The day after the State of the Union, my Facebook news feed was flooded with posts declaring President Barack Obama a friend of women for his statement on equal pay for women during the State of the Union. Equal pay is the go-to feminist argument. It’s the “welcome to feminism” introduction that most women get, it’s the first thing you cover in Women’s Studies 101, and it’s the easiest, least controversial feminist platform. It’s what feminists use when we’re trying to look reasonable to non-feminists or even anti-feminists. It’s the statement Obama can make and get the whole room to stand up and applaud for, on both sides of the aisle.
So if that were the case, then why don’t women have equal pay?
The answer is simple: it’s because economic injustice for women goes much further than a number on a paycheck. Women are not paid less because we don’t have laws to prevent it. Women are not paid less because companies who do so lack punishments. Women are paid less for the same reason women are more likely than men to be living in poverty across all racial and ethnic groups; women are paid less for the same reason that 40 percent of single women with children are living in poverty.
Women are paid less because women’s perceived inherent value in the world is less than that of men.
The majority of employers in the United States don’t have separate salaries for men and women. Employers don’t purposely decide they are going to pay women less for the same work their male employees do. It’s simply that employers see women’s work as less valuable because they see women as less valuable. Women’s inherent worth is less than men’s, so the work they produce is also worth less than men’s.
This is not something we are going to change with laws and regulations. It’s certainly not something we are going to change with pithy quotes about Mad Men. It’s going to take a concentrated effort to change the culture. If we want to see equal pay for women, we’re going to have to value women more. We’re going to have to start valuing women’s contributions to the world more. Pay inequality is not the result of draconian patriarchs who decide workers’ pay based on gender. Pay inequality is the result of a society that does not value the contributions women make to the world.
Pay inequality, sexual assault, and attacks on reproductive rights all share the same root. That root is patriarchy; it is the culture, it is the value of women in the world.
If the President really wants to end pay inequality, I challenge him to talk about a shift in culture. I challenge him to discuss the feminization of poverty. I challenge him to talk about the roots of economic injustice for women. I challenge him to say something about women that might not get the whole room to stand up and applaud.
If the President wants to be a friend to women, he’s got to talk about more than pay inequality, he’s got to talk about how we end it.