A record number of women will join the Pa. General Assembly. But we have a long way to go. | Opinion
Our experiences as women must be represented in the halls of government.
Every day in Pennsylvania, women are treated as less than men. This is a fact. Across the state women earn an average of 80 cents for every dollar earned by a male colleague — before accounting for the added impact of racial wage gaps. Queer and transgender women still face threats of being fired and evicted because state law fails to protect them. In 2018, we saw increasingly extreme attempts to legislate a woman’s ability to make personal reproductive health-care decisions.
In Pennsylvania, we recently made big gains: Women picked up 14 seats in the state House and Senate. These women bring different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences to our government as activists, small business owners, healthcare providers, lawyers, PTA and homeschooling moms. Many, though not enough, of them are women of color, and many are working-class women.
Women members in the Pennsylvania State House know that the #MeToo movement is just part of what we have to fight for. We need fully funded public education, universal health care, family sustaining jobs, strong unions, gun control, criminal justice reform, and a comprehensive environmental plan.
We have made so much progress, yet we are still well in the minority: Women make up just 25 percent of state legislators in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Nevada just became the first state in the country with a majority-female legislature. This disparity is a problem for all Pennsylvanians. Representation for women is essential to representation for all Pennsylvanians. Women legislators are more likely to work across party lines and get their bills signed into law, according to a 2017 report from Chatham University.
We bring our lived experience with us to the state House. Rep.-elect Fiedler and Rep. Bullock are both mothers of two young children, built professional careers before running for office, and have faced discrimination because of their gender.
Our experiences as women must be represented in the halls of government. We have been passed over for promotions and paid less than our male colleagues. We have been told to speak with deeper voices and dress like men if we hope to be taken more seriously. We have been criticized for having children and “sacrificing our careers”; we have been criticized for having careers and insufficiently mothering our children. We have been forced to pump breast milk in bathroom stalls to sustain our infants, keep our jobs, and support our families. We have been assaulted, harassed, and demeaned by colleagues, clients, and family. This is our lived experience. We deserve to be at the table when legislation is debated and priorities are set when it comes to job creation, health care, transportation, taxes, education because we are deeply impacted by these structures and the inequality they currently perpetuate. Only when we demand gender justice will we begin to create a society that truly values all of us as equals.
We have a lot of work to do in Pennsylvania. Health care for pregnant and postpartum women is not readily available. Bills outlawing abortion have become increasingly cruel; birth control access is increasingly endangered; 82 percent of Pennsylvania counties have no abortion providers or Medicaid does not cover abortion. Pennsylvania has the third worst drinking water in the country; our children suffer from lead exposure and struggle with asthma. School funding in Pennsylvania ranks as the most unequal in the nation, while Pennsylvania residents graduate from college with the second-highest amount of debt in the country. The work of caring for and educating our children is undervalued and underpaid: from day-care workers to the classroom educators, aides and guidance counselors. We can do better.
There are ways we can get our government to address these obstacles. We’ve seen it with Rep. Bullock’s law, introduced last year, to protect schoolchildren from being shamed or denied food because they didn’t have enough money. We see it in Rep.-elect Fiedler’s plans to introduce legislation that makes sure workers are respected and paid their full wages so they can support their families and plan child care and doctor’s visits. And we know many of our colleagues are also working to level the playing field for women and families.
We come in ready to fight for the kind of world we want our children to grow up in, and our parents and ourselves to grow old in.
Elizabeth Fiedler is state representative-elect for District 184. Donna Bullock is state representative for District 195. Christine Jacobs is executive director of Represent PA.