By: Maggie Fridinger, Program and Policy Intern
National Council of Women’s Organizations
On May 23, 2012, I attended the Paycheck Fairness Act press conference on the Hill as a representative from the National Council of Women’s Organizations. Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Diane Feinstein (D., Calif.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) joined Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) in support of the Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA), a bill designed to strengthen existing legislation that prevents employers from discriminating against women by closing loopholes left unaddressed by the Equal Pay Act of 1963.
One by one, the Senators framed the policy problem in a way that would resonate with the public, and hopefully urge the Senate to vote in favor of the bill. Sen. Murray explained that pay inequity is an “economic issue,” while Sen. Boxer termed it a “family issue.” Sen. Franken offered his appeal as a father and husband. Each senator mentioned the frequently invoked statistics indicating that women are paid 77 cents to the man’s dollar, also framed as a pay differential of 23% that exists between men and women. However, Sen. Ben Cardin offered a new angle asserting, “Today women, for every four days they work, one day they aren’t getting paid effectively.” The press conference prompted me to ruminate on the rhetoric employed by both the supporters and opponents of the bill.
I have mulled over the commonly cited reasons that opponents oppose of the PFA. A frequently touted explanation espouses women to have made certain “choices” distinct from those of men, which have resulted in the existent wage gap. What sorts of choices do the opponents reference? According to them, women choose the “soft” majors in college, opt to enter lower paying careers, and make different decisions regarding stay-at-home parenting and part-time participation in the labor force. It’s true that not all women and men make the same decisions when selecting an educational track or career, but prior studies have shown that once these “choices” are controlled for, an unexplained pay gap still exists.
As a student of women’s studies, this rhetoric of “choice” is all too familiar. The third wave of feminism is referred to in certain circles as the “choice movement,” primarily because it encompasses the individual voices and distinct experiences of women. What has happened, I thought? Have the opponents of a bill designed to provide women with economic security co-opted the language of the third wave? After more contemplation, I decided that it is not merely a coincidence that the opponents of the PFA and third wave feminists employ the same rhetoric, rather it results from the neoliberal economic context in which they both originated.
Rhetoric aside, what can we do to advocate for women and the passage of the PFA? The first step is to raise an awareness of the wage gap. By participating in consciousness raising, we can promulgate the message that it’s not merely about the choices women are making, rather it’s the systemic and institutional discrimination that disallows women from making the same wage as men for equivalent work. We should take time to engage in dialogue with other women and men to share our experiences as female labor force participants. And we should, of course, express our discontent with the status quo to members of Congress and urge them to vote in favor of the Paycheck Fairness Act in the coming weeks.