Waiting for Equality

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Legislative Counsel, Washington Legislative Office

In the winter of 1916–1917, suffragists took their ongoing battle to our nation’s capital, pressing the newly re-elected President Woodrow Wilson to grant women the most fundamental of all American rights — the right to vote. Picketing outside of the White House, they asked President Wilson, almost a century ago: “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”

The question was finally answered on August 26, 1920, and today, on Women’s Equality Day, we commemorate the 90th anniversary of the enactment of the 19th Amendment — the amendment that finally granted women the right to vote. On the anniversary of this watershed moment in American history, we are reminded that the struggle for women’s equality continues. Looking back on past victories highlights just how much more we must accomplish.

Women’s Equality Day not only commemorates the victory of securing voting rights for women, but also serves as an important reminder that, although women have won political rights, we must still work to achieve economic rights. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, legislation intended to secure equal pay for equal work. Unfortunately, nearly 50 years after the Equal Pay Act became law and hundreds of years after American women joined the workforce, there remains a pernicious wage gap between men and women doing the same job – women, on average, still make only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. The statistics for women of color are even worse.

However, today, like 90 years ago, we are on the verge of securing monumental rights for women. The Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 182), a law that would update and strengthen the Equal Pay Act, is poised for passage in the Senate. The Paycheck Fairness Act would provide workers with the tools they need to help close the wage gap, including requiring employers to demonstrate that wage differences between men and women doing the same work have a business justification; prohibiting retaliation against workers who inquire about their wages; leveling the playing field by ensuring that women can obtain the same remedies as those subject to discrimination based on race or national origin; and reinstating the collection of important wage-related data.

Last year, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Paycheck Fairness Act, and the bill currently has 40 cosponsors in the Senate. In addition, President Obama, Vice President Biden and other senior members of the administration have announced their support for this important legislation. The Middle Class Task Force and the National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force have both recommended the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act as an important step in for economic security for women and our nation’s families.

In calling for the Senate to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, President Obama recently stated:

In America today, women make up half of the workforce, and two-thirds of American families with children rely on a woman’s wages as a significant portion of their families’ income. Yet, even in 2010, women make only 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. The gap is even more significant for working women of color, and it affects women across all education levels. . . . this is not just a question of fairness for hard-working women. Paycheck discrimination hurts families who lose out on badly needed income. And with so many families depending on women’s wages, it hurts the American economy as a whole. In difficult economic times like these, we simply cannot afford this discriminatory burden.

As the 19th Amendment gave women equality at the polls, the Paycheck Fairness Act will give women equality in the workplace. It is the next milestone in the fight for equal rights, and the Senate must act now so that women today and for generations to come can bring home the pay they rightfully earn. As I write this from our nation’s capital, I feel compelled to ask: how long must women wait for equality? I hope my question is answered, as it once was 90 years ago, with a landmark achievement in equal rights. We can’t wait much longer.

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