One Simple Way to Move Women Closer to Equality

August 26 marked the 95th anniversary of women’s suffrage, enshrined in the 19th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Many describe this as the date women were “granted the right to vote.” Others prefer to say it’s when women “won the right to vote,” recognizing the decades of struggle it took to get that victory, full of every kind of protest and marked by government violence against women that included beatings, imprisonment and force feeding.

Try this phrase instead: August 26 commemorates the day women stopped being denied their right to vote—a basic right in any democracy, but long restricted in the U.S. on the grounds of race, gender and economic class. Those in power continued to deny Black women and men this basic right for decades. Right-wing legislatures are hard at work trying to limit it today.

For some time we have commemorated August 26 as Women’s Equality Day. The President has issued a proclamation for this day to “celebrate the achievements of women and promote gender equality in our country.” Because despite progress, women are still being denied basic rights in ways that constitute barriers to full equality.

Access to paid sick days is a good example—one the President mentioned specifically in his recent proclamation: “…[N]o woman should have to worry about being fired from her job for missing a day of work when she is sick, caring for a sick family member, or welcoming a new child into her family,” he said.

Our opponents refer to paid sick days as “fringe benefits,” an “extra” handed out by employers when they can afford it. But the reality is that sick time should be a basic part of compensation, a minimum standard that keeps employers from docking workers’ pay or kicking them out of a job for being a good parent or following doctor’s orders.

Tremendous work has been done over the last decade by broad and diverse coalitions around the country to fight for—and win—new paid sick days standards. The Family Values @ Work coalition’s graphic of wins powerfully displays the impact: more than 10 million workers newly have access to paid time to care for a routine personal or family illness, or to seek help following a domestic battery or sexual assault. Plus, many more millions who already earned paid sick days can now use the time to care for a sick family member, will no longer get demerits for taking the time, or no longer lose pay on the first or second days out.

But tens of millions still lack access to even a single paid day when they or a loved one is ill. Since women still have disproportionate responsibility for caregiving and are more likely to be in low-wage jobs without sick days, the absence of a nationwide standard remains an obstacle to equality. It makes it harder for women to stay employed, advance in their job, see an increase in pay.

That means every national candidate who talks about equality for women should declare support for the Healthy Families Act, which would ensure workers nationwide could earn paid sick days.

Some pundit will quickly point to the fact that millions of men also lack paid sick days. That is absolutely true—and provides no comfort whatsoever. Equality must go hand in hand with justice. Women don’t want equally bad treatment. Our goal is to lift up everyone.

In fact, men’s ability to be good fathers, sons and husbands also helps move women closer to equality. As Gloria Steinem once said, “Women are not going to be equal outside the home until men are equal in it.” Similarly, we all benefit when same-sex couples can care for each other in sickness as in health.

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Ellen Bravo is strategic consultant to Family Values @ Work, a network of 27 state coalitions working for paid sick and safe days, family and medical leave insurance and other policies that value families at work.