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Louisiana: the state of women, part 1 

Women make up 52 percent of Louisiana — but the fight for women’s equality lags far behind that reality

click to enlarge stateofwomen_banner.jpg

Hillary Rodham Clinton officially became the first woman to lead the ticket of a major party in a presidential election on July 27. As she shattered the nation's highest glass ceiling, her supporters — especially women — celebrated the historic moment.

  "Yes, we do break barriers," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, as she placed Clinton's name in nomination "on behalf of all the women who've broken down barriers for others, and with an eye toward the barriers still ahead."

  While the 2016 Democratic National Convention is historic in terms of the fight for women's rights at the national level, lawmakers and policy experts here in Louisiana say that fight is not going so well at the state level.

  State Rep. Helena Moreno, a Democrat who ran her first political race for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008, knows what it's like to try to push her way into a male-dominated field. When she entered that race for Congress, she knew the odds were stacked against her. It wasn't just because the former New Orleans television reporter had never held political office or that incumbent U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, her main opponent, was serving his ninth term.

  It also was because she was a woman.

click to enlarge “There’s a real, significant problem of how women in our state are being treated. There’s just not an even playing field.”  - — State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans
  • “There’s a real, significant problem of how women in our state are being treated. There’s just not an even playing field.”
    — State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans

  Since 1920, when the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote (Louisiana did not ratify the amendment until 1970), Louisiana has sent only five women to Congress. The year Moreno ran, women made up just 17 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate combined.

  Moreno lost that 2008 race, though the Democrat was successful in a 2010 special election for the state House District 93 seat, which she has held for six years. These days, she focuses her energy as a state representative on a topic that directly affects a majority of Louisianans: the status of women's rights in the state.

  "There's a real, significant problem of how women in our state are being treated," Moreno told Gambit in July. "There's just not an even playing field."

  In recent months, Moreno has made headlines for her "It's No Joke" campaign, a social media initiative she hopes will bring attention to what she called a "disappointing" 2016 legislative session for women. It all began on the House floor, when one of her colleagues made national headlines for introducing an amendment to a bill designed to combat human trafficking via exotic dancing in "gentlemen's clubs."

  State Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, suggested that lawmakers needed to "trim the fat" at such clubs by insisting dancers be 28 or younger and weigh no more than 160 pounds. Chuckling male colleagues dropped dollar bills on a table as if they were tipping strippers. It was an over-the-top, in-your-face reminder that the Louisiana Legislature, even in 2016, is still a boys club.

  Havard said his amendment was a "joke" and withdrew it, but the damage was done. Media across the nation labeled him a "sexist" member of a state House of Representatives that remained entrenched in "good old boy" politics. It didn't help that he refused to apologize, even after prodding by fellow Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras of New Iberia and other political leaders.

  Among the voices in the crowd was that of Rep. Julie Stokes, a Republican from Kenner.

  "I hear derogatory comments toward women in this place regularly," Stokes said from the House well. "I hear and see women get treated differently than men, and I'll tell you what, you gave me a perfect forum to talk about it right now 'cause it has got to stop."

12.5% — percentage of women who hold seats in Louisiana Legislature*

  Havard's attempt at a "joke" wasn't the only part of the recent session that dismayed Moreno. She points to a House committee hearing the very next day. On the table was a bill by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, a Democrat from New Orleans, which would have expanded the state's current equal pay law. Moreno had worked for months on that measure and had high hopes for it, given it had garnered support from new Gov. John Bel Edwards, also a Democrat. In a rare moment when a governor appeared in committee to testify for a bill, Edwards said he feared Louisiana was not a "friendly state" to women.

  Among Edwards' points was the oft-repeated statistic surrounding the argument for stricter equal-pay measures: in Louisiana, women on average make only 65 cents for every dollar made by men. "The message we are sending to our mothers, to our wives, to our daughters, is that their work product is 35 percent less valuable than men," Edwards said. "And that is a terrible message to send those individuals."

  Edwards' plea failed, however. Morrell's legislation died in committee.

  "I was really frustrated by both those things happening," Moreno said. "Because it's ridiculous. Because it's not funny. Women's issues — it's no joke."

  With those words, a social media campaign was born.

  On her website, Moreno has publicized the 65-cents statistic. She included lesser-discussed figures, too. Among them: that one out of every five women and girls in Louisiana live in poverty; and that Louisiana has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the country — but ranks seventh highest for teen pregnancy.

  Nor are women often able to vent their complaints to women lawmakers, as Louisiana has the lowest percentage of representation in any statehouse in the country: As of last year, only 10 percent of state senators and 13 percent of state representatives were women.

As of 2015, there are no women of color in statewide elected office in Louisiana, and no women of color from the state in the U.S. Congress*

  "I don't feel like that knowledge is really out there," Moreno said. "There's different groups that are aware of these stats, but that knowledge of where we are compared to other states, there's not a lot of awareness."

Some organizations have long pointed to inequity in Louisiana when it comes to women. The Institute for Women's Policy Research, for example, has tracked statistics on the subject for decades. It found that the rates and/or levels of poverty, employment and health care for women have either remained relatively stagnant or backslid since 1994.

  For example, the number of women completing college has increased by 9 percent since then, but their actual median annual earnings have actually decreased. Fewer than 2 percent more women had heath insurance, and the number of women dying from diabetes, lung cancer and heart disease has gone up.

  In 2013, The Center for American Progress (CAP) mapped "The State of Women in America," and ranked Louisiana last overall out of all 50 states.

  In terms of health, the study found Louisiana women had only one OB-GYN for every 13,136 women in the state. About 20 percent of nonelderly women were uninsured.

23.8% — percentage of women in Louisiana have a bachelor's degree or higher, an increase of about six percent since 2000*

  In a 2013 interview with Huffington Post, Buffy Wicks, a senior fellow at CAP, said the report showed a need for women-friendly laws at the state level — including those that supported working mothers, lifted families out of poverty and provided better access to reproductive services. "This report shows the incredible power at the state level to improve the lives of women and families," Wicks said.

  But a more recent report, again by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, found little has changed for women struggling to find certain services in Louisiana.

  Minimum wage, for instance, still has not increased. Instead of better access to abortion services, as CAP recommended, the number of clinics in Louisiana fell from five in 2013 to four today, down from seven in 2011.

  Those inequities hurt poor women the most, according to Julie Anderson, a research associate for the Institute. And in Louisiana, that's a lot of people, as statistics from TalkPoverty show more than 21.3 percent of working-age Louisiana women live in poverty.

  "So many of these things have much further implications," Anderson said. "It's likely to have a ripple effect."

click to enlarge "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." - — State Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Metairie
  • "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."
    — State Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Metairie

To understand why statistics like these are significant, three years ago The Atlantic measured how far women have come in the fight for equality.

  In 1911, Emma Goldman wrote the essay "The Tragedy of Woman's Emancipation." More than 100 years later, a journalist unearthed that article and found parallels to the 21st century, including economic inequality and the fear of motherhood hindering a woman's professional career.

  Moreno says one problem, at least in Louisiana, is that the discussion of women's rights is rarely seen eye-to-eye across party lines. The legislature has a Women's Caucus, but Moreno says the group is so at odds along partisan lines it hasn't been able to get meaningful work accomplished.

  The party divide is evident when analyzing equal pay bills. It also shows itself during discussions over women's reproductive health issues, especially abortion.

  A law passed this year mandates women wait at least 72 hours, three times longer than before, between a required counseling session and an abortion. It's one of seven abortion restriction laws to pass in Louisiana this year.

  Moreno hasn't included any of those statistics in her campaign, citing it as a "divisive" issue among women. When asked about abortion, Stokes, too, declined comment, noting the political divide the topic creates.

  Instead, Stokes hit upon a point that seemed to resonate among female policymakers, leaders of nonprofit groups and constituents alike. "In terms of the gender question: How did women's issues become more of a liberal thing?" Stokes pondered. "When over 50 percent of a population of a state is women they're not all liberal issues."

$252 — Women in Louisiana who are unionized earn $252 more per week, on average, than those not represented by a union*

  Angela Adkins, president of the Baton Rouge chapter for the National Organization for Women, agrees. According to Adkins, the biggest leaps made for women in recent years are Medicaid expansion, an initiative expected to bring health insurance to 375,000 people in Louisiana, and a series of domestic abuse prevention bills authored by Moreno in 2014.

  This year, Edwards announced that the state's Office of Women's Policy would be realigned with his office. The policy office has served as a connector between nonprofits, government agencies and legislators to address women's health and economic issues.

  But Adkins' overall assessment aligns with those of most women interviewed for this series: Louisiana has a long way to go in the fight for women's rights. She says the first step is to unite state legislators before trying to unite constituents. That work, she says, starts in the Women's Caucus.

  "They need to come together as a cohesive unit whether they're Republican or Democrat," Adkins said. "I implore them to read the reports and take a long, hard look at what is going on for women in this state."

MORE THIS WEEK
The state of economics:
Despite women in Louisiana having more educational achievement than ever before, they still make 65 cents to the dollar compared to men.

*CREDIT: INSTITUTE FOR WOMEN’S POLICY RESEARCH

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