The following is Part I of my email interview with the gracious, intelligent, fiery and fabulous feminist, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, after reading her book: “Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated.” Part II will be posted tomorrow.
MadamaB: Your path to politics was far from direct. Could you share some of that journey?
CM: When I was growing up, I never dreamed of going to Congress. The options for women were very limited. I thought I would be a teacher, librarian or a nurse. Politics wasn’t even a possibility. I can remember reading an interview in Life Magazine with Margaret Chase Smith, Senator from Maine, that illustrates the thinking of women in politics when I was growing up. The interviewer asked Senator Smith what she would do if she woke up in the White House one day. She answered: “I’d apologize to Bess Truman immediately and leave.” It just shows how self-effacing a female politician had to be in those days – the idea that she might want to run for higher office was just too threatening. If you asked Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi what they would do, they’d have a list. It just shows how far we’ve come but, as I show in my book, not enough.
When I left college, I came to New York and became a teacher, teaching English as a second language to immigrant women in upper Manhattan. Within a year after I started, my program lost its funding. I was nominated by my colleagues to lobby the legislature to get the funding restored. I was successful, and my success got me noticed by the Department of Education, which hired me as a lobbyist. I soon realized that you can accomplish a lot more good by working for the legislature, so I became a staffer, first for the New York State Assembly and later for the New York State Senate. While I accomplished a lot as a member of staff, it soon became clear to me that you really have power only when you actually have a seat at the table as the elected official. So I ran for the City Council in 1982.
MadamaB: You have been a Congresswoman in New York since 1992. What prompted you to write this book now?
CM: During the years of Bush I saw a rollback, a stalling of progress on women’s issues, and in many instances an effort to roll back gains we had achieved in the ‘70s. I wanted to bring attention to the problems we continue to face and the danger that we might lose some of the civil rights protections we had struggled so hard to achieve – and more than that, I wanted to get women involved, to give them ideas of how they can work for change in their own communities. I wanted the book to serve as a wake up call, to galvanize women and like-minded men to take action to address some of the problems I talk about in the book.
MadamaB: The candidacy of Senator Hillary Clinton seems to have brought out an awareness that misogyny is far from dead in our society. Yet the press, and many national figures, refuse to admit it exists at all. Is that what inspired the title of your book?
CM: Conventional wisdom about how far women have come far exceeds how far we actually have come. 2008 will go down in history as the year we finally came face to face with the level of misogyny that still persists in American society. While it was awe-inspiring to see Hillary Clinton as a major party candidate, the number of attacks on her for being a woman was simply astonishing. It came from every direction – from the hecklers at rallies who held up signs saying “Iron My Shirt” to the netroots who created a website “Make Me A Sandwich” to the politicians who compared her to the villain in the movie Fatal Attraction and vilified her for not giving up her run for the White House. Most of all, it came from the media who treated us to a nightly attack: Her supporters were called castratos in the eunich chorus; one commentator said she was scary, castrating and that he involuntarily crossed his legs when she came into the room; another said that when she spoke, men heard “Take out the garbage.” If that’s what they thought about someone as accomplished, intelligent and gracious as Hillary Clinton, what must they be thinking of us?
When I started writing the book, some people said that Hillary’s ability to run as a serious candidate would make the book seem out of touch with reality. How could I say that our progress was exaggerated when one woman was Speaker of the House and another could be the Democratic Presidential nominee? Well, not every woman is a Nancy Pelosi or a Hillary Clinton, and most women I meet are struggling because of laws that do not support work/life balance, because they do not have health care, because they’re not paid the same as their male colleagues; or because they’ve spent a lifetime with a wage gap and now have to live in old age on social security and pensions that perpetuate that gap. I wrote the book for all those struggling women – and hopefully to inspire the next Hillary Clinton to throw her hat into the ring and join me in trying to change all that.
MadamaB: Did societal resistance to acknowledging sexism help you decide to make your book so reliant on empirical data?
CM: Sometimes you have to let the numbers make the case for you; otherwise critics dismiss the argument as being merely anecdotal. Anecdotes can illustrate a point, and I tell many individual stories, but the raw numbers make the point incontrovertible.
MadamaB: You begin each chapter with a quote from a famous woman. Ch. 2, “The Imbalance of Power,” begins with Bella Abzug’s statement: “Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.” That seems exactly right to me. Despite the infamous assertions of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, an ordinary woman still has to work twice as hard as a man to get the same job; is that not the case?
CM: Men and women tend to enter the workforce in equal numbers and relatively equal salaries. It’s not until they’re five years out that the disparities start to show up. Furthermore, according to a study I commissioned from the Government Accountability Office, the wage gap hasn’t narrowed a bit over the last twenty years. That fossilized gap isn’t because women lack talent or drive, ambition or experience. The GAO, which is not exactly known for rabblerousing or militancy, suggested that one reason might be discrimination. I asked the Joint Economic Committee, of which I am Vice Chair, to do a study about job loss among women – the study came out after the book was published, so it didn’t make it into the book. We found that women have reached equality in one place – job loss during a recession. While all those magazines were talking about the ‘motherhood movement’ and telling us that modern women were making the choice to stay home with their kids, they were missing the real story. The real story was that although women supply roughly 1/3 of the family income and their earnings were needed, women were staying home because they couldn’t get jobs. There was no ‘choice’ to stay home; they were making the best of a bad situation. The only families whose incomes have risen in recent years are those where both parents are working.
MadamaB: You bring up many ways in which corporations refuse to honor the women who work for them. One point is something I’ve never considered: the inability of women to breast-feed or comfortably express milk at work. Could you discuss that issue a bit?
CM: Experts tell us that breastfeeding provides significant benefits for both mothers and infants. Breastfed children have a lower incidence of sudden infant death syndrome, are less likely to suffer from ear infections and respiratory tract infections, have fewer digestive problems, less juvenile diabetes and may score higher on intelligence tests. Women who have breastfed are less likely to develop ovarian and breast cancer, have less risk of osteoporosis, recover more quickly from childbirth, return more quickly to their pre-pregnancy weight and have less risk of long-term obesity. It’s very hard for a woman to be able to continue to generate milk for her infant if she’s not allowed to express milk at work. So a lot of women either give up breastfeeding or give up returning to work. When women are allowed to express milk, they and their children are healthier. Healthier mothers and children means less absenteeism, which is good for the bottom line. Companies that allow women to express milk benefit from less absenteeism, greater retention of valuable employees and happier workers. It should be a no-brainer. I have a package of legislation that will provide civil rights protection so that women cannot be fired for expressing milk in the work place, provide incentives to companies to build lactation rooms, provide tax deductions for breast pumps similar to those available for other medical equipment and provide government oversight of breast pumps to ensure that they are safe for women to use.
MadamaB: You also mention that even in corporations that have excellent reputations for being woman-friendly, there is still a very large and unaddressed sexual harassment problem. Millions of dollars in lawsuits are paid each year to women who complain of sexual harassment. Why do you think this type of information flies under the radar?
CM: I was shocked to find that more sexual harassment suits were filed in 2006 than in 1992, the year after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. It’s clearly still a pervasive problem. While many companies have adopted sexual harassment policies, they do not always take the problem seriously. In the book I tell the story of Elyse who worked at a global shipping company that frequently made the lists of best places for women to work. Even at her company, only about 1 out of every ten women lasts, and one major reason is sexual harassment. When she reported a male colleague for making lewd tongue gestures, her bosses told her they were trying to develop a “team atmosphere” and suggested that she was undermining it. Even repeat offenders aren’t fired at her firm; they’re just transferred to another area. I would suggest that another reason sexual harassment flies under the radar is that settlements often include the requirement that the employee cannot disclose the terms of the settlement. That makes it easy for companies to hide the problem.
MadamaB: It is amazing to me that so many corporations refuse to take steps that will benefit them in the long run – and we as a society refuse to force them to do so. For example, it’s been shown that giving women (and men) a flexible work schedule allows for a better work-life balance, increases productivity and slows down the rate of worker turnover. You and Ted Kennedy have sponsored the Working Families Flexibility Act. Can you describe how that would work, if implemented?
CM: The Working Family Flexibility Act will give working Americans the right to request flexible work options in order to balance the demands of their jobs and home life. Under the bill, an employee may request to modify his or her hours, schedule, or work location; employees and employers will engage in an interactive process to discuss the employee’s needs and how to address them with no or minimal disruption to the employer’s business; employers who deny a request must explain the grounds for the denial; employees who make requests are protected from retaliation. It’s based on a program in England and allows employers and employees to engage in constructive dialogue over modifying where and when employees work so they can find the best solutions to the work-life challenges they face.
To be continued….
Cross-posted at The Confluence