Honoring the Role of Women in the Passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act

For over a century, efforts to address the workplace challenges of women and working families have paved the way for the enactment of vital worker protections with far-reaching social and economic benefits. Even before women had essential civil and workplace rights, they were active in the labor force and organized protests, strikes and reform efforts. The fight for a minimum wage, a 40-hour workweek and laws to end exploitive child labor were championed by former Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, suffragettes and women garment workers, among others.  A woman types on a laptop in a home office while holding a small child.

The passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 exemplifies how this struggle for fairness and equity has benefited America’s workers and families. This Women’s History month, the Wage and Hour Division celebrates the advocates who fought to pass this historic law and the role the act continues to play in recognizing the importance of family leave to gender equity in the workplace. 

In the 20th century, women in the U.S. entered the formal labor market in considerable numbers, but women’s labor force gains and labor rights have not come easily. Upon entering the labor force, women found that participation did not guarantee visibility, voice and influence. Women who shoulder the brunt of caregiving and household responsibilities often sacrifice their own well-being to meet the needs of the household and the workplace. This is particularly true in single parent households, low-income families and families with greater medical, mental health or caregiving needs and responsibilities. 

To address these challenges, women organized to pass key laws combating workplace discrimination and supporting working caregivers, including leading a nine-year fight to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act. In 1984, the Women’s Legal Defense Fund (later renamed the National Partnership for Women and Families) wrote the first draft of the legislation that would become the FMLA. They recognized that maternity-based leave failed to address the needs of families beyond childbirth and that maternity-only leave ran afoul of deeply held principles of equity. Advocates and policymakers recognized that gender equity in the workplace depends on gender equity at home – and that more comprehensive leave was essential to supporting our nation’s workforce through life’s many potential caregiving and medical needs. 

Advocates built a broad-based coalition of organizations, including those representing the interests of children, people with disabilities, senior citizens, workers, health professionals and religious groups, to advocate for passage of the law. Since 1993, as a result of their actions, hundreds of millions of workers have benefited from job-protected family and medical leave.  

In 2023, the Wage and Hour Division celebrated the 30th anniversary of the FMLA by taking significant steps to promote education, outreach, compliance and use of this critical protection. We also conducted a year-long series of events focused on maternal health and the benefits of the FMLA with the aim of strengthening protections for working families. Our efforts continue.  

This Women’s History month, we honor the advocates who fought for the passage of this historic law by ensuring that workers are empowered to assert their right to job-protected family and medical leave. Through our outreach and enforcement efforts, the Wage and Hour Division witnesses firsthand the importance of family leave to gender equity in the workplace and in the home. 


Jessica Looman is the Administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. Follow the Wage and Hour Division on Twitter at @WHD_DOL and LinkedIn