several months. Each morning, the latest horrors associated with the Trump administration have dominated the headlines and filled my newsfeed. This was particularly true on Monday morning, with many expecting a vote this week on the Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
For weeks, progressive activists and clergy have been organizing and mobilizing in opposition to the proposed repeal of the ACA and the defunding of critical health-care providers like Planned Parenthood. This week we have been resisting on multiple fronts—an increasingly common reality under this administration—as the Senate Judiciary Committee considered Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gorsuch has a consistent record of sanctioning legal harms done to marginalized communities. His legal decisions and the constitutional conservatism underpinning them have shown little regard for those who are not white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, or Christian. This is well-documented.
On Monday morning, the news around Gorsuch’s nomination reaffirmed Maya Angelou’s wise advice that “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
News broke that Jennifer Sisk, one of Gorsuch’s former law students at the University of Colorado, penned a letter to the Judiciary Committee describing an experience she had in Gorsuch’s classroom. In the letter, Sisk claims that Gorsuch shared with the class his opinion that women “manipulate” companies in order to “take advantage of” maternity leave benefits and do so with no intention of returning to work after the birth of their child.
While Sisk’s account is likely to remain alleged and Gorsuch disputes her version of events, we know, nevertheless, that the myth of women taking advantage of parental leave persists.
Similar allegations are rarely, if ever, made against men who take parental leave to care for their children. It may be impossible to know if Judge Gorsuch buys into the bogus idea that women capitalize on parental leave, but his judicial history clearly shows that he is not concerned about equal access to reproductive healthcare for women.
Gorsuch issued an opinion in the now-infamous Hobby Lobby case supporting the denial of birth control to thousands of female employees. Returning, then, to Maya Angelou’s advice, it would not be out of character if Gorsuch also dismissed the idea that women who have children — planned or not — should be allowed to take necessary time off work to care for those children and for their own postpartum mental and physical health. At the very least, there is enough material here — both in word and in Gorsuch’s prior rulings — to give us pause. Moreover, the questions around these allegations point to a much greater systemic concern: the pernicious impact of rhetoric, rooted in misogyny and patriarchy, on the real lives of real people.
This trope of women as manipulative and conniving is tired and insulting.
As a working parent, I am intimately familiar with the process of deciding to have a child and negotiating parental leave. When my daughter was born, I worked for a company that had a robust maternity leave policy. I was a salaried employee, I made a living wage, and I could combine my company-sponsored maternity leave with unused PTO and unpaid family and medical leave. I was able to care for my daughter full-time for the first 4 months of her life.
In this respect, I was privileged in ways that many working moms are not. Many women who are hourly workers, work for small businesses, or own their own business don’t have access to adequate maternity leave. They can’t afford to take unpaid time off, or their absences can’t be absorbed by other workers.
The idea that women are manipulating the parental leave system is not only deeply misogynistic. It also distracts from the fact that the system itself does not adequately support ALL women and families across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic boundaries.
Our society systematically undervalues raising children. Among developed countries, the United States ranks last in number of weeks of paid parental leave required by law (hint: the U.S. requires zero weeks). But somehow, according to the stereotype, American women are still manipulating a system that offers them hardly any assurance. Somehow, women are the problem and not the broken system.
Let’s be clear: planning your pregnancies and utilizing the little parental leave you have or can afford is not being manipulative. It is exercising your moral agency and your right to raise the children you have.
While Gorsuch’s hearings are now over, I was heartened to see senators like Dick Durbin (D-IL) hold Gorsuch accountable for his harmful words and opinions about women. Although we do not yet know the fate of Gorsuch’s nomination, we can refuse to have our voices of resistance silenced.
All women are worthy of reproductive justice throughout the arc of their lives.
Reproductive justice means having access to adequate reproductive healthcare. It also means honoring the right to conceive, birth, and parent children, which requires having the resources to do so including parental leave.
Above all, women have the right to be trusted to make thoughtful, informed decisions about their bodies before, during, and after childbirth. If a judge or anyone else wants to know about women’s experiences with parental leave, they should listen to women. We can shape our own narratives and write our own stories. As women, we will not be silenced by misogynistic stereotypes. We will continue to resist.