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Pay Equity: Calling Out Walmart's Two Wealthiest Women

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Christy and Alice Walton, sisters-in-law and heirs to the considerable fortune accrued by the founding family of Walmart, were recently named first and third of the world's wealthiest women, both respectively entitled to $28.2 and $29.8 billion dollars.

That the two women have gained their success from a company that is known for their predatory business practices is a twisted little irony. Walmart itself has 2.1 million employees; it is the largest single employer in the nation. Aside from failing to pay a livable wage to many of their employees, the company has taken particular advantage of women, yielding a historical class action lawsuit brought on by 1.5 million former and current female employees. As a soon-to-be college graduate, it pains me to consider that in spite of extremely visible success stories like those of the Walton women, they are doing little to change the prejudicial climate within corporate culture.

Disturbingly enough, sex-discrimination in Wal-Mart's corporate infrastructure is statistically traceable. Of their enormous employee base, two-thirds of them are women, yet men occupy no less than 86 percent of the management positions. But in a decision that resonated ominously with working women everywhere, the Supreme Court eventually dismissed the suit on the grounds that the number of plaintiffs was "unmanageable." Each plaintiff was ordered to pursue the charges separately and privately, which is an arduous and prohibitively expensive undertaking.

The employees' inability to utilize a legal mechanism precisely structured to accommodate a collective voice does not bode well for the 99% upon which the Walton family has built their empire. (Actually, to be specific, the Waltons roughly represent 0.000000001 percent, and their employees remain the rest of the 99.9999999 percent of us). Despite the fact that Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when the case was overturned, stated in her minority opinion that "plaintiff's evidence... suggest that gender bias suffused Walmart's company culture," the Walmart women go unvindicated. The Walton women, though, are getting richer and richer with each passing day.

So what is their responsibility here? Walmart's seeming omnipotence is a product of an excessively profitable business model -- that is predicated on low wages, and apparently, male managers. So, it would seem to me, the Walton women have a duty to uphold a similar standard of treatment for the women they employ, one that they themselves enjoy as leaders in the free market and exceptional examples of business-savvy capitalists.

A 2011 study reveals that if Walmart paid their employees a living wage -- at least $12 per hour across the board -- by raising the cost of its products, each customer would pay an extra pay 46 cents per shopping trip. And if management decides that the 46 cent cost differential is too burdensome, then the board of directors themselves (including Alice and Christy) could take the hit and suffer no significant loss to their personal wealth. But the fact that they choose to revel in an almost impossible amount of cash, while their employees hover somewhere around the poverty line, is simply grotesque.

Our legal system's failure to seek justice on behalf of these women illuminates the bitter anti-progressive tang of the Right. Last year, Governor Scott Walker repealed the 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act in Wisconsin, which allowed victims of discrimination to plead their cases in state courts, which is less costly and more accessible than filing a federal case. Although President Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Mitt Romney unsurprisingly remains troublingly noncommittal on the issue. And in a departure from latent hostility to full-blown threats, GOP Spokesperson Jay Townsend takes a cue from the Taliban by recently posting on Facebook, "Let's hurl some acid at those female democratic Senators," presumably in an attempt to rouse his representative's followers. Alarming, to say the least.

The all-girls school, which I attended for most of my education, infused in us a conviction that we, as bright and talented young women, were no different than boys. We had the world at our fingertips. Now that my education is nearing its end, I face a "real world" that is afire with anti-woman and anti-choice rhetoric. The reticence of Alice and Christy Walker to provide a basic sense of equality within their corporation -- well, one can go so far as to say it is a betrayal. Should I find myself in a workplace so fraught with inequity, where is my legal recourse? Conservative politics are chipping away, one by one, at my civil rights, and succeeding in turning back the clock for women.

I am not naïve, nor am I Robin Hood, so I do not expect nor hope to motivate the Walton women to hand out bundles of cash to their blue-vested employees. But I do believe that, as a woman, it is my duty to fight for each person's right to employment and fair wages. Gender discrimination has long since remained the political terrain of the feminist movement -- simply, a woman's issue. But prejudice of this sort and its terrible personal and economic consequences affect not only the female employee, but also middle class families whose financial stability rests on a dual-income.

The future is uncertain. Senate convenes today, June 4, at 2:00 p.m. to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act, an extension of the Equal Pay Act, which will protect victims of discrimination while applying more forceful penalties to violators. Even though the House of Representatives have voted on and passed the act twice, the lack of Republican sponsors threatens to allow the War on Women to play itself out. "The fact that women should be paid equally for equal work," says a representative from the AAUW, "is not a partisan issue. We are hopeful that the Senate will do the right thing."

I am calling upon Alice and Christy Walton to listen to the rising tide of female voices that demand justice in the workplace, to hold their company and themselves to a higher standard. But more importantly, I am calling on people to situate all types of gender discrimination within the matrix of civil rights. We need women, and we need men, Democrats and Republicans, to bear witness to a historical shift, to work together to make this reasonable change, for everyone.

To discuss the Senate's vote and the wage gap, go to #EqualPay.