By Sandra Kobrin
Monday, August 21, 2006
A report by the Women's Foundation of California on the status of women in the state is spurring a few female legislators to push initiatives on the minimum wage, workplace toxins, sex education and pregnant teens.
LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)--California State Assembly member Sally Lieber, a Democrat from Mountain View, recently introduced a bill to increase minimum wage that passed the Assembly and now awaits a vote in the state Senate.
Lieber also introduced a bill to reduce workplace toxins that is designed to protect women's health.
Elevated risks of breast cancer have been documented among workers exposed to a variety of toxins in the electronics, fabricated metal, lumber, furniture, printing, chemical, textile and clothing industries, says Lieber. Her bill--AB 815--requires the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board to adopt revised or new workplace life-saving standards for any hazardous substance that the state has already determined to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. It will be voted on in the fall.
"We've got to put more emphasis on the link between women's health and exposure to toxic chemicals," says Lieber, 45, an assembly member since 2002.
"There is also a gap in lower-income women over 50 getting breast cancer screenings and we have to make this available to them."
Lieber says a fact-finding report released this spring by the Women's Foundation of California, the "Road to Equity Tour," helped spur her commitment to the legislation.
"The tour brought to the forefront many issues facing women in the state," Lieber says. "Particularly economics and health. I have been fighting to get people to realize that the minimum wage is primarily earned by adult women, predominately women who are heads of households and of color. It is important to get people to see these issues for whom they really impact: women."
Maya Thornell-Sandifor, communications director for the Women's Foundation of California, a public foundation that invests in women and girls throughout the state, has launched a letter-writing campaign to get these and other bills passed.
"We found that these are priority issues for women in the state and we need to get the bills passed," she says.
State Senator Sheila Kuehl, a Los Angeles Democrat, is also sponsoring numerous bills intended to help women that echo the report's findings.
She recently authored SB 1471, which mandates that sex-education programs be medically accurate, current, objective, linguistically appropriate, and do not promote or teach religious doctrine. The bill passed in the Senate; the Assembly will vote on it this month.
Kuehl, 67, who has served in the California Senate since 2000 after six years in the Assembly, is also working toward reforms for women in health care with SB840. The bill would make all California residents eligible for specified health care benefits under a single-payer public system and would appoint a new state health insurance agency overseen by a commissioner appointed by the governor. The Assembly will vote on the bill before the end of August.
She is also tackling issues associated with teen pregnancy with SB 493 which would help provide supportive services for pregnant or parenting teens over a three-month period so they can attend and graduate high school.
In May 2005 the Women's Foundation of California sent staffers roving over 2,500 miles in 23 days to 10 California cities, including San Francisco, San Jose, Fort Bragg, Redding, San Diego, Riverside, Santa Ana, Bakersfield, Fresno and Los Angeles, and talking with more than 1,000 women.
Researchers found that in some ways women have made political strides.
Women own 30 percent of all privately owned businesses and generate more than $406 billion in sales statewide. Girls enrolled in advanced placement math and science courses are equal to the number of boys. More women are graduating from advanced degree programs.
But women are still constrained by unequal treatment and limited opportunities, the report found, and made five major recommendations for developing a statewide agenda for women and girls. The key elements included universal heath care, ending domestic violence against women and girls, ensuring a participatory democracy, ending poverty and closing the economic gap, and creating a next-generation women's leadership.
The foundation is also taking an active role in this November's gubernatorial election, in which Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is facing Democratic challenger Phil Angelides.
The foundation is currently studying Schwarzenegger's policies and how they affect women and plans to circulate a document that will offer a side-by-side comparison of the two candidates on health care, reproductive policy, economic equality and violence against women.
"When we have this all compiled we will be managing a grassroots effort to get the information out to committees around the state," says Thornell-Sandifor. "We need to get the vote out and arm people with knowledge."
Assembly member Lieber says the women's vote in the Nov. 6 elections is more important than ever.
"Women are poised to play an important part in the election and they already have," she says. "Look how the nurses hurt Schwarzenegger over the past year. He found he needs to listen to women in terms of his electorate and his own administration. Anybody that wants to get elected needs to be an advocate for women."
The California Nurses Association, with 60,000 members, emerged as one of Schwarzenegger's loudest critics and its members followed him around the state and demonstrated loudly at his appearances.
Schwarzenegger had ordered a rollback in the safety rules in hospitals that assure minimum registered-nurse staffing and he had also vetoed bills to expand health care coverage, reduce hospital closures, increase nursing education programs and reduce the workplace injuries of registered nurses.
At one point Schwarzenegger referred to the nurses as a "special interest" group and said they were angry at him because "I kick their butt."
Sandra Kobrin is a Los Angeles-based journalist who specializes in criminal justice and women's issues.
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