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The history of pregnancy discrimination law


Federal law protects many working women in the United States from pregnancy-related discrimination. If, for example, a woman works at a company with 15-plus employees or works for a local, state or federal agency, the employer cannot treat her differently, deny employment opportunities, terminate her employment or deny various benefits of employment on the basis of her being pregnant.

The law that protects women from pregnancy discrimination is known as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Before this act passed in 1978 as an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, pregnant women did not receive the essential protections provided by this law.

In this respect, it's worth reviewing the history of pregnancy discrimination law in the United States to fully appreciate this important piece of civil rights legislation -- which was born as a result of two cases that came before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Geduldig v. Aiello

The first case that inspired Congress to pass the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was Geduldig v. Aiello, which came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974. In this matter, the Supreme Court ruled that the denial of disability insurance to pregnant women in California was not sex discrimination.

However, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., dissented, saying that denial of disability benefits to pregnant women led to unequal treatment between the sexes. The dissenting justice felt that men received complete compensation for their gender's potential health disabilities, while women did not.

General Electric v. Gilbert

In General Electric v. Gilbert, a group of female employees from General Electric filed a class action lawsuit arguing that G.E.'s employee disability plan was in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it did not offer benefits for pregnancy-caused disabilities.

By relying on the previous decision on Geduldig v. Aiello, the Supreme Court decided that no violations of the Civil Rights Act had occurred. Again, Justice Brennan dissented, issuing his opinion that the other Justices should have supported the position of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that more protections against sex discrimination -- over and above those directly offered by Title VII -- should exist.

In the wake of these two decisions, Congress recognized that there was a gap in the Civil Rights Act that led to unequal treatment against women. Thus, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was born as an addendum to the existing Civil Rights Act of 1964, to ensure that women received equal protection from employment discrimination.

If you have any questions about whether you're protected from pregnancy-related discrimination, don't delay in learning more about your civil rights.

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