The War on Women’s Pay: Rep. Jackie Speier Marks ‘Equal Pay Day’ With a Call to Arms

Congresswoman Jackie Speier tells Abigail Pesta why Republicans think women should be ‘barefoot and pregnant.’

Jackie Speier describes herself as a fighter, and rightly so. In 1978, she survived being shot five times while investigating human-rights abuses by Rev. Jim Jones at his People’s Temple compound in Jonestown, Guyana—an attack that killed her boss, Congressman Leo Ryan. Fourteen years later, Speier overcame another tragedy, losing her husband in a car accident when she was pregnant with her second child. Now, the congresswoman from California is a member of both the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues and the Pro-Choice Caucus, fighting to promote legislation to improve women’s lives. Last year on the House floor, she faced down opponents of abortion, sharing a personal story of an abortion she herself endured due to complications with her pregnancy. Her latest fight: fair pay for women. We tracked her down on Equal Pay Day to see how that’s going.

Last week, one of Mitt Romney’s top aides was unable to answer a reporter’s question about whether Romney supports the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The act, based on Ledbetter’s historic battle with Goodyear about unequal pay, expands the amount of time an employee has to report paycheck discrimination. This week, Romney declined to clarify whether he would have signed the 2009 act, although he says he supports fair pay. What’s your take?

I think his campaign is a reflection of priorities we’ve seen among right-wing Republicans. Women should be barefoot and pregnant. It speaks to this assault on women’s rights and on the value of women, on attempts to ban contraception. The first George Bush was a proponent of Planned Parenthood. This extreme tilt to the right now is diminishing women, particularly when you realize that 98 percent of women have used contraception at some point.

Also this month, the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, repealed his state’s Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which allowed victims of paycheck discrimination to seek damages in state courts. One reason given was false accusations against companies. What do you think? 

It’s almost like the Republican leadership has to establish their credibility by showing how willing they are to unravel their support for women.

Women currently earn 77 percent of men’s pay, according to the American Association of University Women. That’s up from 59 percent in 1970, but still pretty lousy. Hispanic women earn just 61 percent of men’s pay. Why do you think there’s been such slow progress on this front?

People take it in stride. But we’re talking about real money—a difference of $750,000 to $2 million over a lifetime, depending on the job. The group that is most discriminated against is in the financial sector. That’s consistent with what was a male-dominated financial meltdown. Women regulators had to step in. The reason April 17 is Equal Pay Day is that the period from January to April 17 reflects how much longer women have to work each year to make the same pay as a man makes in a year.

Critics say the pay gap is skewed by the fact that women often leave the workforce for a few years to raise children, so when they come back, they have fallen behind in pay.

It’s a fairness issue—if you do the same job as a man, you should get the same pay. We’re comparing apples to apples. To somehow argue that women have reproductive requirements that take them out of the workforce and lessen their pay, that’s not the issue. It’s about fairness.

A study from the American Association of University Women showed that among recent college graduates, women make just 80 percent of men’s salaries—right out of the gate, before having children. Is that because of the jobs women choose, such as teaching, which tend to be low-paying?

Even in teaching jobs, in a predominantly female profession, women end up getting paid less than men. In fact, when teaching became a more female profession, the average salary of teachers went down. It’s not just a problem in teaching. It happens across industries. Male hairdressers make more than women as well.

Home Depot, Novartis, Smith Barney, and Walmart have spent hundreds of millions of dollars settling gender-pay discrimination suits. The Paycheck Fairness Act is in Congress now, expanding upon the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which legislated equal pay for equal work. Among other things, the new act would crack down on companies that retaliate against employees who report paycheck discrimination. What else will the new act do?

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

It helps ensure compliance, with more penalties, stronger enforcement, more training for companies. Any improvement in women’s pay over the years has been at a snail’s pace. At this point it’s going to be another 50 years before we catch up. Can you imagine? It’s been going on so long and we still can’t get it right.

For more information on your rights, call the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hotline at 800-669-4000.