02/05/2009 12:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Omero: Women's Issues In The Post-Ledbetter Era

This week I went to the fem2.0 conference here in DC. It was a great place to hear traditional feminist groups interact with bloggers and younger activists about the future of the women's movement.  In particular, there was widespread excitement over President Obama's recent signing of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And at the end of the day, there was a spirited discussion about reaching out to a broader audience by demonstrating the relevance of "women's issues" to women (and men) across partisan, ideological, and demographic lines.


Fair pay, access to child care, and flexible work are all popular, across gender


Well before Lily Ledbetter became a progressive icon, there was already public debate over stronger equal pay laws.  I personally have tested equal pay on my candidate surveys for nearly a decade. It has been consistently a strong topic, and a top message among both men and women, for male candidates and female candidates, and in both Democratic- and Republican-leaning districts. 


National pollsters have tested equal pay as well, and found similar results.  Back in 2000, Gallup found 79% of adults supported "increased enforcement of equal pay laws relating to women in the workplace."  In fact, that question even included a price tag ($27 million), yet still enjoyed wide support. 


Other national polling suggests even more issues of interest.  A 2008 National Women's Law Center poll conducted by Hart Research showed clear majorities of both men and women agreeing "we need to do more to help families balance work and family."  Specifically, majorities of both genders support government funding to expand access to quality affordable child care and early education, and also expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act to make all workers eligible.  Like with the price tag above, when a question includes the phrase "increasing government funding" and still garners majority support from both men and women, then you know you've found a popular issue. 


And even as the economy struggles, the issue of work-family balance remains salient.  A November 2008 Rockefeller Family Fund poll, conducted by Lake Research Partners, showed as many working parents (across gender) worry about work and family responsibilities as worry about the economy.


"Fairness" resonates more than "feminist"


Returning to one of the debates at the fem2.0 conference, how do we reach out to women beyond a traditional definition of the women's movement?  The need to do so is striking.  Identification as a "feminist" continues to decline.  In the early 1990s, Gallup found about a third of adults considered themselves feminists.  Gallup has shown that number continue to slip through 2001, when a quarter identified with the phrase.  A November 2008 poll for The Daily Beast, conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland, revealed only 14% of adults consider themselves feminists. 


However, despite attitudes toward the word "feminist," support for gender equality and desire for a strong women's movement is widespread.  The same Daily Beast poll showed both men and women feel women are not treated equally in the workplace.  Two-thirds (68%) of women and half of men in the NWLC survey said there was still a need for a women's movement.   And this 2005 CBS Poll revealed that more women than ever before say the women's movement has made their life better.  That poll also shows identification as a feminist more than doubled when the following definition was given: "someone who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes."


Successful language is optimistic, inclusive


These polls suggest reaching out beyond the women's movement means adopting optimistic language about how far women have come, while acknowledging that more work needs to be done.  This includes a focus on equality and fairness, particularly in the workplace.  More specifically, reminding voters that better access to child care and flexible work schedules are not simply fair, but help people (not just women) juggle workplace and family demands.


Of course, women are concerned about other issues besides child care and flexible work time.  And the women's movement is both diverse, and committed to many other causes.  But we have an opportunity to build on the success of the Fair Pay Act, a popular new President, and a new generation of younger women's activists, to make real progress on these already well-received issues.  Or, as one fem2.0 participant tweeted in response to a presentation from a BlogHer co-founder, "gosh, if everyone saw women's issues as things that can unite us, instead of divide us..."