On the road to parity, where is the real debate?
At Tuesday’s debate, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney offered glimmers of proof that when it comes to women’s economic parity, he takes a solidly conservative approach. However, in appealing to social conservatives, Romney’s personal stance may have been solidified at the expense of a host of real issues facing women. What Romney thinks of these, we do not yet know.
A question from a woman in the Town Hall-style audience asked specifically what each candidate would do about the fact that women currently earn 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. President Obama offered a cursory reference to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – heralded as one of his first great policy accomplishments, and one that addressed women’s economic issues.
Romney’s response, which offered no concrete policy position, included the following:
“I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said: ‘I can’t be here until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. I need to be able to get home at 5 o’clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school.’ So we said fine. Let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.”
He went on to discuss the need for better jobs for Americans in general. The specific question about pay inequity was left largely un-addressed.
His response indicates that Romney is unable or unwilling to talk to the center-left wing of women voters who are mystified by why making dinner belongs in a response to a question about the wage gap. Incidentally, his response to the question about gun control expounded on the importance of marriage — a nod to those who feel marriage is the best solution to poverty-induced violence.
There were several other issues of concern to women’s economic parity that were never mentioned during the debate – so glimmers of Romney’s experiences as governor of Massachusetts is all we really heard. And indeed, while Obama’s policies and rhetoric have been much more aligned with women’s economic parity, he ignored these issues as well.
For example, a policy issued this week by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will enable stay-at-home parents, who are overwhelmingly women, to qualify for credit cards without hassle. The policy is seeking to change regulations made in 2009 by the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act, which had resulted in regulations that make it difficult for stay-at-home parents to qualify for credit cards if they don’t have earnings of their own. Instead of illustrating the idea that women are successful in jobs if they are allowed flexibility to do “women’s work” at home – feeding their kids and putting them to bed – Romney could have talked about this issue to identify the need for the labor of stay-at-home mothers to become visible to credit markets. A discussion about access to credit is one the presidential candidates absolutely ought to have — it offers insight into whether the labor of stay-at-home parents would be valued by either candidate.
Also absent from the debate was any mention of the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would seriously advance women’s abilities to demand fair pay treatment that recently failed to pass in Congress. The act would provide employees with information about salaries and require employers to justify wage discrepancies. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act only expanded rights to file complaints against company pay decisions that the Supreme Court had refused in 2007’s Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
Among the litany of other policies that received no airtime include decreases in child care assistance funds, protections for pregnant workers, and improved labor conditions for domestic workers. Last week the National Women’s Law Center issued a report discussing the fact that assistance for families who require child care — in part because both parents work — is becoming harder for poor Americans to access. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) is a bill recently introduced in the Senate that could protect pregnant women in labor-intensive positions who are still at a higher risk of being fired when their doctor instructs them not to perform their regularly assigned duties. And the movement on behalf of domestic workers is gaining traction in states throughout the country to help bring to light to the fact that nannies, caregivers and other domestic workers, who are mostly women, are largely unprotected and invisible in labor protections.
At a time when women’s relationships to domestic labor and its impact on their economic status continue to be precarious as well as hotly debated among women across class lines, as men increasingly take on domestic responsibilities, Romney’s framing of the issues seems particularly out of touch. Women voters who are watching may need to accept that Romney’s conservative values will offer little or no help in their continued struggle for economic equity.
PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (R) speak directly to each other during the second U.S. presidential campaign debate in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012. REUTERS/Win McNamee/POOL