Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Some Justice for Women

My wife is in a graduate-level course studying domestic violence. When she got home yesterday, we were talking about two shocking figures:
1. Homicide is a top cause of death for pregnant women in the United States. A 2005 study showed that only pregnancy-related complications ranked higher as a cause of death. Other studies have found homicide is the top cause of death for pregnant women.  

2. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States. More than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.

Here is another disturbing figure: 
Women are paid only 77 cents for every dollar a man is paid. 
There's a lot to be said about how these three figures are related: Hopelessness in one part of our lives makes it easier to take advantage of us in another.

But I want to call your attention to two common-sense solutions, two signs of hope. There are two bills working their way through Congress right now that would immediately bring some justice for women.

Two Signs of Hope in Congress

The first is the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. You may remember hearing about Lilly Ledbetter. She worked for nearly 20 years at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company facility in Alabama, where she discovered that she was being paid less than the lowest-paid man doing the same work, even though she had more experience. So, she took the company to court, and a jury awarded her $3.8 million. But the company appealed to the Supreme Court, where conservative justices said, "Whoa, not so fast!"  

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court gave one of the most ridiculous rulings I have ever heard. The court said that workers have no right to sue for remedy if they wait more than 180 days after the first paycheck that shows discrimination, even if they don't discover the pay discrimination until much later. (Wanna guess which side George W. Bush's Supreme Court appointees were on? Here's a hint: Not the side of women and workers.) According to the National Women's Law Center (NWLC), the ruling overturned a long-standing principle that "each paycheck that is discriminatorily reduced is an act of discrimination that resets the 180-day clock for filing challenges." Marcia Greenberger of the NWLC says that the new precedent set by the Supreme Court meant more than 300 similar court cases around the country were lost. 

Imagine if you discovered today that you are being discriminated against in your paycheck. Upon investigation, you find that it's been going on for 181 days! That makes it even worse, right? Well, the Supreme Court says you are S.O.L. Your employer managed to keep the secret for 180 days, so the law rewards them and they get away with it.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act would essentially overturn the court's ruling for future cases (though of course not for Ledbetter herself). It would mean that every unjust paycheck is an act of discrimination that can be challenged in court; therefore, a company can't just stall and delay for 180 days and then be scot-free. Every illegal paycheck would restart the 180-day clock.

The second common-sense, pay equity bill is the Paycheck Fairness Act. This act would strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by closing loopholes created by courts that allow companies to essentially ignore gender-based pay discrimination. It would also put gender-based discrimination sanctions on equal footing with other forms of wage discrimination, such as discrimination based on race, disability, or age.

Current Status

Both of these bills passed the House on January 9th. The Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed by a vote of 247-171 (95% of Democrats voted for it, and 94% of Republicans voted against it). The Paycheck Fairness Act passed by a vote of 256-163 (96% of Democrats voted for it, and 90% of Republicans voted against it).

Now the two bills go to the Senate, where their only remaining obstacle is a determined, corporate-friendly Republican minority. A previous version of the Ledbetter bill died in the Senate in April 2008. A procedural vote broke along party lines (with just 6 Republicans and 1 Democrat crossing over to the other party), and Republicans were able to kill the bill and maintain pay-discrimination rights for the corporate interests they represent. 

I promise that Senate Republicans are not the villains in every story. But it sometimes seems like it. The most conservative members of perhaps the most conservative part of government often make the Senate the place where justice goes to die. 

Take Action

Click here to tell your Senators that you expect them to support these important fair pay bills. 

I am hopeful that with more Democrats in Congress, President-elect Obama about to take office, and the emergence of a "Yes we can" attitude in the country, these bills can pass despite the entrenched opposition.

Fair pay for women is good news for everybody. It's good for men because it removes downward pressure on their own wages. It's good for families because it often provides a second solid income for a family. And of course it's good for women, because it puts some reality behind all our rhetoric about equality. And perhaps most importantly, it makes fewer women tethered to scumbag men because they can't earn enough on their own.


Scummy in Scranton. said...

Im not sure what to do. On one hand, I want women to have equal wages. On the other, I'm a scumbag male looking for a woman who can't support herself and has to attach to me. Please help dr. Dave.

Better Than Machines said...

Dear Scummy,
You're in a pickle. I would say that if you truly love a woman, you should set her free. If she comes back to you, she's yours. If she doesn't, she never was.
Dr. Dave

Elizabeth said...

Here's a glimmer of hope: pay for women is up from 73 cents for every dollar a man makes in 2001 (this is a statistic from my Women in Politics class of 2002 and an average across racial lines...it's lower for African American women and hispanics)

The cries of the Republicans voting against this measure generally sound something like this: "Trial lawyers (who we ALL know only like Democrats and get them elected) will make a killing on all these cases and then be able to give more money to Democrats and we'll lose!"

Silly us to think that it had anything to do with equality. As I've said before, apparently what really matters is money.

You can't make this stuff up.

Becky said...

I remember when those studies about domestic violence and pregnant women were making news. Though, I must say, not making enough news. It is shocking. And, AND, the take on it I heard most commonly was, "A woman's pregnancy is a very vulnerable time for a man. He may fear that he can't provide for the new family. Pregnancy puts pressure on faultlines that may exist in his personality, causing him to become violent." Oh, so the story here is, here's another way we're making men beat on us, and threatening masculinity at the same time.

Great post!

Amy said...

Awesome post, Dave. As a currently pregnant woman, I CANNOT imagine being in a position to fear for my life like that.

I heard about the Lily Ledbetter thing on Colbert. And because of where I heard it, I thought the ruling was a joke at first!! It just sounds so ridiculous to me. Like, are you supposed to go around and survey all your co-workers, asking how much they earn? Craziness!