Women’s suffrage didn’t happen overnight. Activists and advocates fought exhaustively for a half-century before winning the right to vote in 1920. So momentous was this victory that it radically changed the world, forever redefining our understanding of a modern democracy. It is difficult to even imagine an America without it.
Today, as we celebrate the 94th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, I reflect upon what it means to me to be a woman in 21st-century America. I think about continuing the legacy of my mother and my grandmother who were both bold and strong women. I think about my professional successes and my struggles. Most of all I think about how, although Congress designates the day of this anniversary “Women’s Equality Day” every year, we have much further to go before reaching the truth of that ideal — particularly in Pennsylvania.
Although we do not talk much about women’s access to the ballot box anymore, it is clear that our equal right to vote has not yet translated into equal representation in government. It is awful to admit, but the state of Pennsylvania ranks at the bottom of the list when it comes to women in politics. Of the 31 legislators Allegheny County sends to Harrisburg, I am the only woman.
The consequence of this imbalance has been inequity with the issues discussed on the floors of the state House and Senate. For far too long, concerns that affect mainly women and their families have gone ignored.
Pennsylvania still lacks provisions that respect breast-feeding mothers. We fall behind other states in protecting the health of pregnant women in the work place. We fail to immediately address factors that perpetuate deep poverty for women with children or identify the real gaps in health care for female veterans. In our state we make it harder for women to report domestic violence and abuse, not easier.
But the issue too long ignored that most enrages me is discrimination in pay and opportunity in the work place. Much like women’s suffrage was a giant leap toward leveling the political playing field, equal pay for equal work is absolutely necessary to level the economic playing field.
Nationwide, women are increasingly becoming the primary breadwinners in households with children. We are graduating with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at a greater rate than men. Some of the most driven and dedicated professionals in their field are women. Yet women are paid less than men.
Whether averaging salaries across industries, comparing apples to apples positions and occupations, or controlling for career choice or decisions to have children, discrimination is real. Even Stephen Moore, chief economist at the conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation, agrees that women are paid cents on the dollar compared to men. Yet, the conversation about solutions is stalled across the nation.
While I have introduced HB 1890, the Work Place Opportunity Act, that would revise state law to more effectively protect women and all workers from pay discrimination; while the House Labor & Industry committee has scheduled a hearing on this issue in mid-September; and while I am proud to be among some of my progressive colleagues in pulling together a package of bills called the Women’s Health Agenda that address other neglected issues mentioned previously, we have such a long way to go to bridge this chasm between our celebration of Women’s Equality Day and actual equality for women.
Now, I have been lucky enough to be employed in settings that have valued my hard work and rewarded it. I have also been fortunate in many other ways. Not only have I seized every opportunity to vote, but I have been honored to see my own name on the ballot. I am forever grateful to the courageous women who forged that path for me with suffrage so many years ago. I am indebted to the women in my past whose perseverance inspired me to speak up and gave me voice.
And I am dedicated to using that voice to continue the fight today, to the women who work hard to overcome, and to the hope that our efforts in concert will be honored well within our lifetimes like the efforts of those 94 years ago.
State Rep. Erin C. Molchany, D-Mount Washington, represents the 22nd District in the state House.