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.