Leveraging our vote

Recent polling suggests female voters are a key part of Mitt Romney’s Florida success. At 51 percent of the overall population, and 55 percent of voters, women across the political spectrum should play hard to get in 2012, requiring candidates to rethink and rewrite the pitch to women voters. Three events in the last week should remind women — who may again play a decisive role in the outcome of the 2012 elections — how high the stakes are in protecting the gains we’ve made and ensuring continued progress. 

Just last Wednesday, five American women serving on the USS Carl Vinson (currently stationed in the Arabian Sea) broke through yet another professional barrier when they participated in the Navy’s first all-female combat mission. The five “Tigertails” of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron One Two Five (VAW-125) are part of the 5 percent (and growing) number of Hawkeye pilots. Their historic flight would have been unthinkable just 26 years ago when the first female jet test pilot graduated from U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. Back in 1985, she was not only a “first,” she was also the only Navy jet test pilot who couldn’t participate in combat missions. 

Half of the paid American workforce, women are achieving more equal participation in the jobs we hold but we are still unequal participants in the economy. During the Great Recession, families have become more reliant on income from a woman (although that woman still earns less than a man). Studies estimate that 39.3 percent of American mothers are their family’s primary breadwinners and about 62.8 percent are breadwinners or co-breadwinners, accounting for a little over a third of the family’s earnings. Additionally, since the late 1970s, a wife’s earnings made the difference in achieving a place in the middle class for millions of families. So when President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act three years ago, it wasn’t just about equal rights, it was an economic boost for American families. 

Despite clear economic benefits, some still argue policies like Lilly Ledbetter are unnecessary, weighing potential cost to businesses now forced to pay women equally ahead of the cost to the millions of American families who increasingly rely on a woman’s income or are struggling to hang on in the middle class. That logic suggests that it should be acceptable for the combat pilots of last week’s flight to make less than their male counterparts — despite the required level of education, skill and training — because it would cost the Navy more to pay both equally. Similar arguments continue to be made against efforts to address wage discrimination (which disproportionately affects women, particularly women of color), requiring a position’s salary to be based on skills, education or responsibility, rather than gender. 

Intimately linked to our freedom as equal participants in our nation’s defense, to choose any profession and participate equally in our economy, is our freedom to make personal, private decisions about our healthcare. Last week marked the 39th anniversary of the passage of Roe v. Wade, but women’s status as equal citizens is more threatened than ever. The Republican takeover of statehouses across the country resulted in 24 states enacting 92 new restrictions on a woman’s constitutional right to abortion care in 2011. Efforts to restrict our rights have included some in Congress arguing women aren’t competent enough to know when they’ve been raped.

In 2012, women literally can’t afford to let candidates off the hook. We must leverage our numbers and progress to ensure our ability to participate as equal American citizens doesn’t slide backward.

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.