By Ansev Demirhan
The right-wing women’s group called the “Independent Women’s Forum” (IWF) marked Black History Month by touting its commitment to “developing and advancing policies that . . . actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities” and calling for policies that help minority communities. Over time, the group has opposed many proposals that would help redress economic policies that disproportionately affect people of color–such as measures to reduce the gender pay gap, provide federally-funded child care, and secure paid family and medical leave.
IWF and its related 501(c)(4), the “Independent Women’s Voice” (IWV), use their “independent” branding to praise right-wing politicians and the legislative wish lists of corporations that have funded IWF, like the tobacco industry.
IWF/V and the Pay Gap
One area where enhanced statutory protection is needed is pay discrimination. IWF/V routinely denies the existence of a gender pay gap, even though it is well documented that women in the United States are paid 83 cents for every dollar paid to men. This gap is even more significantfor women of color. Among women who are employed in full-time, year-round jobs, white, non-Hispanic women are paid 79 cents, Black women are typically paid 64 cents, Native American women 60 cents, Latinas just 57 cents, and Asian American and Pacific Islander women are paid as little as 52 cents compared with every dollar paid to a man,
IWF/V has claimed that if the gender pay gap were adjusted for “individual choice,” then the difference in pay between women and men is negligible. However, the data suggests that the reality of pay disparities cannot be explained away by “choice.”
The National Women’s Law Center found that the gender wage gap exists in 98% of occupations. It has also found that this gap is larger in low-income occupations: women who worked full-time in the 40 lowest paying jobs made only 82% of what men earned in the sameoccupations.
The National Partnership for Women and Families recently found that “even after controlling for factors like occupational and industry differences, differences in experience and education, and region and unionization–which themselves are not solely the result of women’s choices– 38% of the gap is unaccounted for.” This has lead experts to suggest that discrimination and unconscious bias continues to affect women’s earnings.
Despite the vast evidence pointing to a gender pay gap and the way it disproportionately impacts women of color, IWF/V have fought structural means to close the gap, such as:
- IWF/V point to the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to argue that sex-based discrimination is already prohibited by law despite its loopholes. The Center for American Progress noted: “Courts have interpreted one of these defenses – called the ‘factor other than sex’ defense–so broadly that it has effectively become a loophole that allows some employers to successfully defend discriminatory pay practices that sound impartial or gender neutral on the surface.”
- IWF has repeatedly attacked Megan Rapinoe and the U.S. national women’s soccer team (USWNT) in their fight to end pay discrimination that resulted in the world champion women’s team being paid less than the men’s team, which has been far less successful. It even filed an amicus brief, through its “Independent Women’s Law Center,” in support of the U.S. Soccer Federation, which was the defendant in that lawsuit. The Federation had claimed it did not violate the Equal Pay Act because it suggested the award-winning women “do not perform equal work requiring equal skill [and] effort” as the men, an argument that was widely ridiculed. Earlier this year, the Federation settled the equal pay lawsuit for $24 million in back pay, along with a commitment against future pay discrimination.
IWF/V and Funding for Child Care
IWF/V have also repeatedly opposed government subsidized child care. For example, it spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads attacking the child care provision in Build Back Better – a policy that would benefit women of color, who have disproportionately less access and greater financial barriers to child care support.
One facet of IWF/V’s argument against this policy is the suggestion that it would not have far reaching benefits, but the child care provisions in Build Back Better were estimated to provide assistance to 93% of working families.
Black and Latinx women along with less educated white women stand to benefit the most from government-funded daycare, according to the National Women’s Law Center. For example, the BBB’s provisions on affordable child care would help Black mothers save money, build wealth, and pay off debt (an important benefit given that Black women hold the highest student loan debt of any group).
A subsidized-child care program would also benefit child care workers, a significant portion of whom are Latinx. President Biden’s child care provision would create economic and retirement security for child care workers, helping to redress the devaluation of women’s caregiving labor. The proposal would help child care workers earn a living wage and those with equivalent qualifications would receive a commensurate salary with that of kindergarten teachers.
Research based on Washington D.C.’s free and universal preschool found that labor force participation for women with young kids jumped from 65% to 76.4% in 2018. For women without a college education, which is more often the case for women of color than their white counterparts, the expansion of affordable child care would mean an increased likelihood of full-time, year- round employment, by 31%.
IWF/V’s Opposition to the FAMILY Act
IWF/V have long opposed paid family and medical as well as paid sick leave benefits for American workers, even during the deadly Coronavirus pandemic. The National Partnership For Women and Families released a brief this month that showed nearly 8.8 million workers missed work in January 2022 because they were sick or caring for someone who was sick with COVID-19. Notably, 55% of these workers were women.
Workers of color and those with low-income jobs are most likely to experience employment impacts from COVID-19. For example, recent data shows that Latinx workers are around 100% more likely and Black workers 50% more likely than the working population to report not working due to COVID-19 illness or caregiving.
There are still one million less women in the workforce today than in early 2020. The November 2021 jobs report found that there was a dramatic drop in the number of Black women in the labor force. This could potentially change with the adoption of national paid family and medical leave policies, as women who live in states with paid leave stayed in the workforce at higher rates, suggesting that the paid leave policies that IWF/V oppose would provide significant benefit to Black working-class women.
In the past IWF/V have criticized state paid leave programs, arguing that these policies only benefited wealthier women because financially vulnerable women could not afford to take time off at two/thirds their salary rate. The paid family and medical leave provision in Build Back Better sought to make it more feasible for all workers to use the program. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, the paid leave policy in Build Back Better would have implemented a “wage replacement structure that adjusts for workers income.” That is, people who work lower-wage jobs would have been eligible for the highest rates of wage replacement, and in some instances, workers would receive up to ninety percent of their wages while on leave. Despite this, IWF/V opposed Build Back Better and its paid leave policy.
In 2018, IWF launched what it dubbed “Social Security Earned Leave,” as a GOP alternative to the FAMILY Act. Under SSEL, parents of a newborn or adopted child would borrow from the Social Security Trust Fund to provide some income for a short period. This is not paid leave and it would not allow Americans to secure paid leave if they themselves, their children, or their parents have a significant illness.
IWF’s plan would advance billionaire Charles Koch’s long-term goal of weakening and privatizing Social Security. IWF has long ties to Koch and has received funding from the Koch family fortune in a variety of ways.
If IWF’s agenda were adopted, it would be a first major step towards privatizing Social Security by allowing borrowing from the trust fund. This could undermine the liquidity of the fund and also force cuts to future benefits that would harm millions of Americans, a large portion of whom already struggle to make ends meet once they retire. IWF president Carrie Lukas admitted as much in a 2018 article in The Federalist, a far right outlet, “This approach could encourage an important mental shift with lasting implications for government’s safety nets more broadly. This could include how Americans think about Social Security, which has long been considered the untouchable third rail of politics.”
If parents did not pay back the funds, they would be forced to retire later, which would basically make parents who use the IWF proposal work longer. And, women already are at a substantial disadvantage compared to men in their average Social Security benefits as it is.
In other words, IWF’s policy would mean Americans would receive lower immediate benefits and sacrifice what is already, for many, a lower benefit at retirement age. This alternative policy places women of color at an even greater disadvantage, given the wage-gap IWF/V denies, and women’s disproportionate caregiving responsibilities that oftentimes requires them to quit their jobs in the absence of paid leave and affordable child care.
Notably, IWF/V funders also have included the Bradley Foundation, a major financier of groups promoting measures that make it harder for Americans to exercise their freedom to vote, measures which have been shown to disproportionately disenfranchise Black voters.
Meanwhile, most recently during this Black History Month, IWF attacked President Biden’s commitment to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court. It claimed this commitment was discriminatory even though the group praised Trump’s commitment to appoint a woman to the Court in 2020. For IWF, words of praise for the “rich diversity” of “being Black and female in America” are nice words, but its reaction and its actions on key public policies tell a different story.