A New Focus on Women’s Equality with a Record Number of Women in Congress?

Slowly but surely, changes are occurring in the demographic makeup of Congress. One change worth celebrating is the record number of women elected to represent Americans nationwide. While the US lags far behind other nations such as Rwanda or Sweden in this regard, more and more women are getting elected to Congress. With these changes, many are wondering if the record number of women in Congress will lead to policy changes that will directly improve the lives of women around the nation.

Women today often face greater economic hardships than their male counterparts. Many are hopeful that the newly elected representatives will be powerful advocates for their fellow women, perhaps focusing on issues that have been overlooked in the past. In doing so, our nation’s oldest boys’ club might begin to better understand how to help women thrive in today’s economy, a critical element in establishing the common good. The first response to this economy that excludes is ensuring equal pay

Today, women earn 77 cents for every dollar that a man earns. In 2013, Representative Eleanor Holmes sponsored the Fair Pay Act in an attempt to level the playing field and make it harder for this pay gap to continue. The Fair Pay Act was intended to amend current law to “prohibit discrimination of wages on account of sex, race, or national origin.” But the House of Representatives failed to pass this bill. With more women in Congress than ever, it is essential to keep pushing for passage of this legislation.

Lifting women and their families out of poverty requires specific policy changes that promote equality by alleviating the burdens motherhood can create in the workplace. Single motherhood has grown tremendously in the past 50 years, forcing many women to choose between spending quality time with their children and putting food on the table. No one should ever have to choose between the two, but the realities of motherhood are becoming more difficult in today’s economy.

Two of the best ways Congress can help mothers in the workplace is by making childcare more accessible and instituting federally-mandated paid family leave.

In late 2014, the House turned their attention to childcare and amended the Child Care and Development Block Grant to more carefully monitor health and safety at the daycare centers funded by the grant. While the bill did provide for additional funding and eliminated confusion that caused children to be removed from the program, the additional funding still falls short in making the program accessible to all those in desperate need of assistance.

While the issue of childcare has not entirely escaped the attention of Congress, the idea of federally-mandated paid family leave is often overlooked entirely. The United States is the only Western country that does not have a paid maternity or family leave program. Outside of a handful of states, most working mothers must rely on the policies of individual businesses if they hope to have paid maternity leave. If Congress passes the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, parents will be allowed 12 weeks of paid leave at two-thirds of their previous salary (up to a cap). This will provide needed relief to women, in particular, who are already anxious about the financial demands that will come once their baby is born.

Paid family leave and accessible childcare would be a welcome and badly-needed step in the right direction, but these are only partial solutions to fix an economic system that leaves too many behind, including millions of women and mothers.

This is particularly true of low-income women. The cost of living has drastically increased in recent decades while the minimum wage has not kept pace. Getting paid a minimum wage job is no longer sufficient to provide for one person, let alone an entire family.

Congress can change this and do so with the approval of numerous business leaders and the support of many Republicans, but they simply refuse. In the past thirty years, Congress has only raised the federal minimum wage three times. Since women make up two thirds of minimum wage workers, Congress’ failure on this issue disproportionately hurts women.

A combination of these policies enacted together would certainly help not only women, but all hard-working Americans faced with the daily terror of failing to make ends meet. As President Obama said in his 2014 State of the Union address and echoed once again this year, “When women succeed, America succeeds.”

Jennifer Labbadia is a Jesuit Volunteer who lives and works in Washington, DC. She graduated from Fairfield University in 2013 with a degree in politics and English literature.