President Obama and Women’s Rights Activists: Celebration and Bumps in the Road
| January 30, 2009
The White House ceremony and reception marking the President’s signature on his first major law honored feminists and the bill’s inspiration, Lilly Ledbetter. But the week was also marked by setbacks for legislation important to women workers and to women who depend on Medicaid.
Nothing could dramatize the country's ideological and political shift better than the sight of President Obama signing into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in front of a crowded roomful of women’s rights activists in the East Room, with a beaming bipartisan throng of legislators beside him.
It was enough to bring a tear to the eye of veteran feminist fighter, Maryland Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, on Thursday morning. She was chief sponsor of the bill to reverse the Supreme Court ruling of 2007 that had decimated wage discrimination prohibitions.
It’s rare for Congress to overturn the Supreme Court. One of the last times occurred on another women’s rights issue where the court overreached. Then, the court had ruled that employers could exclude medical coverage for pregnancy disability without violating sex discrimination laws. But when Justice William Rehnquist got a tad too cute in his opinion, saying that it wasn’t sexism because if men could get pregnant, they, too, would be prohibited medical coverage, even the most reactionary members of Congress swung behind bills to overturn the court by passing the Pregnancy Disability Act.
This time, the Supreme Court had ruled against Alabama tire factory worker Lilly Ledbetter, saying she hadn’t filed her pay discrimination lawsuit early enough—within 180 days of the first paycheck that paid her a lot less than her male co-workers. The fact that she didn’t learn about the pay inequities until 19 years later was immaterial.
The ruling significantly gutted Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, under which most workplace discrimination cases have been brought. The Ledbetter Act basically restores the law’s provision to what it had been before the Supreme Court ruling: a person claiming discrimination has to file a complaint within 180 days of a discriminatory act—but that can be your most recent paycheck.
Ledbetter didn’t have to become a crusader against pay discrimination but she did. After 10 years of struggle, including the Supreme Court rebuff, she was rewarded by the ultimate victory: Congressional passage of a bill named after her, with Obama making it law as his first significant bill-signing. Michelle Obama gave a reception in her honor afterwards, in her first major public move at the White House.
The East Room ceremony was big on symbolism as well as substance. Obama had worked closely with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and with national women’s groups to make sure the Ledbetter Act was the first major law he signed.
“It’s appropriate that this is the first bill we do together,” he said of Pelosi, thanking her for “your extraordinary work” in making it happen.
The ceremony also showed a new, informal style from the President and it showed Michelle Obama in her new role as a partner who can continue the program—hosting the reception after her husband returned to economic problems.
When Obama came into the East Room side by side with Ledbetter, now 70 and newly widowed, the room exploded in applause. The President stepped back a bit and applauded Ledbetter, then moved forward to give her a big hug and moved sideways to applaud her again.
And then he launched into his first policy speech as president on equity and its economic consequences.
“Equal pay is by no means just a woman’s issue. It’s a family issue. It’s about parents who find themselves with less money for tuition and child care, couples who wind up with less to retire on, households where one breadwinner is paid less than she deserves; that’s the difference between affording the mortgage—or not; between keeping the heat on, or paying the doctor bills—or not. And in this economy, when so many folks are already working harder for less and struggling to get by, the last thing they can afford is losing part of each month’s paycheck to simple and plain discrimination.”
The Ledbetter ceremony took place in a week of conflicting pluses and minuses for women’s rights advocates.
By executive order, Obama revoked the Mexico City policy, which had become known as the global gag rule because it blocked federal money from programs or groups working overseas on reproductive issues if those groups had in any part of their global operations anything to do with abortion. It also signaled restoration of U.S. funding for the UN Population Fund, reversing another Bush administration policy. The feminists cheered; women’s groups overseas praised the President.
But bumps in the road came with several other bills.
One was the Paycheck Fairness Act, a companion bill to Ledbetter in the House-passed package that would have expanded the 1963 Equal Pay Act in several major ways. Before the Senate acted on Ledbetter, however, it was stripped from the package and may face an uncertain future. Representative Rosa de Lauro of Connecticut, a prime sponsor, has said it will be brought up again this spring.
Congressional Democrats said it had far less support than the Ledbetter bill—and that Obama was determined to make the Ledbetter bill his first bill-signing.
A more traumatic event, for the women’s rights groups, came in the House when sponsors of the gigantic economic stimulus package stripped two provisions to mollify Republican critics. One concerned the National Mall. The other, which angered feminists, deleted a provision that would have expanded family planning funds under the Medicaid programs for poor women.
The Republican House leader, Representative John Boehner of Ohio, demagogued that issue for days. How, he asked, is spending $200 million on contraceptives for poor women going to stimulate the economy? He found many new ways to rail against “contraceptives” as a jobs program, rallying the party’s social conservative base.
But there was minimal push-back from the women’s groups, at least in what made the national news. This should be a sobering wakeup call. A supportive president is one thing; a supportive House speaker is a plus, as well. But the women’s groups have to find ways, early and often, to refute the conservative critics who are taking up new roles as a minority in opposition. They have to find their own ways to connect with the public—including the TV moderators—even if the issue is complex.
And this one is, requiring more than a sound bite. Congress has set up a formula for states to decide who is eligible for Medicaid. A slightly stricter formula is used for access to family planning programs under Medicaid. Twenty-seven states have gotten a waiver from the tougher restrictions so they can expand family planning programs, especially at a time when unintended pregnancies are an economic catastrophe for low-income women. Congressional sponsors decided to back a unified formula, in effect expanding the family planning criteria from 27 to all 50 states. That increases the budget by $200 million. And that’s the “$200 million for contraceptives” tag line used by Boehner.
The expansion is likely to occur, just not right now. It probably will be brought up later as part of a larger health care issue. When Obama spent 10 to 15 minutes in the crush of women’s rights leaders after the bill-signing on the Ledbetter act, he offered lots of face-time—at least for a minute or two—to the women who have protested most vehemently about the family-planning/Medicaid issue. He couldn’t have been all that happy about the kerfuffle, either, especially since it didn’t buy him any Republican votes in the end. Not a single House Republican voted with the President on the economic stimulus package, despite his personal appeals. That carries its own lesson—for Congressional Democrats, as well as for the White House.
But Obama had his own point to make at the Ledbetter signing ceremony.
“In signing this bill today, I intend to send a clear message: That making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone, that there are no second-class citizens in our workplace; and that it’s not just unfair and illegal, but bad for business to pay somebody less because of their gender or age, ethnicity, religion or disability. And that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory, or footnote in a casebook. It’s about how our laws affect the daily lives and the daily realities of people’s lives: their ability to make a living and care for their families and achieve their goals.
“Ultimately, though, equal pay isn’t just an economic issue for millions of Americans and their families. It’s a question of who we are—and whether we’re truly living up to our fundamental ideals, whether we’ll do our part, as generations before us, to ensure those words put on paper some 200 years ago really mean something. To breathe new life into them with the more enlightened understandings of our time.
“That is what Lilly Ledbetter challenged us to do.”
He said he signed it in memory of “those who came before her, women like my grandmother, who worked in a bank all her life and even after she hit that glass ceiling, kept getting up and giving her best every day, without complaint, because she wanted something better for me and my sister.
“And I sign this bill for my daughters, and all those who will come after us, because I want them to grow up in a nation that values their contributions, where there are no limits to their dreams and they have opportunities their mothers and grandmothers never could have imagined.
“In the end, that’s why Lilly Ledbetter stayed the course. She knew it was too late for her—that this bill wouldn’t undo the years of injustice she faced or restore the earnings she was denied. But this grandmother from Alabama kept on fighting because she was thinking about the next generation. It’s what we’ve always done in America—set our sights high for ourselves but even higher for our children and our grandchildren.
“Now it’s up to us to continue this work.”