Progress, past and present, for women

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 11, 2014 - 6:43 PM

The debate over Minnesota’s Women’s Economic Security Act illuminates the issue.

DFL state Rep. Shannon Savick, the former mayor of Wells.

Past and present collided repeatedly Wednesday as the Minnesota House debated the bundle of worker protection bills called the Women’s Economic Security Act. My favorite such moment was when eight-term Republican Rep. Sondra Erickson posed a question to freshman DFL Rep. Shannon Savick, the former mayor of Wells.

“I wonder, as you came through your career, if you needed to rely on any special government program to help you?” Erickson asked.

“Yes, I did,” Savick replied, in the self-assured voice of someone who was once kicked out of assertiveness training class for advising other women to ignore their husbands’ wishes about their careers.

It was government insistence in the early 1970s that job qualifications could no longer be gender-­specific that allowed her, a recent math and physics grad from Mankato State University, to be considered for computer sales jobs that had been closed to her before, Savick explained. She was one of the first women hired by Massachusetts-based Digital Equipment Corp., and was the company’s leading salesperson outside of New York and California for a number of years. When she retired, she was Digital’s manufacturing account manager for one of its largest clients, DuPont Corp.

Erickson seemed not to hear Savick’s answer. “You did that, I think, on your own for the most part,” said the rep from Princeton.

A rumble rose from listeners who had been paying attention. Erickson charged ahead: “My young women in east-central Minnesota, and I think around this state, really want to count on what it is they bring, that’s those great qualities of courage and initiative and creativity, and create for themselves great careers. … We don’t have to rely every step of the way on something government is going to force employers to do.”

Savick was shortly on her feet again. “I said I did have help from the government,” she corrected. “The government changed the laws and forced the companies to hire women. I would not have gotten my first job without the help of my government.”

Savick let other supporters of the Women’s Economic Security Act state the obvious connection between her story and the ones heard at the Capitol this year as the act chugged through committees.

There was the florist who was “made to feel bad about being pregnant” after tangling with her boss for weeks over whether she could get off her aching feet periodically during the workday. The new mother who was told she could not use her breaks to express breast milk at the workplace. The young woman who asked her boss why her new male colleague was paid more than she was and was threatened with dismissal just for asking the question.

These accounts came from young women whom I’d guess possess as much courage, initiative and creativity as Savick did 40 years ago. (And does still, in spades: She’s been on the job this year while grieving the death of her husband the day after the session started.) Those attributes weren’t enough in the 1970s for Savick to break through age-old cultural patterns and attitudes that denied opportunity to women on her own. It took a government push.

The Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA) embodies its backers’ belief that it will take another government push to make work work for women even if they are pregnant, or breast-feeding, or caring for a sick child or elderly parent — and their belief that government can help close the chronic gap in median wages between men and women.

The bill would allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child, up from six weeks in current law. It would require employers of more than 21 workers to make “reasonable accommodations” for pregnant workers, including more restroom breaks and access to food, water and a chair. It tightens existing requirements for accommodations for nursing mothers. It requires large private contractors who do business with state government to comply with government’s pay equity requirements. It allows for more job security for family caregivers. It bars discipline against an employee who inquires about colleagues’ salaries.

It’s a composite of nine bills in all, sponsored by two-term Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, an attorney whose visible pregnancy added a dash of here-and-now reality to the discussion of job protections for pregnant women.

But history was palpable then, too. That part of Melin’s bill was sponsored by DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who in 1972 was one of six women who started the modern era’s gender diversification of the Legislature. Today, 45 of the House’s 134 members are female — and Kahn is still pitching for gender justice.

WESA is a DFL-designed measure in a DFL-controlled Legislature. It’s advancing at a time when, nationally, Democrats from President Obama down are becoming more vocal in decrying the gender pay gap and touting their preferred remedies for closing it. Female voters have long tilted toward the Democratic Party. Facing what’s expected to be a tough election this year, Democrats seem eager to shore up that advantage.

Plenty of Republicans, like Erickson, see such measures as excessive government intrusion in a marketplace that’s doing all right by women now, and might do better sooner if left alone. But in the state House, not all Republicans see it that way. Thirty-four of the chamber’s 61 Republicans voted for the Women’s Economic Security Act Wednesday.

That bipartisan vote added to a sense that WESA is a legislative attempt to pick up something that Minnesotans inadvertently dropped some years ago and want to seize again. Before the abortion issue split it asunder, the Minnesota women’s movement was quite bipartisan. It was a broad-based resolve not just to give women more opportunities to work, but to transform work itself into something that better serves men, women and children.

The first part of that goal has largely been fulfilled. The latter needs more attention.

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