What’s Next? How the New Class of Congresswomen Will Change the Game for Women
Nov 26, 2018
With the largest class of female legislators poised to take office in January, there is a lot at stake for women.
MAKERS talked to the leading activists and advocates of the most pressing women's issues from equal pay to women's health to break down what the Women's Wave could actually mean for equality in America.
Paid Leave and Equal Pay
With more women at the federal, state, and city level in power, Debra Ness, the President of National Partnerships for Women & Families, hopes that there will (finally) be more legislation passed to support working parents and their children.
According to Ness, equal pay, paid parental and sick leave, and protection for pregnant women are all intertwined issues that determine "whether or not women have the opportunity to achieve economic security and whether they have the opportunity to really fully participate in our society," says Ness.
"Others may think of these as 'benefits.' We think of this as essential workplace policies and the absence of these policies is every bit as discriminatory as not paying women the same as men."
Ness sees great progress in the victories of Abby Finkenauer in Iowa, Lauren Underwood in Illinois, Jennifer Wexton in Virginia, Donna Shalala in Florida–all of whom ran on platforms that put primary caregivers, a majority of whom are women, and families first. These representatives have promised to ensure access to paid family leave, family planning services, and a range of reproductive healthcare.
Ness wants to cut down on gender discrimination in the workplace through the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to "help end this discrimination and promote the health and economic security of pregnant women" and the Paycheck Fairness Act to ensure equal pay for equal work for men and women.
To the benefit of the whole family, Ness hopes to push through the Family and Medical Insurance (FAMILY) Act, which would establish a national paid leave program, and the Healthy Families Act, which ensures protected paid sick days each year for employees.
"I think you'll see much more attention paid to these economic equality issues. It hurts men just as much as women when their wives who are co-providers in their families are not being paid equally. So I think like pay and paid leave— they matter to families," says Ness. "These are the things that really make a difference to people's ability to thrive and succeed."
"This was a rebellion."
That's what attorney and human rights activist Christina Fialho thinks about the historic midterm election results.
"People went out and voted, saying they aren't going to take [the president's] anti-immigrant agenda," says Fialho, who co-founded Freedom for Immigrants, a non-profit that seeks to support and free immigrants detainees across the nation.
With 23 percent of voters saying that immigration was their number one issue, Fialho takes stock in the fact that people are passionate about immigration. "It's been a bipartisan issue that people need to pay attention to regardless of who is in power."
The past year revealed to the nation how the president's anti-immigration legislation, particularly the "zero-tolerance" policy, has widely impacted families, as the nation saw images of children being torn from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, women have been the "driving force" behind the movement to end the separation of families and provide aid to wives and mothers separated from their loved ones. "A majority of our facilitated visitation programs around the country are either run by women or composed of mostly of female volunteers," says Fialho.
While the immigration activist was excited about all the historic female firsts that were announced on Nov. 6, Fialho reveled in the wins of Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a former refugee from Somalia and one of the first Muslim women in Congress alongside Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Wins such as Omar's show that "voters decided to vote against bigotry and backward views on immigration."
"We need our newly elected representatives to be speaking up about what's happening in their own communities and advocating against private immigrant prisons or their local county jails contracted by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), both of which are profiting off of people's misery and separating families," says Fialho.
One tangible way they can do that is by passing the Detention Oversight Not Expansion (DONE) Act, a bicameral bill introduced by Senator Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. The proposed bill would increase oversight of ICE detention centers and halt funds for construction and expansion of these facilities. "We need people stepping up and saying that we don't need to be responding to migration through incarceration."
According to Sarah McBride, the National Press Secretary for Human Rights Campaign, the LGBTQ community across the nation should not only breathe a sigh of relief but celebrate what has been "a clear victory for justice and equality."
LGBTQ rights have been under attack since the current president's first day in office. The president has since deleted the LGBTQ rights page from the White House website, tweeted his support of removing transgender people from the U.S. armed forces, and erased LGBTQ categories from the 2020 census. In recent weeks, reports revealed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources planned on creating a rigid definition of sex under Title IX in a move that advocates say threatens trans rights.
"Voters across the nation spoke out, fought back, and helped to pull the emergency brake on the [current] administration's divisive policies when it comes to LGBTQ equality and gender equity," McBride told MAKERS.
On the federal level, McBride points to all the pro-equality candidates who will be joining the 116th Congress, especially Democratic Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Sharice Davids of Kansas, the state's first openly gay representative. In the Senate, McBride also celebrated the win in the re-election of Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin, the country's first openly gay elected official.
Meanwhile, on the state level, there were two major wins for the LGBTQ community. In New York, McBride is hopeful for the Gender Expression Nondiscrimination Act which "prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression and includes offenses regarding gender identity or expression under the hate crimes statute." Now that the New York State Senate flipped to blue and with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's vocal support, McBride believes the state bill will inevitably get passed.
In what McBride considers a "true test of trans equality" in Massachusetts, question 3 on ballots asked voters if a current state law that bans discrimination against transgender people should remain in effect. The answer? An overwhelming majority voted to keep it intact, shutting down efforts to rescind transgender protections.
With the incoming pro-equality leadership in the House, McBride hopes that this Congress will be the first chamber to pass The Equality Act. The legislation would provide "consistent and explicit non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people across key areas of life, including employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs, and jury service."
Workers' Rights and Minimum Wage
According to the National Women's Law Center, women make up a majority of minimum wage workers in virtually every state— and more often than not, these women are working full-time and supporting children.
For Mónica Ramírez, founder of Justice for Migrant Women, having more women at every level of government makes her hopeful for low-income workers. In particular, "for the 700,000 farmworker women in this country and their children, as well as other domestic workers across the country and women who are in low-wage jobs who have families, the possibility of having legislation pass that's going to be favorable to those women and their children is exciting."
"The majority of low-wage workers are women of color," Ramirez explains. "The fact that there are more women of color at all levels of government, we believe that there is a higher likelihood that those individuals will take our experiences and our voices with them when they're passing laws at the state and federal level."
However, the election of the first two Latina congresswomen to represent Texas, Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia, is a particularly important victory for migrant women.
"One of the things that we've tried to do over the years is to educate political leaders about the experiences of Latina workers, specifically those who work in the field," says Ramirez. Because both elected officials come from congressional districts that have large populations of migrant women, "we don't have to explain anything to them because they are from our community. We believe that when you have people who look like you and have lived experiences like yours, then you're represented at the table."
Ramirez says her top priority is to "ensure that farmworker women have the same minimum protections" as other workers in the U.S.
In addition to closing the gender pay gap for Latina women (Hispanic women on average make 53 cents to a dollar of a white non-Hispanic man), Ramirez is invested in addressing the injustices of the anti-discrimination and anti-sexual harassment law in Title VII, the anti-discrimination labor law that only protects employees who work in companies that have 15 or more workers.
"All workers, no matter where they're working, should be protected by our federal law," says the Ramirez, who is also a founding member of Time's Up. "No companies and no employers should be given the opportunity to treat different workers differently just based on the industry that they're working in."
Under 45's administration, women's reproductive health has been under attack. In particular, Planned Parenthood has faced financial rollbacks on its family-planning programs with aggressive efforts to turn its teen pregnancy programs into abstinence programs and end grant agreements for the organization. All the while, a woman's right to a legal abortion continues to hang in the balance with the shifts in the Supreme Court. That's when women realized exactly who would best protect their bodies and their choices— themselves.
"There are far more elected officials today who we know are going to be in a position to protect and expand sexual and reproductive health in this country, and of course, that didn't happen by accident," says Dawn Laguens, the Executive Vice President of Planned Parenthood. "This came on the heels of four million women and allies marching in the Women's March. This election was led by women voters and women candidates."
A majority blue House means that federal legislative defunding of Planned Parenthood is likely off the table. According to Laguens, there's also a significant promise for the protection and expansion of women's health at the state level with the number of pro-choice Democratic female governors tripling in this election alone.
Laguens thinks Kansas is a sign of positive change to come. With the victory of governor-elect Laura Kelly, there will be an end to the string of more than 30 abortion restrictions signed into law by the state's previous governor. "Laura Kelly is going to change the game for women in Kansas," says Laguens. "Now they have somebody who knows the important role that Planned Parenthood plays in health care in the country."
With women's health advocates in place on Capitol Hill, Laguens says Planned Parenthood will now focus on issues on the state level. "We know that's where the rubber really hits the road for giving women care," says Laguen. "To turn those state legislatures will make a much better map for women's health in 2020."
However, the biggest question of women's reproductive health lies in the fate of Roe v. Wade. With the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, many women's health advocates fear that the right to a legal abortion is in jeopardy. According to Laguens, the fight for women's right to choose across the nation will rely on allies from every level of government. "The Supreme Court was a huge loss. So we're going to need every level of government to ensure that your zip code doesn't define the healthcare and rights you have."