Reproductive justice attorney Lynn Paltrow uses the term “Jane Crow” to describe the widespread “criminalization of pregnancy” that she’s found in today’s United States. A case in point is that of Jamie Lynn Russell, 33, who died in jail this January from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy after police in Oklahoma were called to the hospital where she’d sought help. Russell was arrested for drug possession and locked up after cops found two prescription pills that did not belong to her.
Researchers from Paltrow’s group, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, identified 413 similar criminal and civil cases across forty-four states involving the arrest, detention or equivalent denial of women’s basic rights between 1973 and 2005, and another 250 or so since then. While NAPW’s research shows these state interventions are happening in every region and affect women of all races, low-income women and women of color—especially pregnant African-American women—are “significantly more likely to be arrested, reported by hospital staff, and subjected to felony charges.” In the majority of cases, the denial of fundamental rights to pregnant women was done in the name of protecting fetuses.
“The question isn’t ‘Are you for or against abortion?’ It’s ‘Do you believe that upon becoming pregnant…women [should be put] in a new category or underclass?’” Paltrow said when the study was announced this past January. It’s exactly the sort of urgent, information-based, motivating question that also needs to be asked about women in the workplace.
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It’s not uncommon for progressive economists to argue that the country’s economic malaise is related to the growing divide between rich and poor. Inequality holds back recovery, argues Joseph Stiglitz: “To me, these problems are two sides of the same coin.” Even more obviously, rising economic inequality holds back every other kind of equality, including gender equality. Yet feminist advocacy tends to pursue reproductive rights on a separate track from the issues of work, wages and collective bargaining rights.
Some groups, however, are making those links. The National Partnership for Women and Families is leading a coalition that is pushing for passage of the Healthy Families Act and an expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act. The first would allow workers up to seven job-protected paid sick days a year; the latter would expand existing unpaid leave to the employees of smaller businesses and “extended” family members. “The FMLA was an important start,” the partnership says in a written statement, “but the law has significant gaps that leave roughly half of workers ineligible.” It’s not “just” a women’s issue, although women are affected most.
At an event on the State of Female America last fall, Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), put it this way: “There’s no way that our issues, our concerns, our lives, our hopes, our dreams can be relegated ever to any kind of special interest. It’s about the future and well-being of our country as a whole.”
That future does not look good. If the Labor Department’s predictions are correct, and some of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy continue to be homecare, retail and food service, more and more Americans are going to be living off the low-paid, low-benefit, insecure jobs that, up to now, women have been left with. In other words, when it comes to work, the new blue collar is pink. Surveying over 2,000 nannies, housecleaners and caregivers in fourteen cities (and nine languages) for a recent study, the NDWA found that the median wage for live-ins was $6.15 an hour. Sixty percent of surveyed workers spent more than half their income on housing, and one in five reported food shortages at home. Sixty-five percent had no health insurance benefits.
As Poo said, “We’ve made progress. There are more women in positions of leadership…than ever before. We’re at a moment where 40 percent of the country is represented by a female senator. We’ve made progress in some areas, [but] what I’m also seeing is that there’s persistent inequality, persistent poverty, persistent fear of job loss, persistent economic pressure on women such that women are on the front lines of inequality in this country—and the challenges that we’re facing as a nation around equity and opportunity and dignity. I think what’s needed is not only more leadership, but a real movement rooted in communities.”
Of course, legislative gains wouldn’t be so hard to win if poor women had more organized power. A year ago, at a Capitol Hill press conference, surrounded by a dozen women who were either domestic workers or people helped by them, President Obama announced that he was committed to ending the exclusion of these workers from federal minimum-wage and overtime protections. “They deserve to be treated fairly,” the president said. “They deserve to be paid fairly for a service that many older Americans couldn’t live without.” But a year later, domestic workers are still waiting for a final rule that ends their exclusion from the basic workplace protections extended to others under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Even in an election year, the power of women’s groups like the NDWA, and of unions like the AFL-CIO and the SEIU, was not enough to speed the process. The comment period was extended twice (with nearly 75 percent of the comments in favor). A ruling is expected within ninety days.