Democrats have made women’s issues—specifically, women’s kitchen-table economic issues—a centerpiece of their stump speeches heading into the 2014 midterm elections. In the wake of the last election, when unmarried women comprised an unprecedented quarter of the electorate, this emphasis reflects a hard political calculus. But can women translate their newfound electoral clout into concrete policy gains? Do the Democratic Party’s ties to corporate America hamper its ability to deliver on feminist goals (such as paid family leave) that the business community has historically resisted? What about the limits imposed on the Democrats by the intransigent opposition of the increasingly radicalized Republicans? What legislative goals can feminists conceivably achieve in Washington in the foreseeable future? To what extent, in other words, can capitalism accommodate equality for women, in the present political configuration? And how can this knowledge of the “limits of the possible” inform feminist activism?
Our participants are Bryce Covert, Nation blogger and economic policy editor for ThinkProgress; Liza Featherstone, a journalist based in New York City and contributing editor to The Nation; Zerlina Maxwell a political analyst and contributing editor to Ebony.com, Feministing.com and more; Deirdre McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English and Communication at University of Illinois at Chicago and libertarian feminist; and me, Kathleen Geier, your host at The Curve. This time we asked our participants to exchange e-mails, producing the conversation below.
Bryce Covert: Hi, everyone! Excited to talk with all of you.
There are workplace issues that affect women that Democrats could solve without incurring costs or the wrath of the business community. National paid family leave could be instituted as a social insurance program that wouldn’t cost businesses anything and would cost the government just what it takes to administrate the program. Paid sick leave has come with little business cost in the cities and states that have implemented it and brings some financial benefits. Republicans, nonetheless, have stood staunchly in the way of both, proving that it’s not just businesses or a limited deficit that they’re protecting but something else—“free markets,” perhaps, and a workplace out of the 1960s.
But some much-needed policies have to cost money. Raising the minimum wage won’t be free of costs for businesses: research differs on how much and what it would mean, but we know it won’t be totally free. We desperately need universal, high-quality childcare and preschool, but that’s very costly. Some Democrats are willing to pony up the money, and President Obama has proposed paying for universal preschool with tobacco taxes. But fiscal hawks or anti-tax Democrats will wither at the challenge. Other policies would require handing businesses mandates: quotas for diversity among top leadership, regular reviews of pay scales to make sure women and people of color aren’t being unfairly paid less.
In the end, what stands in the way of even incremental progress is a Republican party uninterested in legislating. But even if they came on board, some of the policies that require spending money or ordering businesses to change their practices might not get any traction from our Democratic allies.