She must have noticed the frown on my face. Or maybe she could tell by the way I shook my head that I was frustrated.
"What's wrong, mama?" my 5-year-old asked in the middle of dinner Tuesday night. "Is the news saying something bad?"
I put down my fork. I wiped my lips and wondered how, exactly, to answer her questions. The news report was a bit complicated for a kindergartener: The Senate had just rejected the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have ensured that men and women receive equal pay for equal work, and would have required employers to prove that any gaps in pay are not gender-related.
But my daughter, Angela, is the most perceptive child I've ever met. When it comes to explaining things to her, honesty is always my policy.
"Well, the people who make laws in our country think it's OK that girls earn less than boys for doing the same jobs," I said. "They had a chance to change that, but they decided not to."
I told her to imagine that she and her classmate, Patrick, had the same job in kindergarten, only she earned 77 pennies while Patrick earned 100 pennies.
Angela was quiet for a moment. Then indignation spread across her face, just as it must have spread across my own a few minutes earlier.
"I think that's awful," she said. "We should have the exact same amount of money. Girls are as good as boys. People are the same."
Shouldn't it really be as simple as that?
Every Republican in the Senate opposed the Paycheck Fairness Act, including Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins -- two women I admired when I was a kid in my home state of Maine. Those who voted against the measure said it would lead to frivolous litigation and hurt small businesses. Marco Rubio, a senator from Florida, called it "some sort of welfare plan for trial lawyers." I'm sad that, in their minds, business trumps humanity.
While I managed to express in kindergarten-friendly terms what the Senate had done, I wasn't able to answer Angela's more important question: "Why would they do that, mama?" she asked.
"Honey, I don't know," I told her. And that's the truth.
I don't know how elected officials can, in good conscience, reject a bill that would help almost every family in America. A few extra bucks in a paycheck could pay for groceries and gas. Several thousand dollars over the course of a career could boost a retirement plan or start a college fund for inquisitive kindergarteners who will one day be high school graduates.
In Angela's world, there are very few differences between being a boy and being a girl. She loves the color blue, hates wearing dresses and would rather play super heroes than Barbie dolls. News about the Paycheck Fairness Act might have been her first clue that, outside of her 5-year-old universe, boys and girls are valued differently.
I have always told my daughter that she can be anything she wants to be. Most days, she wants to be a shark trainer. Other days, it's an astronaut or a movie director. More than once, she has said she would like to be President of the United States.
No matter what she becomes, Angela may never be compensated fairly under federal law. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 narrowed but failed to close the pay gap between men and women. And 49 years later, the Paycheck Fairness Act is all but dead in the water.
How much longer must we wait before Congress realizes what my daughter has already figured out -- that boys and girls deserve the same number of pennies?
"They don't understand what we think or how we feel," Angela said. "It's almost as though they don't care."
It almost seems that way, doesn't it?
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