Two years ago I walked into a fund-raiser for Planned Parenthood New York City at a cream-colored midtown apartment filled with fresh flowers. It was a scene out of a Nancy Meyers movie: educated, professional women and men in comfortable chic clothes with sharp eyewear.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn was the star attraction, but I was curious to see how she’d be received. Earlier in the week Quinn had shelved the veto-proof paid-family-leave act, claiming that the measure would be too burdensome on small businesses.
As the press observed, the move simultaneously bolstered her standing with the Bloombergistas while denying a victory to her would-be opponent Bill de Blasio, the standard-bearer of the Working Families Party, a prime backer of the bill. Almost as an afterthought, working women and low-income families, who would have benefited the most from the legislation, suffered a huge blow.
It was simple self-dealing. But now the speaker was about to confront a room full of politically active women. Surely they’d be outraged.
Quinn gave a rousing speech about reproductive rights to endless applause. That was it.
A whole two years later, Quinn finally felt the heat when last month Gloria Steinem publicly pressured her to pass the bill, which mandates paid days off for illness or to care for family members. Of course, that was after Steinem introduced her at a 500-person fund-raiser in the fall.
However soft her position may be, Steinem is on to something. In July The Atlantic featured an explosive cover story by Anne-Marie Slaughter about how even high-achieving women in the 21st century still can’t “have it all.” Why? Among other reasons Slaughter cites the lack of social infrastructure to help women manage family and professional responsibilities, e.g., paid family leave.
I was raised to believe that to make light of the fight for reproductive rights is heresy, and that the problem with young women today is that we don’t appreciate the hard-won battles our mothers fought. But my mother, a passionate pro-choice advocate, also taught me that power is taken, not given. In New York City no Democratic candidate for mayor can make it out of the primary without being pro-choice. Even Republican candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg have to be pro-choice to win the general election. And the current crop of Democratic candidates for mayor are tripping over themselves to proclaim their undying support for reproductive rights.
Women make up 52 percent of the Democratic vote, yet the party takes them for granted while depending on them to get elected. It’s time to raise the stakes.
The pro-choice movement in New York City, which includes quite a few men, needs to play hardball with the Democratic Party. What about pay inequality? It’s still 78 cents to a man’s dollar—although white women should count themselves lucky; according to a 2008 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the New York Women’s Foundation, African-American and Hispanic women earn two thirds and half as much as white men, respectively. What about the fact that, according to the American Bar Association, only 15–16 percent of equity partners are female? As Slaughter suggests in her article, women suffer in the workplace because they’re still primary caregivers, which means paid family leave could make all the difference. And contrary to the opposing argument, it doesn’t have to break the bank. California’s Paid Family Leave law, enacted in 2004, has been extremely successful, even saving small businesses an estimated $89 million dollars a year in decreased turnover, and a savings on disability assistance of $25 million a year for the state.
But if you can’t win with the facts, win with force. No New York City candidate who fails to support paid family leave should be able to claim the mantle of the women’s vote, let alone receive a glowing endorsement from the pro-choice movement.
Politics is about power. Punch back.
Alexis Grenell is a Democratic communications strategist who writes about women and politics. She is filling in for our regular columnist, former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who is traveling.
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