Translating Women's Political Gains into Economic Power

08/26/2010 12:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Rep. Carolyn Maloney U.S. Representative for New York's 12th District; Ranking Democrat, Joint Economic Committee

Over 25 years ago, Geraldine Ferraro was nominated as the Democratic Party's Vice Presidential candidate, shattering the political glass ceiling and ushering in a new era of political leadership for women.

As the first female Chair of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, I wanted to know if women's political gains have translated into economic gains for women. A report released this week by the Joint Economic Committee, "Women and the Economy 2010: 25 Years of Progress But Challenges Remain," confirms the concurrent economic strength of women as they have gained politically power.

The report is a tale of progress, but also one of challenges. Women work more, earn more, and are more educated today than they were 25 years ago. Yet, women, and in particular working mothers, run up against a stubborn pay gap, continued barriers to employment in key sectors of the economy, and persistent tension between work and family responsibilities.

The report finds that working women's incomes play an increasingly critical role in the economic well-being of families. Families depend on women's earnings to pay for housing, clothing, groceries, and children's college education. Two facts from the report clearly illustrate just how central women's earnings have become over the past 25 years to many families' economic bottom line.

  • In 1983, wives' incomes comprised just 29 percent of total family income. But by 2008, wives' incomes represented 36 percent of total family income.
  • Between 1983 and 2008, married couples with a working wife experienced average annual income growth of 1.12 percent, while married couples with a stay-at-home wife saw their average annual incomes decline by 0.22 percent per year.

The report also points out that challenges remain if women are to be stronger contributors to America's economic progress. While more women are working and women now make up nearly half of the workforce, a significant gender wage gap still persists. The average full-time working woman only earns 80 cents for every dollar earned by the average full-time working man.

And women are still significantly underrepresented in certain sectors of the economy that provide good jobs without a college degree, like manufacturing and construction.

Democrats in Congress have worked for legislation that acknowledges the challenges that women still face in the workplace and seeks to improve their ability to meet these challenges. I am proud that the first piece of legislation that President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which gave women the right to challenge illegal wage discrimination. But our efforts have not stopped there. Democratic women have continued the legacy of Geraldine Ferraro and have shaped policies that are central to women's economic well-being including family and medical leave, child care, health care, and equal pay.

American women have shown the world that change can happen. And today, with a growing share of women working, and women earning a growing share of their families' income, women stand poised to be the engine of economic growth as the United States recovers from the Great Recession.

Today we celebrate the 90th anniversary of women's right to vote and pay tribute to those women whose votes both in the ballot box and in our legislative chambers have created economic opportunities for all Americans. While we have come a long way, there is still more work to be done to achieve equality in the workplace so that the economic power behind half of our labor force is fully unleashed.

Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney represents parts of Queens and Manhattan in the U.S. House of Representatives where she is the Chair of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee.