The battle for equal pay for women has gained attention recently, although it’s simmered for decades. In the 1950s, women got 60 cents for every dollar paid to men. Sixty years later, they still earn only 78 cents for every dollar paid to men. Closing the gap by less than half a penny a year is not much progress!
When racism is added to the mix, inequality worsens. Pacific Islander women are paid merely 65 cents, Black women 64 cents, Native American women 59 cents, and Latinas 56 cents for every dollar paid to white men. The National Women’s Law Center says this amounts to a whopping annual loss of $19,000 to $23,000.
One factor, however, makes a stunning positive difference: unionization. For female unionists, the wage gap is 40 percent smaller, and pay shoots up by over $11,000 a year.
Unequal pay creates poverty. About half of households headed by Black, Latina, immigrant, and Indian mothers live in poverty, insecure and deprived of things they need and want. These families are joined by over a quarter of white and Asian female-headed homes who are poor.
Equal pay for the mothers of these families could pull one-half of them out of poverty!
After decades of working for less, women face a double whammy — lower pensions (or no pensions) and smaller Social Security checks. A staggering number of women over 65 have trouble covering basic costs: around 75 percent of Blacks, Latinas and Native Americans; 59 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders; and 46 percent of whites. Closing the wage gap is a matter of life or death for our elders.
Why now? The demand for equal pay is resurfacing as the chasm between pay for CEOs and workers becomes widely exposed, at the same time drastic increases in living costs and student debt hit home.
Campaigns for better pay, such as the one to raise the minimum wage, are in the headlines daily. Fast food workers, National Football League cheerleaders, immigrant farmworkers, and student employees at universities are all demanding more. Equal pay for women got its own speech at the Oscars, and even the pope calls the gender wage disparity a “pure scandal.”
Many politicians are lately giving lip service to reducing income inequality. Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are capitalizing on the issue in order to win female votes. They want women to hold off on protesting, vote for Hillary, and wait for her to fix it.
But what sense would this make? The gender pay gap has been a problem since forever. Hillary has been a governor’s wife, First Lady, a senator, and Secretary of State. Where’s the progress? Are voters supposed to believe that her presidency will be any different? Electing a female president from one of the two corporate parties will do about as much for ending sexism as electing a Black president did for ending racism!
Learning from the past. Women have been fighting to add an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution since winning the right to vote in 1920. “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” — it sounds simple.
But devaluing women and their work, whether low-waged in the marketplace or unpaid in the home, is a cornerstone of the capitalist system. Only by not paying fair wages can the corporations reap obscene profits. The equal pay fight is a gigantic threat to big business, especially if feminists join with male and female workers of all colors in class solidarity.
In the early 1970s the battle for equal pay for equal work expanded. In the first-ever strike at the University of Washington in Seattle, Radical Women (RW) helped develop a concept that became known as “comparable worth.” The idea is that regardless of job title, work requiring comparable skills and responsibilities should be paid equally. The concept came from prioritizing justice for the lowest-paid workers, who were (and are) mostly women of color. Since then, comparable worth campaigns around the country have led to pay equity hikes for millions of public employees.
Pressure for the ERA surged during the 1970s as the 1982 deadline approached for getting 38 states to ratify it. Unfortunately, this massive movement was derailed when liberal feminist careerists chose an exclusive focus on passing the ERA. They aimed to woo the right wing with respectability and called for quiet lobbying, negotiating, and voting for Democrats.
Conservatives, led by Phyllis Schlafly, launched an anti-ERA “family values” campaign that characterized the ERA as actually taking away women’s rights. The right-wingers also attacked abortion, lesbians, and radicals. How did established feminist liberals respond? By separating themselves from the issues and people under fire; soft-pedaling feminism; and offering compromises and concessions — as National Organization for Women President Eleanor Smeal unsuccessfully sought to do in a 1979 “peace treaty” meeting with hard-core anti-abortion forces.
Single-issue misleaders also skirted affirmative action and matters crucial to women of color and workers. A major concern was that business-controlled legislatures — Democrat and Republican — would use the ERA to overturn labor protections in place for women, like the eight-hour day and ban on forced overtime. Radical Women agitated for the feminist movement to fight to extend protective labor laws to men instead. ERA was won in Washington state, then RW’s home base. But when the idea of extending protective legislation to men didn’t catch fire nationally, the ERA movement lost support from some workers and unions.
In 1982 the federal ERA failed by three states. An RW statement about the lessons said, “Women must build alliances with other oppressed groups based on firm support for all our rights, prioritizing those who are multiply discriminated against. Women of color, working women, lesbians, older and disabled women must be the focus of the women’s movement.”
A new effort is mobilizing to add the ERA to the Constitution. (See www.united4equality.com or www.equalrightsamendment.org.) We have a chance to correct the earlier non-confrontational and single-issue mistakes when fighting for pay equality today!
A program for real equality. Improving the lives of women workers will mean winning more than just equal pay. Hillary Clinton may be breaking the glass ceiling for herself. But many women, especially of color, are struggling just to climb out of the basement! For this reason, RW proposes that feminists and working women and men fight for:
• Equal pay for comparable worth;
• Restoring affirmative action;
• Funding for free childcare and expanded job training;
• Paid parental and family leave;
• Employer-funded pensions for all workers;
• Ending the attacks on the right to unionize!
Also see other labor-related stories in this issue:
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