Lenora Lapidus

(WOMENSENEWS)–March is women’s history month and it gave us much to celebrate.

Since the 1970s, a hard-won set of federal and state laws have banned sex discrimination in the workplace, in our nation’s classrooms and in the housing sector. Likewise, since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, the Constitution has guaranteed women the right to decide–free from government interference–whether to end a pregnancy. These protectionsensure that girls can aspire to build an independent life for themselves and their families.

Despite these gains, women–and in particular women of color–still earn far less than men for the same work. For every dollar earned by a white man, white women earn 72 cents, while African American women earn 65 cents and Hispanic women earn 53 cents.

The earning gap is only the beginning. Girls do not always have access to the same educational, athletic and leadership opportunities as boys.

Victims of domestic violence can be kicked out of public housing simply because they have been abused. Immigrant women working in service industries such as restaurants, hotels and garment factories are often exploited and face discrimination. And for many poor women, young women and those living in rural areas, the right to make decisions about their own reproductive lives is a phantom right, promised to all, but enjoyed by only a privileged few.

On April 25, at the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., we will have the unique opportunity to collectively say to the nation and the world: Women’s equality depends on reproductive freedom for all. Without meaningful access to contraception, abortion, prenatal care and childbearing assistance–as well as quality child care, secure housing and educational and economic opportunities–equality for women will remain an empty promise for too many women.

Yet, at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project we work every day with women whose dreams are derailed by injustice. Many of the roadblocks women face in employment, housing, and education are linked either directly or indirectly to reproductive rights issues. Some recent cases make this connection clear.

Police Force Puts Pregnant Officers at Risk

A group of female officers in Suffolk County, N.Y., came to us seeking relief from a department policy denying pregnant officers the opportunity to go on “light duty.” Instead the department forced pregnant officers to either take leave or remain on “full duty” even though they were not given maternity-sized bullet-proof vests or gun belts.

The policy placed women in an untenable position: They could continue to work and risk their health and safety or they could go on leave and lose salary and seniority. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June 2003 agreed with our challenge and found that the policy discriminated against pregnant officers. Despite this finding, the county has yet to settle the case and we await a hearing in federal court.

Welfare Excludes Some Children

Since the passage of the 1996 welfare law, federal law permits states to deny public assistance to children born into a family already receiving benefits. The policy, known as a child exclusion policy, effectively coerces poor women’s reproductive choices, discriminates against children based on the circumstances of their birth and, as research shows, does nothing to help move women from welfare to work.

The Nebraska Supreme Court recently struck down that state’s child exclusion law as applied to disabled parents who are unable to work. A legal challenge in New Jersey arguing that the state’s policy interfered with poor women’s right to choose to bear a child failed, however, leaving poor women on public assistance who become pregnant with few options and scant resources. We are now pursing a legislative advocacy strategy to repeal this harmful law; similar child exclusion laws were repealed in Maryland and Illinois in 2002 and 2003.

Honor Society Bars Teen Mothers

When two high school girls in Kentucky were denied membership in the National Honor Society simply because they were teen mothers, the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in 1998 sued the local school district. Both girls had maintained a 3.5-grade-point average and had been involved in other school activities, as required by Honor Society guidelines. The case eventually was settled, and the school district was barred from discriminating on the basis of gender or pregnancy in selecting students to become members of the society. After monitoring compliance with the settlement for several years, the case was finally closed last month.

Without reproductive freedom, women cannot fully participate in the work force, fully provide for their families or get the educations they need.

The Women’s Rights Project will be marching in April because reproductive rights are fundamental to women’s equality.

Join us and make this the largest demonstration for women’s equality in our nation’s history.

Lenora Lapidus is the director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and a nationally recognized expert on women’s equal rights to employment, housing and education. In addition to litigating cases at all levels of the courts throughout the country, Lapidus has taught courses on women and the law, reproductive rights, and women and public policy as an adjunct professor and has published articles and a book chapter on a wide range of civil rights issues.

For more information:

ACLU March for Women’s Lives:

March for Women’s Lives: