Aside from the hysterical “binders full of women” remark that is currently blowing up Twitter and inspiring social media memes, gender and economic issues were finally woven into last night’s Presidential debate. The discussion in particular about pay equity offered an opportunity for both candidates to outline their positions on issues of deep consequence for all women and their families. But given the range of issues covered, from Libya to energy independence to the deficit, the debate offered at best a cursory discussion about pay equity and gender parity generally.
For example, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act continues to take center stage in terms of pay equity, yet there was no mention of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act would advance the cause of pay equity for women in the United States by providing employees with information about salaries and requiring employers to justify wage discrepancies (whereas the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act actually just restored rights that the Supreme Court had stripped years earlier in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.). Ben Adler of The Nation raised to me on Twitter the fact that President Obama had an opportunity to ask Governor Romney point blank whether he would sign the Paycheck Fairness Act were it to pass in the future (it was recently voted down in Congress). No mention of the Paycheck Fairness Act was ever made.
In addition, there was no mention of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) a bill that was recently introduced in the Senate. PWFA would provide protections to pregnant women in labor intensive positions who are still at a higher risk of being fired when their doctor instructs them not to perform their regularly assigned duties.
Finally, both candidates talk about the importance of bringing “high-wage high-skill” jobs back to the United States, such as high-level manufacturing positions. Remarks like this are aspirational, but can further marginalize the work of nannies, caregivers, and other domestic workers who remain instrumental to the U.S. economy. The domestic workers’ movement has begun to educate the public about why caregiving sectors deserve value, dignity, and protections they have historically not received, but the remarks of both candidates demonstrate that domestic labor — which primarily immigrant women engage in — is still largely left out of discourse about jobs and the economy.
Beyond the specific policy the candidates discussed, the tone and remarks of each candidate with respect to gender reflects their values and the values of their respective parties. On the question about gun control, Governor Romney pivoted and discussed the importance of marriage — a mysterious topic shift, but one that aligned with recent studies about the intersection of marriage and poverty. On the question of pay equity, Romney mentioned his chief of staff needing to be home and cook dinner for her family and read to her children — an anecdote that may resonate with social conservatives. By contrast, President Obama connected gun control issues to education, the economy and specifically, the importance of generating jobs and productive options for young adults who may otherwise find themselves in poverty and/or turn to violence.
No debate is ever focused exclusively on women and families’ economic security, and last night may be as much as we can get from Presidential candidates during this campaign season. Come November 7, there are deeper questions to be tackled by both the President and Congress, beyond the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and with a greater attention to issues of poverty that disproportionately affect women.