Does Footage Prove Elizabeth Warren Lied About ‘Visibly Pregnant’ Firing?

Claim

Footage "proves" that Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren lied when saying she was fired for being "visibly pregnant" in 1971.

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Not True

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In early October 2019, a number of social media posts and attendant articles referenced a multi-layered claim that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) “lied” about being fired because she was “visibly pregnant.”

Social media previews of blog posts and opinion pieces left a clear impression that Warren’s claim that she had been fired for being “visibly pregnant” was later disproved by “footage” or “video,” with the inherent implication was that there was video proof that Warren did not appear to be or was not “visibly” pregnant at the time she lost her job:

A commonly shared Facebook article appeared to have been published by MSN on October 6 2019, headlined “Footage appears to dispute Warren claim she lost teaching job for being ‘visibly pregnant,'” and it began:

Resurfaced video circulating online appears to contradict Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s claim that she was once fired from a special needs teaching position for being “visibly pregnant.”

The 2020 Democrat claimed at a town hall on [October 2 2019], “By the end of the first year, I was visibly pregnant, and the principal did what principals did in those days. Wish me luck and hire someone else for the job.”

The Massachusetts senator has repeated the claim on the campaign trail throughout the summer. However, the old footage appears to suggest otherwise.

In the third paragraph of the article, it was further implied that “old footage” disproved Warren’s claim. Two more paragraphs apparently quoted Warren from a 2008 interview:

I was married at 19 and then graduated from college… actually, after I’d married. And 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, and I was really casting about, thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’

It appeared that interview (“Law, Politics, and the Coming Collapse of the Middle Class”) occurred at some point in 2007, and it is transcribed here. In the same response to a question about Warren’s work as a teacher, she said:

… I was married at nineteen and graduated from college after I’d married, and my first year post-graduation I worked in a public school system with the 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. 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, and I was really casting about, thinking, “What am I going to do?” My husband’s view of it was, “Stay home. We have children, we’ll have more children, you’ll love this.” And I was very restless about it.

Since the story appeared to reference something she had said an interview, it would likely have been less misleading to explain the writer believed statements or transcripts purportedly disproved the claim since none of what was being claimed had to do with video footage per se.

In terms of previous context, Warren’s claim also arose during a September 2019 Democratic debate. Moderator George Stephanopolous asked a question, answered first by former Vice President Joe Biden before Warren was posed the same question, which was:

And, candidates, the question is on the quality of resilience. No president can succeed without resilience. Every president confronts crises, defeats, and mistakes. So I want to ask each of you, what’s the most significant professional setback you’ve had to face? How did you recover from it? And what did you learn from it?

After Biden spoke, Warren said in part:

WARREN: I mentioned earlier, I’ve known what I wanted to be since second grade. I wanted to be a public school teacher. And I invested early. I used to line my dollies up and teach school. I had a reputation for being tough but fair.

By the time I graduated from high school, my family didn’t have money for a college application, much less to send me off to four years at a university. And my story, like a lot of stories, has a lot of twists and turns. Got a scholarship, and then at 19, I got married, dropped out of school, took a minimum wage job, thought my dream was over.

I got a chance down the road at the University of Houston. And I made it as a special needs teacher. I still remember that first year as a special needs teacher. I could tell you what those babies looked like. I had 4- to 6-year-olds.

But at the end of that first year, I was visibly pregnant. And back in the day, that meant that the principal said to me — wished me luck and hired someone else for the job.

So, there I am, I’m at home, I got a baby, I can’t have a job. What am I going to do? Here’s resilience. I said, I’ll go to law school. And the consequence was — I practiced law for about 45 minutes and then went back to my first love, which was teaching.

The “footage” or “videoelement of the claim was pervasive on blogs and Twitter:

As for MSN’s piece (aggregated from the factually unreliable Washington Examiner site), the “video” in question was not quite accurately described as “footage,” a term suggesting events or activities when used in that context. That video was in fact a January 2008 interview uploaded to YouTube titled “Elizabeth Warren — Conversations with History.” Warren’s referenced pregnancy was in 1971; her daughter Amelia was born in September 1971.

Although the Washington Examiner/MSN article appeared to have transcribed Warren’s purportedly contradictory remarks, neither site indicated precisely when in the hour-long discussion Warren made the remarks that they indicated proved she was lying.

An October 8 2019 Vox.com explainer summarized the competing claims:

Here’s what’s happening: Warren, like many politicians, often tells her personal story on the campaign trail, and has throughout her political career. Part of that story is an anecdote about her first teaching job as a speech pathologist for special-needs children in New Jersey. She was hired for the 1970-’71 school year by the Riverdale Board of Education of New Jersey but says she didn’t get a job the following year because she was visibly pregnant with her daughter, Amelia.

She describes it as a pivotal moment in her life: After losing the teaching job, she would later go to law school and eventually land at Harvard, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and in the United States Senate.

Except some media outlets are claiming Warren’s version of events isn’t accurate. On [October 7 2019], the conservative website the Washington Free Beacon published a report it says counters Warren’s claims. The outlet surfaced a copy of minutes from a board of education meeting in April 1971 showing a unanimous vote to extend Warren’s teaching contract (her exit followed two months later in June). People have also surfaced a 2007 interview in which Warren paints the scenario in a different light.

None of this necessarily counters Warren’s story — she likely wouldn’t have been visibly pregnant in April [1971], but would have in June [1971], and Warren is sticking by her story. “All I know is I was 22 years old, I was six months pregnant, and the job that I had been promised for the next year was going to someone else.

An October 7 2019 CBS News story included commentary from Warren in response to claims she misrepresented her experiences:

“All I know is I was 22 years old, I was 6 months pregnant, and the job that I had been promised for the next year was going to someone else. The principal said they were going to hire someone else for my job,” she said.

Warren has repeatedly said that her principal “showed [her] the door” after discovering she was pregnant at the end of the 1971 school year. The episode is pivotal to her life story, in that it dashed her dreams of remaining a public school teacher and launched her reluctantly down the path to public service.

[…]

“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,” she said at a town hall in Oakland in June [2019].

That coverage involved a granular accounting of Warren’s employment in the spring of 1971, referencing archival local news reports:

In fact, the school board minutes [in April 1971] show that the board voted by unanimous roll call to extend Warren a “provisional certificate” in speech pathology.

Local newspaper reports from 1971 also present reasons for her leaving the school alternative to what she describes on the trail. The Paterson News, a local paper, reported [in late June 1971] that Warren was “leaving to raise a family.” [In July 1971], a story about the school board hiring a replacement said Warren had “resigned for personal reasons,” even though the board had voted to “appoint” Warren to the same speech pathology job that April [2017], according to an earlier report.

Those details were more relevant than they might initially appear at first glance. By that account, Warren’s job placement was — as of April 1971 — expected to continue through the end of the next school year in 1972. At that time, in April 1971, Warren would have been four months pregnant and not necessarily “visibly” pregnant. Although pregnancy is a highly individual experience, visibility of a pregnancy typically occurs between the 12-week (three months) and 16-week (four months) marks. That is often slower for first-time mothers, and Amelia was Warren’s first of two children. Consequently, “visibly pregnant” would likely be on the later end of that range.

In the excerpt above, CBS hadn’t specified the dates of the articles — the first stating Warren was “leaving to raise a family” was published on June 22 1971. The claim that Warren “resigned for personal reasons” appeared in July 1971. At the time Warren left that job — in June 1971 — she would have been six months pregnant. Further, it is not uncommon for employers to outwardly frame a termination as a resignation, and had Warren been fired, it was unlikely to have been reported that she lost her job after its April 1971 renewal because she was no longer able to conceal her first pregnancy.

Later in the story, CBS quoted Warren’s description of the events of spring and summer 1971 as they related to her employment. In what appeaered to be a 2014 quote obtained after the publication of a memoir, Warren said the same thing:

In her 2014 memoir, published after she became a Massachusetts senator, Warren gave a similar account of her departure from Riverdale Elementary.

Warren also told CBS News that she was, in fact, officially offered the job for the following year as the school board minutes indicate. “In April [1971] of that year, my contract was renewed to teach again for the next year,” Warren said. She also said she had been hiding her pregnancy from the school. “I was pregnant, but nobody knew it. And then 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.

Asked repeatedly whether she meant she was fired when she said the principal showed her the door, Warren said, “When someone calls you in and says, the job that you’ve been hired for for next year, is no longer yours, we’re giving it to someone else. I think that’s being ‘shown the door.'”

The CBS article goes on to suggest Warren’s details were somehow misaligned, pointing to instances where Warren did not say the principal “showed her the door.” However, the basic elements of the story — that the principal rescinded a job offer after learning of her pregnancy — remained the same. As such, the underlying claim (that the job offer was rescinded due to her being visibly pregnant) was also the same, and no careful reading of any instance of Warren telling the story depended on the principal literally pointing her to any door.

CBS also located and queried two colleagues of Warren’s from the same school in 1971, before the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Those colleagues confirmed that there was an informal workplace rule in which being five months pregnant (Warren was six months pregnant in June 1971) was the threshold for firing:

Two retired teachers who worked at Riverdale Elementary for over 30 years, including the year Warren was there, told CBS News that they don’t remember anyone being explicitly fired due to pregnancy during their time at the school. But Trudy Randall and Sharon Ercalano each said that a non-tenured, pregnant employee like Warren would have had little job security at Riverdale in 1971, seven years before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed.

“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,” Randall said. “But they kind of wanted you out if you were pregnant.”

To recap, MSN and the Washington Examiner published identical articles titled “Footage appears to dispute Warren claim she lost teaching job for being ‘visibly pregnant.'” A number of other blogs and social media accounts claimed that “footage” disproved Warren’s claim that she was fired during, and due to, her first pregnancy. Mentions of footage and her “visible pregnancy” seemed to have led many readers to understand that mentions of “video” or “footage” showed Warren not appearing pregnant sometime in mid-1971.

In actuality, the “footage” was of a 2007 or 2008 interview in which Warren provided a rough timeline of her early work, first pregnancy, and ultimate decision to stay at home. At no point did Warren reference the circumstances under which she left that job, and no portion of the interview or footage of it appear to conflict with her later assertion she was fired for “being visibly pregnant.” Teachers employed in that district in 1971 confirmed that “the rule” was that “at five months you had to leave when you were pregnant,” and Warren was six months pregnant when “shown the door.”

Update 10/9/2019, 10:22am: After a review of the available information and claims, we have changed the truth rating on this page from “Unknown” to “Not True.”

Correction 10/11/2019. 12:15pm: Changed the year in the following graf from 1971 to 2019: “”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,” she said at a town hall in Oakland in June [1971].”