When Jeannette Rankin of Montana was elected as the first woman to serve in Congress, she knew that she would not be the last. Since her swearing into office in 1916 — four years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment and the establishment of women’s suffrage — more than 300 women have been elected to Congress. Today, more women serve in Congress than ever before, and our nation, led by such pioneers as Congresswoman Rankin, has taken great strides to expand opportunities for women throughout the past century.
For the past two decades, I have been honored to take part in this march of progress and have proudly supported legislation critical to the continued expansion of women’s rights. As we near the end of Women’s History Month, we must reflect on the progress we have made in this struggle, and the challenges yet to be addressed.
One does not have to look far into the past to see examples of landmark women’s rights legislation. The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 improved women’s ability to challenge pay discrimination. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, which expanded health care coverage for millions, being a woman can no longer be treated as a pre-existing medical condition. And, the 2013 re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act strengthened our nation’s ability to combat sexual assault, domestic and dating violence, and other forms of violence against women by improving avenues for holding offenders accountable.
Indeed, the Democratic Caucus has adopted a new agenda titled “When women succeed, America succeeds,” to address the most pressing economic issues still facing women, and the many barriers that exist for women and minorities in the workplace. Women, on average, make only 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes. For African-American and Latina women, this number is even less. Women now make up half of the American workforce, and this pay-equity gap must be addressed. HR 337, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which I am proud to co-sponsor, increases the enforcement of equal pay laws and takes additional steps to close this gap in wages.
Additionally, I remain committed to enacting legislation that will raise the national minimum wage for all American workers. Congress has raised the minimum wage only three times in the past 30 years, and, adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage is more than 30 percent less than it was in 1986. As nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage-earners are women, raising the minimum wage is an essential component to achieving pay equity in our country.
HR 1010, the Fair Minimum Wage Act, would raise the national minimum to $10.10 per hour by 2015. No full-time worker should have to live in poverty, and this modest increase would lift nearly 1 million people out of poverty, enabling them to better provide for their families without the help of the food stamps or other safety-net programs. This would also benefit 28 million people who would see their wages increase, and give a $448 billion boost to our economy.
It is unfortunate that in this day and age, Congress is unable to ensure that all Americans receive an equal and livable wage. In fact, the Fair Minimum Wage Act, co-sponsored by 196 House Democrats, and the Paycheck Fairness Act, co-sponsored by every member of the Democratic Caucus, have met fierce resistance by Republicans in Congress. These bills would take significant steps to improve pay equity and increase penalties on employers paying different wages because of an employee’s sex, yet political grandstanding has made their passage improbable. In a similar fashion, efforts to expand the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to include racial and ethnic minorities also have fallen short.
It is long past time that we end wage discrimination in our country once and for all, and it is in all of our best interests that women’s issues are kept at the forefront of the struggle for equality here at home and across the globe.
Congressman Alcee L. Hastings serves as Senior Member of the House Rules Committee, Ranking Democratic Member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Co-Chairman of the Florida Delegation.