An ambitious measure to close the gender pay gap and provide better workplace protections for women could soon be on its way to Gov. Mark Dayton for his signature into law.

The Women's Economic Security Act, a cluster of nine bills aimed at female workers, easily cleared the Minnesota Senate on Wednesday on a bipartisan 51-14 vote.

The bill would require most businesses with government contracts to certify that they are paying equal wages to workers regardless of gender and would ban any punishment of employees who discuss their pay. Unpaid maternity leave would be doubled, to three months from six weeks, and sick leave could be used to care for ill grandchildren.

Virtually all employers would be required to provide nursing mothers a place other than the bathroom where they could pump milk. Women who quit their jobs following a sexual assault would be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Sen. Sandra Pappas, the bill's chief sponsor, said that in a state where women make up half the workforce but two-thirds of its minimum wage workers, government should be helping women find and keep good-paying jobs.

"I've always believed that government is the ladder, and you've got to pull yourself up," said Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. "Students have to study, but it's also helpful to have financial aid. You have to get a driver's license, but it's also helpful to have roads without potholes to drive on. It's a partnership between individuals and government, and I think it's the same with women and the workplace."

Minnesota has one of the highest female workforce participation rates in the country, with 65 percent of all women employed.

Lisa Stratton, executive director of the Minnesota-based nonprofit Gender Justice, said the bill is among the first of its kind, ­placing Minnesota at the forefront of the national focus on gender and wage gap issues. In Minnesota, women earn about 80 cents for every dollar men make. Nationally, that average is 77 cents. "No individual bill here is radical in any way," Stratton said. "But passing it all as a package and trying to attack the gender wage gap from multiple perspectives is a forward-thinking way to attack a seemingly intractable problem."

Although opposition to the bill was limited to Republicans, it crossed gender lines during Wednesday's floor debate, with detractors criticizing it as government overreach and reverse discrimination.

"What are we telling women? Unless the government steps up you're not smart enough, tough enough or capable enough to be successful on your own?" asked Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point.

Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, called the bill nothing more than "politics at its worst. I will not stand here and vote for a bill that promotes one gender over another," he said. "If you work hard, if you compete better, you will find opportunities whether you are a man or a woman."

The Senate version of the Women's Economic Security Act would cost $2.7 million ­initially to administer and would include grants for organizations that help women land high-wage nontraditional jobs or become entrepreneurs. Ongoing costs to monitor pay equity are projected at $900,000.

The equal pay provision would apply only to businesses with more than 40 employees and state contracts of more than $500,000. Business reaction to the bill was mixed Wednesday.

"We do have concerns with a few of the provisions that would increase costs to employers, result in unnecessary litigation expenses and would make Minnesota an outlier compared with other states, which we know is not the goal of the bill," said Laura Bordelon of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. "We look forward to working with the bill's authors to address these concerns."

During her lobbying efforts, Stratton noted that despite the conventional belief that women have become more independent, not much has changed from when she first started working on gender issues. "The women who came out to testify were quite young; at the beginning of their careers," Stratton said. "It was heartwarming and sad to see at the same time. The same issues happening to them are what happened to me in my 20s."

She said Minnesota's effort likely succeeded in part because lawmakers wanted to focus largely on economics. A similar package of legislation stalled in New York after it was held up by a reproductive rights issue.

Hibbing DFL Rep. Carly Melin, who is about a month away from giving birth, carried the bill in the House, where it passed 106-24 earlier this month. Because the Senate version and the House bill are slightly different, the next stop will be a conference committee. Pappas said that philosophically, the bills are the same.

"I don't think a conference committee with a pregnant author and a grandma should have trouble," Pappas said.