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Deborah J. Vagins Headshot

The State of Women's Rights: 2012 or 1963?

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Discussion of women's rights is back on the front pages these days. But it has been a curious discussion. Instead of talking about advancing new rights, as women are more likely than ever to be their families' breadwinners, in management positions in the workforce and hold advanced academic degrees, we find ourselves re-litigating decades-old policy debates, which secured basic rights for women's autonomy -- like access to contraception, equality in education funding and getting equal pay for equal work.

I find it surprising that, in 2012, presidential candidates and pundits are debating issues so central -- and so seemingly settled -- to women's equality. Take the issue of pay equity. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which secured workplace protections for compensation and other forms of discrimination, were passed almost 50 years ago. Yet, in looking at the ACLU's Liberty Watch Women's Rights Scorecard, it's clear not all of the presidential candidates agree on the need to continue these protections, let alone enact new legal tools to close the ongoing gender wage gap. And it is not just national figures; indeed, the governor of Wisconsin just signed a law repealing that state's equal pay law.

Let there be no doubt that updates to improve the effectiveness of our fair pay laws are needed. Women, on average, continue to earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men -- just 17 cents more than when President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963. For women of color, the progress has been even slower.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would enable President Kennedy's vision to be fully realized. Among other things, it would amend the Equal Pay Act to require employers to demonstrate that disparities in pay between men and women working the same job result from factors other than sex. It would also prohibit retaliation against employees who inquire about their employers' wage practices or disclose their own pay to colleagues and strengthen penalties for equal pay violations.

Women fought for and won the right to receive equal pay for equal work. And because more needs to be done to achieve it, it's hard to believe that such basic rights are even being debated. Not all women view these issues the same way. Indeed, part of the freedom of equality is that we are not, and should not be, viewed as a monolith. But money is a great equalizer in the fight for equal rights -- should anyone who has done the work to earn a dollar be told they are only worth a fraction of that? Isn't that a lesson we all learned 50 years ago?

It's a lesson we hope we will reverberate throughout the presidential campaign and every federal and state election this fall.