Gender Inequality Is a Huge Problem in the US. Let’s Give the Democratic Candidates More Room to Talk About It

September 11, 2019

Tomorrow, the 10 remaining presidential candidates in the Democratic primary will take to one stage for the third primary debate.

Missing from the debate stage will be Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), whose exit from the primary field leaves a critical void—and preceded that of many men who would have been missed far less. Many of the remaining candidates have expressed their support of a range of issues that impact women’s health and well-being—Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has a plan to combat the gender pay gap for women of color, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has proposed establishing an Office of Reproductive Freedom, and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is focused on addressing the high rates of maternal mortality among Black women. In this crowded field of candidates who have pledged their support of gender equity, Gillibrand stood out for her ability to link this issue to a range of topics, especially economic security. She constantly reminded us that “women’s issues” don’t exist in a narrow pillar of our society but span the socioeconomic spectrum. Gillibrand didn’t wait to be asked about women and families—she spoke to them whenever she had the chance. Tomorrow is an opportunity for the remaining 2020 hopefuls to do the same.

Here are a few issues we need to hear more about on a national debate stage:

1) Our economic system is really bad for women, especially women of color.

There seems to be universal agreement among the candidates that the economy isn’t working for those who work hardest in this country. And that’s true. Too often, however, conversations about “working Americans” are implicitly conversations about white men (you know, coal miners and manufacturing workers and the like). Don’t get me wrong, these workers deserve our attention; but it’s past time for us to expand our understanding of who American workers are, and have public conversations about the ways in which today’s economy distinctly impacts women, and is particularly damaging for women of color. Unfortunately, there is a long list of indicators that illustrate this fact.

Take wage inequality: White women today are paid 82 percent of what their white male counterparts are paid, and Black and Latinx women are being paid 61 and 58 percent, respectively. Over the course of an individual’s life, these wage disparities account for a $418,000 loss for women overall, and almost $870,000 for women of color.

Not only are women paid less than their male peers, but they are more likely to be channeled into low-wage jobs. More than eight times as many women as men hold jobs that pay poverty-level wages, and many of those jobs don’t offer fundamental benefits, such as paid sick leave, paid family leave, or health insurance. Work has only become more precarious for women as conservatives have weakened unions and public sector employment (with great success), and chipped away at worker protections. Typical conversations about union jobs and labor rights allude to men in hard hats or on the factory floor. But unionized jobs—particularly those in the public sector—have been an important pathway to economic security for many women, and today women of color represent the highest share of workers in the public sector. All Americans need to hear how the people running for the highest office in the country are going to create more good jobs for women and protect existing ones.

And we can’t forget about the wealth gap—though too often we do. The racial dimensions of today’s wealth gap are beginning to get long-overdue attention, with a number of Democratic candidates putting forward proposals for how they would address it. But the gendered nature of this reality remains largely in the shadows. As of 2014, women had less than a third of wealth owned by men, and women who were never married had a mere 6 cents in wealth for each dollar held by never-married men. In 2013, Black and Latinx women had a median net worth of $200 and $100, respectively. It’s even more astonishing when compared to the median net worth for white women and white men at $15,640 and $28,900, respectively.

2) Health is an economic issue too.

We must acknowledge that women aren’t hurting economically solely because of the pain inflicted by our broken economy. While the right has successfully skewed the rules to benefit those at the top (read: white men), it has also doubled down on efforts to restrict women’s ability to make decisions regarding their bodies—and by extension, decisions about their families. They’ve created a system designed to fail women at every turn.

To their credit, the Democratic candidates have generally been explicit about their support of reproductive health access and rights. It was a short (though seemingly long) three years ago that I was yelling at the television, begging for candidates to talk about the existential threat to women’s bodily autonomy and to unapologetically say the word “abortion.” We’re moving in the right direction, but it’s time for candidates to use their national platforms to talk about the inextricable links between women’s health and economic security.

The attacks on abortion and family planning access, on health coverage more broadly, and on the social programs that women have long relied on to keep them afloat are detrimental to women’s health and safety, and these attacks have a distinct impact on women’s economic security. Women have reported that using contraception allows them to get and keep a job, to advance their careers, to further their education and take care of themselves financially. When we can’t control the timing and size of our families, we make different decisions about our economic lives—especially when we aren’t guaranteed the benefits that would allow us to participate in the labor market and care for our families. The Turnaway Study— a research project that aims to understand the effect of unintended pregnancy on women’s lives—illustrates the revolving door between poverty and a lack of reproductive health access. Women in the study who were denied an abortion had three times greater odds of being pushed into poverty than women who had the procedure (when adjusting for previous differences in income).

Women intimately understand the economic impact of health care, or a lack thereof. The Democratic candidates seem to understand that too. It would be meaningful—for women and for the progressive movement—to hear candidates affirm it to a national audience.

Conversations—especially on the debate stage—that address the complexities of gender inequality will show voters that candidates have a clear diagnosis of those inequities, and that they are capable of and committed to crafting solutions that will meaningfully improve women’s lives.

3) The courts! Please talk about them!

Conservatives have used the last two years to quietly transform the federal courts and the Supreme Court, which have dramatically curbed labor rights and reproductive rights, never mind a range of civil rights that impact the health, safety, and economic security of women and families across the country. The Democratic candidates should be screaming from the rooftops about the havoc that the courts have already wreaked, warning about what they are sure to do in the months and years ahead, and describing how these legal changes will harm women and their families. Progressives have put bold ideas on the table for reforming the courtsThe candidates cannot speak enough about those reforms on the debate stage and on the campaign trails. We actually need to hear more about their visions for how they would change the courts to reverse the damage, enable progressive change, and strengthen our democracy. 


A progressive agenda that proudly centers women is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also good policy and smart politics. Women—and specifically women of color—are the backbone of the Democratic party, and their votes will be needed to send a Democrat to the White House in 2020. So far, it looks like one critical block of voters is being neglected. A recent Essence poll asked Black women who they would vote for if they had to cast a ballot today. Despite an abundance of candidates, nearly 26 percent of all respondents (and 27 percent of those between the ages 18 and 34) said they would vote for “other” or preferred not to answer. The “other” category garnered more support than any individual candidate.

There’s a lot of time between now and next November. One thing is certain: Women matter—for so many reasons—and the policy choices that affect their daily lives should be talked about frequently and explicitly, and they must be boldly linked to a range of socioeconomic issues that haven’t historically been deemed “women’s issues.”  Tomorrow night is a good time for the candidates to show they’re going to fight for us.