Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Change That Should Stick? “Women’s Rights” Issues Adopt Moniker of “Family Rights” in Advance of Midterm Elections

By Sarah Barrios

Earlier this summer, the Washington Post indicated that childcare issues were moving to the political forefront as midterm elections loomed. The observation came on the heels of a White House’s summit on working families which was set to address the issue of childcare, family leave, and equal pay. Many state and federal politicians have recently addressed such working family issues by proposing legislation or calling for reform. The courts have also touched on issues impacting families in the workplace (such as in the Hobby Lobby case that fueled discourse about family planning and gave rise to a Supreme Court ruling last month). But after the midterm election, might working family issues be recast as less pressing, long-standing “women’s rights” issues – issues that have traditionally seemed resistant to reform and by name, seem of import primarily to women as compared to families?

Although there have been marginal improvements in some areas, there still lie concerning gaps between need and assistance for families. The National Women’s Law Center recently released its report “Turning the Corner: State Child Care Assistance Policies”, stating that: “improvements states made between 2013 and 2014 were generally modest and not sufficient to close continuing gaps in families’ access to assistance and the level of assistance available.” Often linked in the political discourse about childcare is another gap – the wage gap between men and women’s earnings. Wage equality is often perceived as a “women’s issue” as compared to a family one, and has been the subject of years of efforts by “women’s rights” organizations without substantial gains toward equality. In fact, so little progress has been made on that front as to incite actress Sarah Silverman to join with the National Women’s Law Center in its “Equal Payback Program” – which seeks to crowd-source nearly thirty trillion dollars to close the wage gap.

Perhaps one of the challenges faced by those working to resolve “women’s rights” issues is the moniker itself, which does not implicate the expansive impact such issues can have on the family as a whole. A change in dialogue could help reform our perspective on women’s rights issues, breathe new life into aged efforts, or prevent the grouping of issues which can be polarizing and delay reform. For instance, during a stump speech for Kay Hagan in North Carolina, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton focused on wage equality in that state, but also received questions about abortion rights. Clinton is an avowed women’s rights advocate. It is interesting to think what impact such advocates could have by merely adopting a new moniker for themselves that is more family-focused. Certainly, it will take more than a language shift to spur necessary reform. But if we refer to those issues as “working family” issues rather than “women’s rights” issues, perhaps we can keep them in the forefront – even after the election.