Former U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called on New Orleanians on Sunday to fight for changes aimed at bringing women’s pay into line with men’s and addressing a host of other issues that affect women and families.
Pelosi, a California Democrat, spoke at a forum at Tulane University focused on rallying the largely female audience to action on a series of measures contained in an agenda being pushed by House Democrats.
“We have to do things in a different way that are much more respectful of people, that are about meeting their needs,” Pelosi said. “That’s what our women’s economic agenda is about.”
The platform, titled “When Women Succeed America Succeeds: An Economic Agenda for Women and Families,” has three main planks: increasing the minimum wage and adding additional protections to prevent women from being paid less than men; mandating paid sick and family leave; and increasing the availability of child care through federal programs like Head Start and beefing up tax credits for private child care.
With Democrats in the minority in the U.S. House, Pelosi, now the House minority leader, said it is important to build support for the measures from the ground up.
“We need to be spreading the word, building a drumbeat across our country that this change is possible,” she said.
The agenda itself is framed largely in terms of economics rather than gender equality, arguing that improving pay for women and making it easier for those with families to participate in the workforce would be a boon for the economy. Pelosi cited Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen and other officials as saying that women’s participation in the workplace improves the economy.
Building support for that concept — and making it a cause that can attract members of both parties — means continuing to bring those issues to the forefront, she said.
Women in Louisiana make an average of 33 percent less than their male counterparts, according to a report earlier this year. That’s one of the largest pay gaps in the country, exceeded only by Wyoming.
Bills aimed at addressing the issue have been unable to gain traction in the state Legislature in recent years.
“There was an Equal Pay Act (introduced) every year I was in the Legislature, and we could never get it through,” said U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, who co-hosted the event. “That’s because you have to create an environment in which to do it.”
Richmond is facing four challengers in his bid for another term representing the 2nd Congressional District, though he is widely expected to win re-election easily.
Other speakers at the forum discussed the personal impact the issues have had on them. Francesca Vance told the audience about how she lost her job as a home health care worker because she was battling cancer and was unable to take time off to deal with her illness.
Eileen deHaro, with Tulane’s Primate Research Center, said she found out shortly after getting her first job in 1974 that she was being paid 20 percent less than a male co-worker who was hired at the same time and had fewer academic credentials. “I was told, ‘He’s a man and he has a family,’ ” she said. “I said, ‘He has a wife and a dog. I have a husband and a son. Is his dog worth more than my son?’ ” She eventually was given a raise to bring her up to the same pay.
A third speaker, who was supposed to discuss how difficulties finding child care had impacted her life and career, was unable to attend the forum because she was unable to find someone to watch her children.
Most of the forum focused on economic issues, though both Pelosi and Richmond touched on the need to curb sexual assaults in the military and on college campuses. They also discussed domestic violence, particularly in light of recent allegations against several NFL players.
“It really is all part of the same thing: respect for women,” Pelosi said. “Respect for the value of their work, respect for the value of their time for the work that they’re involved in and respect for the safety of women.”
Pelosi also blasted the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case that eliminated restrictions on independent election spending by corporations. That has allowed corporations to pump money into advertising aimed at benefiting shareholders at the expense of the average citizen, she said.
“When the Supreme Court passed Citizens United, they undermined the very values of our democracy,” Pelosi said.
And, she said, women have always had to push for their rights.
“When women got the right to vote, the headline said, ‘Women given the right to vote,’ ” Pelosi said. “But women fought for that right.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.