By Marilyn Watkins, Policy Director, Economic Opportunity Institute
Women and families in the U.S. are facing so many challenges these days, it’s hard to know how to focus our energy. Women who have worked hard, paid taxes, and raised families in this country for years, torn from their children by immigration authorities. Congress and state legislatures restricting women’s access to birth control and basic health care. Hate crimes and executive orders targeting people by religion and tearing families apart. Police practices and school discipline policies that subject children of color to particularly harsh treatment.
March 8 is International Women’s Day. Leaders of women’s rights campaigns have often — and rightly — been accused of focusing on concerns of white middle- and upper-class women. But over a century ago, when women from multiple countries first conceived International Women’s Day, the special dangers faced by immigrant and working class women were front and center. Shorter hours and higher pay for women workers were key demands along with the right to vote.
At that time in the U.S. and western Europe, women’s labor was essential in manufacturing, agriculture, and domestic service, yet women were legally barred from exercising most forms of economic and political power. Less than a week after the first International Women’s Day march in New York City in March 1911, 146 women were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Most of them were young Italian and eastern European immigrants, Catholic and Jewish – viewed as “un-American” by many U.S.-born Protestants.
These women and girls worked 13 hour days for 13 cents an hour, in rooms with inadequate ventilation and locked doors. When they had dared to go on strike for better working conditions the year before, the factory owners paid the police to beat them and break the strike.
A lot has improved since then. In the U.S. now, women make up half the labor force and the majority of the electorate, and earn the majority of college and graduate degrees. We have a minimum wage, health and safety standards, and the right to join a union. Women and men alike benefit from these policies.
But women continue to be paid less than men in nearly every occupation, too frequently tracked into lower wage jobs, and passed over for promotion by supervisors. Maybe that’s tied to the fact that women still hold only 5.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions, just 19 percent of Congressional seats, and less than a quarter of state legislative seats – 36 percent here in Washington.
Even though most families today rely on women’s earnings to make ends meet, caring for family – including new babies, sick kids, and ailing elders – continues to be primarily women’s responsibility. Balancing family care and a job has become a little easier over the past decade with paid sick day laws in dozens of cities and seven states (including Seattle, Tacoma, SeaTac, Spokane, and beginning January 2018, Washington state), paid family and medical leave programs in four states (not including Washington), and expansion of paid parental leave policies by a handful of high profile employers.
But despite these gains, the lack of paid family and medical leave for the vast majority of workers contributes to the gender and racial wage gaps, and the even-larger gaps in wealth accumulation and lifetime earnings. Women of color are especially likely to face discrimination in hiring, be trapped in low wage jobs with few benefits, and struggle to keep themselves and their families financially solvent.
Over the past few weeks, Washington state has emerged as a leader for hope, inclusion, and human rights. Our Attorney General successfully stopped the original travel ban issued by the Trump administration. Our Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have tenaciously stood up for decency and against cronyism and corruption in debates over the suitability of Trump appointees to key Cabinet posts in the other Washington.
We’re also set to lead the way on promoting equal pay and passing paid family and medical leave for all Washington workers, and the next few weeks could mean a lot for this nationwide movement to support working women and families.
Our state legislators are now considering an equal pay bill sponsored by Rep. Tana Sana, House Bill 1506, and paid family and medical leave, sponsored by Rep. June Robinson, H.B. 1116. These policies – if they pass – will provide greater economic security to working families, help all children thrive, promote better health and economic stability across the life span, and help the state save money on health care and social services.
These are unifying, long-overdue policies with broad support across the nation. On this International Women’s Day and over the next month, let’s encourage our legislators to get the job done.