What do women want? Too many commentators assume that when it comes to politics, women only care about matters of sex and gender, discrimination and reproduction. That’s why so many pundits on both right and left got it wrong about the historic Women’s Marches and the global phenomenon they inspired: they missed the reality that economic security—the basic ability to pay the bills and support a family—are women’s issues too. And although it did not get much discussion during a presidential campaign that was said to hinge on “economic anxiety,” one of the most important economic issues impacting women right now is the inadequate minimum wage.
And this is not some new, unprecedented or shocking notion that suddenly appeared in the American workforce. The hard truth is that poor women, women of color, rural women, immigrant women and single women have always had to work outside of the home to provide some measure of economic security for themselves and their families. And while more high-paying jobs and careers have, happily, opened up for some women in recent decades, economic options for most women continue to be clustered in the low-wage service, retail, and “caring” (home health, child, elder care) industries.
Today, this kind of “women’s work” provides critical support to the almost two-thirds of North Carolina households that include a working woman. Women’s earning power is and always has been a key to making sure families can pay their bills, particularly families of color. That’s why raising the minimum wage is so important—it puts more money in the pockets of the women whose paychecks are vital to helping support themselves and their families.
Yet two old, tired and outdated ideas hold us back from recognizing the important role women’s work and women’s wages play in keeping our families financially afloat. One such belief is that all women have (or need) a man in their family who is supporting them. But the fact that the woman is the primary breadwinner in more than 40 percent of North Carolina families provides strong evidence that this idea is just a sexist myth.
Similarly, a closely related set of beliefs manifests in the constant devaluing of what is considered “women’s work.” Serving food, housekeeping, providing assistance for everyday tasks, caring for children, the elderly and the frail—this is work that has also traditionally been done without pay by women in the home. When performed outside of the home, however, this work is clearly useful and necessary. It also allows for others to pursue successful careers in a variety of high paying industries. This “women’s work” has so much value in our society—both in terms of the skills and overall productivity it provides—that it deserves better than the low wages typically paid these workers.
Another myth about women’s work holds that low wage jobs were never meant to sustain a family, and were instead designed with teenagers and young adults just getting started in mind. This is just not true in today’s North Carolina economy. A recent study found that more than 90% of low-wage workers are over age 20; almost two-thirds of these workers are women; and approximately 20% of these women have children. Yet this myth has allowed less ethical companies to exploit all of their workers by building low wages into their business plans. Raising the minimum wage will raise the economic security of these families.
Raising the minimum wage will also help spur the economy. Low wage jobs have accounted for more than half of the new jobs created in North Carolina since the end of the Great Recession in 2009. And while small businesses have always been tough to get off the ground, many of these low-wage jobs are part of already well-established, multi-billion dollar industries that are driving our country’s economic engine.
Putting more money in the pockets of working women (many of whom make the key spending decisions for their families) puts more money back into the economy. It can also help provide the extra boost that many women need in order to seek additional training, advance their careers and achieve even greater economic security.
Raising the minimum wage is what women want. At first glance, it may not seem like a traditional “women’s empowerment” message, but it is a direct way to lift thousands upon thousands of North Carolina women and families out of poverty. Women’s work has always contributed to our economy’s success, and it’s time we placed a proper value on it.
Tara Romano is the Executive Director of NARAL-Pro Choice North Carolina and President of North Carolina Women United.
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