Bonnie Coffey: Women's Commissions

(WOMENSENEWS)–This year, at least five women’s commissions–in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and California–are facing closure threats.

"State-local budgets are tight and women are the first to go," said Bonnie Coffey, president of the National Association of Women’s Commissions, also known as NACW, based in Rockville, Md.

Coffey could not comment on how many additional commissions are facing closure. "It’s a moving target because some small commissions don’t know NACW exists, so they don’t contact us; others close without our knowing."

The closure threats follow the defunding, in 2007, of three women’s commissions: two in Nebraska and one in Idaho.

Recession Changes Commissions’ Focus

The financial pressures on the commissions are particularly regrettable during a recession, Coffey says.

"More men got laid off than women, so women are ‘bringing home the bacon,’" she said.

As more women provide the bulk of household income, Coffey says this raises classic issues for women’s commissions: equal pay, childcare, and maternity-family benefits.

Coffey, who served as the director of the Women’s Commission in Lincoln-Lancaster, Neb., before its closure, says the commissions set their own agenda in accordance with their grassroots needs.

Right now, for instance, Maryland’s Montgomery County commission is focused on single women and poverty, while the Delaware commission has been hosting entrepreneurial seminars and "do-it-yourself" divorce seminars.

Coffey urges voters to contact local legislators to protest any defundings that they know about in their states.

"What appears to be the most help is for people in individual states to be aware of the need for women’s commission and to raise a ruckus when they’re threatened with de-funding or dissolution," she said.

Struggle Not Surprising

Jack Tuckner, a New York-based attorney and founder of Women’s Rights NY, a legal advocacy organization for women’s rights in the workplace, says he is not surprised to hear that women’s commissions are facing new survival pressures in the struggling economy.

Tuckner says his practice has seen a rise in the number of women who complain about employment discrimination and are being let go.

"Women are not being put into the lifeboat first, they’re being thrown overboard," he said. "How shortsighted and stupid do we have to collectively be to stop funding women’s commissions, the only access, voice and power in government for girls and women, when issues of gender inequality still require far more federal government attention?"

Kitty Kunz, president of the Idaho State Women’s Commission, said her commission’s closure was pushed by state Sen. Joyce Broadsword, who believes women no longer need special political representation or assistance.

While Broadsword succeeded in removing funding, she was not able to remove the commission from the state’s statute.

"I suspect she will re-propose the bill to have us taken out of the code and completely eliminated," said Kunz.

The Idaho State Women’s Commission, founded in 1965 by Gov. Robert E. Smylie, was originally called the Commission on the Status of Women. It was modeled after the National Commission on the Status of Women, which was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy and dissolved in 1963 after the Peterson Report was issued; the Peterson Report largely influenced the Pay Equity Act (1963).

Commission Taken Off Life Support

Kathy McKillip, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on the Status of Women, says the decision to close followed a phase of trying to operate on a volunteer basis.

"The commission was tired," she said. "We couldn’t progress or follow through any further on any of our projects. The government had put us on financial life support and we chose to take ourselves off."

The commission was officially taken out of state statue on May 31, 2009.

McKillip says the commission agreed to dissolve itself in return for an advocacy position within the local government that would be focused on women and families. So far, however, that position has not been created.

Kira Dunn, executive director of the Massachusetts Women’s Commission, says her group has lost its operational budget.

That leaves it with commissioners, who identify the chapter’s priorities and set the agenda. But the loss of staff, she says, is a serious setback.

"This will mean significantly less activity in the commission," said Dunn.

She urges local women to log on to the Massachusetts legislature site and protest the de-funding with a legislator. "The budget process is wrapping up, but it’s worth a try," she said.

Kayla Hutzler, a journalism major at Manhattan College, is an editorial intern with Women’s eNews.

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.

For more information:

National Association of Commissions for Women

Connecticut Permanent Commission on the Status of Women

Pennsylvania Commission for Women

Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women

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