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DN Editorial: Penny unwise

Yes, women earn less. But there are worse battles they're losing.

THERE'S no debating that the pay gap between men and women is a reality in our culture. But the recent political rhetoric about it seemed outdated and flat.

President Obama revived the issue earlier this month when he signed an executive order forbidding federal contractors from retaliating against workers who share salary information, and allowing the companies to be sued for punitive and compensatory damages over gender disparities in pay.

Unfortunately, in doing so, Obama invoked the once-powerful rallying cry that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes for the same work. Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf has also made that statistic a centerpiece of his televised political ads.

But the gap is actually 81 cents, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Or it's 84 cents, according to the Pew Research Center. Or it's 88 to 96 cents, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Or it's any number in between. The amount depends on what you're measuring, and the 77 cents doesn't account for differences in occupation, position, education or other variables.

While any gap is unacceptable, pay inequity seems less catalyzing than it was in feminism's heyday because today's economic war isn't waged across lines of gender, but rather lines of class. When our society has become a lopsided land of no opportunity, when wealth is so obscenely skewed toward the top money-earners, it's a shameful situation that impacts us all.

Any campaign that pits us against each other along gender, race or other lines splits our collective power to battle policies that are oppressive and unfair and keeps us stuck on the bottom half of the seesaw.

Not to mention that, while women are gaining somewhat in economic parity, they're rapidly losing other critical battles - regarding abortion and rape. "Since the Supreme Court handed down its 1973 decisions in Roe v. Wade" said the Guttmacher Institute, "states have constructed a lattice work of abortion law, codifying, regulating and limiting whether, when and under what circumstances a woman may obtain an abortion" - including policies that mandate waiting periods and counseling that imply that women are too irresponsible to make an important decision without state supervision.

Then there are subcultures in which rape is trivialized, concealed and subjugated to other priorities. The military has become notorious for tolerating sexual assault by its officers. Colleges and universities often seem equally indifferent, especially when a prominent athlete is accused of rape.

Which is to say that economic discrimination isn't the only way in which women are marginalized in this country. Equally damaging is the mind-set that keeps women corralled in lower-paying jobs, that deprives them of their rights, disregards their safety and still considers power the provenance of white males.

Yes, the pay gap exists and should be eliminated. But it's part of a larger struggle that isn't adequately captured by invoking 77 cents on the dollar.