Abstract: Even though paid maternity leave was the earliest form of social protection specifically aimed at women workers and is fundamental in securing their economic independence vis-à-vis employers and spouses, it has received scant scholarly attention. Neither the traditional historical accounts of welfare state emergence nor the more recent gendered analyses of developed welfare states have provided comparative accounts of its beginnings and trajectories. Employing the newly created historical database of maternity leave, we provide the first global and historical perspective on paid maternity leave policies covering 157 countries from the 1880s to 2018. Focusing on eligibility rather than generosity, we construct a measure of inclusiveness of paid maternity leaves to highlight how paid maternity leave has shaped not only gender but also social inequality, which has, until recently, largely been ignored by the literature on leave policies. The analyses of coverage expansion by sector and the development of eligibility rules reveal how paid maternity leave has historically stratified women workers by occupation and labor market position but is slowly evolving into a more universal social right across a broad range of countries. Potential drivers for this development are identified using multivariate analysis, suggesting a pivotal role for the political empowerment of women in the struggle for gender and social equality. However, the prevalence of informal labor combined with insufficient or non-existing maternity benefits outside the systems of social insurance still poses significant obstacles to the protection of women workers in some countries.
Keywords: family policy; global South; inequality; maternity leave; maternity protection; social rights