By Cynthia Dill
Olympia Snowe left Congress abruptly in "the year of the woman," and the race is on to find a leader who champions the issues that matter to women and families.
Efforts in Maine and across the United States to end access to birth control and other basic health care have rekindled the gender wars and given new emphasis to where candidates stand on so-called "women's issues."
It's true that conservatives have been trying to turn back the clock on reproductive rights. Some Republicans would order a woman who needs an abortion to undergo an invasive ultrasound. Efforts have been made to de-fund Planned Parenthood, which provides primary and preventive health care to millions of women. The GOP also has voted to cut funding for prenatal services and seeks to repeal Obamacare -- the law that, among other things, prevents insurers from charging women higher rates or denying benefits outright while covering thousands of women 26 and younger.
But there's much more to "women's issues" than reproductive rights.
Close to home, the Maine legislature has battled attempts to insert government into the sacred doctor-client relationship, but also to weaken child labor laws, prohibit unions in women-dominated child care, shift income taxes to the middle class and put more guns in the hands of teenagers.
To support working women and their families, we must close the gender pay gap and seriously address the poverty rate among women and children, in addition to continuing the fight to ensure access to affordable health care. Laws that affect the jobs and pocket books of women and their families include those regarding minimum wage, family leave, child care, collective bargaining and gender discrimination.
The average female full-time worker still makes 77 cents for every $1 a man does at the same job, or $10,784 less annually, according to U.S. Census data. Over a lifetime, this is a huge gap that leads women to poverty as senior citizens. The gap improves to 87 cents for women in unions.
A woman making the federal minimum $7.25 an hour full-time earns $14,500 a year -- $3,100 below the poverty line for a family of three. Congress has raised that wage only three times in the past 30 years, even as food prices doubled and tripled.
A Rutgers University study found that a woman who gets 30 or more days of paid maternity leave is 50 percent more likely to get a raise the year after her child's birth than those with no paid leave.
These are the issues that women care about, not whether their representative in Congress is a maverick. Raise the minimum wage. Bolster family leave. Improve child care. Strengthen unions. And balance the budget to protect programs that help families prosper.
Before I was in government, I was holding government accountable as a civil rights lawyer fighting gender discrimination in the workplace. In six years in the legislature, I've consistently voted for legislation that creates economic opportunities and protects fundamental rights, especially for women and children. The Maine Women's Lobby gave me a 100% rating in its most recent review, in part because I voted to increase the minimum wage, expand family leave, strengthen unions, empower child-care workers to collectively bargain, reform the tax code, and expand broadband to rural communities where women struggle disproportionately to access education, job training and global markets.
Angus King may be independent, but he has been absent the last ten years when it comes to protecting economically brutalized middle class families, especially those led by single mothers.
While governor, King vetoed a law that would have raised the minimum wage, vetoed a law that would have given parents 24 hours a year of unpaid leave to take sick kids to the doctor, weakened labor unions, and spearheaded legislation that denied the most egregiously injured workers benefits to support their families. He said these were fiscal -- and not policy -- decisions, but the $1.2 billion budget deficit his administration created tells a different story. We spend a lot of time in the Senate trying to close the structural budget deficit created during the King administration.
Women -- 52 percent of the U.S. electorate -- are woefully under-represented, comprising only 17 percent of Congress.
While you certainly don't have to be a woman to support women's rights, you do have to have a record of increasing the financial security of women and their families.