Washington State Should Commemerate Women’s History Month by Ensuring the Economic Futures of Women

by Marilyn Watkins

While women in other states can celebrate recent strides toward equality, here in Washington our state Legislature marked Women’s History Month by closing down its 2016 regular session on March 10 with bills that attacked gender inequity dead in their tracks.

Progress was within reach – even given the partisan divide between the House (Democrat) and Senate (Republican). After all, bills to strengthen equal pay protections and ensure pregnant women could ask for reasonable accommodations at work (like bathroom breaks and a stool to sit on) had passed with bipartisan support in other states. Surely similar bills would have a chance in Washington, in an election year no less!

At first, prospects looked promising. The Equal Pay and Opportunities Act passed Washington’s House 56 to 41, with six Republicans joining all the Democrats. It would have assured workers could discuss pay without retaliation and closed loopholes that allow some employers now to get away with discriminatory pay and hiring practices.

But when the bill moved to the Senate, Republican leadership kept the name and stripped out worker protections, replacing them with new protections for employers to impose wage secrecy. The amended bill, if passed, could score points with voters even as it limited worker rights for the benefit of corporate interests. Fortunately, the three Democrats on the Commerce and Labor Committee – Senators Hasegawa, Conway, and Keiser – refused to go along, and the bill died.

Versions of a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act passed both the House and Senate. But the Senate bill excluded all nonprofit employers – including big hospitals and other major organizations that employ large numbers of women, often in long, physically demanding shifts. When the House fixed that and other shortcomings, the Senate refused to concur, so that bill died, too.

Meanwhile, the FAMLI Act failed to even get a committee hearing. It would have created a system modeled after successful programs in other states to provide all workers with up to twelve weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, care of a seriously ill family member, or for the worker’s own serious health condition.

The Legislature did manage to send a bill to the Governor that will create a new rape kit tracking system – but only after removing the funding that would have actually allowed for testing those kits.

We could get discouraged – but let’s get busy instead.

When the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848, women didn’t have the right to vote, pursue diverse professions, control property or make decisions about their children’s welfare if married. They didn’t win those rights by politely asking for them or giving up after a few tries.

Women and male allies organized, marched, petitioned, practiced civil disobedience, and went on strike. They faced ridicule, arrest, and physical violence. In fact, Women’s History Month itself has its roots in a 1908 strike by women garment workers in New York City, who demanded better working conditions, an end to child labor, and the right to vote.

When women won the vote in 1920, many believed full equality was close at hand. The first female Cabinet member, Frances Perkins, who served as Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945, helped establish key policies that still provide a firm foundation for millions of working men and women today: the minimum wage, overtime, Unemployment Insurance, and Social Security.

During World War II, women joined the workforce in droves – and Washington state passed its first Equal Pay law. But during the 1950s and ‘60s, employers still openly practiced sexual and racial discrimination in hiring. Professional schools limited the number of women in each class. And schools rarely offered girls’ sports. The notion that women had innately different skills and abilities, and simply were not suited to male pursuits, seemed to prevail.

It took a whole new women’s movement, and another round of equal pay and equal opportunity legislation, to open career and educational choices that have brought us to today, where women earn the majority of college and graduate degrees and make up half the U.S. workforce.

Still, those gender and racial wage gaps persist. Workplace practices remain stacked against women, and too many of our state’s elected leaders are ignoring and discounting what it takes for workers to provide for their families, and keep themselves and their loved ones healthy.

To make things right, Washington’s women – and their male allies – will have to again stand up, make noise, and demand change.

So what are we waiting for?

Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center  focused on building and economy that works for everyone.


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