In 1971, now-U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren lost her job as a speech therapist in the public school district of Riverdale, New Jersey, because she became pregnant.
On Feb. 25, 2020, during a Democratic primary debate in South Carolina, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren held a robust back-and-forth exchange with fellow candidate and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. At one point Warren told a story that she has told many times before — how her time as a public school instructor came to an end, and how that spurred her on to a career in public service. On that particular occasion, she also segued into an attack on Bloomberg, as follows:
This is personal for me. When I was 21 years old, I got my first job as a special education teacher. I loved that job, and by the end of the first year, I was visibly pregnant. The principal wished me luck and gave my job to someone else. Pregnancy discrimination, you bet. But I was 21 years old. I didn’t have a union to protect me and I didn’t have any federal law on my side. So I packed up my stuff, and I went home. At least I didn’t have a boss who said to me ‘Kill it,’ the way that Mayor Bloomberg is alleged to have said to one of his pregnant employees.
It’s a claim Warren has made on several occasions. In her 2014 book “A Fighting Chance,” she wrote:
“In 1970, just after I finished college in Houston, Jim was transferred to IBM’s office in New Jersey. Soon after we moved, I got my first real job, as a speech therapist for special needs kids at a nearby public school. I was twenty-one, but I looked about fourteen. By the end of the school year, I was pretty obviously pregnant. The principal did what I think a lot of principals did back then — wished me good luck, didn’t ask me back for the next school year, and hired someone else for the job.”
At a rally in Oakland, California, in May 2019, Warren told largely the same story, in much the same way, claiming that the principal, upon seeing that Warren was pregnant, “wished me luck, showed me the door, and hired someone else for the job.”
The Board of Education in Riverdale, New Jersey, hired Warren as a speech therapy instructor in the fall of 1970. According to local news reports, Warren worked two days per week.
The following spring, in April 1971, the board approved a new contract for Warren, according to Riverdale Board of Education minutes first published by the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon in October 2019. The minutes for the April 21, 1971, meeting show that the board voted unanimously to approve “issuance of contracts” to several teachers, including Warren, for the following school year.
The next day, Apr. 22, The News of Paterson, New Jersey, reported that Warren was one of 10 non-tenure teachers “hired” and “appointed” by the Riverdale Board of Education, although the article noted that “the 1971-72 contract has not been settled.”
In telling the story of how her employment at a New Jersey public school district came to an end, Warren never mentioned the fact that the board of education in question approved a new contract for her in the spring of 1971 — until she was challenged on this point in October 2019. Understandably, this significant omission has prompted a measure of skepticism about Warren’s claim that she was let go because she became pregnant.
Moreover, when Warren spoke in 2007 about her short-lived career as a public school speech therapist, she did not say that she had been let go due to her pregnancy. In a lengthy interview for the University of California, Berkeley’s, “Conversations With History” series, Warren said:
“My first year post graduation, I worked — it was in a public school system but I worked with the children with disabilities. And I did that for a year. And then that summer, I actually didn’t have the education courses, so I was on an emergency certificate, it was called. And I went back to graduate school and took a couple of courses in education and said ‘I don’t think this is going to work out for me.’ And I was pregnant with my first baby. So I had a baby and stayed home for a couple of years.”
The account Warren presented in 2007 suggested that her lack of educational qualifications, combined with the fact that she was expecting her first child, caused her to decide against continuing as a speech therapist in the summer of 1971. The 2007 account did not give the impression that Warren had been denied a second year as a speech therapist because the school board objected to her being pregnant.
On June 16, 1971, the Riverdale Board of Education voted to “accept with regret” Warren’s resignation, and local newspapers later reported that she had resigned “for personal reasons” and “to raise a family.”
It’s not clear what happened between April 1971, when the school board voted to offer Warren a new contract, and June 1971, when she purportedly resigned her position. We asked a spokesperson for the senator whether she had actually been formally offered a contract, or signed one, only for the school board to go back on it. Warren’s spokesperson directed us to her October 2019 interview with CBS News, in which she outlined the sequence of events as follows:
“In the spring of my first year, in April, my contract was renewed for the next year, and I was all set to go. But I was pregnant at the time. I wasn’t showing yet. About two months later, when I was visibly pregnant, about six months along, the principal called me in and said that he wished me luck but he’d be more comfortable having someone else in that job, and he was going to hire someone else for the job. And that was it. I lost my job. ”
The executive principal at Riverdale at that time was Edward Pruzinsky, who died in 1999. As a result, we cannot verify the accuracy of Warren’s description of that conversation, or even whether such a conversation took place. Without any documentary evidence for a private conversation between Warren and Pruzinsky, we can’t corroborate nor dismiss her claim that she lost her job as a result of becoming pregnant. As a result, we are issuing a rating of “Unproven” and left to examine the plausibility of her claim, if not its accuracy.
Warren’s 2019/20 account is plausible. Broadly speaking, women in the United States in the early 1970s were indeed subject to employment discrimination — whether formal or informal, blatant or subtle — in the event that they became pregnant. The first substantial legal protections against such discrimination came with the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
Warren’s claims also appear plausible in the specific context of Riverdale School District. In 2019 CBS News spoke to two former teachers who worked at Riverdale at the same time as Warren. One of them said, “The rule was at five months you had to leave when you were pregnant. Now, if you didn’t tell anybody you were pregnant and they didn’t know, you could fudge it and try to stay on a little bit longer. But they kind of wanted you out if you were pregnant.”
The fact that local newspapers reported that Warren had resigned in order to “raise a family,” and that school board minutes stipulated that board members had voted to “accept with regret” her resignation, do not hold significant weight. A school board official could quite plausibly have informally forced or persuaded Warren to resign her post, allowing them to present what was an act of discrimination as a young mother’s regrettable but voluntary choice.
However, we cannot rule out the possibility that Warren, as she indicated in her 2007 interview, did indeed decide for herself that she did not have the requisite qualifications to continue as a speech therapist for the time being, and that she, with her first child on the way, made a voluntary choice without pressure from school board officials to decline the new contract that was on the table.
The senator’s 2019/20 account of how her time as a public school instructor came to an end is plausible, but its credibility is undermined by the fact that she did not provide the same explanation when she discussed the issue in 2007.