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How state policies help or hinder women's equality

A new report paints a bleak picture for women's political and economic equality. But there's a way out.
Protesters attend a march for equal rights and justice to mark International Women's Day, in downtown Los Angeles, Calif. on March 8, 2015. (Photo by Eugene Garcia/EPA)
Protesters attend a march for equal rights and justice to mark International Women's Day, in downtown Los Angeles, Calif. on March 8, 2015.

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Gwen Moore had a confession to make: She had sold herself short.

"I was the one who stayed up all night and wrote the brilliant speech," she said Wednesday at a conference here. "I was the one who crunched the numbers and made him feel brilliant. And I was very happy to be in the shadows."

Moore, a Democrat from Wisconsin, was talking about what's behind the bleak numbers for women in politics. At the current rate, according to the Institute of Women's Policy Research report up for discussion Wednesday afternoon, women will reach parity with men in the U.S. Congress in 2117. Yes, that's 102 years from now. 

RELATED: Hillary Clinton advocates for paid family leave on Mother’s Day

Center for American Women and Politics Senior Scholar Sue Carroll said her research had showed that 56% of female state legislators, for example, said they had never thought about running until someone asked them. “Ambition didn’t precede the decision to run for office, it developed there," Carroll said.  

As a black woman, Moore is part of an even more underrepresented group. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, that makes her one of 18 black women with votes in Congress -- counting the Senate, where there are no black women currently serving, that makes her one of the .03%. That's despite the fact that, according to the IWPR report, black women generally have high voter turnout rates, and in 2012 had the highest of any demographic. 

But, Moore added, it wasn't just her own internal hurdles that were holding her back. She remembers one Republican telling her, when she was first elected, “Other than the fact that you’re a black female and a Democrat from Milwaukee, other than that you’re all right.” 

And there were cuts from allies, too. "Labor organizations love me. They’ll say, we’re friends," said Moore, who last September was arrested while protesting with fast food workers. "They’ll give me $500 and they’ll give men $1,000. For some reason they think men just need more money than women do to run for office." 

It underscored a theme of the conference organized to unpack the 2015 Status of Women in the States report by IWPR: Women's political destinies and their economic fortunes are inextricably linked. IWPR's report looked at women's political participation and economic policies that disproportionately affected women, and the picture was pretty bleak. 

The worst-ranked state for women’s political participation, according to the report, was Utah, which also happened to have the lowest share of breadwinner mothers, defined as either the sole provider of family income or contributing at least 40% of the family earnings. 

The state with the best grade on women’s political participation – which includes voter registration and turnout, how many women are elected to office there, and what kinds of resources are available for women – got a B+. In other words, New Hampshire, the highest-ranking state, was graded on a curve. Although it wasn’t the only factor, New Hampshire has a female governor, two female senators and, until 2014, both its representatives to the House of Representatives were women. (Now one is.) 

And then there were the stark numbers on economic policies that affect women. While policy and law leaders have taken pains to frame caregiving -- for children and elders -- as a family issue, and not just women’s problem to deal with, the burdens still largely fall on women. In the last 40 years, mothers’ labor force participation has more than doubled, with about two-thirds of women with children under six working for pay, while fathers’ participation has barely changed at all. At the same time, women still do the majority of the caregiving and housekeeping work, unpaid.

"At the end of the day, we shy away from talking about economics," Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, said in her speech. "Even when we talk about leaves, we talk about kids that are getting sick. We talk about human issues. We need to talk about education as an economic issue, workplace balance as an economic issue." 

Usually, around this time, someone says that women make a choice to take on more family and caregiving responsibilities as opposed to seeking ambitious workforce opportunities, including political office. Ariane Hegewisch, study director of IWPR, addressed that notion head on. "This is an issue of choice," she agreed. "It's an issue of choice of policy. These are policy choices about properly supporting families that are leaving it to the shoulders of individual families and leading to greater disparity and inequality."  

RELATED: Women stepping to the forefront of Senate races in 2016

On the issue of paid time off when the caregiving needs are acute, America is exceptional: It is one of only two countries in the world that doesn’t have a national paid maternity leave law. The U.S. has a job-protected unpaid leave law, the Family Medical Leave Act, which includes taking time off for childbirth and immediately after as well as caring for a sick family member or yourself, but about 40% of employees aren’t even eligible for it. 

Until very recently, the paid leave issue wasn't on the political agenda, though many politicians talked vaguely about equal pay. As Heidi Hartmann, the Institute for Women's Policy Research's president, put it, "If I had a dollar for every time a politician mentioned equal pay … we’d have a gazillion-dollar endowment."  

But as states have begun to experiment with paid family leave, with the support of the Obama administration, the issue has hit a tipping point. (In fact, the IWPR conference had a panel called "Work and Family: Are We Reaching the Tipping Point?") Hillary Clinton, initially tentative on the issue by saying, “I don’t think, politically, we could get it now," has since pledged her support. On Mother's Day, Clinton released a video saying, “It is outrageous that America is the only country in the developed world that doesn’t guarantee paid leave.” 

It remains to be seen how Clinton would like to get there. There is already a bill that has been introduced in Congress, the FAMILY Act, spearheaded by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), which would fund the program within the Social Security Administration through 0.2% taxes of wages from both employee and employer. The Obama administration has stopped short of endorsing that bill, likely because it would be attacked as a tax increase.