The XX Factor

Where Are the Mama Grizzlies Now?

On Wednesday, the lame-duck Senate kicked off with a vote on whether to start debate over the Paycheck Fairness Act. Moving forward on this act, which the House passed with bipartisan support last year, would have been an important step toward workplace equity for women. It would close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963, strengthening incentives to prevent pay discrimination, and ensure that employers don’t retaliate against workers for asking about what their colleagues earn or sharing that information themselves. If I don’t know how much the man sitting in the next cubicle over earns, how do I know if I’m earning a fair day’s pay?

Instead of helping workers answer that question, the Senate fell two votes shy of averting a filibuster. Every single Senate Republican voted against opening debate, including Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe from Maine (plus Democrat Ben Nelson).

Research conducted by Lake Research Partners last summer showed support for the law from 91 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of Independents . Eighty-seven percent of women and 81 percent of men backed it. In the United States, women continue to earn 77 cents on the dollar. Fair pay affects women first, and then their families and children. Four in 10 mothers are their family’s primary breadwinne r. Another quarter of mothers bring home a least a quarter of their family’s income. The recession has only increased families’ reliance on women’s earnings. New data from Kristin Smith at the Carsey Institute finds that in 2009, working wives brought home an average of 47 percent of their family’s total earnings, up from 45 percent in 2008.

In 2009, Congress passed a different law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which restores the longstanding interpretation of civil rights laws that allow employees to challenge any discriminatory paycheck they receive. Wednesday’s vote means that the Senate will not even consider this bill. It means that women will continue to face retribution for merely asking about pay practices.

A few months ago, Sarah Palin told America that her army of Mama Grizzlies would “rise up on their hind legs when somebody’s coming to attack their cubs, to do something adverse toward their cubs.” Right now, protecting women’s pay is one of the best ways that we can make sure that women can take good care of their families, cubs included.

Yet not a single female Republican Senator could find it in her interest to vote to begin debate on the Paycheck Fairness Act. Where will be the new Mama Grizzlies in Congress be on this issue?

Photograph of Sarah Palin by Randy Snyder/Getty Images.