Speaking of Women's Rights: History Repeating?

Monday, March 7, 2011

History Repeating?

In case you haven’t heard, March is National Women’s History Month! To honor the occasion, the White House released a report called “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being.” The report contained some good news, particularly about how women are now outpacing men in terms of educational achievement. But the report also made it clear that economic inequality between women and men is far from being relegated to the history books.

Among other things, the report noted:

  • Women earned about 75% as much as their male counterparts in 2009.

  • Although women are now more likely than men to work in professional and related occupations, they are “more highly represented in the lower-paying jobs within this category,” such as education and health care.
  • Women are more likely than men to be in poverty, with especially high rates of poverty (nearly 40%) for single-parent families headed by women.

So despite outdoing men in educational achievement, women continue to lag far behind in economic status. And if some lawmakers have their way, this situation could get even worse.

Let’s take what’s happening in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker is trying to strip collective bargaining rights for most public employees. It’s no secret that collective bargaining usually results in better wages and benefits for workers. As a result, Governor Walker’s proposal is a direct attack on the economic status of most public workers in his state.

Note that I said the Governor is attacking “most” public workers. Significantly, the Governor’s proposal would not eliminate collective bargaining rights for police officers, state troopers, and firefighters. As a few other bloggers have noted, Governor Walker is exempting professions that continue to be overwhelmingly male. Instead, he is limiting his attack to the bargaining rights of other public sector workers, such as teachers, nurses, and administrative workers – professions that continue to be predominantly female.

Whether consciously or not, Governor Walker is making a policy statement that traditionally male occupations are more valuable and deserving of respect than traditionally female occupations. If he is successful, other states are likely to follow Wisconsin’s lead. And women will suffer the most.

Unfortunately, this is the second time in recent history that a Wisconsin governor has tried to lead the way on policies that harm women. In the 1990s, then-Governor Tommy Thompson made a national name for himself by enacting a series of punitive welfare “reform” measures aimed at single mothers with children. Those policies led to similar laws at the federal and state levels, ostensibly designed to move single women with children out of poverty. And the result? The poverty rate for single women with children in 2009 was 38.5% - the highest rate since 1998, when many welfare “reform” policies were beginning to be implemented.

So this Women’s History Month, let’s hope that history doesn’t repeat itself in Wisconsin. Women can’t afford it, their families can’t afford it, and the rest of the country can’t afford it.

By David Ward

Photo Credit: National Women's History Month