By Ann Bookman, Director, Center for Women in Policy and Public Policy
Each year in August we commemorate Women’s Equality Day. On the one hand, we celebrate our sisters and allies who fought so fiercely for the ratification of the 19th Amendment. On the other hand, we are reminded this year more than ever that no major civil rights law is ever truly won. It must be constantly fought for, its implementation rigorously enforced, and the spirit of inclusive democracy protected with our lives.
This year, as we each challenge ourselves to oppose all forms of bigotry and oppression, is it important to remember that when the 19th Amendment was finally won many barriers and hardships for women of color persisted. Despite the strong presence of Black activists in the women’s suffrage movement, the Black female vote was consistently blocked, first by those states which voted against ratification – even into the late 20th century – then by those states which enacted stringent voting rights laws. The violence and brutality directed towards communities of color – and particularly African Americans in the Jim Crow era – prevented many women of color from accessing their inalienable right to vote.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Voting Rights Act in 1965 to prohibit voting discrimination based on race, but its presence was provoked by the brutality of Selma and threatened in dozens of Supreme Court cases, the most recent of which occurred in 2013. And so we must never forget the particular barriers faced by women of color as we celebrate Women’s Equality Day. We are proud of what we gained, but still far from realizing the promises of our Constitution. We are further than we were, but not nearly close enough to our goal of liberty and equality for all.
What is won in the name of “women’s rights” is often a white-women-only victory, and that is why we must engage in an intersectional analysis of how far we have come and how far we need to go. The Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School uses an intersectional feminist lens to frame the four key areas of the center’s work: training women in graduate educational programs to be leaders in the public and nonprofit sectors; conducting policy-relevant research on political representation and economic justice issues; advancing public policies that ensure economic security for all women and their families across the New England region; and finally, building a diverse, intergenerational pipeline for women’s leadership through mentoring activities and public forums.
Training Women for Leadership
With Lieutenant Governor Polito, Attorney General Healey, Treasurer Goldberg, and Auditor Bump leading key branches of state government, one might feel optimistic about women’s representation in elective office in Massachusetts. But the composition of the state legislature presents another reality. Just one in four legislators are women, a statistic that has remained largely unchanged since 2000. Even if every woman who ran in the 2016 General Election won, our legislature would only be 33% female. Perhaps the most egregious statistic is that women of color occupy a mere 2% of seats in the state legislature. Since the founding of the Commonwealth, as our publication Profiles in Leadership documents, fewer than 100 women of color had ever been elected to office as of 2015. This goes beyond under-representation: let us call it what it is – continued evidence of racism. And we are not only concerned about increasing the numbers of women of color to ensure proportional representation, but also because only then will women with diverse perspectives have a seat at the policy making table. Attaining a critical mass of women – and other marginalized groups – not only shifts the policy discourse, but also increases the chance of a legislative agenda that prioritizes the needs of diverse women and their families actually becoming law. This year, let us renew our commitment to electing and appointing more women and more women of color to our government at all levels, and supporting their public leadership in our workplaces, our unions, and our communities.
Redesigning the Policy Agenda
At the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, we have launched the New England Women’s Policy Initiative (NEWPI) and work toward coordinated regional policy campaigns, sharing best practices, and working across the public, private and nonprofit sectors to achieve greater economic security for all. NEWPI’s Call to Action includes five key policy areas: wage and income security; access to education and training programs for living wage jobs; paid family and medical leave; expansion of affordable high quality child care and elder care programs; and increased compensation, professional opportunities, and respect for all paid caregivers.
Achieving pay equity is a key focus for NEWPI and all those engaged in the growing national movement to close the persistent wage gap. Massachusetts ranks 14th in the nation in terms of pay parity, with the average woman in the Commonwealth making 83 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic males. The ratio is, not surprisingly, much worse for women of color. Looking at state figures, Black women make 61 cents, Native American women make 63 cents, and Latina women make 50 cents for every dollar a white, non-Hispanic man earns. While these numbers prove that race and gender-based discrimination in pay continues, there is fortunately some indication of progress. Last summer, Massachusetts became the first state to ban employers from asking women their salary history during an interview process. When past salary figures impact new ones, cycles of gender and race-based wage discrimination have ample room to thrive – and they have. Some women could be shortchanged $2 million over the course of their careers because of these cycles. This year, let us strengthen our commitment to fighting for public policies that will erase employment discrimination and support the ability of diverse women and their families to both survive and thrive.
This year, let us embrace all that we have accomplished and celebrate the strides our Commonwealth has taken. But let us never forget Charlottesville and always remember that the struggle for gender equality must always be linked to the struggle for racial justice, here in Massachusetts and across the country. We need to recommit ourselves to fighting hatred and bigotry wherever and whenever it appears. Let Charlottesville not become a stain upon our nation, but a turning point for building a movement where voting rights are ensured for everyone. Let us make the voting booth a safe and protected space, free from discrimination, and a place where our dream of a peaceful and inclusive democracy is realized.
Ann Bookman is a nationally known researcher and policy expert on women’s issues, work-family integration, women’s leadership and community engagement. She is directs the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at University of Massachusetts Boston, housed at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.
This editorial originally appeared on the MA Office of Economic Empowerment’s website, http://equalpayma.com/en/news/womensequalityday and is reprinted with edits and permission of the author.