The Big Message on Mother's Day: Equal Rights for Women

It’s been said that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.  

If that’s true, then it’s high time that hand earned what it’s worth. And if Congress steps up and unflinchingly does the right thing by removing the deadline to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment—they could get it.

Everyone remembers ERA as a relic from the 1970s. Women marched in the streets and burned their bras, inspired by Helen Reddy and Aretha Franklin telling them they should “roar” and get some “respect.”  These were the grandmas of the Lilith Fair crowd, and they were epically fierce.

Now, as we prepare to pay homage to America’s cradle rockers this Sunday (of which, full disclosure, I am one) I think it’s only right to point out the gaping contradiction between the outpouring of national adoration we heap on mothers this one day a year—and how America’s laws treat them the other 364 days.

Let’s be clear. I have no personal ax to grind. I have a good life. My husband is a loving, thoughtful, kind and supportive partner who does the dishes more often than I do. (His mother, a working woman herself, raised him that way.) My boss is a woman, and I do not feel exploited by my employer. If I’ve ever been sexually harassed, I was too busy to take notice.

Yet as I reflect on the lives of women far less fortunate, and on those of my own female ancestors, the stark difference between what they have contributed to the world and how the world has treated them in return seems the very definition of injustice.

And it is one so deeply entrenched in the fabric of society as to be considered normal. (The role of religion in perpetuating the myth that the absence of a Y chromosome evinces second class status imposed by the creator, is another topic for another day.) America has a constitutional separation of church and state, so for now I’m going to focus only on the actions of man and the issues of fairness under the law and in the workplace.

This seems like a no-brainer but I’ll state it just the same: It’s time for Congress to unequivocally get behind treating all of America’s citizens equally.    

My maternal grandmother was the child of Polish Catholic immigrants. She’d barely finished 8th grade when the depression necessitated her formal education come to an end. Despite possessing an impressive intellect she found herself working long hours on her feet in unhealthy factory conditions. She married at 19 and though she and my grandfather had a wonderful life, she never did finish school. When I was just beginning to consider journalism as a career, she opened an old cedar chest and showed me what can best be described as a treasure trove of unfulfilled promise.

Most women of her era kept such chests for linens and goods they’d need when they set up housekeeping with their future husbands. Hers still held some of that, but beneath the carefully hand-embroidered tablecloths, doilies and tea towels lay a cache of several published magazine articles she’d written—and sold—in her early 20s. They were mostly reflections on her family experiences. Once she married, her writing fell prey to more pressing priorities—most notably motherhood. I often wonder what her life might have been like if she’d had the freedom—both social and economic—to make choices.

The writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in Gift from the Sea, acknowledged the disparity of opportunity that existed between the working class and women of privilege, even as she wrote eloquently of the bond of common experience uniting them: the act of mothering.

That women even today are forced to choose between rewarding work and family life, or because they must put food on the table have no choice at all—seems patently unfair. And it’s worse when you consider that on average women still earn about 77 cents for every dollar men earn for doing the same thing.1

The fact that Patricia Arquette’s Oscar-acceptance speech mandate—that women should earn a living wage—made national news, tells us just how little progress we’ve made toward ending the pay gap—and perhaps more importantly, the attitudes that allow it to exist at all.  

It’s no surprise that women still outnumber men in service sector jobs and traditionally lower paying “care-giving” professions. And statistically, the number of K-12 public school teachers remains disproportionately female at around 75%, while at the college level (where pay and prestige go hand in hand and are much higher) women are only half as likely to be granted tenure as men (particularly at more prominent institutions); and despite great hiring advances, still earn on average just 81-88 cents on the dollar compared to male faculty.2

Technology is helping to facilitate a dramatic social evolution, opening doors to new professions and opportunities, and creating greater freedom for some workers. Yet the attitudes that drive decisions in the marketplace still lag woefully behind.

We all remember the “gaffe heard 'round the world” last year, when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella suggested that women earning less than their male counterparts should simply work hard and trust their superiors to apportion their wages accordingly.3 (Translation: Nice girls don’t ask for more money—it’s unseemly.)

Driving much of the conflict, in this reporter’s opinion, is a reluctance among some in our culture to let go of romanticized “family values” tropes. (This of course also impacts reproductive freedom, as society lays collective claim to our wombs during gestation, yet paradoxically loses interest in what happens to our offspring once they emerge.)

The push to preserve an idealized fiction of the nuclear family as personified by Ozzie and Harriet and Donna Reed (which conveniently fails to note that both Harriet Nelson and Donna Reed were actually working women who only played stay-at-home moms) has resulted in a failure to address the realities of a changing world in which families take many forms and gender roles are blurred, but family needs—economic support for the household and care for our children—remain steadfastly unchanged. This does a grave disservice to men as well as women.

Pundits imply that working women earn less because—for want of a better argument—they lack the “career commitment” of their male peers. Women take maternity leave; they ask for flex time to drive their children places, or care for an ailing parent. And even with laws mandating gender-neutral family leave, men are less likely to use it for fear of losing their “edge.” Meanwhile, the penalty for discussing salaries continues to run rampant—especially in the higher paying tech fields—thus providing fertile ground for new seeds of economic injustice to take root and flourish.  

But what we’re talking about with ERA and fair pay laws for workers aren’t special “privileges”—they’re necessities that relate to quality of life. Equal pay, and time off, are critical if both men and women—and their children—are to thrive and enjoy a healthy balance between work and family in today’s increasingly demanding world—something other nations figured out a really long time ago.

America has made some positive strides—but until we have a fully-functional Equal Rights Amendment in force, women will have to make do with a patchwork of randomly enforced half-measures. And the state-by-state push for things like “right to work” legislation only makes things tougher on working class families—regardless of whether those families rely on one income or two, or which parent is the wage earner.

When women’s wages are depressed it drives men’s wages down too, as the very real threat of being replaced by a lower wage worker looms over every worker’s head come salary negotiation time. (Think domestic outsourcing.)

And speaking of outsourcing, President Obama’s full court press to “fast track” the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a deal involving increased trade with nations whose workers earn less than 60 cents per hour, is something that should concern us all, as it does not bode well for middle class economic recovery or household stability.

Inequality—regardless of its justifications—threatens everyone. This past week the Cardin-Kirk Bill, SJ Res 15, dropped.  It is a reintroduction of legislation to remove the ratification deadline from the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, which still needs 3 states to ratify to become the law of the land.4

The ERA was drafted as a follow-up to the 19th Amendment by Alice Paul nearly a century ago. In 1972 it passed both houses of Congress but stalled out twice—three states shy of the 38 needed for ratification before the deadline. If those same houses of Congress remove arbitrary deadlines, the ERA will have a real chance.

So in honor of Mother’s Day, and as a worker, a citizen, and a mom, I’m asking members of Congress: consider your own mothers this Sunday—along with your wives, daughters, sisters, aunts, nieces and friends--and your constituents: help make America fairer for them, and for future generations of both women and men.

Pledge to give Moms everywhere the gift that keeps on giving: a chance at equality once and for all, with a side order of fair pay.

Support SJ Res 15 to give the last 3 states time to ratify the ERA, and while you’re at it, vote “no” on Fast Track so that you can negotiate trade deals that give women worldwide a chance at decent pay and a better life. It's long overdue--and they deserve it.


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