Hey Sister, Can You Spare a Dime?Equal pay for women doing the same work as men.
It’s long been the rallying cry of the feminism movement since the days of Gloria Steinem and the birth of the movement in the 1960s and ’70s.
But equal pay for women is now becoming a political football, pitting the conservative right against the liberal left – as, sadly, it seems most everything is becoming in North America.
With all the noise, furor and sturm und drang over pay equity and equal treatment for women in the workplace, have there been many significant victories? Well, some.
It’s an issue that is of such importance to the current administration that the president staked his first act of legislation on the need for fair pay for work of equal value for women.
In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, calling it an important economic issue that affects not only women but entire families.
In a White House signing ceremony in the presence of the woman who inspired the bill, Obama chose the statute as the first piece of legislation to sign into law in his presidency. Also attending were Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives, Hillary Clinton, who that same year became Secretary of State, as well as dozens of representatives from women’s and labour groups.
“I intend to send a clear message: That making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone,” said Obama in signing the legislation. “That there are no second class citizens in our workplaces, and that it’s not just unfair and illegal — it’s bad for business — to pay someone less because of their gender, or their age, race, ethnicity, religion or disability.”
By his side was Lilly Ledbetter, who did not become aware that she was being discriminated against until she neared the end of a 19-year career at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala. She sued, carrying her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, only to lose when the court declared she had missed her chance for justice.
Until then, U.S. workers had been forced to file pay equity lawsuits within 180 days of any decision by an employer to pay them less than another worker for the same job. The new bill, passed by Congress, would create a new window of 180 days to launch legal action every time an employer issues a discriminatory pay to an employee.
While the Obama administration is trying to close the pay equity gap, figures cited by catalyst.org, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows the gap is still a yawning chasm for many segments of the population.
Statistics listed show:
- The median annual earnings for full-time, year-round women workers in 2012 was $37,791 compared to men’s $49,398.
- In 2013, the median weekly earnings for full-time working women was $706, compared to $860 for men.
- In 2013, the median weekly earnings for women in full-time management, professional, and related occupations was $973, compared to $1,349 for men.
- In 2012, full-time working married women with spouses present had median usual weekly earnings of $751, somewhat higher than never married women ($594) or women of other marital status (divorced, separated, or widowed — $735).
- In 2012, full-time working married men with spouses present had median usual weekly earnings of $981, significantly higher than never married men ($620) or men of other marital status ($815), or women of any marital status.
Oh yes, that field, construction, where so, so many women are actively employed.
But, it’s not just wages where women are struggling to gain equality in the workplace. In what has become a white-hot hot button topic, the issue of employer-provided health benefits as it pertains to contraceptives has now become a “religious freedom” football. Many may recall radio host Rush Limbaugh’s now infamous attack on a college student testifying before a Congressional panel on the need for pharmaceutical benefits for students such as herself, in which Limbaugh cravenly slut-shamed the student. It’s emblematic of the right versus left argument on the entire issue and it’s spilling over into the Supreme Court.
In arguments before the Supreme Court over the rights of women employees and that of their employers, vis a vis payment of health benefits for contraceptives, the religious freedom argument is being used as a cudgel to promote a conservative mandate as it applies to working women.
In one corner, you have a government that promotes a notion that women should be subsidized for some forms of birth control and you have the religious right — in the form of two companies, one a Mennonite firm from Pennsylvania, the other a chain of craft stores, which have filed legal challenges to the legislation.
In proceedings before the Supreme Court March 25, the Obama administration’s lawyer warned that the craft store chain Hobby Lobby challenge to a provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could open the floodgates for companies seeking religious exemptions from other regulations, after the court’s conservative justices appeared to be leaning narrowly toward allowing Christian employers to avoid paying for certain birth control methods that the law requires employer-provided insurance plans to cover.
Oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby case didn’t spell out a clear winner in how the nine justices will rule, but the three traditionally liberal female justices and government lawyer Donald Verrilli all warned that such religious exemptions could also eventually extend to vaccination or blood transfusion, or even minimum wage and family leave protections.
“You would see religious objectors come out of the woodwork with respect to all of these laws,” said Justice Elena Kagan. “One religious group could opt out of this and another religious group could opt out of that and everything would be piecemeal and nothing would be uniform.”
The case was brought by David and Barbara Green, co-owners of the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby chain, which includes some 600 arts-and-craft stores. They argue that certain intrauterine devices and emergency contraceptives required to be included in employer health insurance plans under the ACA are immoral because they cause the death of fertilized human embryos.
They were joined in the supreme court case by a similar suit brought by Conestoga, a Pennsylvania-based cabinet maker owned by a Mennonite family.
Their joint appeal is the second major assault on Obamacare in the supreme court since it upheld the wider principle of forcing people and companies to take out health insurance or face tax penalties.
After repeated tough questioning about the law’s implementation, Verrilli warned that the justices were paying insufficient attention to the competing rights of women whose birth control choices would be curtailed by a ruling in favor of the religious rights of Christian-owned companies.
“If this exemption were granted, it [would] be the first time … in which this Court or any court has held that an employer may be granted an exemption that extinguishes statutorily-guaranteed benefits of fundamental importance,” said the solicitor general.
The Guardian reports four conservative judges, led by chief justice John Roberts appear in favour of arguments made by Hobby Lobby’s owners that their company has a right to avoid paying for contraception coverage under a 1993 religious protections act passed by Congress.
Women simply want a fair shake, a level playing field and what is justly theirs.
It seems, however, political and ideological forces at play are constantly tilting the playing field against them and we find we’re right back, in many cases, to the battlegrounds thought long past and won from the days when Steinem and her sisters first took up the struggle.