Truth and Meaning: Women and Dignity

Our society treats women as second class citizens. Objectification in the media constantly barrages us with the message that women are primarily sexual objects. Our failure to prevent sexual assault, domestic violence, rape and trafficking of women is a stain of deep shame on this nation. Advocates of smaller government will stop at nothing to insert their laws deep into the most intimate parts of women’s bodies, while at the same time derailing every attempt to provide those same women with adequate health care.

On Tuesday, April 29, advocates for women will gather in Lansing in recognition of Michigan Equal Pay Day. Equal Pay Day marks how far into the year a woman must work, on average, to earn as much as a man earned the previous year. Because women earn less than men, they must work longer for the same amount of pay. The latest national data indicate women’s median annual earnings for full-time work was 77 cents for every dollar men made (Michigan has the seventh widest gap at 74 cents to the dollar).

Women, on average, earn less than men in virtually every occupation and this is true even in female-dominated occupations. Women of color face an even larger wage gap. As chronicled in the AAUW study “Graduating to a Pay Gap,” sex-based wage disparities start with a college-educated woman’s first job when compared to men with equivalent degrees. The gender wage gap not only continues during her career, but shows an increase over time.

The first two principles of Unitarian Universalism affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Therefore, I believe that every person possesses equal worth and that I am called to advocate for just and loving treatment in order to guarantee every person’s dignity. So in America, where worth is typically determined by the marketplace, my religious beliefs state that a just and equitable society should pay women and men who perform the same jobs equally. Equal pay for me, therefore, is a religious principle.

But this issue extends far beyond a matter of merely how much less women earn less than men for the same work. This issue strikes at the core of the American family and the economic well being of our children. Today, one in three Americans live at or below the poverty line, and almost 70 percent are women and children. That means 42 million women in this nation of unprecedented bounty are barely surviving economically, and the number of working poor is steadily increasing. A new study, “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink,” illustrates many of the attributes of our unequal system of worth.

  • Women represent nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers, concentrated in jobs that tend to be labor-intensive.
  • Women also do most of the care work for children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women devote more than 110 million hours a year to unpaid interactive child care, more than double that of men.
  • According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, women over the age of 65 are twice as likely to live in poverty as men of the same age.

We know that these statistics hold true even here in Midland, where 53 percent of families with children under the age of 5 and headed by women are below the poverty level. For families headed by women with older children, 45 percent live in poverty.

So what can you do to advocate for dignity for women in the area of pay equity? Several bills to strengthen Michigan’s laws about pay equity are in Legislative Committees awaiting action:

  • SB 296/HB 4516 provides wage transparency for similarly situated employees
  • SB 297/HB 4519 increases penalties for wage discrimination based on gender
  • SB 298/HB 4519 strengthens the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to make it clear that sex-based wage discrimination is illegal under Michigan law and incorporates the equal pay factors into the act
  • SB 299/HB 4517 establishes a pay equity study commission to examine the scope of the issue in Michigan and provide technical assistance to employers

Rep. Stamas and Sen. Moolenaar need to hear from people who support women’s dignity in the workplace and in our communities. And wear red on Equal Pay Day on April 29 to symbolize that women’s pay is “in the red” compared to men’s pay.