“So much lip service is given to women’s issues, and then so little happens. … We don’t want empty wins. We want big wins. And so we were making that very clear.”
The Democratic Women’s Caucus (DWC) is urging President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to use the full extent of their executive power to reverse damage done to women’s rights by the Trump administration, and to strengthen and expand women’s rights.
In a 10-page letter sent to the administration late last year, the DWC set out top women’s rights priorities and calls on the administration to “immediately begin reversing the harm wrought by the outgoing administration and chart the new course articulated by your platform that affirms gender equity and allows all women and girls to reach their full potential,”
Led by Representatives Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Brenda L. Lawrence (D-Mich.), and Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), the DWC is comprised of all Democratic women in the U.S. House of Representatives. The letter, signed by 60 members of the Caucus, brims with great ideas for advancing gender justice in a wide range of areas, including reproductive rights and health care access, pay equity and paid leave, child care, safety and freedom from violence, the Equal Rights Amendment, women’s leadership in government and climate justice.
To achieve these policy goals, DWC is calling on Biden to issue executive orders, direct executive agencies across the government to take regulatory action, and work with Congress to create new laws to improve the lives of women and girls.
Ms. reporter Carrie N. Baker spoke with Representatives Speier, Lawrence and Frankel about their hopes for the Biden-Harris administration.
Carrie N. Baker: Tell me about how this letter came about.
Rep. Jackie Speier: We thought it was very important to get on the president’s radar early. So, we actually had a call with him during the campaign. We talked about the critical nature of the first one hundred days, and the demise of so many of the programs and policies and regulations that had been part of our focus on women, that have been viciously undermined during the Trump administration. And so, we wanted to underscore how serious the attack has been, and how important it was for him to act as swiftly as he could on so many different fronts. And we wanted to point out that he had lots of opportunities to take executive action that wouldn’t have to come to Congress.
Rep. Lois Frankel: The letter was a follow-up to a meeting that our Women’s Caucus leadership had with Biden after he won the nomination. He had a lot of women on the call with us who were handling his issues. We discussed most of the issues raised in the letter. If you look at the platform that he actually ran on, it’s very compatible, and he has really good people working on it. I don’t know if we’re telling them anything they don’t already know on his team. It’s not as much as convincing as trying to make sure he’s prioritizing these issues.
Rep. Brenda Lawrence: After Biden was nominated, we requested a meeting with him. We laid out all our concerns, and he gave his commitment to not only including women in his administration, but addressing those issues that we outlined in the letter. Then as President-elect Biden, we met with his legislative team and his appointees, and we reinforced, now that you’re elected, we know you made a promise. We want you to keep your promise, and we’re going to pay attention.
When we met with Biden’s legislative spokesperson, I was very clear with her. I said, “I know that we must keep our eye on women, but I do not want this administration to be tone-deaf, and not recognize that black women in almost every category are disproportionately impacted.. And she said, “not only do we have gender, we’re going to have racial equality and inclusion in almost every policy that we make.” And so, that, to me, is the start
Baker: How did Biden and Harris respond to your letter?
Speier: When we met with him over the phone during the campaign, he was terrific, and he’s there on so many of these issues. He would say things like, “You had me at ‘hello,’” which was great. And then, just very recently, we met with some of his advisors on these issues and went through the whole letter again, and they said that we would be pleased with what he is doing. And he is taking some wonderful action already, and introducing important legislation on immigration that really affects women and children. He is going to reconstitute the women and girls council, which was, of course, abandoned under Trump, because all he needed to do was talk to Ivanka.
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Baker: What were your goals for the DWC letter to Biden and Harris?
Frankel: There are two basic parts of this. One is so much damage was done by the Trump administration, and there needs to be some really quick action to reverse it, which could be done with executive orders. Of course, there’ll be proposed legislation, but the executive orders really are something that can be done right away, and not only executive orders, but executive actions.
Then the other of course is to start to advance some of our priorities that we couldn’t even get any attention from Trump. I don’t think people realize how much damage this president did to women, domestically and around the world, because there was only so much attention that can be brought to things. There was a lot of competition for horrible.
What he did especially on reproductive care was very harmful. It’s getting difficult around the country in some places to even have access to legal abortion. He put the gag rule on steroids. Planned Parenthood and like agencies got defunded here and internationally. We saw millions of dollars of healthcare money cut off internationally. We don’t even know the impact of that yet. Then of course here not only the gag rule, but then they’ve started to have all these refusal rules—moral and the religious, and making it hard to even get contraception, to get insurance to pay for contraception, to get insurance to pay for abortions, and every which way they made it much more difficult in terms of reproductive care.
On the economic front, Obama had started data collection by the Department of Labor to try to figure out if there were patterns of discrimination. Trump immediately stopped that. Then you can look at what Betsy DeVos did with the campus sexual assault rules, now making it more difficult to protect victims of sexual assault. I mean, we could go on and on.
Speier: This was a blueprint for him, or a road map on how he could take so much remedial action against what had transpired in the last four years, and improve the lot of women, whether it’s on the issue of economic access and opportunity, equality, access to healthcare, freedom from violence.
So much lip service is given to women’s issues, and then so little happens, and I think we’re all sick and tired of being patted on the back, or patted on the head and say, “Good girl, wait your turn,” or, “We’ll dress up some non-effective piece of legislation to give you a win.” We don’t want empty wins. We want big wins. And so we were making that very clear.
Baker: What are some of the most important issues for you that were raised in the letter?
Lois Frankel: The letter starts out with a request to have the infrastructure in place within the White House to deal with women’s issues. We asked them to establish a White House council on gender equity, appoint a special assistant to the President on gender equity, appoint a highly visible ambassador at large for global women’s issues.
We emphasized the appointment of women in high positions, in judicial spots. We talked in our letter about childcare, which has been much devastated during the pandemic. There really needs to be so many resources, not only to try to get back the industry, but we need to try to elevate the pay of caregivers, and I know this is a big priority for Biden.
Lawrence: The pandemic and the economic impact from the pandemic hit women the hardest. We were the largest demographic of first responders, grocery stores, caregivers, nursing homes workers. And one of the glaring issues is childcare. When women are single head-of-households, it’s devastating. I know some women who are the working poor, and these are women who work two jobs A lot of times–a majority of the time–they work one job just to pay for childcare because it is so high. And then, women are the largest demographic of small business owners. During this economic crisis, we saw that women business owners were hit the hardest. So, we have a responsibility, and we must pay attention to the challenges for women in this pandemic.
And I want to highlight a couple other issues. Sexual assault in the military. One of the things that we want to make sure is that the military is uniquely aware of how women are being punished twice. Not only are they being assaulted, but then they have to go through this awful process to get justice for the assault. The good old boys’ network, and covering it up, and blaming the woman is true even today. So, we are extremely passionate about reforming sexual assault.
We also know that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour has a direct impact on women, the waitresses, the caregivers, the grocery store workers. It’s a quality-of-life issue. We must, in America, pay attention to that. Black women carry the majority of student debt in America.
When it comes to maternal mortality, the United States has the worst statistics of any developed country. And so, we have an opportunity to pay attention, to do research on maternal mortality.
So, when I keep rattling off all of these issues, it is incumbent for this administration to pay attention, to wake up, and smell the roses. We cannot afford to have another administration not pay attention to this. So, we jumped on it right away.
Baker: Are you encouraged by the creation of the White House Gender Policy Council the day before the inauguration and that he has included so many women in high positions in his administration?
Speier: Both of the co-chairs are highly regarded. I can’t say that I know them very well, but they certainly have credentials that are very impressive. So, you know, as long as they have his ear, then we’ll be very successful on behalf of women and girls in this new administration.
I must say, so many of us are still reacting to the afterglow of Amanda Gorman. There’s a whole new generation of young girls and young women that blow our socks off, our nylons off. It was so reassuring to me that we have extraordinary talent coming up through the ranks, and we’ve got to give them the oxygen to grow and to thrive.
My generation, we felt compelled to wait in line, and we took little baby steps in terms of moving forward, and were accepting that. I guess as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more impatient, and you know, if we don’t demand it, we’re not going to get it. If we don’t make trouble, we’re not going to see change, is sort of the way I look at it.
Lawrence: The fact that he has already nominated so many women in the shaping of his administration is so refreshing. We are so pleased that we are stepping off on the right foot here. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. So, the fact that this, one of the first days in this administration, was one of the priorities—they said would be a priority, and they made it a priority. So, that’s awesome.
Baker: Is there anything you would like Ms. readers to know about the work that the Caucus is doing for gender equity and racial equity?
Frankel: They should know that women in the Congress are going to push hard to protect their rights, to maybe forge new rights, but to really to protect their economic interests, their reproductive care. The letter is very diverse in terms of issues. They should know that there is a force and it’s a large force and it’s got women who are in very powerful positions in the Congress now, starting with the Speaker, the Assistant Speaker, and Head of Appropriations, and a lot of important committees, and so they should know that women, after all these years, have become a very potent force in the United States Congress, and we will do whatever is reasonably and legally possible to advance the girls and women of our country and the world.
Baker: Is there anything that you would ask Ms. readers to do to support this work that you’re doing?
Frankel: I think there’s nothing better than a citizen lobbyist. They should reach out to their own members of Congress, and members of groups. So, for example, the Chamber of Commerce. They should get the organizations that they are members of to lobby members of Congress. But I also think that a lot starts at home, and so a lot of our ideas that we’re pushing, get your businesses to adopt those practices. Get your local governments and your state governments. Things are more likely to bubble up to the Congress from the grassroots.
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