Dinner’s Scholarship Selected for Junior Faculty Forum

A dissertation chapter by Associate Professor Deborah Dinner has been selected for presentation at the 2012 Junior Faculty Forum at Harvard Law School (formerly the Stanford/Yale Junior Faculty Forum).

Dinner will present her chapter, “The Costs of Life: Maternal Employment, Reproductive Choice, and the Debate over Pregnancy Disability Benefits,” in the Junior Faculty Forum’s “Legal History” category in June.

Dinner’s dissertation spans the years 1964–93. Titled “Pregnancy at Work: Sex Equality, Reproductive Liberty, and the Workplace,” the dissertation examines feminists’ legal imagination and advocacy regarding the relationship between sex equality and reproductive liberty, from the civil rights era through the Reagan era. It analyzes how feminist argumentation evolved in dialogue with the ideologies and strategies of market and social conservatives. Her award-winning chapter focuses directly on the “legal and political debates” that played out in the 1970s, as society struggled to “allocate the costs of reproduction between private families, employers, and the state.”

Dinner’s argument is that legal and political controversy about abortion shaped debates about the “costs of life.” Employers and business groups appropriated “legal advances in reproductive choice” to argue against antidiscrimination law protecting pregnant workers. Market conservatives argued that the court’s historic decisions in Griswold v. Connecticut, Eisenstadt v. Baird, and Roe v. Wade, had made pregnancy a voluntary choice. As a consequence, society had no obligation to assume responsibility for the costs of pregnancy and childbirth. In two decisions, the Supreme Court held that the exclusion of pregnancy from state and private temporary disability insurance plans violated neither the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution nor Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1963. The court rejected an older liberalism that made women’s reproductive capacity the basis for a sex-differentiated citizenship, but embraced a new liberalism, premised on women’s capacity for rational and independent choice, which nevertheless perpetuated gender inequality.

Meanwhile, in Congress, “abortion and other perceived threats to traditional motherhood triggered neomaternalist politics.” “Some social conservatives” split from market conservatives to join feminists in an alliance for federal antidiscrimination law that would protect the job and income security of pregnant workers. These social conservatives argued that extending medical benefits to women would serve as incentive for them to bear children. At the same time, “liberals” sought “to remove childbearing from the calculus of the market.” Dinner writes, “In the context of a new political landscape, feminists coupled sex-egalitarian arguments for pregnancy disability benefits with arguments that represented childbearing as a service to society.”

These debates ultimately resulted in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which amended Title VII to prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or childbirth. The neomaternalist politics that contributed to the passage of the act carried “an ideological and policy price for feminists.” Congress excluded coverage of abortion and related conditions from the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s equal-treatment mandate.

The Junior Faculty Forum seeks to encourage younger scholars to exchange ideas and scholarship. Submitted papers are evaluated by a committee of scholars. About a dozen papers are selected to be read at the forum.

Dinner, who focuses her scholarship on the history of gender, work, and family, previously presented her dissertation chapter at the University of Virginia’s Legal History Workshop. She will receive her Ph.D. from Yale University in May.