How Congress Can Improve the Lives of Women and Girls
Congress designated August 26 as Women’s Equality Day in 1971. Forty-five years later, lawmakers can and should do more to make that notion a reality.
We recognize there are women and girls within and across all of the communities we represent — African-American, Latino, Asian American, LGBTQ and Native American people, immigrants, people with disabilities, people of faith, working families, and low-income people — and that all of the issues we care deeply about are issues that greatly impact the lives of women and girls. We could list hundreds of policies still needed today to improve women’s equality, but in honor of Friday’s anniversary of the 19th Amendment, here are 19 things Congress could do right now:
1. Ratify CEDAW.
President Carter signed the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) more than 36 years ago, but the U.S. Senate still hasn’t ratified it. A campaign to implement local CEDAW ordinances is underway across the country, but it’s time for the Senate to finally ratify the international human rights treaty and affirm that women’s rights are human rights.
2. Ensure equal pay for equal work.
Lawmakers reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act in March 2015 to help narrow the gender pay gap. Seventeen months later, the bill is languishing in both chambers of Congress — with just one Republican cosponsor.
3. Pass comprehensive nondiscrimination protections.
Congress should modernize civil rights protections in employment as well as public accommodations, housing, access to credit, and other areas of life through legislation like the Equality Act.
4. Prevent pregnancy discrimination.
In June 2015, Congress reintroduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers and prevent employers from discriminating against pregnant women in the hiring process. Both Senate and House versions have bipartisan support but remain stalled.
5. Raise the minimum wage.
It’s been more than seven years since the federal minimum wage rose to $7.25 per hour. That needs to be increased, and the subminimum wage for tipped working people — which has been frozen at $2.13 per hour now for a quarter century — needs to be eliminated.
6. Provide paid family and medical leave.
Congress should pass legislation, like the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, to create a national paid family and medical leave insurance program and build on the success of programs in the states. The United States is the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee paid family leave — and that needs to change.
7. Ban all forms of discriminatory profiling.
The latest version of the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA) adds gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation as identity categories that law enforcement shouldn’t rely on in their enforcement practices — a recognition that discriminatory profiling takes on gender-specific forms. The bill was reintroduced in Congress in April 2015 and hasn’t budged since.
8. Make sure everyone can vote.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in June 2013, states across the country have made it more difficult to vote for people of color, low-income people, students, and older voters — and that, of course, includes a lot of women. Congress should restore the VRA by passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act and restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people by passing the Democracy Restoration Act.
9. Reform outdated and unfair sentencing laws.
The population of women in prison grew at nearly twice the rate as men between 1977 and 2007, and women are more likely to be in prison for drug and property offenses (while men are more likely to be in prison for violent offenses). Congress can help by passing meaningful sentencing reform legislation.
10. Pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Executive actions taken by President Obama — which a hamstrung Supreme Court deadlocked on in June — are no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform. Congress still needs to pass legislation creating a realistic path to citizenship, protecting the rights of immigrant and citizen workers alike.
11. Diversify the federal bench.
This is the first time three women have sat on the U.S. Supreme Court, and President Obama has appointed more female judges than any other president. But there are currently more than two dozen women awaiting votes in the Senate to fill judicial vacancies, including nine women of color. Confirming them won’t just help to further diversify the federal judiciary — it will help alleviate the nation’s judicial vacancy crisis.
12. Open up employment opportunities.
One in three Americans — or 70 million people — have an arrest or conviction record. That includes millions of women who, as a result, face barriers to employment for the rest of their lives. Congress should pass legislation like the Fair Chance Act to ban the box and stop forcing so many Americans to the margins of society.
13. Eliminate health disparities in all populations.
We must ensure and protect women’s timely access to trusted, quality women’s health providers so they can access comprehensive health services. Congress should pass the Health Equity and Accountability Act, which would provide “federal resources, policies, and infrastructure to eliminate health disparities in all populations, regardless of race, ethnicity, immigration status, age, ability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or English proficiency.”
14. Keep all students safe.
We need legislation to ensure students attend school in a safe, nurturing and welcoming environment, free of bullying, harassment and assault, discrimination, or harsh disciplinary practices. Right now, Black girls account for 20 percent of female enrollment in America’s public schools, but they represent 54 percent of girls receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions.
15. Improve access to broadband.
High-speed Internet today is vital to accessing job opportunities, health care, social services, and education. But for millions of low-income and minority Americans — the people who are in most need of the advantages of broadband — such service is simply out of reach. Recent research suggests governments should prioritize providing women with broadband access because of the link between digital fluency, educational attainment, employment, and workplace equality.
16. Expand access to early childhood education.
Access to high-quality education is a civil and human right. Congress should pass legislation, like the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, which would increase access to quality critical early learning opportunities all children regardless of race, color, or ZIP code.
17. Protect older workers.
A 2009 Supreme Court decision made it more difficult for workers to prove they’ve been discriminated against because of their age. Congress should strengthen nondiscrimination protections for older workers by passing the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act.
18. Make work schedules more predictable.
Women are more likely than men to have nonstandard work hours. The Schedules That Work Act would promote economic security and help workers meet the demands of their jobs and their families.
19. Ratify the disability rights treaty.
There’s another international human rights treaty the Senate still needs to ratify: the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). It’s modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act but — now more than seven years after President Obama signed it — the Senate hasn’t gathered enough votes to ratify it.