Friday, August 29, 2008

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.

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