A Northwest Based Literary Journal

Seventy-Eight Cents per Dollar: How Far We’ve Come, by Carolyne Wright

During the time we were planning, assembling and curating Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace, (Lost Horse Press Human Rights Series, 2015), and I wrote the introduction to this anthology, “Seventy-Seven Cents to the Dollar: a Working Introduction,” it seems that women’s average annual pay relative to that of men has increased by a whopping one cent: to 78 cents for every dollar earned by men. Average pay for women of color remained only slightly higher than its significantly lower average compared to that of white women. Meanwhile, many more work-related issues involving women flashed across our news screens—some exposing new stresses and indignities for working women, some highlighting significant victories, some revealing situations laden with irony. The 2010 Paycheck Fairness Act, which would prevent Goodyear (Lilly Ledbetter’s long-time workplace) or any other employer from firing workers who ask about or share salary information—a loophole unaccountably not closed in the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act!—was blocked in a unanimous vote by Senate Republicans. Even though, thanks to the Lilly Ledbetter Act, women now had expanded legal options to combat existing pay discrimination, the actual average pay gap had hardly changed. Women with the same education doing the same job as men were still earning much less over their working lifetimes, costing them and their families thousands, in many cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars of income.

Meanwhile, the Occupy Movement erupted in September 2011, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Unemployed and underemployed young people set up tent encampments in Liberty Square in Manhattan’s Financial District—demonstrating, holding teach-ins, and rallying against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating the economic collapse that caused the greatest recession in generations. Occupy focused national attention on the “too big to fail” banks and their “too big to jail” millionaire and billionaire directors, who paid token fines and went on collecting huge salaries and bonuses, while millions of people of modest means who had bought fraudulent mortgages lost their jobs to the recession and then their homes to foreclosure. The Occupy encampments that sprang up in dozens of U.S. cities lasted only a few months, but with an ongoing internet presence and other spin-off groups and actions in communities nationwide (blocking home seizures and evictions from foreclosed homes, housing the homeless, picketing businesses with unfair labor practices), Occupy has kept these issues in the forefront of national and international attention, and redirected the political debate.

Among issues dominating national attention during and after the election campaign of 2012 was the living wage. Strikes and rallies by fast food servers, retail clerks, and home health aides—the majority of these workers women—erupted in cities throughout the country, protesting wages that didn’t provide enough to live on, even if people held two or even three jobs and worked 60-70 hours a week. Demands by some employers for “open availability” from part-time workers as a condition for hiring—different shifts every few days and work schedules that change at short notice–were making it impossible for part-time workers to hold a crucial second job to make ends meet, impossible sometimes even to get a few hours’ sleep between one job’s work shift and the next.

In early 2014, President Obama issued an executive order to raise the minimum wage immediately for workers on federal contracts; in mid-2014, he signed the “Fair Pay and Safe Workplace” executive order that would prevent companies that have violated labor laws from competing for government contracts. Initiatives in many states and municipalities succeeded in raising state and local wages and enacting laws for a “living wage” tied to the cost of living. Most high-profile was the successful “15 Now” campaign of the city of SeaTac, soon taken up by Seattle’s Kshama Sawant (the first Socialist Party member elected to the city council), passed by Seattle, and now spread to cities nationwide. Now the push is to shorten the protracted phase-in of this increase, and go to $15 per hour by January 2017, at least for Seattle municipal employees. And San Francisco proposed a “Retail Workers’ Bill of Rights” to outlaw employers’ demands for “open availability” and ever-shifting flex schedules.

At higher reaches of the income spectrum were positive developments for women: President Obama appointed to the Supreme Court two female justices, who joined Justice Ginsburg—Sonia Sotomayor (the first Hispanic justice) in 2009, and Elena Kagan in 2010. The high-powered Elizabeth Warren—who had chaired the Congressional Oversight Panel overseeing emergency measures to prevent economic collapse after the 2008 financial crisis, and then worked to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—was elected in 2012 as the first woman Senator of Massachusetts. Surprising that it took so long for this generally liberal state to elect a woman Senator! In early 2014, economist Janet Yellen was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate as Chair of the Federal Reserve—the first woman to hold the position—she became the most influential economic policymaker in America. And Hillary Clinton is the likely Democratic Party candidate for the 2016 presidential election; though Bernie Sanders, now calling himself a Democratic Socialist, offers much more clear-cut advocacy for economic justice.

During this same period, best-selling books and articles by prominent women, featuring their own workplace experiences, among other issues, took their authors on book tours and appearances on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show, TED Talks, and other forums. Elizabeth Warren published a memoir, A Fighting Chance, recounting her childhood in a struggling blue-collar family (where, after her father lost his job, the job her mother took at Sears paid enough, in the 1960s, to support the family and keep their house); her progress through college and law school; her early posts as a professor of law (where she was constantly mistaken for a secretary); and her moves up the ladder of success, never forgetting her origins or the ongoing struggles of working-class families. In a much-discussed essay in The Atlantic Monthly, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton, who held a “foreign-policy dream job” for two years in the first Obama administration, discovered that as a woman, she really couldn’t “have it all”—at least all at the same time—in a job where everyone worked long hours on the employer’s inflexible schedule. Reading her book, I found her making the same point as minimum-wage women workers who struggle to balance the demands of one or two minimum-wage jobs and care for one’s children—even at the highest echelons of power and income, Slaughter found it impossible, too! In contrast, Facebook’s new Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, created a buzz with her memoir, Lean In, in which she urged women to grow their self-confidence, take charge of their careers, speak up for what they feel they deserve, not to fear their ambition or be daunted by those who call women who have leadership qualities “bossy”; and for younger women, to stay engaged and not “lean out” as they contemplate starting a family, to stay on in their jobs and gain the power to bargain for work-life balance after they have children.

Then in fall 2014, Satya Nadella, new CEO of Microsoft, appeared at a conference for women in the high-tech industry, and gave a poorly worded, clueless piece of advice to his female audience: not to bother to ask for raises, but to embrace their innate “super powers” and have faith in “the system” to recognize their worth and fairly compensate them without their having to say anything. That, like “karma,” the good work they did would come back to them. An immediate storm of protest and criticism ensued, and later the same day, Nadella apologized, corrected himself, and affirmed that women in high tech careers should ask for raises.

At least such an inarticulate, poorly considered statement—which may have unwittingly betrayed a bent toward magical thinking, as well as a whole cloud of outdated preconceptions about women on Nadella’s part—was not just accepted with resentful silence by his female audience, as it might have been in the Mad Men decades and earlier. Hit by the instant-karma furor following his words, Nadella’s consciousness may have raised, but women were reminded once again that their wariness of “the system” and its underlying—and undying—assumptions about women in the work place, was not to be relaxed any time soon. And as Microsoft was in the process of a series of layoffs at the very same time, women were left wondering how much they could trust a “system” that continues to pay women little more than 78 cents to every dollar it pays men.

Meanwhile, one of my co-editor writes code at home for software companies to help pay her family’s bills, the other maintains an online presence and does occasional editing, while working on a creative writing text for Latin America. I continue to enjoy the 10% raise I received a few years ago from one part-time teaching job (the only raise for this job) that I have held since 2005. Ten percent of between $5K – $10K a year (pay rate depending on the number of students per class) works out to—you do the math—while the instructor pay rate at another literary center where I propose and teach a few classes a year has remained unchanged at the same per-student per-hour rate that it had been when I started teaching there in 2005. Talk about stability! During part of this period, my husband was “between jobs,” and for a few weeks after his unemployment benefits ended and he started another job (no longer a middle-class professional position, but a blue-collar job at an hourly rate a few dollars below the Fight for Fifteen ideal), my modest paychecks were the only incoming funds.

But despite the low pay, I enjoy these jobs—the high morale and motivation of the adult students, their respect for my work and the empathy for the working conditions, and the collegiality and support of fellow faculty and alums. Besides, I was too busy working on Raising Lilly Ledbetter, this anthology about women and work, to take time to hunt for other jobs! And most jobs, in this current “gig” economy for many professionals, would likely be not too different from the positions I already hold. So, aptly enough, while Raising Lilly Ledbetter has been receiving a good deal of welcome attention and reviews, has sold out its first printing, and is scheduled to be featured at a number of conferences, festivals, and reading series into 2016, its editors’ working lives continue to embody the very issues this anthology set out to address!

–Carolyne Wright

Order a copy of Raising Lilly Ledbetter from Lost Horse Press. 

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