Tuesday, April 17, 2012

War on Women: We Just Keep Fighting the Same Battles

According to a recent study by the National Women’s Law Center, Wyoming women earn 64 cents to every dollar earned by men. Nationally, women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.

The war on women is not a new war; it’s a war as old as our country. My grandmother was born into a time in our country’s history when she could not vote, hold property or go to a university. Her husband was her master (at least according to the law); he made the decisions, controlled the money and would have automatically taken the children if they divorced. Women in my grandmother’s generation fought for their right to vote and were beaten and jailed for their efforts; it took years of fighting before women’s suffrage was granted in 1924.

My mother was born almost 50 years after her mother, and women were still expected to defer to their husbands in all things financial, political or worldly. Women could not have credit in their own names, and generally could not get credit without a husband. Women were expected to stay at home with the children while men went out into the world. The women who did work, worked at low-paying jobs that we still see as traditional “women’s work.” Despite the fact that women proved they could succeed doing the same jobs as men during the war-effort in WWII, women who worked at high paying war industry jobs were thrown out of those jobs after the conclusion of the war. As a widow, my mother worked to support herself and her child. She often trained the young college men that would eventually become her supervisors. She was sexually harassed, verbally abused and paid substantially less than the men she trained.

I was part of a generation of women who tried to change the world for women. Even though we came into an age that was much like my mother’s age, we saw a different future for ourselves. A future where women had both choices and power. A future where women had a voice and that voice would be heard. Women in my generation fought for equal rights, reproductive rights, protection from domestic violence and the right to our own sexuality and independence. Unfortunately, these battles continue to this very day in all areas of society, including the working world.

Today, on April 17th we mark Equal Pay Day, the day women must work from last year into 2012 to make the same amount of money as men made in one year in 2011. Wyoming women have the largest gender wage gap in the nation and make only 64 cents for every dollar a man makes. Women in the rest of the nation make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes; minority women make even less. These statistics are reported by the Casper Star Tribune, the Billings Gazette and the National Women's Law Center.

It has been illegal to pay women less for the same job for over a half century, yet today even in traditionally male dominated high paying fields, women still make less. 40% of American women are the primary breadwinners in their family, and yet we have male politicians pushing legislation to weaken laws that protect women in the work place. Earlier this month, the state of Wisconsin repealed its Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which allowed victims of workplace discrimination to seek damages in the state’s courts.

The gender gap has been in the forefront of the presidential campaign with both sides blaming a “war on women” started by the other party. Women have less political power because they make less money, yet pay more for insurance, health care and services. During our current recession men’s employment rates have improved slightly, but women’s unemployment has gone up.

Women also have less political strength because they still have a disproportionately smaller segment of women in political office. In Wyoming there is only one woman in the Senate. One. In addition, politicians have done a masterful job of dividing women by playing wedge issues to ensure that women do not unite over common beliefs. The massive campaigns exploiting reproductive rights issues have divided women’s political power for 40 years to the great advantage of those that are very aware of the political power that women would have if they ever united.

April 17th will go by with little recognition from most of the population. Women will continue to work for lower wages and men will continue to vote on laws that affect every aspect of women’s lives with little attention to fairness or equality. Women should stop allowing the political manipulation that stills their political power and voice, which keeps them from making progress on those issues that all women should be able to agree on: equal pay for equal work, a healthy economy, jobs, access to education and health care.

Last week, President Obama wrote in an op-ed that, “Closing this pay gap — ending this pay discrimination — is about far more than simple fairness, it's about strengthening families, communities and our entire economy.” I couldn’t agree more.

Linda Burt
Executive Director
ACLU of Wyoming