By Bryce Covert
Last week, House Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and other House Democratic women introduced a new agenda focused on policies that will help women in the workplace. The agenda, “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds,” highlights three core areas: equal pay, work/family balance, and universal childcare. It ties together many bills that have been introduced before — including the Paycheck Fairness Act, a minimum wage hike, and paid sick leave — but is unique in bringing them together under the umbrella of helping working women. ThinkProgress spoke with Leader Pelosi about why the moment is ripe for this agenda and how she will tackle the inevitable tide of opposition. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Bryce Covert: Women have been struggling with these issues for decades. Why pick this moment?
House Leader Nancy Pelosi: We’ve been advocating for these policies and had some level of success with it for decades. Many of us were there before we had a president to sign the FMLA bill, and when President Clinton was elected then we were able to get a signature. When we took the majority one of the first bills passed was raising the minimum wage, which has a direct impact on how women are paid in workplaces because so many are minimum wage workers. That’s just to name two things to balance home and work and how women are paid.
But the reason we announced it last week was that it was the 165th anniversary of the Seneca Falls announcement. We were going to wait until the fall to roll out our agenda but we thought, “We’re ready.” I’ve been having a series of meetings around the country with any women who wanted to come, and these are the issues that over and over again have been important. There are many other issues that relate to women’s empowerment and wellbeing: the right to choose, violence against women, the rest, and we have agendas that relate to them. But this is very focused specifically for women in workplace. When women succeed, America succeeds, but they can’t succeed unless their work is valued in the workplace, unless they have a better shot of balancing home and work. The key to that is paid leave and the issue of childcare, which I think is a structural change that is needed to unleash the full power of women.
Covert: If we learned anything from what just happened in Texas as it passed one of the most restrictive abortion bills, there is a formidable tide against women’s rights in this country right now. How can this succeed in the face of that opposition?
Pelosi: We had to make the fight. I do believe, and from what I’ve seen as I’ve traveled across the country, that women are ready. They are looking to see what initiatives there are that really do help them beyond the rhetoric of wanting to have an economy that lifts everyone in our society including women. No, they want something very specific.
Women have to see that there is a path, there is an initiative. We have to have outside validation of how important this is to women to come pouring forth. There is nothing more eloquent to a member of Congress than the voice of his or her constituents. If they chime in, we can make difference. But they are completely unaware of any real initiatives on their behalf. I’m not talking about the women who show up at meetings, I’m talking about women who are out there fighting to get by. We want women to know that there’s a path, there’s a fight being made on these subjects.
Covert: Which piece do you anticipate being the most difficult?
Pelosi: The childcare issue is a huge one. It’s going to take a lot to do. It was on the desk long before I came to Congress – it was on the desk of Richard Nixon, and it was rejected, he vetoed the bill. But we can’t go back to that place. It’s the missing link in all that we’ve done with our great suffragette movement to get the right to vote, women in the workforce in World War II, increased higher education, women in the professions, women at home raising families – the whole thing is recognizing that women are caregivers and there is a need for affordable, quality, accessible childcare. It’s essential to unleashing the power of women in every aspect of our lives: the economy, national security, the education of children, health care, as caregivers to parents. Everything is well-served with quality, affordable childcare.
The president made a strong step with universal preschool. It’s a piece. It relates to the education of children as well as the need for, as we say in California, children learning, parents earning. It’s directly related.
Covert: President Nixon, as you mention, quashed the last big push for universal childcare, thanks in large part to the rise of the culture wars. Do you expect those wars to come roaring back as you push this agenda forward?
Pelosi: I think that women in the workplace have demonstrated that we’re in a different place now. Not that it wasn’t justified at the time, but now there are so many families where women are a serious part of breadwinning. If I invited you to a meeting of 5,000 women to talk about these issues and I had a breakout session on balances between home and work, 4,500 at least of the people would go to that. No matter what income level, no matter what your family situation is, this is an absolute necessity. That’s what we’re hearing across the country. Even mothers my age are saying I want this for my daughter, she needs it urgently because she’s in the workforce even fuller time.
The times they have a changed. They’ve changed since the 70s. They’ll still try to make cultural argument, no doubt about that, but the fact is women are in the workplace. I think it will fall on different ears. Enough people understand their own personal needs. Women who are balancing work and family and children and being caregivers to seniors at the same time, sandwiched in between, know this is a necessity. Mothers know how important this is. It’s multigenerational. I don’t think there’s a generational divide on knowing the need for it. There may be bit of cultural divide. But most people would agree that you have to have quality childcare.
Every place we go on this subject, Chicago, San Diego, my district in San Francisco, in Florida, in different places, and I have one Friday in Connecticut, there’s an outpouring of people. When you talk about pay equity they’re all there, when you talk about paid leave they’re very much excited. When you talk about childcare, that is a big bite of the apple, that’s way up there as a major challenge to get accomplished, so they get very excited about that. People want to be part of that, whether we call it a movement, whether we call it an initiative. It will make a systemic difference in the lives of women.
Covert: Why tie these bills together in this way rather than push forward on them individually?
Pelosi: We’re talking about doing this as one because we think there’s a synergy here. Pay equity, balancing home and work, childcare: we have specifically put them all together in that way we understand the challenges that women face. It has a oneness and integrity. It’s all related to valuing work. For women who work, by the time they pay for childcare, can’t get even sick and stay home a day and the rest, they barely make enough disposable income to make it worth it. We want it to be worth more to them.
Anecdotally, I remember years ago I was in Iowa and someone who was supposed to take me to the airport didn’t show up at 6 o’clock in morning. The woman at the hotel we were staying in whose job was to put out donuts an coffee, she said, “I’ll take you to the airport.” And she told me had never been on an airplane. The time she has to spend, gas money she has to spend, to get to work makes it barely profitable to go to work. There’s so many women who really have so much more to offer if they could just have the confidence that they can leave home, that their work will be rewarded, that their children will be cared for, and if anybody’s sick in the family they can play that balanced role in it. It gives them so much confidence, so much strength, to take on more. There are so many women in that situation in our country.
I think it’s going to really make a difference. And we’ll keep fighting until it does.