Women are Casualties of the NC General Assembly

(Written by Roberta Madden, co-director of NCWU member Ratify ERA NC and NCWU board member. This editorial appeared in the Asheville Citizen Times on October 04, 2013).

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Sounds reasonable. Who could disagree?

This year the North Carolina General Assembly did not consider legislation to install this guarantee, known as the Equal Rights Amendment, into the U.S. Constitution. That will happen at a later date.

However, the 2013 legislature made plenty of decisions on issues affecting women — all adversely. Some object to the term “war on women,” but most of the casualties of these legislative actions are women.

• The new photo ID law, which becomes effective in 2016, will disproportionately affect women. A recent analysis by the State Board of Elections shows that women are 54 percent of all registered voters in North Carolina but comprise 64 percent of the registered voters without a state-issued photo ID.

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In the 2012 general election, 85,264 women without a photo ID voted. How will these women, many of them elderly who have not had drivers’ licenses

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for years, overcome the barriers to get the necessary identification? Those born in other states will have to somehow track down their birth certificates to comply with the stringent new law.

• The state Council for Women recently reported that 17 percent of North Carolina women live in poverty or near-poverty. More than 1 in 5 women aged 18-64 have no health insurance. If the General Assembly had expanded Medicaid, paid for through the Affordable Care Act, more than 200,000 women would have had access to basic health care.

• The new law restricting reproductive health care will probably force 15 of the 16 women’s reproductive health clinics in the state to close.

• The General Assembly’s elimination of the Earned Income Tax Credit is a blow to working families, many of them headed by single mothers. Ending the EITC amounts to a tax increase on 907,000 low-income families who work and pay taxes. In 2010, median income for families headed by single women was only $20,393. More than half of all minimum wage workers in the state are women.

• More than 40 percent of N.C. working women are the primary breadwinners for their families, but N.C. women take home an average of 82 cents for every dollar of men’s earnings for the same work. According to the American Association of University Women, median earnings for men in N.C. were $41,859, compared to $34,421 for women. Taking into account hours worked, occupation, college major, employment sector, and other factors associated with pay, the gap shrinks but does not disappear. The average full-time female worker loses about $434,000 in wages over a 40-year period as a direct result of the gender pay gap — not to mention the huge gap in retirement income, which is based on earnings. The wage disparity is even greater for women of color. Those percentages have not changed in the last decade. The General Assembly never even gave a hearing to a pay equity bill introduced in April.

• Budget cuts to public schools will create more unemployment for women, since 80 percent of teachers and teachers’ assistants are women. North Carolina now has 5,300 fewer public-sector jobs, including teachers, social workers and public health nurses.

These laws disproportionately affecting women could be challenged in court, but unfortunately, no constitutional guarantee protects women against such discrimination. What is needed is bedrock constitutional protection against gender inequities — the Equal Rights Amendment.

The ERA remains very much alive, and women in North Carolina and at least seven other states are working for ratification. Meanwhile, Congress is considering bipartisan legislation to eliminate the deadline originally imposed and later extended, which expired in 1982. Now we have the best chance in 30 years to win constitutional equality. SJR 15 and HJR 43 would remove the deadline and make ERA part of the Constitution after three more states ratify it. Sen, Kay Hagan is a cosponsor of SJR 15, along with 31 of her colleagues. HJR 43 has 87 cosponsors. Other North Carolina members of Congress ought to stand up and add their support.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about things that matter.”