By Susan Rose
Special to Calbuzz
Amid the cacophony of the budget debate in Sacramento, the Legislative Analyst’s Office has quietly recommended that California’s 44-year old Commission on the Status of Women be eliminated. The proposal reflects a broad trend across the nation, as longstanding state and local commissions focused on women’s issues are being terminated or consolidated.
At a time when the governor and legislature are poised to cut and cripple other programs that support working and poor women and their families, there is more need than ever for the kind of publicly-funded advocacy long provided by the commission.
To help ensure those women’s issues will continue to be represented in the policy-making process across the nation, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, has introduced legislation to create a national commission on women.
The facts are clear that women still suffer discrimination in many arenas: We are underrepresented in elective office (only 17 percent of members of Congress are women); earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men; and represent at least 85 percent of the victims of domestic violence.
In California, 68 percent of minimum wage workers are women. Nearly 37 percent of families headed by single women in California live in poverty and many working women have no health insurance. Women of color suffer all these inequities in greater numbers.
In response to these conditions, Speier has proposed a Presidential Commission on Women (PCW) similar to the one established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, which operated only two years.
In 1963, the Kennedy Presidential Commission issued a report of the status of American women, which resulted in the creation of state and local women’s commissions throughout the country. In the 1970’s, the National Association of Commissions for Women (NACW) was formed to provide support for this network.
Speier’s legislation is intended to expand that early effort in dealing with the broad range of issues still affecting women. It would become a permanent federal body aimed at both reducing discrimination that occurs and advancing the rights of women and girls in areas where social and economic inequalities exist.
The commission created by Speier’s legislation would have a much broader mandate that the Council for Women and Girls, created shortly after President Obama’s election. That group’s mission, while laudable, is limited to reviewing Cabinet level agency federal programs that impact women and their families.
The new, 15-member commission would conduct research, take testimony and make reports and recommendations to the President, Congress and federal agencies. Most importantly, the Commission would have a staff and a budget of $2 million a year to support its work.
The legislation has generated support across the country. A grassroots campaign by WomenCount, a San Francisco-based group that backed Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, has collected endorsements from 88 organizations which are diverse in membership, purpose and geographical location.
Despite its broad-based support, Speier’s legislation has caused debate, and some opposition, in feminist circles. Critics have suggested that rather than creating a new commission, federal support should go directly to the National Association of Commissions for Women.
In the past, NACW was very active. During my six years as Executive Director of the LA City Commission on the Status of Women (1985-1991), the association produced publications and convened annual national conferences that drew women from across the U.S. to share ideas and programs.
Today, however, there are far fewer local and state commissions, with far fewer resources. NACW itself has no staff and many of its member commissions have or are being defunded. Most recently, the City of Los Angeles consolidated its 34 year-old commission with two other agencies, leaving only one staff member for its women’s program.
These commissions are the only institutionalized form of advocacy for women within government, and would be revitalized by working in partnership with a national organization. A Presidential Commission, as proposed in Speier’s legislation, represents the best chance to strengthen the focus on women’s issues, to revive the movement and to rebuild NACW.
Through passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the creation of its new council, the Obama administration has already made a difference for women. But eight years from now, that council may be history; passage of Speier’s legislation would ensure that the Presidential Commission on Women will still exist, and still be pushing to advance women’ issues.
A new Presidential Commission on Women presents opportunity for progress despite the difficult economic times. Now is the time for women to come together, to collaborate and use every possible avenue to maintain advances and gain greater equality in the coming years.
Susan Rose, former Executive Director of the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women, served eight years on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and is a board member of California Women Lead, a group working to help women achieve elected and appointed office.