I’ve often wondered how much further American women would be along by now on all kinds of important matters — equal pay, more child care, and less sexual assault, to name a few — if we hadn’t put so much of our collective energies into an endless (and for both lobbies, highly lucrative) abortion fight in which public opinion is as divided now as in the ’70s — and women remain as divided as men.
So I was glad to see House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic women in Congress do something radical this week, even if nothing comes of it right away.
Though it didn’t get much attention, they launched an initiative focused solely on the economic issues that impact women and families: Pay equity, sick leave, and child care.
Again, this isn’t important because long overdue legislation on any of the above is going to move any minute now: In the Republican-controlled House, there’s no chance of that.
But basic pocketbook issues are so seldom seen as high on the list of feminist concerns that some of the women journalists invited to a briefing on the initiative in Pelosi’s office on Thursday needed a minute to process where the former speaker and her colleagues were headed, putting forward a women’s agenda that didn’t even mention abortion rights.
Were the problems on the table here — lower pay and lousy child care — part of the Republican war on women, one writer asked, looking for some familiar footing.
Could be, Pelosi answered, but that wasn’t the focus of this particular initiative: “We are prioritizing here.”
So, another reporter wondered, the complete lack of focus on recent restriction of abortion rights was a conscious decision, then? Yes, Pelosi answered.
I don’t see anything about sexual harassment in the handouts, another observed.
“And you’re not going to see it,” Pelosi said. “What we’re saying here is respect for the value of work [done by women] has to be recognized. I don’t want to trivialize this core disrespect for women in the work place…by pinning every other issue on it. It’s not to say that something else isn’t important; it’s to say halt, this has got to stop.”
‘This,’ being the fact that, yes, women are still paid less for the same work, and are further disadvantaged by the lack of attention to work-family balance and child care options.
So, was the end-game keeping women voters activated for the midterms next year?
No, Pelosi said, though Republicans “may see it that way.”
You know that old saying that when fishermen can’t go to sea, they mend their nets? You can’t just sit around waiting to be in charge, Pelosi said, but have to join the fight anyway, and be ready when you do get the chance.
Congressional women similarly did years of preparatory work getting the Family and Medical Leave Act ready to go when Bill Clinton took office 20 years ago, Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), said.
De Lauro, who first introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act in 1997, said that though none of the issues on the table was remotely new, the attempt to look at women’s economic health in a more holistic way was indeed a departure.
Paycheck Fairness, in case you’re wondering, passed in the House when Pelosi was speaker, but has twice failed in the Senate since then. In 2010, the measure fell short by only two votes, with Republican Senators Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and Kay Bailey Hutchison voting no and Lisa Murkowski not voting. Last year, all five GOP women in the Senate voted against the measure.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors She the People. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.