Feels like Spring: Souter, 100 Days and Equal Pay

05/04/2009 02:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Suddenly, it feels like Spring! Supreme Court Justice David Souter is expected to resign as we hold our collective breaths for the appointment of a female legal eagle! President Obama just marked his first 100 days in office looking back on many initiatives aimed at boosting economic security, including his signing of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act! And last Tuesday, the National Council for Research on Women joined a wave of
grassroots and advocacy organizations in observing Equal Pay Day.

We posted comments on our blog, The REAL Deal -- reminding folks that despite all our efforts these past three decades, so much is still left to do. We need to roll up our sleeves and demand Fair Pay Now! And our network has been painting the blogosphere red with sobering statistics and cutting-edge commentary. The National Women's Law Center compiled a list of bloggers, tweeters, and Facebook users for Fair Pay. Over at Making Change: 9 to 5 they highlighted the importance of flex-time policies for rectifying the current penalization of women saddled with care-giving responsibilities. Open Salon drew a portrait of the human cost of pay inequity through the personal stories of those who have felt its impact. Heidi Brown at Forbes Women continued this humanizing trend by retelling the story of Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And RH Reality Check featured a piece by Judy Waxman, drawing the connection between fair pay and reproductive health. Said Waxman, "a fair paycheck can do many things for a woman. Perhaps one of the most important is ensuring she can make her own reproductive choices."

At the Council, we strongly believe in the power of research to inspire change. The research on pay disparity reveals a clear case of injustice: this problem is not going away anytime soon and women and families around the nation are directly harmed by wage discrimination. According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study, in 7 out of the 10 industries that employ 70% of women in the workforce, the pay gap actually increased between 1995 and 2000. Another GAO report demonstrated that pay inequity is a matter of discrimination: only 80% of the gap in women's and men's earnings can be explained by the combined effects of differences in worker characteristics like work experience, time out of the labor force, education, industry and occupation, unionization, and work hours. Two of our member centers, Legal Momentum and the American Association of University Women confirmed that wages have not kept pace with the rise in women's educational attainment in the past three decades. In 2006, women were 5% more likely to graduate from high school and 25% more likely to have a Bachelor's degree, but they still earned 25% less than their male counterparts with the same educational attainment. This wage gap results in a loss of $434,000 in lifetime earnings for women. Furthermore, if women earned the same amount as their male counterparts, their annual family income would rise on average by about $4,000 per year and their poverty rates would be cut by half or more. With the current economic downturn, securing pay equity is vital to the survival of our nation's families as women increasingly become primary breadwinners.

Last Wednesday, President Obama marked his first 100 days in the Oval Office. And believe me, friends of the Council had plenty to say. The American Association of University Women applauded the increase in Pell Grant funding and urged the Administration to keep expanding women and girls' educational opportunities by protecting and strengthening Title IX. Nicole Mason of the Women of Color Policy Network at NYU's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, commended Obama's numerous nominations and appointments of women of color to his administration, calling it a "watershed moment in the history of women of color in this country." Peggy Simpson over at Women's Media Center said that feminist advocates were integral to making Obama's first 100 days so successful, including steering the stimulus package away from over-reliance on "shovel-ready" jobs. Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority, encouraged people to "savor the beginning of what promises to be a long list of Obama achievements for women." These achievements include releasing $50 million in funds to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) which supports women's reproductive health around the world; reinstituting the White House Council on Women and Girls; signing an executive order removing limitations on stem cell research by the NIH; and rescinding the Global Gag Rule; and expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Bill.

Even with these wonderful steps, we need to remain vigilant that progress for women does not stagnate as we move beyond the inaugural 100-day green room into the main arena over the next four years. After all, as Kim Gandy of the National Organization for Women wrote, "when women's advocates are not at the table, the outcome is not the same for women." And despite progress, we're still well below achieving a critical mass, not to mention gender parity, in government.

If ever there was a time for robust research, creative thinking, and renewed activism, this is it. We are caught in a unique moment of economic pessimism and political optimism. It is time to put on our thinking caps, reach across the divide of unlikely partnerships, and make progress on issues that matter most to women and girls. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy the Spring while it lasts.