Democrats' family leave bill may be doomed, but it could still change things for the better

A family leave proposal probably won't pass, but it's shifting the conversation about men, women and work

Published December 13, 2013 2:45PM (EST)

Kirsten Gillibrand          (Jeff Malet,
Kirsten Gillibrand (Jeff Malet,

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., on Thursday introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, a piece of groundbreaking legislation that would have employees contribute .02 percent of their wages in exchange for an earned benefit of 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds their monthly salary. This leave can be used by men and women to stay home with a new child, care for an ailing relative or attend to their own personal medical needs. It is precisely the kind of law that would make the much discussed "life-work" balance more manageable for working American families -- particularly the working women to whom these responsibilities so often fall.

Unfortunately, like most legislation that would help working families (and working women in particular), it has very little chance of passing in this Congress.

But being politically doomed does not make the proposal unimportant. As Irin Carmon at MSNBC notes, it's still a vital piece of legislation, not least because it "provides yet another opportunity for Democrats to put Republicans on the offensive when it comes to women, not to mention their supposed fealty to 'family values.'"

More from MSNBC:

Since President Bill Clinton signed the [Family Medical Leave Act] into law, an estimated 35 million people have taken advantage of its job-protected, unpaid leave to take care of themselves or their families. But plenty of people have been left out: those who can’t afford to work without pay; those who work for small companies or part time; and those whose family crises don’t qualify, because their marriage isn’t recognized or their family member is a sibling and not a child.

And that’s longer-term leave. Plenty of people can’t even take a paid day off. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, “more than four in 10 private-sector workers -- and more than 80% of low-wage workers -- do not have paid sick days at all.”  Compared to other industrialized nations, it’s a pathetic showing for the United States.

Putting the matter back on the table at the national level also helps build public momentum behind family leave policies, and shines a spotlight on the places where such laws already exist, and the good they can do:

Local groups have made serious progress in cities and states, winning paid sick days in cities like Seattle, Portland and Jersey City, N.J. and family leave policies in states like New Jersey and Washington state.


“Many of us realized that congressional action was not likely in the near future,” said Bravo. “Workplace reforms are often won first on the local and state level. It helps defeat opponents who say the sky will fall and the businesses will flee.”

But in places where family-friendly policies have gone into effect, the sky hasn’t fallen. “Not only does it defeat the predictions of doom, it helps people see that change is possible – and that they are the agent of change,” said Bravo. “It’s not that they didn’t know they needed it or that they didn’t want it. It’s that they didn’t know they could get it.”

As Salon has previously noted, meaningful conversation about men, women, work and family -- and real change around gender norms and the "choices" working parents, particularly working mothers, make -- requires policies that actually make choice possible. The Gillibrand and DeLauro proposal -- even if it's doomed -- is a step toward that.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Gender Having It All Life Work Balance Men Pro-family Policies Women Work Working Families