There is no greater proof that women remain invisible actors in the economy than the fact that during the first presidential debate on “domestic policy” the issues of wage discrimination, paid medical and sick leave, discrimination in employment benefits and reproductive freedom were not mentioned once. Not once. Not by the candidates and never by moderator Jim Lehrer.
How is it possible for the first presidential debate to completely ignore an issue that effects every worker generally and at least half of the work-force specifically?
It makes sense that Republican candidate Mitt Romney would want to stay away from these topics because, frankly, his positions on equal pay, paid family leave and reproductive equality are arcane and dangerous to American women. But President Obama lost a real opportunity to shift the framing, to make sure women and our role in the economy both as workers and as consumers is seen.
Wage discrimination is a drag on household net worth and an obstacle in creating a lasting and sustained economic recovery. Workers with paid sick leave are more productive, allowing our businesses to run more efficiently and our households to better respond to life’s challenges. Dollars invested in family planning and equal access to health insurance benefits mean women stay in the workforce more consistently and have the ability to plan and save for motherhood.
Once the Republicans swept into Congress and state legislatures in 2010, they took aim at women’s rights and workers rights. And during the first presidential debate over domestic policy this fact was totally, completely ignored at the expense of corporate tax burdens and the ever-important “small business owner.”
The closest the candidates came to acknowledging the presence of women in our economy was in the context of cuts to Medicaid. On this point President Obama at least put a face to the cuts in services the Romney-Ryan plan creates. And this is important, but it still reinforces the image of recipients of economic benefits without recognizing they are participants in the economy as well. We have to do better than this.
The candidates will have at least two more opportunities to acknowledge the fact that women exist as participants and beneficiaries in our economy. Though it’s hard to imagine the issue coming up in the foreign policy debate, Romney’s support of the global gag rule and similar policies that help confine women in the developing world to a life of poverty and turning to dangerous and often lethal methods to end unplanned pregnancies provides the perfect opportunity to do so.
More likely, abortion and access to family planning services will get a singular mention in the final debate. Equal pay and paid leave may receive a passing reference, but that’s it. Then, after the election and regardless of who wins, Republicans will continue to push legislation and policies that relegate women out of the economy as equal participants through restrictions to reproductive health care and an embrace of discriminatory policies and practices. Republicans will continue to push legislation and policies that attack worker’s rights and undermine our neighborhoods and schools. Then will we finally talk about these assaults in the context of what they are — full-on economic assaults on the middle class and the poor? Because we sure are not right now.