Jenkins takes a stand
In mid-April, Second District member of Congress Lynn Jenkins was in Topeka celebrating the success of a local woman entrepreneur. During an event at the entrepreneur's company, Rep. Jenkins spoke about the Paycheck Fairness Act, the legislative charade of the moment in the U.S. Senate designed to mobilize liberals and infuriate conservatives.
The bill's intent was to further the Lily Ledbetter law signed in January 2009. The Paycheck Fairness Act sought to eliminate the unjustifiable wage gaps between women and their male counterparts in the workforce by compelling employers to make adjustments to differential pay rates for the same work.
The defeat of the bill was certain, but it prompted Jenkins to aggressively advocate for the Republican brand of fair treatment. The news story reported, "Jenkins said the Paycheck Fairness Act also insulted women's intelligence because it implied they needed government help to ensure they were treated fairly. ... 'No one's going to tell me that you and I are not smart enough to stand up for ourselves.' "
Abundant evidence exists the discriminatory wage differential is real. Of all workers who make minimum wage or subminimum wage, 49 percent are unmarried women, according to Paige Gardner of the Voter Participation Project. Never married mothers make up approximately half of female-headed households, and 46 percent of them are 30 years of age and younger. In 2011, their median household income was the lowest among all families with children, $17,400, according to the Pew Foundation's social trends analysis project. These are the jobs with the least time flexibility, fewest fringe benefits and highest turnover rates. These women must be reassured to learn that a little moxie, to add to the intelligence they already share with the congresswoman, will transform their families' economic destinies.
Just show 'em you won't stand for it, and fair pay will follow -- rugged individualism and grit is all it takes. If personal confirmation is necessary, find a 20-something woman with a GED, a baby and an absent male partner. Ask her about her expectations in a confrontation over fair pay with her supervisor on the night shift at Walmart.
Jenkins bears close attention when she talks about the Paycheck Fairness Act. She's vice chairperson of the House Republican Conference which, according to the conference website, makes her fifth in the ranking U.S. House Republican leadership. As such, she is a significant voice of party policy positions.
Close to Speaker John Boehner, Jenkins is one of the "insiders" on Republican Party congressional policies. Thus, when she calls the Paycheck Fairness Act a "wedge issue," Kansas women who work for others and earn a paycheck to support their families should be paying attention. They also should recognize existing federal pay equity laws call for self-help by those who experience discrimination, and punitive remedies are rarely won from employers with even the worst records.
Any woman who has worked a job where the boys get paid more than she; where raises and advancements go to the men because they don't take sick days when their school child is home, or there's a "snow day;" or where she was told failure to work "off the clock" or "that crunch weekend" was why she was being passed over for a raise or a promotion should think carefully about Jenkins' claim of sisterhood similarity.
What the congresswoman failed to say as she praised intelligent women strong enough to defend their own rights on the job was that, absent a Paycheck Fairness Act, only women with very deep pockets and a good lawyer on retainer are her equal in being able "to stand up for ourselves."
Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.