Think Outside the Box

Cross posted Anna Belle Pfau

Much ado has been made about the failure of the Senate to pass a cloture vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act. Predictably, feminist on the left who have opposed the development of a right-centered feminism have used the vote to float the continuing frame that Republicans are anti-woman. However, even left-centered feminists who have supported right-centered feminism have been taken completely by surprise by the turn of events. They reason that women erased the gender gap for Republicans on the female side in the last election, thus they should see immediate dividends for their risk-taking. While that point of view should be taken seriously, we should also address the naiveté it demonstrates. Bipartisan voting will never be enough. Feminists of all persuasions are going to have to take the next step: proposing bipartisan policy.

Many left-centered feminist were persuaded to support a right-centered feminism as a result of the blatant sexism faced by both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin during the 2008 election. The most important argument of persuasion in this ideological shift was the 30% Solution, proposed by Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney in her book Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated, and promoted to PUMAs and other disaffected Hillary Clinton supported by blogger madamab, then of Oooh Nuance! And The Confluence blogs, currently blogging at Widdershins and Corrente, among others. Madamab herself seems to have abandoned the strategy, but it lives on in the legacy of support by moderate, left-centered and former leftists feminists who believe a two-pronged attack is appropriate in a two-party system.

The thrust of that solution was that more women on both sides of the aisle would result in woman-friendly legislation at the point of critical mass, pegged at a non-threatening 30%. According to studies cited by Maloney, once women reach 30% of the federal government, progress for women will become organic. The presence of women at that point becomes so normal that policies naturally shift to accommodate their needs. Their collective experience as women and their presence at the table means that women’s voices and needs will be heard and addressed.

I document this information not only because I am a woman’s historian who believes in credit where credit is due—and madamab and Rep. Maloney deserve a lot of credit (that they might now shun) for a fundamental and ideological shift that has resulted in a broadening of the traditional feminist mindset—but also because this is the part the critics of Republicans over the Paycheck Fairness Act forget. We have not yet reached critical mass. To expect Republican women especially to flout party ideology in this political climate in favor of Democratic solutions to pay inequality is, to say the least, impatient and naïve. At worst it’s alienating and shortsighted.

Instead, we should craft solutions that fit within the ideologies of the two legacy parties. Where the Paycheck Fairness Act was the perfect approach for Democrats, its implementations were in opposition to traditional Republican orthodoxy of smaller government with less regulation, especially of business. This is hardly surprising since the bill was crafted by Democrats and enjoyed entirely Democratic support. A peek inside the bill explains why.

The opening salvo of the bill was bound to leave distaste in the mouths of Republicans, if only for the invocation of victimhood:

To amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to provide more effective remedies to victims of discrimination in the payment of wages on the basis of sex, and for other purposes.

Bolding mine.

The hallmark of conservative women for decades has been the eschewing of the victim label, and the current form of conservative feminism adheres to this tradition. That is part of why it is so successful. Beyond the rhetorical objections, the policy itself was never one to pass conservative muster. Reinstating the Equal Opportunity Survey, created and implemented by Clinton and abolished by Bush? Doubtful. Allowing unlimited punitive damages in lawsuits, and automatic enrollment in class actions based on ownership of a vagina and a common employer, thus empowering trail attorneys? Not on your life. Add to that the exemption of the federal government, something both parties presumably support, even though the bill acknowledged the fed is itself a perpetrator of pay inequality.  Such exemptions are offensive to the more populist on both the left and the right, the author included.

These are among the reasons the bill failed to muster cloture votes, and they have nothing to do with Republican support of equal pay or lack thereof. On paper they support equal pay, just as Democrats do, on paper. Neither side has been able to craft strategies that garner the support needed to change the facts on the ground. Into this vacuum comes our next chance.

We must craft strategies for both sides so that they can come to bipartisan solutions. This is how Congress works. The pet issues on either side are rarely addressed with more than token measures because they serve to keep both sides ideological tied to their respective parties. Call it a bipartisan politics of fear. It is only when both sides pressure that things get done anymore. Consider welfare reform or health care. Statistically, there was bipartisan support for some kind of change, despite the disruption in support from key constituencies for both Clinton and Obama. For Bush think of the unity surrounding national security measures after 9/11. The statistical bipartisan support again was there.

What I propose by my title Think Outside the Box is the disentangling of femininity from some solutions, diffusing our issues throughout the political spectrum. It’s a pun, but like any good pun, it’s embedded with that kernel of truth. First, in a deeply sexist society, how much sense does it make to promote women’s causes as women’s causes? Secondly, if this is a war—and I believe it is—smarter, broader approaches are called for, and women must constantly re-strategize to attain results, always with eyes toward both the practical and non-conventional. We must think like Generals and adapt our strategies to suit the facts on the ground and those we seek to conquer. Fair Pay may be an issue to test this hypothesis. If Republicans found the Paycheck Fairness Act untenable for the reasons I mentioned above, what are some policies they could support?

Some conservatives and many everyday Americans could be persuaded to support the protections for reporting and inquiry of income the bill contained, which would render all such HR policy bans against disclosure at the risk of fire void. This could easily be sold as a free speech issue benefiting everyone, one that does not directly affect a business’s bottom-line, costing them nothing unless they get caught paying unfairly based on gender, race, etc.

Another proposal might be to negotiate tax reform to include annual automatic database queries that match employers, gender, race, etc, and income with employers and titles, targeting specific companies to explain inequalities via surveys or IRS forms, thus virtually eliminating on-the-table abuses of the existing 1963 Equal Pay law. While this could be worked around, it would drive the inequality under the table, thus exposing companies to greater risk via other corruption and conspiracy laws. This shifts the argument from a traditional women-as-victim frame to a policing frame, something very much in line with conservative thinking. Again this is a proposal that costs companies nothing unless they get caught, would be of minimal expense to the federal government, and would neither create new agencies nor expand existing ones.

A case could also be made for tax cheats. This involves an explanation of how much revenue federal, state, and local governments are missing out on due to disparities in pay standards based on gender, race, etc.  Unfortunately I don’t have the math skills, but a simple power point created by a good mathematician or team of mathematicians could go viral in our crazy internet world. Instead of presenting a picture of victimized women, this argument shows the victimization of government at the expense of a company/corporations bottom line.  In General-speak—pit your enemies against each other.

The Case for Microfeminism

Naturally, the most important thing women who care about fair pay can do, as others have suggested, is to advance the cause of equal pay without relying on the currently male-dominated political structure. This is easier said than done, of course. Today, the facts on the ground are that the federal government is a huge bicameral behemoth, one that won’t be moved swiftly. While we whittle away at the margins on our way to 30%, we would do well to again think outside the box, this time in more proverbial terms.

Others have suggested the need for women to start new businesses so that more women are in control of pay. This is a fine solution for those with the capital or the wherewithal to raise capital enough to undertake such endeavors. The vast majority of women are too broke, busy, or burdened (or a combination thereof) to take this route. Wealthier women could help by establishing micro-loan programs or investing in existing micro-loan programs aimed at American women.

Entrepreneurial women could make a mark by encouraging the exchange of income information in innovative ways.  The website in currently unregistered, and it would take minimal start up costs and one good database builder to get a site going whereby internet users could anonymously register their gender, race, titles, employers, location, gross and net incomes, etc., which could then be utilized by users to access data for themselves, thus circumventing HR policy against disclosure. This kind of no-risk flouting of authority is exactly the kind of thing the internet loves, and though it could be exploited, for the price of a good webmaster that could largely be negated via traffic monitoring. The best thing about it? No government involved! Just good design and good promotion. (And maybe some fair pay for those of us who want to work on substantive issues like this and need a decent paycheck too.)

These are just a few ideas because I am just one woman. Others could pitch in to create endless approaches and possibilities. A battle on all fronts, one that sheds no blood yet gets results.


The ideal of achieving parity in representation by supporting the election of both Democratic and Republican women, nor the idea that women’s status and needs will progress as more women join the ranks of the elected regardless of party need suffer a blow because the Paycheck Fairness Act failed a cloture along party lines in the wake of an historic election such as we just had. It does not change the argument at all. What it means is that that critical mass of 30% is more significant than ever, and we should redouble our efforts in that regard. With ten Republican women and 20 Democratic women in the Senate, this bill, as partisan as it was, would have passed. Peeling off two more votes, if they were even needed, would have been a cinch in that environment. That’s not the environment we have.

This particular defeat also means that we have to think more creatively to find solutions, and break away even more from our political heritages, encouraging that same attitude in other women. We are the game changers, and we must keep faith, for the war is long. It’s entirely appropriate to be disappointed in the wake of this vote, but blaming one side, or even both sides will not attain for us the results we seek. It’s time to put that blame away and wipe that dour expression from our faces and think this one through. Even outside the box.


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