Rare is the woman who is not keenly aware of the inequities that her gender experiences on a daily basis. The absence of equal pay for equal work may be the most expensive of this lot.
Because women earn only 77 percent of what men earn for the same work, every woman with a high school diploma loses $700,000 in earnings over the course of her life. Every woman with a bachelor’s degree earns $1.2 million less than her male counterparts. And every woman with (an expensive) advanced degree sacrifices $2.5 million over her lifetime. These numbers are the difference between poverty and security, between working until the grave and retiring with financial surety.
Lack of wage parity is only one among many threats to women’s health, wealth and safety. But it and other economic issues at hand are the most fundamentally important matters American women face. Women have secured 1.2 million new jobs since the recession began, but that toehold is not enough to ensure that women as a group will continue to advance.
So where can women look for allies during this political season?
Presidential elections typically feature a flourish of economic proposals that purport to benefit women. This year is no different.
But the economic stakes involved are even higher than usual, so women must pay careful attention not only to what the candidates say about their commitment to women but to what their actual records are. And we need to calculate the likely outcomes of their proposals.
The president — who, it is worth noting, was raised by a single mother and is the father of two young girls — has a durable commitment to women. It has been evident and consistent throughout his first campaign and his first term in office. From cracking down on gender discrimination in health care costs to fighting for equal pay, President Barack Obama is standing up for women in all stages of life.
Education, from preschool to post-graduate school, is particularly important to women as prospective wage earners. The president’s commitment to holding down interest rates on the inevitably high cost of higher education is one way he is protecting women from losing the relative wealth they earn.
His dedication to having government help fund women who open small businesses is another. For those women who opt to work for other employers, the president signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act over the objections of congressional Republicans. The beauty of the Ledbetter Act is that it would enable women earning less than men to land real blows against the empire as they attempt to improve the poor odds they face as breadwinners. This alone, as the numbers above attest, can be worth a small fortune.
The president also would protect women’s income once they earn it, keeping taxes level on 18 million working families, many of which are headed by women. And the president’s landmark health care reforms end the practice of insurance companies treating simply being a woman as a pre-existing condition that requires a lifetime of higher premiums.
In clear contrast, when Republican candidate Mitt Romney was asked earlier this political season what he would do on these fronts, he said he would “look at what the president’s done, and do the opposite.”
Perhaps most immediately distressing, the former Massachusetts governor has not presented a single idea for getting women back to work now — a particularly noxious stance coming from someone who claims to be a business leader. Romney should, by definition, understand the importance of creating jobs for both men and women, thereby building on the current recovery, but here he is missing in action.
What he has proposed trammels women at every turn. Throughout their lives, middle-class women and girls coming of age during a Romney administration could count on having to fund $1 trillion in tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. Romney adds insult to injury by pledging to cut the American Opportunity Tax Credit that helps working families afford college. Furthermore, he would raise taxes on those 18 million working families, cutting critical middle-class investments and mandating layoffs for educators, two-thirds of whom are women.
In a final fiscal coup de grace, Romney would further damage women’s economic security by ending Medicare and cutting Social Security benefits for future retirees — cuts that are particularly onerous for women, who typically live longer than men.
In the end, it’s likely that the fate of women’s vote rests on who will leave women stronger and more secure economically four years from now. The record shows that the choice couldn’t be clearer. For women up and down the economic spectrum, only Obama is a true friend. His promises, a true reflection of an admirable record, are something we can take to the bank.
Helen Regan and Jean Gulliver are co-chairs of Maine Women For Obama.