By MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN
Children’s Defense Fund
If you want to change the world, you change the world of a child.
– Rep. Patricia Schroeder
When former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder passed away March 13, many people were quick to remember the Harvard-educated lawyer who became the first woman member of Congress from Colorado as a trailblazing feminist politician. As a founding member and co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues – now known as the Congressional Women’s Caucus – she was a leading champion for children’s, women’s and family issues who correctly understood that policies that benefit children and their caregivers benefit everyone.
During her 24 years in the House of Representatives, Rep. Schroeder helped pass the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, National Child Protection Act, Violence Against Women Act, and legislation requiring federally funded medical researchers to include women in their studies, among many others. As the first woman on the House Armed Services Committee, she was a consistent and often lonely voice asking whether military spending budgets were unnecessarily large and could be shared with other priorities that were desperately underfunded; as she said, “When men talk about defense, they always claim to be protecting women and children, but they never ask the women and children what they think.” One of her hardest won victories was the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which now guarantees eligible workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a family member.
Until its passage, family leave was another issue many people had pigeonholed for years as “just” a mothers’ issue. In fact, FMLA helps men and women care for newborns, sick children and spouses, older parents, and other family members, and take care of their own health challenges and serious illnesses. Rep. Schroeder fought for FMLA’s passage for nine years and saw it vetoed twice by President George H.W. Bush before President Bill Clinton signed it into law in one of his first significant acts after taking office.
But as Rep. Schroeder later explained in an interview with the House historian, “The bill that I introduced was very different than what we finally got passed, because we obviously had to water it down a lot and it took a lot to make it through . . . We had to take out the paid part, which breaks my heart. We still haven’t gotten the paid part.” In another interview she put it this way. “It is still so watered down, I’m almost embarrassed to say that’s my bill . . . I do not think there is a capital in the world that talks more about family values and does less.”
Thirty years after FMLA was signed into law, Clinton returned to the White House last month to join President Biden at a ceremony celebrating its anniversary. But despite the critical protections FMLA did put into place, our nation still has not accomplished paid family and medical leave. This was one of the priorities Biden laid out again in his State of the Union address in January, and now, in the recently released fiscal year 2024 budget proposal.
As the White House says: “The vast majority of America’s workers do not have access to paid family leave, including three out of four private sector workers. Among the lowest-paid workers, who are predominately women and workers of color, 92% have no access to paid family leave through their employers. The budget proposes to establish a national, comprehensive paid family and medical leave program, providing up to 12 weeks of leave to allow eligible workers to take time off to care for and bond with a new child; care for a seriously ill loved one; heal from their own serious illness; address circumstances arising from a loved one’s military deployment; or find safety from domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.”
Paid family and medical leave joins permanent expansion of the Child Tax Credit, increased investment in early care and education, and other budget priorities that have the potential to make a key difference to America’s children and families. It will be up to today’s congresswomen and congressmen to show us which members only want to talk about family values and which ones are ready to add real value to families’ lives. As Pat Schroeder also reminded us, you can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time. We need elected officials committed to working for children.
Marian Wright Edelman is the founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose mission is “Leave No Child Behind.” For more information, visit https://www.childrensdefense.org.