We Need Equal Rights for All Women

It is 2016, and the work begun over a century ago to secure equal rights for women in the United States remains grossly undone. Yes, women won the right to vote, but women’s rights are not legally protected, especially those of transgender women.

In 2011, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said, “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.”

You may be surprised to know that the Equal Rights Amendment, which passed Congress in 1972, never reached the required ratification by 38 states that it needed within ten years in order to amend the Constitution. Since its failure, the ERA has been introduced in Congress every session, but has not advanced out of committee.

One can only guess why Congress has not taken action to fully protect women’s rights. Perhaps it is because it is an advantage to businesses to be able to pay women significantly less than men for the same job. Nationally, the median earnings for all women is 79 cents for each dollar that a man makes.  For black women, it is 64 cents, and for Latina, women it is 54 cents.

Decades and generations of discrimination against working women have created a cycle of economic instability and wealth inequality. For example, home ownership is a common way to build individual wealth. Because of the pay gap, women are not able to buy homes that are as expensive as the one’s men buy, nor are women able to buy homes in neighborhoods that are as nice as the places where men buy homes. This means that men’s homes appreciate at a faster rate and reach higher levels of value than homes owned by women.

The gender wealth gap has been growing since 1998. In her 2011 study, “Shortchanged,” Mariko Chang found that women have 36% as much wealth as men, and single women only have 6% of the wealth of single men. Wealth is critical because it signifies economic stability and whether a person can handle financial emergencies and periods of unemployment or have collateral to borrow money. Women of color have an even greater wealth disparity.

Rather than equal rights for women, we need to consider equitable rights for women. Steps that are taken must repair the damage that has been done. In addition to pay raises and better benefits, women will need, for example, greater access to low interest loans for education or starting a business and assistance with buying a house. Women will also need stronger protections when they give birth and during a divorce so that they do not lose financial stability.

And finally, in 2016, we must protect the rights of all women, including transgender women, who are discriminated against the most. After transition, pay for transgender women can fall by as much as a third, and they face greater discrimination in hiring and firing.

The time is past due to protect the rights of all women and repair the damage done by generations of wealth inequality on women and their families.

On Tuesday night, I attended an event organized by the Natalie White March for Equal Rights. Natalie White, a young performance artist, is dedicating herself to gaining women’s rights. She asked me what it will take to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. My answer was that the first step is education: people need to be aware that the Constitution still doesn’t protect women’s rights. The second step is to understand how women’s rights are connected to other important issues in order to build a broad movement in support of women’s rights. In addition to wealth, discrimination against women impacts levels of violence, health, education and more. And the third step is to make the demand in Congress and in the states that the ERA be completed.

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The reality is that Congress and the startes are not going to protect women’s rights without a fight. The movement for women’s rights will need to look to Alice Paul, the author of the first Equal Rights Amendment and a fierce suffragette, for guidance. Alice Paul was strategic in challenging the re-election of Democrats who failed to support women’s right to vote and creating a third party, the National Woman’s Party. She also took courageous direct action at great personal risk.

As a Senator, and a woman, I will work to secure the rights of all women and all who are oppressed.

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