For more than 100 years, women around the world have celebrated March 8 as International Women’s Day—a day inspired by women right here in the United States.
Now it’s time for us to learn from our sisters abroad.
What sparked the international celebration were courageous strikes by women garment workers in New York City in 1908. The women, mostly immigrants, fought for demands so basic, they break our hearts—a 50-hour work week, more than the pennies they were getting paid, an end to child labor, the right to vote.
The women who come after us will likely feel the same about the demands we make today, ones that our sisters abroad have come to take for granted: the right to take care of ourselves or a sick family member without losing our pay or our jobs; the right for all women and men to take time to bond with a new baby or care for a parent or partner with cancer—and a fund that allows us to draw wages during that leave, so that birth or a long-term illness won’t come with a price tag of poverty or bankruptcy.
Right now, half of new mothers in the U.S. who take leave receive no pay whatsoever during that time. Only 11 percent of the workforce has paid family leave through an employer. Most of the others classified as “paid” are using accrued sick or vacation time.
How does the United States of America, renowned for our civil rights for women, stack up against the rest of the world when it comes to basic protections for paid leave? Here’s the truth: Almost every single country in the world—except ours—guarantees some amount of paid time to care for a newborn and heal after birth.
Having a baby is a great joy, but it’s no vacation.
What does it mean to go without pay after giving birth?
According to census numbers, a quarter of moms return to the job within eight weeks of giving birth. More than half a million women each year go back in four weeks or less. Doctors recommend staying home at least six weeks, simply to heal from labor, let alone care for a new baby.
How does the United States of America, renowned for our civil rights for women, stack up against the rest of the world when it comes to these basic protections for paid leave?
Most of us think of Scandinavia as a place that has standout family leave policies. Swedish parents can split up to 16 months leave to care for a newborn—and dads must take at least two months or the family loses the time.
But Sweden is not alone. The U.K. offers 280 days at 90 percent pay. Indonesian mothers can count on 80 days at 100 percent pay. And in South Korea, new moms can take 90 days of leave at full pay.
Here’s the truth: Almost every single country in the world—except ours—guarantees some amount of paid time to care for a newborn and heal after birth.
Most countries also make sure folks can afford to follow doctor’s orders and stay home when they’re sick so they can recover and not infect other people. In the U.S., more than 40 million workers don’t earn a single paid sick day.
In the late 1970s, when I was pregnant with my first son, a friend who lives in France wrote me a letter. “I’m so sorry you have to have this baby in the United States,” she said, referring to the lack of leave policies and absence of any national support for childcare.
Americans have much to be proud of when it comes to gender justice. But when it comes to minimum standards for taking care of our loved ones and ourselves, we’re way behind the rest of the world.
This International Women’s Day, let’s pay tribute to those early New York City garment workers. In their honor, let’s find ways to get involved in the fight for these basic protections so that a family crisis doesn’t become a financial crisis and birth can remain a time of bliss, not bankruptcy.
How much paid time off do you feel new mothers in the U.S. should be allotted before coming back to work? Propose your policy in COMMENTS.