With this post, we welcome Kay Steiger to RH Reality Check. Kay will be contributing commentary and news reporting every other week on Washington DC-based reproductive and sexual health politics. Enjoy!
Last Thursday, several female senators and congresswomen gathered in the "Swampland" near the U.S. Capitol to rally for the Lilly Ledbetter Paycheck Fairness Act. The women holding signs watched some high-profile pay equity advocates speak, including Ledbetter herself, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The bill failed to reach a vote in the Senate earlier this year and, although it is expected to pass in the House, it has already received a veto threat from the White House.
"I defy anyone to vote against pay equity for women," DeLauro said. John McCain, the presumptive presidential Republican nominee, didn’t cast a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act.
"This is not just a women’s issue," Clinton said. "This is a family issue." Clinton may as well have been speaking about a broad set of economic concerns. Pay discrimination, sick leave, the minimum wage and childcare are all economic issues that may not just affect women, but families more broadly.
After a long Democratic primary battle that was heavily tinged with disputes over women’s issues, both parties’ candidates seem to be making bids for the Clinton supporters through their economic plans. On July 10, Democratic candidate Barack Obama addressed a crowd of women in Fairfax, Virginia while McCain addressed a group of women in Hudson, Wisconsin.
"My struggle today is about timing," Letbetter said when it was her turn to speak, "at least, on the surface." Women who lack the power to contest pay discrimination in court — and many do because they discover their pay discrimination long after the legal six-month filing period has expired — end up earning less over a lifetime. As Ledbetter noted, to this day it affects her pension and social security payments. "The only bill that would fix the problem created by the court is the Paycheck Fairness Act," Ledbetter said.
The Republicans have introduced legislation that essentially reinforces the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Lilly Ledbetter case. Sen. Kay Hutchison has introduced something called the Title VII Fairness Act that "clarifies" the period during which a lawsuit on pay discrimination can be filed. The Hutchison bill, which has little support thus far, would require the woman filing the lawsuit to prove she had no prior knowledge that a discriminatory decision had taken place-something relatively hard to prove in court.
Obama’s plan that outlined the steps he plans to make if elected that would benefit women. "I come to this discussion not just as a candidate for president, or a United States senator, but as the father of two young daughters who one day are going to have careers and families of their own," Obama said. "It’s unacceptable that 22 million working women don’t have a single paid sick day."
Obama’s plan both promises to sign the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act into law. He also offers a tax credit on childcare, an increase in funding for after school programs, and an increase in the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour by 2011.
The FMLA, which was signed into law in January, legally mandates that employers provide sick days (which can be used to care for ill family members as well) for employees. The bill doesn’t mandate that those sick days be paid. The result for many working women and families is that they cannot afford to take the sick days that have been mandated by the passage of the bill. Obama proposes requiring employers to provide seven paid sick days to employees, using a state-by-state strategy to amend the FMLA.
McCain’s speech in Wisconsin attempted to assure women that he was on the side of pay equality. He said, "I’m committed to making sure that there’s equal pay for equal work." He additionally insisted his record showed this commitment, despite his lack of a vote on the issue.
McCain’s economic plan tends to be rooted in tax cut plans. His economic proposal targeted at families includes repealing the Alternative Minimum Tax, an "onerous" tax. He also proposes doubling the exemption for dependents. For many working families who don’t even make enough to pay taxes, he offers no relief. Instead, McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm, who has since resigned as the co-chairman of the McCain campaign, attributed the economic problems today to a "mental recession" and called Americans a country of "whiners."
Lisa Maatz, the director of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women who attended the Paycheck Fairness Act rally, noted that McCan’s stance on economic issues for women has been lackluster. She noted from his voting record, McCain’s stance on the economy is as bad for women as Bush’s. "We’re in an election year. The reality is that economic issues are very much on the minds of women," Maatz said.
The AAUW has partnered with a number of feminist organizations, including Feminist Majority, National Organization for Women, the National Women’s Law Center, and the National Partnership for Women and Families to organize around such economic family issues. In a poll taken before Super Tuesday, women cited the economy as the top issue in the 2008 presidential election.
As the candidates vie for the attention of the women who were supporters of Clinton, it becomes clear that Obama’s plan is grounded in a holistic, family approach for women’s concerns about the economy and that McCain’s economic plan, endorsed by various business associations, hides his economic appeal to women in a shroud of tax cuts that are unlikely to provide any real relief to working families. As gas prices rise and the working dollar doesn’t stretch as far as it used to, women will be turning to the polls this fall with the economy weighing heavily on their minds. It’s unlikely that pay discrimination or paid sick days will be the only factor as women in this country make a decision on Election Day, but it will certainly be an important one.