Saying no to equality for NC women

Roberta Madden
Guest columnist

Forty years ago, 90 percent of Iceland’s women took “a day off,” refusing to work, cook, or tend the children. In a powerful strike for equality, 25,000 women from all walks of life gathered on a Friday in the capital city of Reykjavik to listen to speeches, sing, and talk about issues. Schools, stores, businesses and other institutions shut down as Icelandic society nearly came to a standstill. Ten years later, 50,000 people rallied in Iceland’s capital to protest that some inequities remained.

Meanwhile, Icelandic voters elected the world’s first democratically elected female president. Although women there do not yet enjoy complete pay parity, Iceland does have the narrowest pay gap in the world, while other inequities have been resolved. In 2011 Newsweek named Iceland the best place in the world for women on health, education, economics, politics and justice.

Sadly, when it comes to women’s rights, the United States lags far behind Iceland and many other nations. American women still lack equal pay, and at the present snail’s pace will not get it until 2058. On average, women take home only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men. Even more drastic are the figures for women of color: 68 cents for black women and 57 cents for Hispanic women. Over the course of their working lives, American women are paid anywhere from $700,000 to $2 million less than their male colleagues.

North Carolina women working full time lose a combined total of about $10 billion annually due to sex discrimination in pay. Women are primary breadwinners in over 500,000 of our state’s families, and more than a third of these families live below the poverty line.

Do these inequities persist because of a lack of respect for women? Some recent statements from elected officials around the country make it hard to conclude otherwise.

•A South Carolina legislator said women are “a lesser cut of meat.”

•A New Hampshire legislator predicted that a congresswoman would lose because she’s “ugly as sin.”

•An Arizona politician suggested that women on Medicaid should be sterilized.

•A prominent Florida politician proposed that women on welfare “should be able to get their life together and find a husband.”

•A North Carolina state senator told me (jokingly, I hope) that women already have more rights than men.

Even more offensive than hateful statements and attitudes, however, is the simple failure of lawmakers to pass meaningful laws promoting equality.

Here in North Carolina, for instance, the General Assembly recently failed yet again to pass legislation ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment — the proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee equality of rights under the law for all Americans, regardless of their gender. The measure, House Bill 166, introduced by Rep. Carla Cunningham and 31 others, had been assigned to the Judiciary 1 Committee. However, committee chairman Leo Daughtry refused to schedule a hearing. “I don’t think it’s critical at this time,” he said, claiming that great progress has already been made in gender equality. Across the hall, Senate Bill 184 by Sens. Floyd McKissick and Terry Van Duyn died in the Rules Committee, often considered the graveyard for progressive legislation.

Because the deadline has run out for legislation to pass the House or Senate to be considered in the other chamber in next year’s short session of the General Assembly, North Carolina women must now wait until 2017, the next long session, for equal rights to be considered.

The Equal Rights Amendment would provide bedrock constitutional protection against discrimination in employment, voting rights, the justice system, and access to health care — all areas where inequities persist.

Most nations guarantee equal rights under their constitutions, but the Equal Rights Amendment has languished on American women’s agenda for 92 years.

I wonder what would happen if 90 percent of our women followed the example of Icelandic women and went on strike?

Roberta Madden of Black Mountain is co-director of RATIFY ERA-NC. This article originally appeared in N.C. Policy Watch’s Progressive Voices.