When President Obama signed The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act bill on January 29th, it was an unmistakable Love Letter to American Women - a love letter that ensures women across the country will receive equal pay for equal work. By signing that bill, he is helping to fulfill what millions of women have fought for. Women like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, and Anna Julia Cooper.
When Jeannette Rankin was elected to Congress in 1916 (four years before women had the right to vote), she had Equal Pay for Equal Work for women in mind. When Nannie H. Burroughs and Mary McLeod Bethune started The National Association of Wage Earners in the 1920s, they not only worked to improve living conditions for women, but also envisioned Equal Pay for Equal Pay for Women. When Fannie Lou Hamer fought 15 years for civil rights in The South (despite threats by the Klu Klux Klan and beatings by police), I’m sure she envisioned how her efforts would bring about, among other things, Equal Pay for Equal Work. These were brave, pioneering women.
Yet despite their awe-inspiring work, and the work of countless others, gender inequities have never been corrected. According to a study by The Center for American Progress, women may lose $434,000 in income, on average, due to the career wage gap. As it is stands right now, women in general earn 77 to every dollar a man makes for full time year round work. For a black woman it is 67 cents; for a Latina woman it is 58 cents. And as a policy specialist, President Obama is aware of these disturbing figures.
By championing the right of working women to receive fair pay, the paychecks of millions and millions of women (particularly in low wage, non-unionized jobs) can now see a boost. But, with President Obama's love letter comes a strong challenge too. Before the signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, President Obama said: "So in signing this bill today, I intend to send a clear message: That making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone. That there are no second-class citizens in our workplaces, and that it's not just unfair and illegal—but bad for business— to pay someone less because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion or disability."
New Mexico Govenor Bill Richardson understands President Obama's challenge. He recently signed an executive order requiring his state to study and report it's own pay practices when it comes to gender and race, and it will require the same from private sector companies that want state contracts. Gov. Richardson's motivation is to overcome pay inequity in his state, and he created a task force to implement the necessary changes. Yes, this is awesome! Companies that want state contracts in New Mexico will have to show taxpaxers (who are footing the bill) that their businesses pay its workers fairly. And don't you believe that by doing pay equity analyses, these companies will cut down on discrimination lawsuits because their statistics will be available to employees who will see they're not being shorted? I do.
More work has to be done though. In fact, I would like to see President Obama sign a similar executive order for companies that want federal contracts, and I e-mailed him at WHITEHOUSE.GOV to let him know. E-mail him yourself and let him know your ideas.
President Obama signed not only a love letter, but a declaration of justice and a commitment to fairness for the nameless, faceless, voiceless women who help hold up our economy but are not rewarded for it. So let us rejoice that we have a president who understands the economic realities of American working women, and who understands what needs to be done to boldly address the less than flattering aspects of those realities.
Ladies, President Obama just signed you a Love Letter.
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