Dr. Jane E. Smith, CEO of Business and Professiona

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–A massive lobbying effort by professional women has persuaded a number of congressional legislators to strongly consider adding their names to two bills. One would provide legal remedies for women whose salaries are lower than those of their male counterparts; the other would require health insurers to expand coverage for prescription medication, including contraception.

At least four additional congressmen and two senators said that they would consider supporting the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would strengthen current laws against wage discrimination and close loopholes that have hindered efforts to secure pay equity in the workforce. As many as 10 members of Congress said they may add their names to the Equity in Prescription Insurance and Contraceptive Coverage Act, which would require insurance companies to increase the level of coverage for FDA-approved prescription contraceptives and related outpatient services.

The assurances came last Thursday, when several hundred members of Business and Professional Women USA, an advocacy group devoted to workplace equity, descended on Capitol Hill to push for salary equity in the workforce following the release earlier this month of a report showing the pay gap widening between male and female workers in the United States.

To date, 189 representatives have signed on to the Paycheck Fairness bill, but proponents need at least 218 supporters–or a simple majority of the 435 members of the Republican-controlled House–to propel House leaders to take action on it. The bill faces fewer obstacles in the Senate, where 28 senators, including Democratic Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, say they support the measure.

“The enthusiasm was great and we had absolutely successful results,” said Nancy Hurlbert of Florida, a chief legislative strategist and public policy chair for Business and Professional Women. “We felt we made an impact.”

Women “Mean Business” on Proposed Legislation

Wearing ribbon-shaped dollar bills on their lapels, the women also pressed members of Congress and their staffers to support legislation that would increase federal spending on child care and preserve the long-term solvency of Social Security, an issue of particular concern to women who have shorter, less lucrative careers that result in lower retirement incomes.

The effort was the central activity during the group’s annual convention in Washington. During their visit, some 230 women lobbied congressional staffers in every Senate office and several hundred House offices, and attended a luncheon with four women members of Congress who discussed balancing work and family.

“We hope that elected officials will understand that we mean business on this issue,” said Jennifer Sweeney, a legislative strategist for the organization who will lead an election-year strategy to hold congressional candidates publicly accountable for their positions on workplace equity. “Especially in a recession, women and their families can no longer afford to be shortchanged,” she said.

The lobbying effort comes on the heels of a General Accounting Office study that showed that the wage gap in American industry is widening. The finding flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that women have been making slow but steady progress in the workplace ever since the Equal Pay Act was passed nearly 40 years ago.

But despite their renewed momentum, the business group’s chief executive director Jane Smith said she is more optimistic about the prospects for the prescription-insurance bill, the group’s second legislative priority.

Prospects Brighter for Prescription-Coverage Bill

“We know that for the Fair Pay Act we have got more years to work. I don’t want to sound defeating, though,” Smith said, adding that with the prescription-coverage bill, “this administration could prove difficult, but the door is not closed.”

Although the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee held a hearing to call attention to the bill on Sept. 10, the next day’s terrorist attacks diverted attention from the issue. But now that Congress is in an election year, it will turn its attention to domestic issues, proponents believe.

The drug-insurance bill also enjoys a greater degree of bipartisan support, although it faces stiff opposition from pro-life members, who often equate contraceptives with abortion. Some pro-business lawmakers also oppose the bill because they say increased health-care costs would be an unfair burden to employers and could jeopardize the affordability and availability of health plans for workers.

“This is not about the relative merits of contraceptive coverage,” said Kate Sullivan, director of health care policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Employers would love to cover as many things as possible. But it’s a bad idea to put more expenses on employers’ health plans. The more they cover, the more they’re going to have to cut back in other areas.”

Proponents of pay equity must overcome even more significant hurdles before new legislation becomes a reality.

The conservative House leadership has yet to endorse the Democratic-driven measure and is not expected to schedule a vote on it any time soon. Many lawmakers remain unconvinced that the wage gap needs to be remedied because they contend it is a natural consequence of a woman’s choice to leave the workforce or to hold a part-time job while raising children. Pro-business legislators also oppose the federal mandate, saying it would further regulate industry.

“There are many legitimate reasons for the so-called pay gap, yet these groups are focusing on discrimination as the only reason,” Chamber of Commerce Vice President Randel Johnson said. “There are already huge remedies to address discrimination.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.

For more information:

Business and Professional Women USA:

The National Committee on Pay Equity:

Equality 2020 GAO Report: “Women in Management”: http://www.equality2020.org/Women.pdf

For more information:

Rebiya Kadeer Prisoner of Conscience:

Human Rights Watch Honors Uighur Woman Imprisoned in China:

Family Looks to Bush for Help on Chinese Activist

By Suzanne Batchelor
WEnews correspondent

(WOMENSENEWS)–The family of a Chinese women’s rights activist arrested three years ago on her way to a meeting with U.S. congressional staffers is hoping President Bush will press for her release when he meets with Chinese President Jiang Zemin on Thursday and Friday.

Imprisoned Chinese activist Rebiya Kadeer

Rebiya Kadeer, a businesswoman whom the Chinese government appointed as a delegate to the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, was arrested in August 1999 on charges of “providing secret information to foreigners”–publicly available local newspapers–and sentenced to eight years in prison following a secret trial, according to Amnesty USA. Since then she has been imprisoned in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of northwest China, and her health has steadily worsened, her family says.

“My sisters and brothers living in Urumqi call us every day,” said her daughter, Akida Rouzi, a college student in Oklahoma. “She is very sick right now.”

Amnesty USA believes that public mention of Kadeer’s case by Bush could lead to her release.

According to Amnesty USA, Kadeer made significant contributions to securing women’s rights in China in the 1990s, founding the Thousand Mothers Movement to promote employment for ethnic Muslim Uighur women. In 1997, the Chinese government confiscated her passport and began restricting her movements.

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is the only one in China in which political prisoners are known to have been executed in recent years. Prominent members of the Muslim community there have been subject to oppression and often brutal treatment, and thousands of Uighurs remain in prison, Amnesty International says.

–Suzanne Batchelor.