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Karan Ireland: For women, economic equality is the new suffrage movement

By By Karan Ireland

Women’s Equality Day was Aug. 26, the 94th anniversary of the day American women won the right to vote. This year, women (and men) around the country are following in the tradition of the suffragettes to advocate for another right: To be able to work and take care of their families. In today’s economy, full participation in the workplace is as important as full participation in our democracy was 100 years ago.

American women are now breadwinners in most families, either alongside their partners or by themselves. But too much of how we structure jobs is stuck in the first half of the last century, before women entered the workforce in big numbers. And as corporations have successfully kept wages down, families have had to rely on women’s income just to meet the basics. That is why we need to change public policies so that women are able to both support and care for their families.

It’s common sense — and long overdue — that women should get paid just as much as men for equal work. Right now women still take home 77 cents for every dollar a man gets paid — and for women of color it’s even worse. In 2012 alone, the wage gap resulted in an $18,650 loss for African American women and $24,111 for Latina women.

Women would also benefit the most from raising the minimum wage, since almost two-out-of three Americans who work at the minimum wage are women. The rate is even higher in West Virginia.

Decent pay will help women support their families, but more is needed. We need policies to allow women (and men) to care for their families. To start with, every job should include paid sick days — those are really earned sick days. But more than four in 10 private-sector workers and four out of five low-wage workers do not have access to paid sick days at work.

While a handful of sick days should be part of every job, that’s not enough to care for a newborn baby or a frail, elderly parent. The current federal family leave law doesn’t provide for any pay and it also leaves out smaller employers. A solution is to establish a fund for paid family leave, financed by a few cents from every paycheck, so we can all afford to take the time off we need to care for a new baby or sick parent. They’ve already done this in California and New Jersey, and it’s working for business and workers; now the whole country should follow.

While we’re at it, let’s remove the huge stress that working parents are under to care for their kids. We can make child-care more affordable, start all our kids at pre-K and have quality after-school programs at all of our schools.

Women around the country are organizing for these common sense policies, spreading the word through events and the twitter hashtag #WEmatter. But many of our elected representatives are stuck in the 19th century and don’t understand today how much working women matter to caring and supporting our families.

While some states, cities and counties have taken steps to enact some of these policies, too many measures continue to be stymied by politicians who care more about corporate campaign contributors than working women. And in Congress, every one of these measures is stuck. For example, Republicans in the Senate have filibustered to block votes on pay equity for women and raising the minimum wage, even though both bills had the support of the majority of the Senate. In the House, the Republican leadership has killed both of these bills too.

West Virginia’s only woman representative in Congress is no help on these issues. According to an Aug. 12 Huffington Post article, “Capito voted repeatedly against legislation that would bolster laws against gender discrimination in workplace pay. The seven-term congresswoman voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2007 and again in 2009, before it was ultimately signed into law. ... Moreover, she voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act — which would add further protections to the Equal Pay Act of 1963 — in 2008, 2013 and 2014.”

It took a grassroots movement to win women the right to vote. Today it’s a grassroots and a netroots movement fighting to win the tools for women to care for and support their families. Elected officials who stand in the way of women’s economic equality will be judged by history just like politicians who opposed women voting. It’s up to voters to do the judging now.

Karan Ireland is the development director at West Virginia Citizen Action Group and is working on projects related to women and water. She is also a single, working mother.

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