An AAUW Success Story: The Family and Medical Leave Act
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) is a shining example of what AAUW lobbying efforts can help accomplish. Passed after seven years of hard work by AAUW staff and the AAUW Action Fund Capitol Hill Lobby Corps, the legislation continues to be held up 20 years later as a lobbying success story.
“Often when I am telling folks about Lobby Corps I use FMLA as an example of our tenacity,” said Lobby Corps member Kitty Richardson. “It was definitely a case of here today, here tomorrow. We’re not going away, and we are supporting [the legislation] for the long term.”
The act, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on February 5, 1993, allows qualified employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year to care for a new baby or recently adopted child, tend to a seriously ill family member, or overcome their own serious health problems. About 62 percent of workers qualify for FMLA.
AAUW’s work on FMLA began in 1986 with an official endorsement of national family and medical leave legislation. AAUW delegates then adopted family and medical leave as an action priority at our 1987 National Convention. An AAUW brief from April 1998, Family Leave: A Solution to Work and Family Conflicts, told the story of a Delaware woman who lost her job because she needed time off to care for her ill son. The article said, “Women who have no parental leave face especially heavy income losses.”
In 1989, AAUW and other national women’s groups presented President George H.W. Bush and leaders of the 101st Congress with a “women’s agenda” focused on family, workplace, and health issues. The women’s agenda called for a family and medical leave act establishing a national policy of leave to enable working women and men to fulfill their family responsibilities without sacrificing job security.
AAUW Lobby Corps member Marcy Leverenz lobbied for AAUW on FMLA in the late 1980s. She said that when they started they had to make legislators understand the big picture — that people all over the United States needed the ability to take time off for caregiving.
“Through our lobbying efforts, this need became more of an empirical message rather than an anecdotal message,” Leverenz said. “It initially wasn’t looked on as a problem to be solved.”
Also in 1989, AAUW delegates again adopted family and medical leave as an action priority with thousands of AAUW members visiting the offices of nearly every senator and representative that June. And the results proved positive: The Outlook issue published after the lobby day said that the “coalition of national groups working for family leave … credited AAUW with greatly advancing the issue in Congress.”
The issue stayed at the top of AAUW’s policy agenda throughout the early 1990s. A February 1991 briefing said that AAUW “is fully committed to the establishment of a national family policy that helps American families balance work and family responsibilities.” When FMLA finally became law in 1993, Lobby Corps members said they reacted with joy — and relief.
“I really feel like without us out there nagging, it wouldn’t have gotten through,” said Lobby Corps member Nancy MacKenzie.
Part of the reason Lobby Corps had success was because they could provide personal stories to get legislators on board.
“We are effective because we aren’t paid to lobby,” MacKenzie said. “Therefore we only lobby on things that we personally believe in. It’s not a job to us. It’s something we care about.”
Since FMLA passed in 1993, AAUW has worked to expand the legislation to cover more of the nation’s workforce. Although those lobbying efforts have been unsuccessful overall, some Lobby Corps members have had the thrill of seeing their own families benefit from FMLA. “One thing that touched me was that at the time we started lobbying this bill, my son was rather young,” MacKenzie said. “In the meantime, he got married and had children and made use of FMLA when his wife was pregnant. And I thought, you know, I’m one of the ones who got it passed. And I let him know it, too.”