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Empowerment or subjugation? GOP, Dems offer real difference on Women's Issues

First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House.
First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House.
© 2014 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Recently, former Secretary of State (and First Lady) Hillary Clinton and philanthropist Melinda Gates came together for a new Clinton Foundation initiative, to collect data "to make the case why investing in girls and women, and empowering girls and women is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do."

Hillary Rodham Clinton, former First Lady, US Senator, Secretary of State, and former and possibly future Presidential candidate, epitomizes women's struggle to break through the glass ceiling.
© 2014 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

All around the world, those who look to lift the masses out of devastating poverty, social violence and upheaval have focused on women and girls. They find that when girls are able to get educated and women have access to jobs, the birth rate goes down and living standard goes up. And when capitalists and philanthropists invest in women's enterprise, the investment pays off in a better life for their children, families and community.

As Oxfam noted in a recent "Tell Congress" email, "Women around the world bear the brunt of poverty.... They perform 66% of the world's work, but earn only 10% of the income. In many countries, women are responsible for the majority of food production... yet they're more likely to face hunger in food shortages....Investments in women are key to winning the fight against poverty and hunger.."

But instead of focusing on the inequities women endure abroad, they should look to the United States, where these lessons are not only ignored but are being contradicted. And what is horrifying is the unabashed misogyny that has been unleashed, without repercussion.

Here's a sampling. Republican power brokers - the fundraisers and the politicians themselves - have said: that if there abortion is available in any form, then sexual violence is okay (Lawrence Lockman, former press secretary of a pro-life group and ally to Maine Governor LePage); that wives have to "voluntarily submit" to sex with their husbands (Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM, citing the Bible); wives should "consent to at least some form of sexual relations as much as possible" (Dennis Prager, fundraiser for Sen Mitch McConnell, R-KY); that women who use contraception are promiscuous sluts who don't exercise self-control and are becoming dependent on Uncle Sugar (Mike Huckabee).

And more: that a pregnant woman is merely a "host" to nurture the fetus rather than a mother (Virginia State Sen. Steve Martin, R); that a woman's right to choose should be ended because it robs a man of his right to fatherhood (Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-MO); that those who teach Women's Studies "should all be taken out and shot" (Austin Ruse, Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute); that "The toxic stew of the modern university is gender studies, it’s 'Sex Week,' they all have 'Sex Week' and teaching people how to be sex-positive and overcome the patriarchy. (Austin Ruse again); that a feminist is "Some Fat Pig Who Doesn’t Get It Often Enough" (Ted Nugent, actively campaigning for Greg Abbott, candidate to be the next Texas Governor).

These aren't aberrations, nor are they mere rhetorical flourishes. They describe the underlying philosophy to the policies they have the power to inflict. The statements go directly to actions designed to perpetrate the "patriarchy."

Pick any issue: Pay equity. Living Wage. Health care. Public Education. Environment. Gun violence. Public health. Food stamps. Unemployment benefits. Domestic violence. Immigration reform. Family planning. Voting Rights. The stance that Republicans have taken do damage to all Americans, but especially women and by extension, their children.

Two-thirds of those in minimum wage jobs are women; 2/3 of single parents are women; 2/3 of sole breadwinners are women. 2/3 of "tipped workers" (who make $2 an hour) are women.

It is estimated that if women, who currently earn 77c to every $1 a man earns for the same job, would have income parity, that could mean a $447.6 billion boost to the economy.

Indeed, “at the current rate of change, it will take until the year 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles in our country,” the Center for American Progress reported.

“The opportunity loss implications of women who continue to be marginalized in today’s corporate and overarching economic landscape cannot be taken lightly,” notes esteemed working women’s advocate Michelle Patterson, Founder and President of The California Women's Conference and President and CEO of Women Network.

  • Although women are 50.8 percent of the U.S. population earning almost 60 percent of both undergraduate and Master’s degrees, also holding almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs, American women lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions (CAP, Catalyst, Center for Economic Development):
    • They are only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.
    • Their presence in top management positions today remains below 9 percent.
    • They hold just 16.9 percent of Fortune 500 board seats, representing “no significant year-over-year uptick for the 8th straight year.”
    • The percentage of women on all U.S. corporate boards has been stuck in the 12.1 percent to 12.3 percent range over the past decade.
  • The United States, once a world leader in gender equality, now lags behind other similarly wealthy nations in women’s economic participation. In the two decades from 1990 to 2010, our country fell from having the sixth-highest rate of female labor-force participation among 22 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, countries to 17th on the list. (CAP)
  • America ranks number six in women’s economic participation and opportunity on the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Index of 136 countries. (Catalyst)
  • Stereotypes and skewed perceptions remain powerful and still impede the advancement of women. The dearth of women in leadership roles—and in whole fields—creates the perception that women do not belong in those positions or professions. (CAP)
  • Structural barriers: A shortage of role models, for example, means that women—and women of color in particular—lack mentors, sponsors, and opportunities in male-heavy organizations to develop the sorts of social relationships out of which mentorship, sponsorship, board appointments, or simply promotions, naturally evolve. (CAP)

You have to wonder why, if Republicans are just so very upset about government spending, particularly on food stamps, why they wouldn't want employers to pay their workers a living wage, so taxpayers wouldn't have to make up the difference.

Gun violence is another example. Certainly this is an issue that affects all Americans - in fact, the vast majority of Americans, including Republicans and gun owners, support sensible gun regulations like universal background checks, limits to military-style weapons and magazine capacity. But the facts - not the "beliefs" or the "wishes" or the rhetoric - show that women and children are victims:

"Congressional action has meant the difference between life and death for many women," says former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who had to leave office after being shot in the head in a massacre that killed women, children and her own Congressional aide. "The Violence Against Women Act protects millions of Americans every year. The Lautenberg Amendment alone has prevented more than 250,000 domestic abusers from purchasing a gun from a licensed gun dealer. But many of those who perpetrate violence against women are still allowed easy access to firearms. And the violence continues." Giffords, the co-founder of Americans for Responsible Solutions, notes that:

  • Women are more than three-and-a-half times as likely to be killed by an intimate partner as men.
  • A gun in a household with a history of domestic violence increases the risk that a woman will be killed there by 20 times, compared to households without guns.
  • More than 1,000,000 women are stalked annually, and more than half are stalked by an intimate partner — with stalkers using guns to harm or threaten their victims in 1 out of 5 of those cases.

RNC chairman Reince Priebus dismisses any actual Republican War on Women with the sugar coating. “I’ve said many times before that the policies and principles of our party are sound. However, as we look to grow the ranks of our party, we must all be very conscious of the tone and choice of words we use to communicate those policies effectively.” Priebus said at the RNC winter meeting in Washington. In other words, it's all tone and phrase rather than actual policies.

When you hear them wistfully long "to return to the America of my youth" they mean an America where it was okay to prey upon women and minorities, where men had control.

"What strikes one American woman in four and claims a life in the United States every six hours?" Nicholas Kristof asked in a New York Times column on March 8. The answer is domestic violence. (Obama has proposed in his 2015 budget added funding for reducing the backlog of untested rape kits and assisting prosecution of sexual assault cases - fat chance of being passed. The Republicans, after all, refused to pass the Violence Against Women Act because it would have protected undocumented immigrants and Native Americans).

President Obama "gets it" and in announcing his proposal to increase funding said, "Sexual violence is more than just a crime against individuals. It threatens our families, it threatens our communities; ultimately, it threatens the entire country. It tears apart the fabric of our communities. And that’s why we’re here today -- because we have the power to do something about it as a government, as a nation. We have the capacity to stop sexual assault, support those who have survived it, and bring perpetrators to justice."

Texas is the epicenter, a veritable laboratory Petri dish of noxious bacteria, of how to send women back to the 19th century and not just because the Republican candidate, state Attorney General Greg Abbott uses misogynist Ted Nugent as his surrogate, or one of his top advisers dismissed the Democratic Candidate, State Senator Wendy Davis– a Harvard graduate – as “too stupid to be governor” and another Tea Partier labeled her “Abortion Barbie” and, oh yes, a "bad mother."

In Texas, women are being turned away from the polls - being denied the franchise won in 1920 after decades of fighting - because of the discrepancy in their married or divorced name. In other words, their marital status becomes a determinant in whether they get to vote.

Texas offers clear evidence for what Republicans in power actually intend for women (as opposed to that happy face they hope to portray), and what they would do if (heaven forbid) they take over the US Senate in 2014. You only have to look at how, despite a woman's constitutionally protected right to choose, they have passed laws resulting in shuttering of all but a handful of women's health clinics in the state, and also denied low-income women access to Medicaid.

One of the issues in the Texas gubernatorial campaign is the issue of a state version of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (recall the Lily Ledbetter Act was the first law Obama signed when he became president in 2009, when he had a Democratic majority in House and filibuster-proof majority in Senate.)

Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate, as a State Senator sponsored a law in Texas but it was vetoed by Governor Rick Perry.

Now, Abbott has dodged answering directly whether he would veto such legislation, but has said that there is no need for such a law because "women are already protected."

But we do know if he would veto such a law if he had the chance, because as Attorney General, Abbott defended the state University of Texas against a woman who was paid less, arguing that Lily Ledbetter doesn’t apply to state cases. He won and the woman didn’t get compensated for the years of discriminatory pay.

Abbott even discriminates in his own staff: he pays a male assistant attorney $79,464 but a female assistant attorney $73,649, according to San Antonio Express-News.

Abbott put up surrogates with Red State Women and the state Republican Party to parrot the Republican meme, "We don’t believe Lily Ledbetter Act will solve the problem; we want a real world solution, not more rhetoric. Women are extremely busy" to fight pay disparity, and access to more jobs are what women really want. And this from a woman in the Texas Republican Party, "Men earn more because they are better negotiators. We would encourage women to be better negotiators."

The claim that women get paid less simply because they aren't good negotiators (get it - it's their own fault) apparently includes women CEOs, who are inexplicably not very good negotiators despite becoming CEO. Women CEOs earn 80% of what male CEOs make.

As MSNBC correspondent Crystal Ball said guest-hosting "Up" on March 22, regarding Republicans' opposition to fair pay, "Republicans assign blame to culture [it's your own fault if you are unemployed, poor, if you earn less money] rather than structural factors.....

"It gets to a bigger issue – the fact that Republican economic policies benefit people who are already well off, benefits businesses (campaign contributors ) and people at the top of income – increasingly, people feeling this party has nothing to offer."

Part of the reason for persistent gap in pay is that women do still - despite all the technological advancements - are the ones giving birth and still are the primary caregiver for their young children, even though the majority mothers with children younger than 2 are working outside the home.

While unemployment rates were low, employers were more amenable to offering flexible work solutions to accommodate parents; now that unemployment rates are high, they do not need to make any such accommodation (in fact, I would submit that part of the thrust against contraception is that this crew wants high birth rates to create a large population of workers to keep wages low and demand for products high, along with the fact that women's ability to make demands in the workplace is more limited when they can't afford to challenge their employer). This is the real reason that right wingers are so gung-ho against making contraception available to women. Also, it is empowering, and we can't have any of that.

Still, New School economist Teresa Ghilarducci estimates that 20-30% of the pay gap is purely discrimination. Employers feel they can get away with paying women less, so they do (yet another example where given a "free market," businesses will take a mile).

But here, I would suggest that just as the overpopulated job market makes workers more fearful to ask for higher wages, women, who may well be single-parents and sole-providers in their family, are more fearful of losing their jobs than men are. And up until the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) uncoupled the dependency on employer-sponsored health insurance, women were also subjugated to abysmal jobs and abusive husbands for fear of losing access to affordable health care.

In his proclamation of Women's History Month this year, President Obama stated:

"Throughout our Nation's history, American women have led movements for social and economic justice, made groundbreaking scientific discoveries, enriched our culture with stunning works of art and literature, and charted bold directions in our foreign policy. They have served our country with valor, from the battlefields of the Revolutionary War to the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan. During Women's History Month, we recognize the victories, struggles, and stories of the women who have made our country what it is today.

"This month, we are reminded that even in America, freedom and justice have never come easily. As part of a centuries-old and ever-evolving movement, countless women have put their shoulder to the wheel of progress -- activists who gathered at Seneca Falls and gave expression to a righteous cause; trailblazers who defied convention and shattered glass ceilings; millions who claimed control of their own bodies, voices, and lives. Together, they have pushed our Nation toward equality, liberation, and acceptance of women's right -- not only to choose their own destinies -- but also to shape the futures of peoples and nations.

"Through the grit and sacrifice of generations, American women and girls have gained greater opportunities and more representation than ever before. Yet they continue to face workplace discrimination, a higher risk of sexual assault, and an earnings gap that will cost the average woman hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of her working lifetime.

"As women fight for their seats at the head of the table, my Administration offers our unwavering support. The first bill I signed as President was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for women to challenge pay discrimination. Under the Affordable Care Act, we banned insurance companies from charging women more because of their gender, and we continue to defend this law against those who would let women's bosses influence their health care decisions. Last year, recognizing a storied history of patriotic and courageous service in our Armed Forces, the United States military opened ground combat units to women in uniform. We are also encouraging more girls to explore their passions for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and taking action to create economic opportunities for women across the globe. Last fall, we finalized a rule to extend overtime and minimum wage

protections to homecare workers, 90 percent of whom are women. And this January, I launched a White House task force to protect students from sexual assault.

"As we honor the many women who have shaped our history, let us also celebrate those who make progress in our time. Let us remember that when women succeed, America succeeds. And from Wall Street to Main Street, in the White House and on Capitol Hill -- let us put our Nation on the path to success."

It speaks volumes that Obama has made his Opportunity Agenda about initiatives to benefit women and families. These include:

Expanding women's access to education (women are disproportionately dependent on financial aid, and many enrolled women, especially those over the age of 25, are mothers, meaning they have additional considerations on their time and finances as they work to achieve their educational goals. ) To addressing this issue he is creating the $2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC); increasing the maximum Pell grant award by $1,000; keeping student loan interest rates low.

Ensuring that women have access to the skills they need to succeed in the workforce: increasing opportunities for STEM mentorship; providing real world job experience to high schoolers; focusing on job-driven training.

The White House is organizing five regional forums on women’s issues hosted by senior administration officials that will take place across the country this spring, leading up to the White House Summit on Working Families hosted by the President on June 23. Also, the Small Business Administration and the National Women’s Business Council are hosting a roundtable, STEM for Her, that will bring together the private sector, academic experts and other stakeholders to identify actions that can encourage more women entrepreneurs in STEM fields to start and grow their businesses.

"The feedback we hear at all of these events will help inform the Summit and our efforts to build 21st century workplaces that meet the needs of a 21st century workforce," the White House stated.

At this year's International Women of Courage Awards (did you know there is an Office of Global Women's Issues in the State Department?), First Lady Michelle Obama said, "They teach us that if a woman can fight torture and oppression and get her name on the ballot in Tajikistan; if she can break a glass ceiling and advocate for equality and tolerance as a bishop in Georgia; if she can go door to door, police station to police station, court to court to combat domestic and child abuse in Saudi Arabia -- if these women can do all of that, then surely we can summon a fraction of their bravery in our own lives and communities -- whether that means ending wage discrimination in the workplace, or fighting sexual violence on college campuses, or confronting any of the small injustices that we see every day."

"That is what this day is about. It’s about understanding that while our circumstances may be different, in so many ways, the solutions to our struggles are the same. So when we see these women raise their voices and move their feet and empower others to create change, we need to realize that each of us has that same power and that same obligation."

Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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