They clearly stole the show.
If nothing else, that sea of women in white struck such a visual image you kept wishing the cameras would show them again. And then the congresswomen managed to stage a little rally of their own —right in the middle of the State of the Union speech.
Happily, there was nothing mean-spirited or out of place about it.
When President Trump hailed the number of women in the workforce, their sisters in Congress stood and cheered. When he went on to salute the number of women in congress they started high-fiving each other and chanting, “USA, USA,” letting Republicans know their party couldn’t hijack that celebration of country.
After that giddy moment the women in white – like the valiant suffragists they dressed to honor—have some work to do. Now that they actually hold office they can no longer simply denounce the president and rally disheartened women to their sides.
Now they need to do something for those women.
My suggestion: take Trump up on the parts of the State of the Union where he proposed policies that could be quite meaningful to women and ignore the rest.
Forget about his ranting about the wall, lashing out against socialism, hitting the hot button issue of late-term abortion—themes designed to take out on the campaign trail. They are the elevator music of the Trump presidency.
But take him up on some of his throwaway lines. Here’s the first one to jump on: “I am also proud to be the first President to include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave.”
To millions of women — and many men —paid leave to care for family would be a godsend like no other. It took nine years of relentless lobbying to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993. That’s not as bad as the 70 years it took suffragists to succeed in passing the 19th Amendment recognizing women’s right to vote.
But it was still a heavy lift.
Despite strong support in the Congress and the country President George H.W. Bush vetoed the bill when it first passed, roiling the ranks of Republican women. Finally, following the first election “year of the woman” in 1992 and with a bipartisan push spearheaded by Democrat Patricia Schroeder and Republican Marge Roukema, President Clinton signed the bill.
By 2016, the law had been used more than 200 milllon times.
But many people—mainly low income women—can’t take advantage of family leave because it’s unpaid. It provides for up to 12 weeks off to care for oneself or a family member and guarantees that some job will be waiting on return but there’s no pay mandated, that’s up to an employer’s discretion.
The law also doesn’t apply to employers with fewer than 50 workers, so a beautician, for instance, who would usually work in a much smaller shop wouldn’t be protected by the provisions.
So if the cheering women in the House chamber want to make a real difference in the lives of the sixty four per cent of American mothers who are bread-winners, not to mention the millions of Americans — mostly women - providing unpaid care for disabled and elderly family members, they can do the gritty work of passing paid and expanded family leave.
Here’s another line from Trump’s speech that the congresswomen should run with: “The next major priority for me, and for all of us, should be to lower the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs -- and to protect patients with pre-existing conditions.”
The pre-existing conditions part of that sentence will get the attention but the part that will matter at least as much to women is the part about prescription drugs. George W. Bush provided a lifeboat to seniors by proposing the prescription drug benefit under Medicare.
But the price of the premiums keeps rising as the price of drugs skyrockets. Fifty five per cent of the people on Medicare are female, many in need of lower prices for the drugs that keep them alive and healthy.
So the women in Congress have much work ahead. They, like the women in white before them, will be the force necessary to accomplish true change for better in the lives of American women.
That’s what they need to remember as they shed their spotless suits, shift into workday wear and block out the background noise of the much of the Trump State of the Union.