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  • Getting Paid while Taking Time: The Women's Movement and the Development of Paid Family Leave Policies in the United States by Megan A. Sholar
  • Eileen Boris
Getting Paid while Taking Time: The Women's Movement and the Development of Paid Family Leave Policies in the United States
Megan A. Sholar
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2016
x + 240 pp., $29.95 (paper)

During the 2016 election, Ivanka Trump promoted a national tax credit for a month and a half of paid maternity leave, estimated to amount to $300 weekly. It is doubtful, however, that Trump's proposal would provide adequate income replacement for new mothers concentrated in low-waged, part-time, and precarious work—precisely those unable to afford adequate time off. According to a 2017 study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IMPAQ International and Institute for Women's Policy Research, "Estimating Usage and Costs of Alternative Policies to Provide Paid Family and Medical Leave in the United States," Issue Brief, January 2017,, half of young mothers ages 18–34 fail to qualify for protected family and medical leave. With paid leave programs in only a few states and corporate plans limited, the question remains: why is there so little compensated family and medical leave in the United States, and why do existing private-sector policies usually benefit high-income white workers?

Sociologist Megan A. Sholar does not fully answer that question in Getting Paid while Taking Time. A qualitative analysis that traces "policy stories" through legislative case studies in Congress and key states, this book wraps claims about public policy variation in social science theories that add little to the interviews and readings of archival documents and government hearings that provide the basis for this narrative account. Methodological framing aside, Sholar offers in six brisk chapters a guide to the politics of family leave enactment since the mid-1980s and the essential role of feminist proponents. She briefly situates her study in historical and international precedents, recounting earlier mother pensions and maternity-leave provisions, but focuses on efforts to win family and medical leave after the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. This campaign culminated in President Bill Clinton's signing the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FLMA) as nearly his first deed in office. The FMLA may be "a success by liberal feminist standards," Sholar concludes. "But the law does not actually address gender inequality," making it "feminist only in its 'symbolic purposes' " (83).

Rather than a beginning, to be expanded in the piecemeal way of previous social benefits, leave under the FLMA has remained unpaid, with certain rules—governing size of the establishment and number of hours worked in the previous year—undermining its usefulness. Despite subsequent extensions to the armed forces and airline industry along with legal cases that extended coverage to LGBTQ families, most workers are still outside the law. The battle thus shifted to the states, with California (2004), New Jersey (2009), Rhode Island (2014), and New York (to begin in 2018) having paid family [End Page 123] leave programs that potentially cover greater numbers of people. These initial states linked their programs to Temporary Disability Insurance. When fully implemented, New York's program will be the most generous, covering care for a new child (by birth or adoption) and for seriously ill children and a wide range of other relatives, including domestic partners and in-laws; extending to twelve weeks; offering higher replacement wages; and including part-time workers. Other generally progressive states—Hawaii, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington—have failed to enact such measures for a variety of fiscal and political reasons. Despite astute observations and a nod to the structure of the US welfare regime, Sholar misses an opportunity to historicize processes of policy formation that move from the states to the federal government.

Focused on the National Organization for Women (NOW), Women's Equity Action Leave/National Partnership for Women and Families, and state-level coalitions, this analysis underscores how conflicting priorities and visions hampered enactment of more comprehensive proposals. "When the women's movement is united in its support of a piece of...


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