League of Women Voters demands equal pay

Laurel Bellows, in keynote speech, says, ‘We are at the point when we must fight’

Laurel Bellows urges the League of Women Voters to argue more forcibly for equal pay, saying, “We are at the point when we must fight.” (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Laurel Bellows urges the League of Women Voters to argue more forcibly for equal pay, saying, “We are at the point when we must fight.” (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

CHICAGO — The League of Women Voters of Illinois used its annual luncheon gathering Tuesday to redouble the pursuit of equal pay for equal work between the sexes.

“This is not simply a women’s issue,” said Executive Director Audra Wilson. “This is a perennial problem.”

Attorney Laurel Bellows, former head of the American Bar Association, gave the keynote speech at the annual event — held at the Metropolitan Club of Chicago in Willis Tower — on the theme of “Rhetoric vs. Reality: Why the Time Is Now for Equal Pay.” She called on league members to adopt the more confrontational methods of the suffragettes of a century ago. While she said she wasn’t necessarily urging them to chain themselves to the White House fence, she encouraged them to make their beliefs heard.

“Do not accept any longer the unacceptable. We are at the point when we must fight,” Bellows said. “This is a battle.

“It’s not about asking nicely. You can ask nicely,” she added. “But at some point it isn’t a plea.

“That noise is going to make a difference.”

Bellows and Wilson both pointed out that current data find that women make on average 80 cents on the dollar compared with the equal work of white men. Wilson said that was even worse for women of color, and Bellows fleshed that out in her speech, stating that African-American women make 65 cents on the dollar compared with the pay of white men, women of American tribes make 59 cents, and Latinas 56 cents on the dollar.

“Those statistics are undisputed,” Bellows said. “The only dispute is the cause.”

She dismissed arguments that women bring lower pay on themselves through “life choices,” calling them “causes in addition to discrimination,” which remains at the core of the issue. “Women are uncomfortable with negotiations,” Bellows allowed. “We are!

“And many of our choices are putting our families first,” she added. “Anything wrong with that? No.”

She pointed out these tendencies are ingrained in the culture and in the human race, but they do not justify the discrimination inherent in unequal pay.

“We are dissatisfied with those who say we should be accepting incremental change,” Bellows said, those who point to how women were making 59 cents on the dollar compared to men 40 years ago. “I don’t deny we’ve made progress. We have made progress.” But, again, that didn’t justify continuing to pay women less than men.

Bellows pointedly noted how Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, which one might think would have addressed the issue, 55 years ago. Yet the problem persists.

She cited the U.S. women’s soccer team, and drew parallels with the U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team as well, pointing out both continue to be paid less than the men’s national teams in their sports.

Bellows also urged league members to drop the tidy language of “pay inequity,” adding, “This is a compensation chasm,” with exponential effects in how women typically earn less than men, resulting in how they then have less in retirement.

“Paycheck fairness is critical,” said U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood of Naperville, “not only because it speaks to our fundamental values as Americans, but also because we know that, when women have equal pay for equal work, families succeed and our economy’s stronger.


“Clearly achieving equal pay for equal work is a goal we have long strived for and have yet to achieve.”

U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

“Clearly achieving equal pay for equal work is a goal we have long strived for and have yet to achieve,” she added, pointing to how in her district west of Chicago women make just 71 cents on the dollar compared with white men — the second-lowest level among the state’s 18 congressional districts.

Underwood urged the U.S. Senate to follow the House of Representatives in passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would call on employers to file pay records with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which would aid in the drive for equal pay much like the state law banning employers from discussing salary history with prospective employees — signed just last week by Gov. Pritzker. She also said she is co-sponsoring the Women’s Retirement Protection Act with fellow U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston, as women on average amass retirement savings that are three-quarters of what men do.

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, however, spoke of how the Paycheck Fairness Act had died in what he called “the legislative graveyard of the Senate.”

Bellows pointed out that not a single Republican voted for the Paycheck Fairness Act in the U.S. Senate, but that women shouldn’t accept that as simply the way things are, and instead should lobby Republicans to recognize that the overwhelming majority of voters support equal rights and that they can win their districts by even larger margins than they have by breaking the party orthodoxy and siding with their constituents instead.

State Rep. David Welter of Morris said that, even as a Republican, he’s committed to “ensuring that we bring about equality in every corner of Illinois,” and he cited his vote in support of the Equal Rights Amendment in the General Assembly. “I did it because it was the right thing to do and it was long overdue,” he said.

At the annual league luncheon, with about 250 in attendance, Barb Yong, founder of Equal Pay Day Chicago, was honored with the Sapphire Award. Yong said the annual event, which began in 2010 at Chicago’s Daley Plaza, was typically scheduled for March 31 and will be again next year, to illustrate how a woman has to work the same year as a man and then a quarter more, three additional months, to earn the same pay.