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Women wearing red shirts, holding picket signs
NEA News

Fifty Years of Women's Labor History

During Women’s History Month, we look back 50 years to see how NEA members have raised their voices—in Congress, at the Supreme Court, and in their own union—to make workplaces more supportive of women.
Published: 02/17/2023

Who We Are

From the start, NEA members have fought for women’s right to work—for equal pay and equal benefits—free from discrimination and harassment. Our history features women like the legendary Mary McLeod Bethune, who started a school for Black girls in Florida in 1904—with $1.50 and five young students—and eventually became president of the American Teachers Association. Today, about three-quarters of U.S. public school teachers are women, and our union continues to blaze the trail for women in the workplace.

1973-2023: Fifty Years of Advancement

Photo of Jo Carol LaFleur holding toddler

NEA Wins Supreme Court Victory

It’s hard to believe now—but 50 years ago, pregnant teachers were commonly forced out of their classrooms as soon as they looked pregnant. This ended with a lawsuit filed by a Cleveland teacher named Jo Carol LeFleur that NEA helped take all the way to the Supreme Court. During testimony, the Cleveland school board’s attorney complained that the city’s pregnant teachers “just would not” leave unless forced by the board to do so, and that a pregnant woman was “not an able-bodied person.” Not only are they distracted, “They urinate more frequently," he said. By a 7-to-2 vote, justices sided with LeFleur. “While it might be easier for school boards to conclusively presume that all pregnant women are unfit to teach past the fourth or fifth month, or even the first month of pregnancy,” Justice Potter Stewart wrote, for the 7-to-2 majority, in January 1974, “administrative convenience alone is insufficient to make valid what otherwise is a violation of due process of law.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a 1970s classroom

In Defense of Pregnant Workers

On the heels of NEA’s Supreme Court victory, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) passes Congress in 1978. The PDA makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against women because they are pregnant, were pregnant, or are of an age where they could become pregnant. It also makes it illegal to discriminate against those who have had or are considering an abortion. In other words, women can’t be fired, or denied a job or job promotion, given a worse schedule, have their pay cut, be harassed by their employers or coworkers, be forced to take leave, or denied accommodations because they are pre-menopausal women. This kind of discrimination was commonplace in the 1970s, noted the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a New York Times article that she wrote decades before ascending to the bench. “Women's child‐bearing function has always played a central role in supporting sex discrimination,” she wrote. “Anticipating the woman's withdrawal from the paid labor force when she becomes pregnant, the economy‐minded employer keeps her till then, at the lowest cost, and at the lowest rung of the job ladder.”
Photo of Dolly Parton singing "9 to 5"

Sexual Harassment in the Bullseye

The same year that Dolly Parton (NEA's 2022 Friend of Education) sang in the movie "9 to 5" about a lack of workplace promotion and a surfeit of workplace harassment, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) declares sexual harassment a violation of Title VII and establishes guidelines that define it as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”
Photo of women marching through Chinatown

More Unions for More Women

On a spring day in New York City’s Chinatown, more than 20,000 garment factory workers—almost all of them women—march down Mott Street, wearing union hats and carrying picket signs. Led by Katie Quan, May Chen and others, the women strike for union contracts, better pay, and improved working conditions. At this time, about 18 percent of working women are members of unions, compared to nearly 30 percent of men, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Equity for Women in Retirement

NEA wins passage of the Retirement Equity Act, which ends the ability of retirement funds to discriminate against women. Among its many provisions, the new federal law prohibits pension plans from counting parenting leaves as a “break in participation” for participation or vesting purposes. “This important legislation is the first private pension bill in our history to recognize explicitly the importance of women both to the American family and to the nation's labor force,” says then-President Ronald Reagan, as he signs it into law.

Our Union Allies Win for Women, Too!

Also, in 1986, AFSCME wins a $106.5 million settlement in its sex‐based wage discrimination suit against Washington State. As a result, nearly 35,000 women who were working for the state in undervalued job classifications get pay increases.
Photo of Bill Clinton signing legislation at desk

The Advent of the Family Medical Leave Act

It often falls to women to provide care for family members—and sometimes it’s not possible to provide that dedicated care while working full time. In 1993, President Clinton signs the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), providing time off to employees to care for themselves or their families and ensuring they have jobs to return to.

The Teacher Pay Penalty

For decades, the Economic Policy Institute has been tracking the “teacher pay penalty,” or the difference in pay for teachers compared to comparable college graduates. In 1993, the penalty hits its lowest point between 1980 and 2022—just 5.1 percent, meaning that teachers, on average, are earning 5.1 percent less than similarly educated professionals. By 2021, the gap would grow to 23.5 percent. Experts say teachers are underpaid because the job is so closely identified with women—and “women’s work” isn’t valued.

The Right to Complain about Sex Discrimination

When Roderick Jackson, a basketball coach at a public high school in Birmingham, Alabama, discovered that his team wasn’t receiving equal funding and his players denied equal access to athletic equipment and facilities, he complained to his supervisors. And then…they fired him. Jackson sued, saying he was being retaliated against for complaining about sex discrimination. In 2005, the Supreme Court rules that—even though Jackson himself wasn’t the victim of sex discrimination—federal law gives him the right to sue and protects him from retaliation.
Photo of Lilly Ledbetter speaking at dais

Our Hero: Lilly Ledbetter

Just nine days after taking office, President Obama signs his first piece of legislation—and it is the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. Ledbetter had been working at Goodyear Tire for nearly 20 years when she found out that, while she was getting paid $3,727 a month, men doing the exact same job were getting as much as $5,236. Ledbetter sued, but lost when the Supreme Court ruled she would have had to sue within 180 days of her first paycheck. (She had no idea, at that time, of the pay disparity.) In 2009, the Fair Pay Act loosens that time requirement, enabling more victims of pay discrimination to sue for their fair wages. In 2013, Ledbetter spoke to educators at a NEA conference: “The teachers that I had in high school inspired me to be the best possible individual and to achieve all the way to the sky,” she said.
Photo of NC teacher Gina Frutig shaking NC Sen Kay Hagan's hand

Women Saving Educators' Jobs

About 300,000 teachers across the nation receive pink slips from school districts that can’t afford to pay them anymore. In response, NEA members flood Capitol Hill in the spring and summer of 2010, asking lawmakers to pass the Education Jobs Fund. Fourth-grade teacher Gina Frutig, who was one of 237 Durham, N.C., teachers to get laid off, is one of them. (Frutig, above, is pictured with then-U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan of N.C.) Thanks to their advocacy, the $10 billion program passes.
Dolores Huerta speaking at dais, NEA butterfly poster in background

Honoring Union Legend, Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta was a schoolteacher in the 1950s when she realized she could do more to help the hungry children in her classroom by becoming an advocate and organizer of their parents, California’s farm workers. In 1962, she and Cesar Chávez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which became the United Farm Workers’ Union. In the 1970s, Huerta led a national boycott of grapes, which brought about the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975—legislation that enabled farmworkers to form unions and collectively bargain for safer working conditions and better pay. In 2013, she joins NEA members at a summer conference, where she is honored for her decades of service.
Celebratory photo of Becky Pringle, Lilly Eskelsen Garcia and Princess Moss

NEA Elects First All-Women, All-People-of-Color Team

Delegates to the NEA Representative Assembly in 2014 elect the first all-women, all-people-of-color team to head the nation’s largest union, with Lily Eskelsen García as then-president, Becky Pringle as then-vice president, and Princess Moss as then-secretary-treasurer.
Photo of NC teachers holding protest signs

#RedforEd Sweeps Nation

In states across the nation, teachers begin striking for more school funding and better pay. At the same time, women across the nation are leading a #MeToo movement, raising awareness of sexual harassment and violence. In an interview with The Guardian, then-NEA President Lily Eskelsen García notes both movements are being led by women, raising their voices together and striving to make the world a better place. “If you look at the strongest unions today, they are our public sector education unions and these are unions that by and large are made up of women with women leaders,” said García. “We are not sitting by and accepting the status quo.”

Paid Family Leave Gets Momentum

It’s been nearly 50 years since the Supreme Court made sure that pregnant educators wouldn’t be forced out of classrooms…but educators are still struggling with the care of those children, post-pregnancy or adoption. In 2021, NEA-affiliated union members at the University of Florida negotiate an eight-week paid family leave benefit. “Even though it seems to me that [paid family leave] should be a given, it has been a long fight,” says Hélène Huet, a member of the United Faculty of Florida-UF bargaining team. The following year, educators in Columbus, Ohio, and Malden, Massachusetts, go on strike, in part, to win paid family leave.

Solving the Student Debt Crisis

Student debt is a women’s issue. Federal data shows women owe the majority of student debt, and they take an average two years longer to pay back their debt. Black women, in particular, are the most likely to have student debt. In 2022, NEA members make real progress in fixing the nation’s student debt crisis. After hearing from 168,000 NEA members, the White House announces fixes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and a new cancellation program. Thanks to these improvements, by late November 2022, about 373,000 borrowers have qualified for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

The work ahead

While women—through their unions—have achieved improved pay, enhanced protections from discrimination and harassment, and increased freedom from debt, our work isn’t done. Unfortunately, pay still lags: in 2021, the teacher pay penalty reached its highest level yet, at 23.5 percent. Pregnancy discrimination still exists, and so does sexual harassment: In 2021, the EEOC received nearly 2,300 charges of pregnancy discrimination and more than 10,000 charges of sexual harassment. Meanwhile, in 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, stripping the rights of women to make their own healthcare decisions.

Over the last few years, we have seen the same faction of politicians working overtime to reverse decades of progress on racial justice, on women’s rights, on worker’s rights, on LGBTQ+ rights, on voting rights, on our right to privacy, and on our students’ freedom to learn in our public schools,” says NEA President Becky Pringle.

So, while we celebrate our achievements, as women in labor, we endeavor to keep working. “Together, we all must do our part to preserve our democracy and help our nation live up to the beautiful poetry of our Constitution,” says Pringle. “When we say, ‘We the people,’ we mean ALL the people.”

National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.