Elizabeth Warren’s path to presidential candidate began with a fateful firing. It’s a story the Democratic senator from Massachusetts has told often on the campaign trail: In 1971, after her first year of teaching as a speech pathologist with the Riverdale Board of Education in New Jersey, Warren got pregnant and was subsequently let go. “By the end of the first year, I was visibly pregnant, and the principal did what principals did in those days: wished me luck, showed me the door, and hired someone else for the job,” Warren said at a town hall in Oakland this past June. Her teaching dreams dashed, Warren went on to law school, professorship, and public service.
But as Warren surges in the polls, people are attempting to contradict her story. Citing records—namely, minutes from an April 1971 Riverdale Board of Education meeting—the conservative Washington Free Beacon reported on Monday that Warren’s second-year teaching contract was approved, but two months later, in a June board meeting, members accepted Warren’s resignation “with regret.” Separately, Meagan Day, a writer for the Democratic socialist quarterly Jacobin (both Day and Jacobin support Bernie Sanders) suggested on Twitter that Warren had changed the details of her departure, pointing to a 2007 academic interview in which Warren, then a Harvard Law professor, indicates she left on her own.
“I worked in a public school system with children with disabilities. I did that for a year, and then that summer I didn’t have the education courses, so I was on an ‘emergency certificate,’ it was called,” Warren said at the time. “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.’ I was pregnant with my first baby, so I had a baby and stayed home for a couple of years.”
I say there are attempts to contradict Warren because neither of these purported pieces of evidence actually refute her story. Speaking out about the allegations that she is misrepresenting the truth—both of which, it should be noted, come from political opponents—Warren does not dispute the Free Beacon report. She told CBS News yesterday that she was, indeed, initially offered a job for a second year of teaching in Riverdale in April 1971, but at that point, she also said she was hiding her pregnancy from the school, as so many of us do during early pregnancy—or even longer—at work.
“A couple of months later, when I was six months pregnant, and it was pretty obvious, the principal called me in, wished me luck, and said he was going to hire someone else for the job,” Warren said. (Warren did not comment on the resignation logged in the Riverdale board meeting minutes—but if someone resigned, that doesn’t mean that resignation was voluntary.)
The culture of forcing out pregnant women at Riverdale in the past was corroborated by two retired teachers who worked in the district for 30 years. One, Trudy Randall, told CBS that “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 problem was even referenced by the state of New Jersey: According to the Associated Press, a year after Warren’s departure, the state’s Division of Civil Rights issued a decision noting that “pregnant teachers can no longer be automatically forced out of New Jersey classrooms.”
As for the Free Beacon’s unearthing of documents, I highly doubt that the members of the Riverdale school board, in 1971, would publicly announce at one of their meetings that they’d pushed Warren out for being pregnant, note “pregnancy discrimination” in the official minutes, bang their gavel, and proceed to coffee talk. That’s not how pregnancy discrimination works—not now, and definitely not 48 years ago. It is sneakier and more insidious than that, from boxing women out of big projects because of impending maternity leave to refusing breaks, making disparaging comments about their capabilities or futures, or firing or not hiring them because they’re expecting. There are often no official records of this discrimination, especially from the analog era; it just quietly happened. In 1971, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which put protections for pregnant women into law, was still seven years from being passed.
Times have changed since then, but workplace discrimination continues. It doesn’t surprise me, per Day’s tweet, that Warren’s story about how her first teaching job really ended might change, too, between 2007 and 2019. The obvious context is that the #MeToo movement emerged, creating space for women to come forward with credible allegations of sexual abuse and workplace harassment, and actually be believed. In the past, Warren might have felt hesitant to tell her story publicly—especially for a woman of her era, for whom casual discrimination and chauvinism went unchecked. I’d like to believe that this particular moment in history might have inspired Warren, with the presence and authority of a national leader, to share something she had not felt free to share before.
Or perhaps the senator just had the benefit of time and perspective to see her story more clearly in hindsight. When women get older, wiser, and more confident, they may also be less prone to downplaying the ways they’ve been wronged and more willing to call out injustice. If you think Warren’s lying, ask any woman who has ever been in the workplace if it took years before they could finally see that their “handsy” colleagues were actually sexually harassing them. I think about a verbally abusive colleague from a job early in my career, a man who was prone to adult meltdowns and once screamed at me to “shut the fuck up.” At the time, his behavior was occasionally reprimanded but largely accepted. At 22, the same age Warren was as a new teacher, I wouldn’t have dreamed of calling him out privately, much less in an official way. It took another decade of growing up, finding my voice, and reporting on gender in the workplace, before I finally attempted to tell that story publicly.
It’s not that we shouldn’t fact-check Warren; especially in this post-truth era, we should question our presidential candidates, though preferably in unbiased, nonpartisan ways. Given the way she handled questions about her Native American ancestry, Warren may be just as likely to fact-check herself. She stood by her account of her Riverdale experience on Twitter on Tuesday: “We can fight back by telling our stories,” Warren said. “I tell mine on the campaign trail, and I hope to hear yours.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue