Thursday, February 26, 2009


Several weeks ago, a news flurry about out-of-wedlock births caused the Iowa media to contact my office about a reported “uptick.” I was so distracted by the reference to out-of-wedlock births that I had a difficult time focusing on the conclusions journalists were trying to draw from the numbers.

First, the words themselves are out-of-date and irrelevant. In a world where women are deciding to become mothers outside of marriage, where eggs can be fertilized in a petri dish, where married and unmarried women use artificial insemination, where women serve as surrogate parents for childless couples, where gay couples who legally can’t marry use technology to conceive or choose to adopt children, I question using archaic language so out-of-sync with reality.

As a journalist and English teacher, I teach that words and labels matter, that the connotations of words matter. As someone married to an “illegitimate child,” a man born “out-of-wedlock,” I am especially sensitive to this particular designation.

A look at the 2007 Vital Statistics of Iowa Report, shows out-of-wedlock births to be one of thousands of categories including “live births to mothers ages15-17 ranked by county” and “average age of marriage l997-2007.” Any number having to do with every kind of death, birth, marriage and divorce is listed there.

One reporter who called our office said he was referring to statistics released by the Iowa Department of Public Health, so it’s clear journalists rely on these numbers and the language that accompanies them. I’ve heard that policymakers also rely on these statistics to make decisions and craft legislation.

Apart from the argument that the word is irrelevant, shouldn’t we re-examine why it matters today that a child is born “out-of-wedlock?” If the language doesn’t reflect the changes in our society, is it possible the numbers don’t either? I’m interested in learning how policy-makers or other decision-makers use these numbers.

Is it possible that if we change the language of categorizing that we’ll change the way decision-leaders use and interpret the numbers?

Let me know how you feel about the use of the words “out-of-wedlock” in a society where we commonly refer to couples in a “committed relationship.” I’m also interested in knowing how “out-of-wedlock” statistics are used by policy-makers to make decisions and how these decisions might affect peoples’ lives positively or negatively.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Pay Equity for Women

On January 22nd, I sat in the gallery of the U.S. Senate watching a debate on the Lilly Ledbetter bill which involves pay equity for women. Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland squared off against Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas. I was surprised to find not only the visitors and press galleries nearly empty but the Senate chamber as well.

Senator Hutchinson was trying to pass an amendment because she thought, as written, the bill would hurt small businesses. If companies don’t want a bad reputation, they shouldn’t discriminate, argued Senator Mikulski. Her argument was echoed by my senator, Tom Harkin of Iowa, an original co-sponsor of the bill. He said, “This is a women’s issue, it is a fairness issue, it is a family issue. And it is time for Congress to pass this law to right this gross injustice.” After debate, senators voted to defeat Hutchinson’s amendment. When it came time to vote on the entire bill, in the final vote that evening, all the women senators voted in favor and it passed. Last week President Obama signed the bill, his first.

The signing of the bill will overturn a Supreme Court case that ruled against Lilly Ledbetter’s claim of discrimination. After working as a supervisor with Goodyear Tire for 19 years she discovered that male supervisors had been paid a higher salary. Not only had she made less over those many years but her lower salary meant she now received less in retirement. She took her battle to the Supreme Court and lost. But even that didn’t stop her. She invested the next 10 years of her life in the struggle to guarantee women equal pay.

When I left the Senate to walk to the Metro, I got caught up in a group of pro-life protesters on a street corner, there to express their opinions on a day that marked the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. It struck me that these two concurrent events speak to the power one woman can have to create change.

One woman took a stand and led the struggle to guarantee equal pay for women. Another woman Norma McCorvey, known to most of us as “Jane Roe” stood up for her right to reproductive choice. These women teach us all that one woman really can make a difference in the lives of many, whether she’s a teacher, a nurse practitioner, a legislator, a grandmother or a community activist.

It also occurs to me that the issues these two women fought for are actually very much related to one another. A woman who is compensated fairly for the work she does is a woman who pays more taxes, a woman who can plan her pregnancies, a woman who can support herself in retirement.

Lilly Ledbetter and the people who helped her along the way, including the elected officials who supported her cause last week in Congress, are an inspiration.

To see President Obama sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 or to learn more click HERE.