Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sarah Palin is No Feminist

I’ve just learned that the attempted makeover of Gov. Sarah Palin included more than designer clothes and cosmetic artists. It seems the McCain campaign also hired a former editor of Ms. Magazine to polish Palin’s image as a feminist.

The result? Kind of like putting George W. Bush in drag. He might look a lot better, but he’d be no less dangerous.

In fact, layering feminist language on an anti-feminist platform is even worse, because the disguise is less visible and designed to deceive.

Gov. Palin’s candidacy does have some plus sides for feminists. It reminds us that fathers can care for kids, that a mother of a baby can run for high office, that it’s okay for a woman to have a more powerful job than her husband, that women can be feisty and stand up for themselves.

But the negatives, alas, far outweigh these factors.

The central problem is, people can’t claim to promote equality if they don’t recognize inequality – right here in the United States of America, not just somewhere overseas. Gov. Palin has declared on numerous occasions that since Title IX, women in our country can walk through any door. This dovetails nicely with the Big Boys’ claim that women can do whatever they want – if few are in high-paid jobs, must be because women choose not to be there.

The inconvenient truth is that doors slam in women’s faces every day – doors that say “exit” because you got pregnant or cared for a sick family member or needed time to go to your child’s school. Doors that say “unwelcome” because the boss can’t keep his hands off you or because you and your co-workers tried to organize a union or because the person you love happens to be of the same gender. Doors that say “unworthy” because the work you do is associated with women and therefore deemed less valuable.

Gov. Palin not only ignores these slammed doors, she opposes any effort to open them.

She says she wants equal pay, yet rejects a simple measure, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, that would help stop violations of the law by counting every instance of unequal pay as discrimination – not just the first one you had no way of knowing about at the time.

The vice-presidential candidate says she supports child care – but the ticket opposes expanding Head Start, child care assistance for women leaving welfare, or after-school programs. Her running mate voted not to provide health insurance to additional needy kids.

In speeches, Palin says she’ll advocate for working mothers, at the same time she declares her opposition to modest standards such as paid sick days or making family leave more accessible and affordable. The one change she supports is substituting comp time for overtime – thereby making overtime cheaper and more plentiful. Workers would be able to spend more time with their families only after being forced to spend time away from their families; they’d be allowed to take time only when the employer deemed it convenient.

Special needs kids would be a priority for Gov. Palin. Unfortunately, her main proposal is more taxpayer money for private school vouchers, a program that has proven to be stunningly unaccountable and supports schools that exclude most special needs kids. In Milwaukee, voucher programs that do make room for such kids rely on public schools to provide the services.

And let’s not forget that Sarah Palin would deny women the right to make the most personal decisions about their own bodies, even when they’d been desecrated by rape or incest. In the upside-down logic of extremists, she would also deny young people access to comprehensive sex education that might prevent unwanted pregnancies. If Palin didn’t put in the order for women in Wasilla to pay for their own rape kits, she clearly never stopped it.

The list goes on – against the bill that would remove barriers to organizing labor unions, support for a constitutional amendment to intensify barriers for same-sex unions.

I don’t care what language Sarah Palin uses, anymore than I care what brand eyeglasses she wears. As our mothers used to say, it’s what inside that counts. In Palin’s case, that amounts to policies that are bad for women, their families, this nation.

A Rescue Package for Working Families

Wall Street tycoons behave irresponsibly, bring the country to financial brink, hold out their hands for an eleven-figure bailout – and lobbyists applaud that as a rescue.

Women achieve daily miracles fulfilling responsibilities to their employers and their families, ask for modest protections so they won’t be fired for having a sick kid – and lobbyists denounce that as mandates.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Not so long ago, we were surrounded by ashtrays and smokers wherever we worked, ate or traveled. Babies sat on our laps in the car. Most paints were lead-based.

In each case, public health experts alerted us to the dangers. Values shifted; what once seemed normal no longer met the test of public acceptability. Groups of concerned citizens petitioned government representatives to do their job and set new standards.

Action on these items was nothing unusual. From child labor to Jim Crow to excluding those with a disability, our government has stepped in to end long-time practices. Each time they did so because popular sentiment said, “Enough.”

Once again, there is a need for the government to protect its citizens. This time it’s to make sure that workers are not penalized for being good parents.

We have a giant disconnect between what family members need and what the workplace provides.

It flies in the face of our values, and hurts our families and businesses, when workers can’t afford to take time to care for a new baby or a seriously ill family member. And it jeopardizes us all when people are compelled to go to work and cook our food or care for our children when they themselves are sick.

Each time we try to advance, opponents rise up to tell us the sky will fall, business will flee. Consider this statement:

“[This bill] would create chaos in business never yet known to us… Let me make clear that I am not opposed to the [goals of reform]… What I do take exception to is any approach … which is utterly impractical and in operation would be much more destructive than constructive to the very purposes it is designed to serve.”

That’s Ohio Congressman Arthur Lamneck, arguing in 1937 against proposed rules outlawing child labor and establishing a minimum wage. More than seventy years later, these standards clearly aren’t what threatens the American economy.

But lack of minimum standards really is harming American families.

I’ve been thinking a lot about parents I know of three lovely children. Let’s call them Scott and Kate. After Scott’s job was outsourced to Taiwan, the couple lost their home. Since then, Scott got another job. Recently, they learned their daughter has cancer. Both parents have family leave and understanding employers. The problem is, the leave is unpaid. They don’t know how they can make ends meet with the double whammy of losing income while on leave and having to cough up the 20% health insurance co-pay.

There are many heartbreaking parts of this story. But what hit me the hardest was when Kate said, “I feel like I failed my family.”

Kate and Scott have done nothing but work hard and take good care of their children. That should be enough. The failure here is a government refusing to bring the workplace into sync with 21st century realities.

Providing incentives to employers who move jobs overseas rather than those who grow them here – that’s the failure.

Allowing health care providers and insurers to jack up prices without regard for the impact on workers and their families, or on employers struggling to keep their heads above water – that’s the failure.

Opposing legislation that would bar employers from firing a worker who needs to take a day off to care for a sick child or parent – that’s the failure. So is blocking progress on bills that would provide income for workers during family leave.

And even worse, telling workers these are personal problems they have to work out on their own—that’s an outrage.

The current bailout of irresponsible financial actors makes one thing crystal clear: those who demand smaller government are quite happy to have government intervention in their own behalf.

This election and thereafter, it’s high time we demand government do its job: set and enforce rules that benefit not just the rich and powerful, but the vast majority of American workers and their families.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

We All Deserve Time to Be with Ailing Loved Ones

The illness of Barack Obama’s grandmother reminds us that health problems often pop up at inconvenient times. I tried to train my children to get sick only on evenings or weekends, or at least to alert me a couple days before they came down with an ear infection or a stomach virus. Alas, it never worked. The deterioration of an aging loved one can also creep up on us with little advance notice or regard for other pressing events.

I applaud Senator Obama for taking time from his campaign to be with his grandmother. It’s great to see a male politician make a priority of caregiving.

Even more, I applaud him for wanting to make sure others can do the same by championing new standards such as paid sick days, making family leave available to millions more people, and providing funds to states to make that leave affordable.

Today, more than half the private sector workforce is not protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Nearly three million a year who are covered need the leave but can’t afford to take it. And the FMLA doesn’t cover routine illness. Half the workforce—and three-fourths of low wage workers—have no paid sick days. For millions of Americans, being at the bedside of an ill child, partner or parent could mean losing a paycheck or even a job.

In the mid 1990s, I was appointed by Congress to serve on a bi-partisan Commission on Leave to study the impact of the FMLA on employers and employees. The Commission had twelve members—six chosen because their organizations had worked hard to pass the law, the other six because they’d done whatever they could to defeat it.

An interesting thing happened during our meetings. Three times one of the opponents ran into the reality of a work-family crisis. One woman’s daughter had a baby born with only one arm. Her daughter took every day of the 12 weeks permitted under FMLA to learn how to care for her beloved baby and to find a caregiver who would do the same.

This commission member had been adamant that we should not expand family leave to the two-third of businesses currently exempt from the law because they don’t have 50 or more employees. I remember the day she told us about her daughter. “If someone in a smaller firm were in this situation,” she acknowledged, “they would need the same amount of time. How can I be against that?”

The bombing of the Oklahoma federal building, where this same daughter worked, happened soon afterwards. Everyone on the commission was aware that the relatives of those affected by the tragedy were not all permitted to be at the side of their loved ones.

Another opponent had a godson who tried to commit suicide. This man missed one of our commission meetings to be at the hospital while the family made wrenching decisions about life support. “I know the law doesn’t cover god children,” he told us later, “but no one was going to keep me from being there.”

When the time came to issue a report, these commission members and the other opponents all voted against expanding the law. Ideology trumped experience and common sense.

These folks could afford to stand in the way of expanding protections to our nation’s workers—they already had the leave they needed. It’s time to make sure every worker in this country can be a good family member without risking his or her job.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Which Side Are You On

The other night I sat in a room in Milwaukee filled with people clutching Bibles and babies and spewing venom. They were visibly enraged.

Granted, there’s a lot to be angry about these days: the persistence of poverty in our community, the lack of resources for our children’s education, the number of people who can’t afford health care, the gang of hoodlums on Wall Street holding a gun to our heads, the fact that hard-working parents can be fired for staying home to care for a sick child, the continuing number of soldiers in harm’s way.

But the object of the rage of folks surrounding me last night wasn’t any of these things. It was the loving, long-term, committed relationships of people who happen to love someone of the same gender.

We were at a Milwaukee school board meeting, debating a resolution to end discrimination in benefits for same-sex couples in non-bargaining unit positions – estimated to be about 1 percent of staff in those jobs. The cost isn’t very much, especially considering an earlier item on the agenda about the need to retain experienced employees. Treat people right and they’re more likely to stick around.

Opponents weren’t content with expressing disagreement with the proposal. They littered their comments with hateful remarks about real people sitting directly across the aisle or in some cases in the next chair – people who simply want to build strong families and contribute what they can to their communities and who would certainly have preferred to be spending a warm fall evening playing in the park.

Someone had convinced this group that the loving couples they targeted were responsible for the problems in our society. Somewhere along the way, making life miserable for same-sex partners had become a path to easing the misery in one's own lives.

The angry speakers in the room, apparently without exception, consider themselves to be people of faith. I doubt any of them would condone physical violence against those they railed about. But I couldn’t help thinking how much their words of hate translate every day into acts that demean, diminish and discriminate against people whose chosen (and under-paid) profession is to educate our kids.

The opponents’ words, spoken defiantly in front of their own children – girls in pinafores and boys with scrubbed faces brandishing signs – in fact create the climate that leads to more than hurtful words or daily indignities. Their speeches give permission to those who beat people and tie them to a rail to die.

Fortunately, there were a number of others in the room, teachers and parents and a sprinkling of students who’d taken time to voice their support for domestic partner benefits. Among them were three clergy, each of whom reminded the audience that whatever one’s faith, we are called upon to act justly and promote community, not divisiveness.

The proposal passed the committee by one vote. The school board member casting that vote had been wavering on which way to go. Addressing the opponents, he announced his decision: “You swayed me to vote yes.”

His position reminds us that sometimes there is no middle ground. Either we stand with those who spread hate, or we stand on the side of the most basic American values of justice, equality and fairness.

Standing there together is the only way, in fact, to move toward changes that would ease the problems we should all be angry about.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

McCain and Palin Are Extremists, Not Mavericks

Many pundits have labeled John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for the vice-presidential slot as an off-message roll of the dice. In fact, it was probably the most calculated move he’s made.

McCain has a big problem: How does a diehard conservative who’s championed every failed policy of the last eight years (tax cuts for the rich, the war in Iraq, the power of Big Oil) win the presidency against an inspiring proponent of change? He can’t win by relying solely on the conservative base, and yet he can’t win without them. He has to keep his mantel as a maverick while assuring the Big Boys he has no intention of bucking them.

His only chance of victory is to appeal to women, especially Hillary supporters, to white working class voters and to independents without alienating conservative extremists.

Former Hewlett Packard CEO and McCain finance chair Carly Fiorina might have sparked some women, but she’d antagonize the conservatives with her support for abortion rights and for requiring policies that include Viagra to cover birth control. The evangelicals would have had a similar reaction to Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge, both of whom are pro-choice. Mitt Romney appealed to the base but would have been a finger in the eye to women and white workers – another four houses to account for.

Presto! Sarah Palin, a woman who uses the language of feminism while promoting a staunch conservative agenda: pro-gun, pro-creationism, anti-gay rights, anti-abortion even in the case of rape and incest. A woman who introduces her husband as a proud member of the steelworkers union while working to open Alaska to Big Oil. A politician who claims to be an environmentalist while denying that global warming is “man-made.”

In the eyes of John McCain, Palin brings another big plus. The press has bought into the Republican talking points and cloaked her, too, in the maverick mode. Like McCain, she stood her ground on certain reform issues. But on all the big questions of the day, both Palin and McCain walk lock step with George W. Bush and against the interests of women and working people in general.

John McCain is trying to pass off Gov. Palin as a career mom who knows the difficulties of balancing job and family – hoping women won’t notice the ticket’s opposition to every measure that would ease those difficulties, from expanding family leave to paid sick days to equal pay.

The real question isn’t why McCain chose Palin, but why the media continues to give them both cover, pasting on the “maverick” and “moderate” labels as if listing these terms were equivalent to listing party affiliation and state.

Recently I conducted an informal poll among my friends, all smart, politically aware people who keep up with the news. A dozen of the fifteen people I asked had never seen the clip of a befuddled Sen. McCain stroking his chin when a reporter asked if he’d voted against a proposal to require insurance companies that cover Viagra to cover contraceptive products. "I don't know enough about it to give you an informed answer because I don't recall the vote,” McCain replied. “I don't usually duck an issue, but I'll try to get back to you."

Had that clip – or any of numerous examples of McCain’s other extremist positions and slip-ups – been played more than 600 times in four days, as the Dean scream was, today’s polls would be very different.

McCain is counting on women to be cheap and superficial about his selection. Even more, he’s counting on a docile media to be his ally as he tries to pass off Gov. Palin as a sister and champion.

It’s high time for the public to meet the real John McCain.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Highlights from Denver

Generosity and sisterhood:
Hotel rooms were all taken when I decided to go to the DNC in Denver to promote the agenda for Valuing Families at Work. Dori Maynard, who runs the Maynard media institute, offered to have me share her room. She was staying far from the convention, and I wound up staying with a friend closer by. When I saw Dori, I thanked her for being willing to open her room to a stranger. “You’re not a stranger,” she said. “We just hadn’t met.”

Favorite lines:
Ceil Richards, daughter of Ann Richards and head of Planned Parenthood: “Women voting for McCain would be like chickens voting for Colonel Sanders.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN): “People who live in seven houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (NY) recalling a line of Bella Abzug about equal opportunity: “We’re not fighting for a female Einstein to be an assistant professor. We fight for a female schlemiel to get the same job as a male schlemiel.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who chaired Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign in NY: “I wear this button: ‘I’m a Hillary supporter. Now Hillary supports Barack Obama and so do I.’ The media kept calling me, asking, ‘Are you going to the demonstration protesting that Hillary wasn’t selected as VP?’ They’re trying to divide us, pour salt on the wounds. The media people say Barack Obama is not treating Hillary well – but the platform has its strongest planks ever for women. That’s how Barack Obama is treating women.”

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (CA), ranking woman on the Armed Services Committee, on the insistence by military lawyers that current procedures for reporting sexual assault needed no change: “Obviously, you’ve never been raped.”

Billye Avery, founder of a Black women’s health group in Atlanta: “The Massachusetts health plan is insurance reform, not health care reform.”

Mary Kay Harris, an activist from DARE in Rhode Island who became involved after her son was brutally beaten by police, at a discussion of women activists: “Seeing you all doing amazing work builds hope for me. I leave with a burst of energy.” Mary Kay attributes her activism to learning to stand up for herself and fight harassment as one of the only female welders.

Carol Jenkins, president of the Women’s Media Center, on the need for the media to include women experts on every issue: “There are women who can write about nuclear bombs and even some who can set them off.”

Amazing factoids:
The country with the highest percentage of women in political office: Rwanda. It was one of the reforms they felt they had to do in order to rebuild after the murder of 8000 Tutsis.

Iraq and Afghanistan both have more women in political office than the U.S.

Percentage of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afganistan who are female: 19.
Number of instances of rape reported by those women from military men: 900.

Where the U.S. ranks compared to other countries in maternal mortality: 41

Favorite Freebies
Condoms from Planned Parenthood saying, “Protect yourself from John McCain.” Each has one of 10 reasons why McCain would be terrible for women.

Favorite T-Shirt

They Got the Memo

Activists spend lots of time developing materials for candidates who never see or hear a word about it. Imagine what would happen if these folks actually got the memo.

While in Denver, I attended a panel hosted by the Women's Media Center and Women's ENews boasting a stellar assortment of women Congressional leaders. If only this had been a mandatory session for every candidate for public office.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT) kicked things off by talking about inequality in pay and benefits: Women over a lifetime losing an average of two million dollars; one fifth of women lacking health insurance; nearly half in jobs with no retirement plan. Rep. DeLauro has been spearheading bills like the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would allow women to file for damages without a cap, and end salary secrecy. She also fights for the Fair Pay Restoration Act, to undo the Supreme Court decision that said pay discrimination complaints have to be filed within 180 days of the first act of inequality – even if the woman involved had no idea she was being paid less than male co-workers for the same job.

“Men and women in Congress get equal pay,” Rep. DeLauro said. “We need this for every woman.”

In addition, Rep. DeLauro has been leading the fight in the House for a new minimum standard of paid sick days.

Cong. Carolyn Maloney (NY) talked about her new book, “Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Why Women's Lives Aren't Getting Any Easier--And How We Can Make Real Progress For Ourselves and Our Daughters.” She described her outrage when the 9/11 victims compensation planned to award the families of women a third less than the families of their male co-workers based on expected lifetime earnings. Maloney and others got this changed.

Yes, it matters who sits in the halls of Congress.

Facts about domestic violence and sexual assault in the military came from Rep. Loretta Sanchez (CA), the ranking woman on the Armed Services Committee and vice-chair of the Homeland Security Committee. Angered by a Department of Defense that issued 18 reports over 15 years on sexual assault issues but took no action, Rep. Sanchez helped push through a change in the Uniform Code of Military Justice to make it easier for women to bring complaints. She described the military lawyers who insisted that procedures didn’t need to change.

“Obviously, you’ve never been raped,” she told them. Now Rep. Sanchez wants any officer on a promotion list to be evaluated on how he’s treated issues of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Rep. Gwen Moore (WI) talked about her efforts to improve the lives of women living in poverty. She was able to ensure that women on TANF who have to deal with domestic violence are not subjected to time limits on benefits. Rep. Moore also led the fight to make sure that every penny of child support goes directly to women.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL) won change allowing women facing deportation who’ve been victims of domestic violence to file separately for relief. “Being terrorized in your own home is one of the worst kind of terrorisms,” she said. She urged U.S. feminists to see ourselves as part of an international sisterhood.

Rep. Schakowsky also highlighted Bush’s proposed Conscience Clause, which would allow pharmacists not to fill a prescription if their beliefs oppose birth control. “This is not just about abortion,” she said. “This administration is after controlling our lives.”

The last speaker was Rep. Lois Capps, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, which numbered 75 until the untimely death of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones. A former school nurse, she represents the district where a transgendered youth was murdered. Rep. Capps has fought to help pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell provision.

I attended this panel with a friend whose wife is considering running for Congress. “This panel was transformative for me,” he said. Until that moment, he’d been ambivalent, fearing Congress would be too alien and hostile for the work she wants to do. Seeing these vibrant women, so clearly connected to each other, opened his eyes to the kind of support and co-champions his wife would be among.

“I hope she plunges in,” he said.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

On Truth Telling

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Thanks to the Women’s Media Center, I’ve been thinking a lot about what that phrase means, about the difference between information, opinion and bias.

Information means facts. Like ‘em or not, facts express reality. They need to be accurate and they need to be thorough.

I can say, Denise Smith lost her job because she was absent too many times. That’s a fact -- but it doesn’t tell me the whole story. What was too many times and why was she absent? Turns out she had a child with asthma and her employer had no paid sick days. Each of the three times Denise missed work, even though she followed the guidelines for calling in, she was given an “absence point.” Three points and you’re out.

You may think that’s reasonable – that’s an opinion. I may disagree. But we both have to be operating from the same set of facts. Just knowing Denise Smith didn’t show up for work may cause you to believe she was lazy. That’s a bias based on too little information.

If someone tells you Denise Smith quit her job, that’s misinformation. And if they tell you she had a bad work ethic, that’s disinformation. Both feed bias.

The media’s job is to dig deep, make sure we the people have all the facts. As the WMC video “Sexism Sells and We’re Not Buying It” reminds us, too often the media falls short – in no small part because of the lack of diversity both among those who tell the story and those who decide what the stories should be.

I've been in Denver at the Democratic Convention, promoting an agenda that values families at work -- see Folks will be distributing this information at the RNC as well.) I attended the panel called “Soundbites and Solutions: Bias, Punditry and the Press in the 2008 Elections.” The Women’s Media Center, in conjunction with the Maynard Institute and the White House Project, gave us a feast of experts to probe the question of what constitutes bias in the media and what to do about it.

Richard Prince, who chairs the Diversity Committee of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, described being in a room full of reporters and publishers when John McCain declared that the United States wasn’t founded on notions of class or race or ethnicity, but rather on ideas. Everyone but Prince nodded. So much for the facts – at our founding, only white male property owners were allowed to vote; even free Blacks were considered three-fifths of a person.

“There was something wrong with who these people are and what they know about the U.S.,” Prince said. No news stories the next day mentioned McCain’s comment. Had those in the room looked and lived more like the rest of us, they wouldn’t just have had a different opinion – they would have known and told the truth.

Patricia Williams, columnist for the Nation, talked about the difference between opinion and bias. “I hear people say, ‘In my opinion, Barack Obama is a Muslim or terrorist.’ That’s not just an opinion – it’s disinformation.” Williams also talked about the institutional bias of the consolidation of media ownership. Bias becomes embedded when the media operates entirely for commercial rather than public interest. “Fiction becomes fact,” Williams said, “because people see it repeated.”

A powerful example of the consequences of this phenomenon came from Maria Teresa Peterson of Voto Latino. She described the father of three in Shenandoah, PA who was beaten to death because he was an immigrant. “The media shapes perceptions,” she said, “and gives permission for certain acts.” Noting that 61 percent of all hate crimes over the last two years were against Latinos, Peterson pointed to the role of Lou Dobbs and others who have been allowed to shape the negative perceptions of immigrants that leads to such violence.

Carol Jenkins reminded us that the Women’s Media Center doesn’t just describe the problem, they’ve also laid out solutions – changes the media needs to make and also changes we can make as consumers of media in order to remove sexism and every other form of bias. “Use your purse,” she said. “Use your voice.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Women's Equality Day: It's Personal for Everyone

If you’ve heard Sen. Barack Obama speak about the women in his life, you’ve probably heard him say, “This is personal for me.” He tells stories about his grandmother, his mother, and his wife and the obstacles they ran into – pay inequity, glass ceilings, work-family conflicts. He describes his dreams for his daughters, how he wants them to have the exact same opportunities as males.

Year after year, campaigns too often marginalize women’s issues, box them into one little “special interest” cubby. But our issues should be personal to every candidate -- because the ways in which women are held back or forced to jump through hoops directly affects the lives and well-being of men. What happens to women happens also to their families.

The converse is also true: solutions for women are good for families.

Often when I give talks, men come up to me afterwards to share the moment they figured this out. “I never thought about how little my wife earned as a [fill-in-the-blank-typical-women’s-job,]” they say. “And then I got laid off/saw my job outsourced/had my hours cut/pay slashed. Suddenly her pay was our family’s only/main income – and we couldn’t get by.”

When women’s jobs are undervalued, clearly the missing dollars don’t flow into the pockets of their husbands or sons, or their male co-workers.

But pay isn’t the only issue. Problems that affect disproportionately women affect men as well.

Think about cases where women exposed to lead were ordered to be sterilized if they wanted to stay in their high-paying jobs, even if they had already borne children or had no intention of becoming pregnant. Reproductive organs, as we know, are the canaries in the coal mine – they indicate a problem early, but the problem is all around. “Clean up the department,” activists insisted. “All workers need protection.”

Or think about the inequities of part-time work. Women make up the majority of part-time workers in this country. The assumption has been that women working reduced hours have men to take care of them (or better get one). Regardless of the realities, it’s perfectly legal in the United States of America to pay part-timers lower wages and fewer or no benefits than full-time workers.

A recent New York Times article reminded us how this legal discrimination rule affects more than women. The paper reported that more than 3.7 million people have now had full-time hours slashed to part-time, the largest number since the government began keeping track of this category. Nearly three-fourths of those affected in the last year are men, especially Latinos.

We could make the same point about any number of policies, including paid sick days. It’s not just women who get sick or deal with sick kids, and certainly not just women are affected by the germs of co-workers or servers who can’t get off when they’re ill. When workplaces function as if all workers are males with wives at home, men as well as women suffer.

We all have a stake in solving the problems women face – unequal pay, lack of paid sick days and family leave insurance, lack of control over work schedules, inadequate access to quality and affordable child care, missing retirement options.

August 26 is Women's Equality Day. The movement that launched the struggle for women's suffrage began with a focus on a wide range of women's issues. Women saw the vote not as an end in itself, but a means to win the social and economic justice they deserved.

Today, the 88th anniversary of women finally winning the right to vote, is a good time to remember that women’s issues are key to the health and economic security of our nation – and also that women will determine who wins this election.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ten Reasons to Vote for Obama If He's the Candidate

Should Sen. Barack Obama emerge as the Democratic candidate, women have compelling reasons to support his candidacy. Here are my top ten:

10. Nearly half of women voting in the Democratic primaries already support Sen. Obama’s candidacy. CNN compiled exit polling data from all the states that held primaries before West Virginia. Averaging the percentage that each candidate received from women voters in these states, the two Democratic candidates were only three points apart (46.6% for Obama, 49.6% for Clinton). Sen. Obama won the women's vote in 13 states, compared to 16 for Clinton - and that's not counting the caucuses where he won decisively, including among women.

9. Support for Sen. Obama among women is not surprising. His stands on issues important to women, from fair pay to reproductive justice to support for paid sick days and paid family leave, are strikingly similar to Sen. Clinton’s. He’ll be not just on the right side but a champion for gender justice. Above all, he has shown his commitment and ability to galvanize grassroots movements – the key to moving our agenda.

8. He has attributed his understanding of gender to the strong women in his life, including his mother, grandmother and wife Michelle. Having been raised by a single mother, he has insights into the lives of those who need food stamps to feed their families or have to choose between seeking health care or paying the rent. As an engaged father he understands the reality of work-life conflicts, but he also sees how these fall disproportionately on women, and how much more difficult they are for women without resources.

7. Our anger at the sexism that emerged in this campaign, from low-life hecklers to high-profile pundits, should stoke our determination but not determine our vote. At the same time, we must all oppose the racism that emerged in both blatant and coded ways and recognize that breaking that glass ceiling is also a blow to the Big Boys, one that weakens them and strengthens us.

6. Women can set an example of unity to build a stronger party that draws on the unprecedented turnout in the primaries among African-Americans, women of all races, young people and others who have too long been left out of political decision-making. Such a coming together will not only power an election victory, but lay the groundwork for significant social change in the coming years.

5. John McCain on the war: Sen. Obama’s early judgment opposing the war in Iraq puts him in an excellent position to take on John McCain, who has not only supported the war from its onset but professed to having no problem should troops remain in Iraq for 100 years. Women can’t afford a president who thinks “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” is a stance to brag about.

4. John McCain on the right to abortion: not only does he oppose it, he’s pledged to fill any Supreme Court vacancies with justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade.

3. John McCain on health care: McCain voted against reauthorizing the State Children's Health Insurance Program for five years. His health plan provides $2 billion in tax cuts to the top ten health insurance companies, while allowing those companies to exclude people with pre-existing conditions.

2. John McCain on valuing families: When Congress was considering the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, McCain voted to suspend it unless the federal government certified that compliance wouldn’t increase business expenses or gave employers financial assistance to cover any costs. He supports a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and campaigned for an Arizona constitutional amendment banning any legal recognition to gay couples.

1. John McCain on fair pay: He’s against the most important negotiating tool for women – expanded union rights through the Employee Free Choice Act. McCain also opposes the Fair Pay Restoration Act on the grounds that it will create too many lawsuits (this is like opposing OSHA inspections on the grounds that too many violations will be found). And he’s voted against raising the minimum wage and safeguarding overtime rights.

And did I mention John McCain?

Those of us who have been supporting Obama welcome the passionate, hard-working supporters of Sen. Clinton – as we will support her should the campaign turn out differently than expected. Every woman angry at the way in which gender discrimination has robbed our pay, crimped our opportunities, devalued our work in the labor force and in the home, minimized our pain and trivialized the barriers we face, now has a great opportunity to determine the outcome of this election. We also have a great responsibility, to ourselves and the women who follow.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Women Don't Ask? No, Employers Don't Pay

Congratulations, working women! As of today, your salary since January 1, 2007, has finally reached the total earned by your male colleagues in 2007 alone. What’s more, this pay gap is all your fault!

According to the media, the problem is that women just don’t ask. If we learned to speak up in salary negotiations, pay equity would be a hard fact.

An ABC News segment called the negotiation process “something that each of us has the ability to control…. No employer has an obligation to whisper in the woman's ear, ‘Hey, you know, you just lost out on more money because you didn't speak up.’”

Stories like these leave out a few important realities: The majority of women work in jobs where they have no right whatsoever to negotiate for pay. Many are like Donna, a software developer whose employment agreement lists “discussing salary with colleagues” among “fire-able offenses.” Hard to know you’re making less than others if you’re not allowed to know what the others earn.

Yes, women need to learn negotiation (and the facts about labor law, which already prohibit salary secrecy, according to the National Labor Relations Board). But blaming the wage gap on women’s lack of assertiveness is like blaming sexual harassment on women’s lack of snappy comebacks. The real problem isn’t that women don’t ask for more—it’s that employers pay women so much less than they deserve.

Why do employers do this? Because they can, and often because they think they have to in order to compete.

A key problem is that society undervalues the work women do. Many jobs that are now female-dominated, such as clerical work, once excluded females. When men were in short supply during the Civil War, women were hired at half to two-thirds the wages of men. Women performed well, employers hired more and more of them—and that discriminatory wage eventually became the market rate. Similarly, the lack of regard for women’s work as caregivers in the home set low values for similar work in the marketplace. That’s why those who care for our young children earn less than those who care for our cars, our pets, our lawns.

Lack of collective bargaining rights also undermines women’s wages. The Big Boys—those who control wealth and power in this country—like to say pay corresponds to risk. Yet the Washington Post found that one of the poorest paid occupations, nurse’s aide, faces a risk of serious injury higher than that of a coal miner or steel worker.

Power, not risk, is what determines pay rates.

Another reason for women’s low pay is the motherhood penalty. Studies agree that women with children are paid less across the board than women without kids or men of any family situation. The research varies only on how great that penalty is.

Women’s pay is also hurt by inflation pushing down the value of the minimum wage, since women are disproportionately clustered in minimum-wage jobs, and by the lack of laws requiring equal treatment for part-time and temporary workers.

What about professional women? Studies show that they are less likely than men to initiate salary negotiations—and also that they’re viewed as pushy when they do. More important, they’re less like to get leads, training, mentoring, opportunities, promotions, and other rewards that result in higher pay.

The wage gap between men and women has been stuck at 77 cents on the dollar—72 cents for African-American women, 60 cents for Latinas. The Big Boys like to remind women that the gap has narrowed. They forget to mention that half the narrowing comes from a loss of pay for men, especially men of color—not what we had in mind by equality. The gap is greatest for women with the most education and longest hours. And the mommy wage gap—the difference in pay between women with kids and everyone else—has in fact increased.

We need to change how pay is determined—not according to what you earned on your last job, or on how slick you are at promoting yourself, but rather on fair, objective, transparent criteria.

A number of public policies will help, starting with The Fair Pay Restoration Act. This bill would reverse the Supreme Court ruling in Ledbetter vs. Goodyear: that discrimination claims must be made within 180 days after the pay is set, rather than any time a person discovers they are being paid at a discriminatory rate.

Another bill titled the Fair Pay Act would require employers to use objective job evaluations to achieve equal pay for equivalent work and remove gender, race or national origin as criteria in compensation. The Employee Free Choice Act would ease the negotiating that matters most, collective bargaining, by removing barriers to union representation. To end the motherhood penalty, we need to ensure that family responsibility is added to the list of categories protected under anti-discrimination law. And we need to raise the wage floor and guarantee equity for those in non-standard jobs.

And yes, do learn the art of negotiation. Groups like WAGE (Women Are Getting Even) offer terrific workshops and information on the web about how to do this.

But above all, learn the necessity of organizing. The best way to get what you need for yourself is to work with others on behalf of everyone for changes in workplace and public policy.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Why We Must Oppose All Forms of Injustice

Oppression, alas, is not a zero sum game. The fact that Hillary Rodham Clinton has been subjected to outrageous displays of sexism throughout this campaign doesn’t mean racism has been defeated. Both forms of injustice are alive and well in American institutions and sensibility.

That’s why feminists must repudiate remarks from Geraldine Ferraro implying Barack Obama is “lucky” to be a black man and wouldn’t be a presidential candidate otherwise. We’ve heard far too many comments implying racism somehow resides in the past. This dangerously underestimates the daily accrual of indignities and injustice experienced by people of color, including women of color, throughout our society.

Public displays of male supremacy and white supremacy often take different forms. The Big Boys, those who control power and wealth in this country, are more likely to minimize and trivialize gender (demeaning comments about appearance and emotions, sexual innuendos) and demonize race (Willie Horton ads implying big black men will rape nice white daughters.) Whenever necessary, of course, the Big Boys demonize women as well, especially when race and gender intersect on issues such as welfare (lazy, irresponsible -- read “black”-- freeloading women who refuse to work.)

It’s true that appalling sexist Hillary artifacts can be sold in airports while KKK paraphernalia would not be. We must all object, formally, in groups and individually, to each instance of such behavior.

Still, that doesn’t mean that racism has been silenced. In this election, blatant forms of racism persist (comments about needing to “rename the White House” if Obama wins, those white voters who say they simply won’t vote for an African-American). More common, however, and in some ways even more insidious are the code words used about race. Today’s ‘n-word’ are the ‘M-word’ for Muslim or ‘H-word’ for Hussein, hints of preferential treatment, photos of a candidate wearing African garb. Translation: this person is the inferior other, the danger to our (read “white”) way of life.

We can't win justice for women without justice for ALL women, and all others who experience unfair treatment at the hands of the Big Boys. Oppression on the basis of race, or class or sexual orientation or any other marker, affects some group of women. But that’s not all. Downplaying the enormous obstacles created by racism in this country only strengthens the very forces which maintain and profit from obstacles for women overall.

There’s also collateral damage. Many people pay lip service to the need for liberation movements to band together in the general election, whoever the candidate is. But calls for unity can’t be based on rhetoric. Every instance of belittling the realities of racism and the accomplishments of this particular African-American candidate undermines the trust needed for such an alliance to work.

What we need is less defensiveness and more willingness on everyone’s part to recognize and oppose every form of offensive and divisive behavior. Because the code words for disunity are very easy to identify: Four more years of occupation in Iraq. Another Supreme Court justice to undo Roe and weaken protections against discrimination. Free rein for the Big Boys.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Time to Expand, Not Gut, the Family and Medical Leave Act

I’ve been an activist since the 1960s. But it doesn’t take long to figure out how opponents of progressive legislation work. Although the names and specifics change, they have a limited stock of arguments and a predictable set of tactics.

First they warn: “If we pass [fill in the blank] bill, business will flee, the sky will fall, and you’ll hurt the very people you want to help.” Then, when our side’s successful, they try to get around the law by not telling workers about it, or finding ways to punish those who use it.

And as soon as possible, they try to undo it altogether.

February 5 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the signing into law of the Family and Medical Leave Act. We should be celebrating our work to make it available and affordable to many more people -- more than half the private sector workforce isn’t covered, for instance, and more than two million a year who are covered can’t take the time because it’s unpaid. The definition of family is really narrow. And the law doesn’t include routine illness.

But the opponents of family values at work just won’t give up. Now they’re trying to gut the FMLA through an end run of changing the regulations.

Twice in recent years I’ve testified before Congress on whether or not this law needs changing. Each time I sat at a table with some of the same opponents who said passing such a bill would ruin business. Now they were trying a different tack. FMLA? Great bill, this one used it when she had a new baby, that one when his mom had a heart attack. It was mainly fine, but needed a little tweaking.

And what would those tweaks be?

For starters, the opponents would like to clarify that serious illnesses don’t include chronic conditions. Really, they testified, someone gets a little headache or has a little asthma attack and think they can just stay home.

Those little headaches, in case you’re wondering, are known as migraines. My mother used to get them from time to time. They knocked her out. But as long as she had a dark room and some medication, she’d be up and at’em the following day.

And then there’s asthma. An attack can literally be life-threatening. Fortunately, most people will be okay, some after just a few hours, once they’re able to get treatment.

The opponents don’t stop here. They’re want to end to the terrible inconvenience of administering intermittent leave. Really, they say, if you have to take off, take the whole day, not just an hour or less.

Well, let’s say you’re going for chemotherapy, or physical therapy. You may need to be absent only for a short time. Surely your co-workers and employer will benefit if you can come back to work that day. Most of us would much prefer not to lose a whole day’s pay if we don’t have to.

Forcing people to take a bigger chunk of time off is really a way of saying, don’t take it at all.

Here’s what gets me: all these efforts to gut or whittle the FMLA make us struggle to hang on to what we already won, in the hopes that we’ll forget how meager that was in the first place. The rest of the world, including the developing world, has left us in the dust.

On this anniversary, let’s redouble our efforts to EXPAND the FMLA to what it should be: a way to make sure that no one has to risk a job to care for a loved one, or put loved ones at risk in order to keep a job.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Open Letter to the New York Jets

I’m a die-hard Green Bay Packer fan, still in mourning over their playoffs loss, proud of their 14-4 season. Normally I could care less about the New York Jets, who won only 4 games this year. Still, I have a surefire blueprint for the Jets to land in the 2008-09 record books -- and I’m happy to share it for free.

It all has to do with the halftime spectacle at Gate D.

As many people now know, groups of male Jets fans have a tradition of lining a pedestrian ramp at Gate D of Giants Stadium during halftime and hurling obscenities (and sometimes plastic beer bottles and spit) at female fans in the area in an effort to force them to expose their breasts.

After the New York Times spotlighted the practice, a Jets spokesman decried such behavior as “outrageous and unacceptable” and called for beefed-up security. That statement was admirable – but it didn’t go nearly far enough. Security seems preoccupied with the narrow legal issue of women exposing themselves, rather than the bigger-picture issue of harassment which should be just plain unacceptable at a family venue or any other setting.

More important, the Jets are missing an opportunity to teach their fans and others about the connection between this kind of humiliation and the violence that flattens, maims, and destroys millions of women in this country every year.

Professional sports teams, unfortunately, have contributed to the problem by allowing players who’ve been convicted of spousal abuse or other forms of violence against women to keep on playing and collecting huge salaries. A three-year study published in 1995 by researchers at Northwestern University found an alarming rate of violence on the part of male student-athletes: while only 3 percent of the population, these young men represent 19 percent of sexual assault perpetrators and 35 percent of domestic violence perpetrators.

If only the outrage that accompanied Michael Vick’s abuse of dogs had carried over to players’ dogging women.

Stadium security and Jets officials have agreed that fans who are caught in harassing behavior can be thrown out of the game and even lose their season tickets. Here’s a proposal to utilize tickets in a very different way.

Why not offer free admission to male leaders from community organizations, congregations, businesses, colleges and elsewhere who volunteer to line the spiral ramp with huge signs saying, “What if this were your daughter?” The volunteers could hand out a flyer with statements from Jets owner Woody Johnson, coach Eric Mangini and star players from the team. The statements would emphasize why men need to treat all women with dignity and respect, just the way they’d want their daughters – and wives and sisters and mothers and friends -- to be treated.

By meeting with women’s groups that have experience combating violence and harassment, team leaders can develop these ideas into a strategic plan. They can approach Madison Avenue ad firms to design materials on a pro bono basis. And they can look to models of programs such as “Men Against Rape,” where men educate other men about the harm of treating women as objects.

In addition to training for a winning season next year, the Jets should use the off-season months to refine the Gate D plan and roll it out with a big media splash next fall.

The Patriots have hurt professional football with Spygate. Don’t let the Jets continue to tarnish it with Gate D-gate. It’s time for the team’s leaders and owners to give real leadership to the millions of fans nationwide who look up to professional athletes and those who guide them.