Our cover stories this week complete a multi-part series that brings into sharp focus the precarious status of women in Louisiana. By any yardstick — financial, legal, medical or other quality of life indicators — Louisiana women are treated as second-class citizens. The evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable, yet a majority of our lawmakers in Baton Rouge and Washington do nothing about it. Some even rub women's faces in it, as when Louisiana House members — Democrats and Republicans — indulged in frat-house "humor" during debate of a very serious bill to curb human trafficking. The bill set a minimum age of 21 to work in strip clubs. Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson, offered a "joke" amendment to put age and weight limits on strippers. Some of Havard's colleagues yukked it up by tossing $1 bills onto a table while he talked about "trimming the fat." When women House members rightfully called out their male colleagues, Havard cried "political correctness" and refused to apologize.
That incident encapsulates the predicament women face in Louisiana. Any attempt on their part to achieve parity with men can be turned into a joke — or a partisan wedge. Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, has launched a social media campaign — #ItsNoJoke — in response to the Havard incident and to draw attention to the barriers Louisiana women face. "There's a real, significant problem of how women in our state are being treated," Moreno says. "There's just not an even playing field." One of Moreno's Republican colleagues, Rep. Julie Stokes of Kenner, adds, "In terms of the gender question: How did women's issues become more of a liberal thing? When over 50 percent of a population of a state is women, they're not all liberal issues." We couldn't agree more.
No issue highlights the challenges women face more than pay equity. Louisiana women earn, on average, roughly 67 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts in comparable jobs. That disparity is even more pronounced among African-American and Latina women. Sadly, the state House of Representatives shot down a pay equity bill this year, after state senators and Gov. John Bel Edwards supported it. The issue of pay equity goes beyond women in the workplace, however. Because Louisiana has so many poor households headed by women, the disparity hurts children as well — because it keeps them in poverty.
Too often, politicians use the abortion issue as a red herring to distract voters' attention from other equity issues or to divide and conquer women's advocates. We recognize that people on both sides of the abortion question harbor deep religious, legal and moral convictions, but the furor over abortion rights has adversely affected women's ability to access health care across the board. Case in point: attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, which offers women many medical services unrelated to abortions.
Unlike abortion, there is only one "moral" side to the issue of pay equity. It's time our elected officials recognize what so many women already know: Gender inequality is no joke; it hurts women and kids.