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.

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