Thursday, May 14, 2009

In June 2008 the new Bristol County Commission on the Status of Women was passed into legislation.

Nine months later, nine commissioners were appointed representing the following towns throughout Bristol County: Mansfield, Assonet, Norton, Swansea, Raynham, South Dartmouth, New Bedford and Berkley.

The move to make this legislation came out of a regional council of women brought together after a regional hearing of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, held in Bristol County.

The MCSW regularly travels throughout the state holding regional public hearings where citizens of the commonwealth may express concerns relating to the status of women and girls in Massachusetts.

After holding a hearing in Bristol County, a group of women, led by Gail Fortes, the Executive Director of the YWCA of Southeastern Massachusetts and a new BCCSW commissioner, began to meet regularly to examine research and data on girls and women in Bristol County in order to develop an agenda and action plan on women’s issues.

Out of this agenda came the need to develop a county commission. Regional council members felt this was the best way to represent women, as developing specific city-based women’s commissions would be more difficult and time consuming. For example, having to develop commissions in Taunton, Fall River and New Bedford would have been all-consuming and the outlying towns would not have representation in those city commissions.

State Sen. Joan Menard and Rep. Pat Haddad were the envoys for the legislation, writing it and pushing it through both the House and the Senate. Strangely, the bill was stuck for months in the Ways and Means committee, even though the legislation does not include any funding from the state.

But after months of waiting, it was finally passed. And then the MCSW went to work trying to find commissioners in Bristol County. This task took nine months.

On March 31, seven of the nine appointees were sworn in before a small crowd of friends, local politicians and commissioners from the MCSW at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. The first meeting was held following the swearing-in to examine by-laws and the rules of running a local state commission.

As there had been priorities set previously by the regional council, these issues were brought to the table. These five priorities are as follows:

1. Education: funding for education, particularly higher education, keeping girls in school and workforce development.

2. Pay equity: closing the wage gap and equal pay for equal work.

3. Health care: access to affordable health care and access to birth control options, including abortion.

4. Leadership development: providing opportunities for women and girls, developing a mutual support network for women and girls, and promoting advancement opportunities for women in the workforce.

5. Providing access to affordable housing, childcare and transportation.

Of the seven commissioners present, all were in agreement with these five priorities, but felt that adding the issue of domestic violence as a sixth priority was imperative.

The commissioners will meet again for their second meeting on May 6 at UMass Dartmouth and will begin their work.

Announcements will be forthcoming in the fall regarding local city and town hearings where citizens of Bristol County can provide input on issues facing girls and women in Bristol County. The commissioners will then make recommendations and propose solutions.

It is an exciting time to be a woman in Bristol County!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Should First Ladies Get a Paycheck?

There is a debate on the Internet about first ladies getting a paycheck. This is an interesting debate, and of course one that brings up much larger issues than why the first lady does not get paid.
In fact, when I raised this question with my colleagues and family, I got to witness quite an interesting debate. I could not find any research that lists whether the first lady is “allowed” to work or not.
Some say the first lady should not get paid because her position is not elected. Her job does not have an official job description or official duties. The president, with his $400,000 a year salary makes enough for both of them, including all the perks they get.
Compared to the reasons why she should be paid, the argument against her getting paid seems very weak. For instance, hundreds of staffers at the White House are not elected positions, yet they get paid, including the first lady’s secretary. The two major jobs the first lady does are playing hostess to heads of state, or event planner, and meeting with various guests, which resembles the job of a lobbyist. Those two jobs make between $45,000 and $130,000 a year.
Another point to raise here is if Hillary Clinton had become our next president, would Bill Clinton stop doing lectures and speeches? Would he stop making money for the four or eight years she was in office? Would he turn down his annual presidential salary for that time?
There was talk during the inauguration that Dr. Jill Biden was interested in teaching at a local community college. Why should she be allowed to work, but not the first lady? She is obligated to give up her career and cannot earn an income, pay off old debts or build for retirement.
If Obama is re-elected, that would mean eight years of her not earning any Social Security or money toward her retirement, which could adversely affect her in the future, regardless if she gets some kind of “package” for being the president’s wife.
The larger issue surrounding the first lady not getting paid, however, is about sexism and the rigid sex roles we still assign to men and women in our culture.
While she is welcome to come up with a platform and champion a cause that is personal to her, working for charity is not valued as important work in our society. Planning events, managing a home and children, and entertaining guests are also not valued in our culture and these are tasks assigned to the first lady.
Women do not get paid for the work they do in the home and raising children. The United States is often criticized for our lack of support for housewives and mothers. And when the woman married to the man at the top of the country cannot earn money for the work she does in the home to support her husband, then why would any other woman expect to get paid for her time spent in the home?
Arlie Hochschild’s book, “The Second Shift,” written in 1990, examines couples in dual career marriages and the time they each put in for housework and childcare. Her 10-year study revealed that women, who work full time, also work more 24-hour days than their husbands taking care of the home and the children.
The old adage “a man may work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done” will always remain part of our culture until something changes. Maybe at the top?