When President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law 50 years ago this coming Monday, a gallon of gas cost 25 cents. A newfangled gizmo had just been introduced--the touchtone phone. And the top pop act of the year was Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, known for their hit song, "Sugar Shack."
Just 25 million American women were employed in June 1963. And, as President Kennedy lamented in an Oval Office address that day, women were being paid on average only 60 cents for every dollar men earned. The new Equal Pay legislation, President Kennedy pledged, would end the "unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job."
Today, five decades later, Sugar Shack is mercifully off the charts. But women's wages still lag far behind. Women today are paid just 77 cents to every dollar for men. While we clearly have made major strides since 1963, true parity in the workplace continues to elude us.
We learned this past week why income disparity truly matters. Using new US Census data, the Pew Research Center revealed that a record 40 percent of all US households with children under 18 include mothers who are the sole or primary source of income. A startling 63 percent of these breadwinner moms are unmarried women living on the edge. Compared with their married peers, single-mother breadwinners earn an average of $23,000 per year and are more likely to be younger, black or Latina and have less education than a college degree. By contrast, the median household income for married women who earn more than their husbands is $80,000, the Pew report found.
But it's not just breadwinner single moms who are suffering. In 2012, unmarried women in general made just 63 cents compared to every dollar a married man earned, according to a report by Lake Research Partners and our sister group, the Voter Participation Center. For unmarried women with children, the gap grows larger: unmarried women with children under the age of 18 made 57 cents to the dollar when compared to a married man. And for unmarried women with children under the age of 6, the figure is a startling 48 cents to the dollar.
As an organization, we focus on unmarried women and the Rising American Electorate (RAE) because they represent the new American majority. The RAE--which includes unmarried women, African Americans, Latinos, other people of color and youth ages 18-29--make up 54 percent of all eligible U.S. voters. If politicians want to appeal to the new majority of American voters, they simply can't ignore breadwinner single moms--or the needs and disparate voices of the rest of the Rising American Electorate.
Sadly, the economic needs of the RAE are being ignored. In a recent survey that the Women's Voices. Women Vote Action Fund conducted, we confirmed that a vast number of single American women had experienced economic hard times within the past year. Our research found that 68 percent of RAE members had to scale back purchases at the grocery store. Forty percent reported the loss of a job. And 39 percent experienced reduced wages, hours or benefits at work.
Nonetheless, working mothers don't seem to be getting much respect. Just this week, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant asserted that America had become "mediocre" after women started leaving the home to earn a living. At a Washington Post Live event on child literacy, Bryant was asked, "How did America get to be so mediocre?" He replied, "I think both parents started working. And the mom is in the workplace." Earlier in the week on NBC's "Meet the Press," Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said that women "don't want" equal pay laws. Blackburn said that women don't want workplace fair-pay laws because they "want to be able to have the power and the control and the ability to make those decisions for themselves."
As the Equal Pay Act nears its 50th anniversary, we should remember President Kennedy's call to end the "unconscionable practice" of paying women less than men for the same job. Unmarried women in particular deserve our support. They represent a fifth of the workforce and a fifth of all home buyers and contribute significantly to the economy. But they have been suffering disproportionately from the economic downturn. Politicians of both parties will disregard them, and their economic needs, at their own peril.
Women's Voices. Women's Vote Action Fund (WVWVAF) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501 (c)(4) organization founded in 2005 and dedicated to increasing the voting participation and issue advocacy of unmarried women. Increasing the number of unmarried women and other progressives who register, turn out and participate in our democracy and our government is the primary goal of WVWVAF. To that end, the Action Fund uses innovative, research-driven voter education, get out the vote and advocacy programs, advertising and messaging to engage and provide unmarried women with access to the ballot and information that gives them a stake in the outcome of political debates and elections. Learn more at www.wvwvaf.org.