Today marks the 35th anniversary of the passing of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). In 1978, after mounting pressure from the National Organization for Women, Congress amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act – which bans sex discrimination – to include protections for pregnant women.

“One of the most significant gains for women’s rights was the Pregnancy Discrimination Act,” said President of Feminist Majority Foundation Eleanor Smeal, who was instrumental in getting Congress to pass the act. “It results in valuable financial benefits for women every year.”

The act was passed in response to the Supreme Court’s decisions in Geduldig v. Aiello and General Electric Company v. Gilbert, finding that Title VII’s prohibition against “sex” discrimination did not include a ban on pregnancy-based discrimination. To reverse this, the PDA asserted that pregnant women should be “treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs.” Firing, demoting, reducing pay, or refusing reasonable accommodations for pregnant women were all made illegal.

Protections for pregnant workers are vitally important. Almost two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant, and 90 percent of those women continue to work into their last two months of pregnancy. Low-income women and women of color are more likely to be affected by pregnancy discrimination, because they are more likely to hold low-paying jobs with limited flexibility.

Although the act has had a huge positive impact, there is still room for improvement. Courts around the United States have been interpreting the act narrowly, often allowing employers to fire, force unpaid leave, or refuse reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers.

“Today, the act must be strengthened,” Smeal adds. “But it was a major leap forward for women in employment in the United States.”

Media Resources: US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Feminist Newswire 10/2/13, 10/30/13; Feminist Majority Blog 10/31/13