March 28, 2017

Honoring Women's History Month

"Mr. President, I rise today to join the American people in celebrating Women’s History Month.  I would like to begin that celebration by paying homage to several women whose ingenuity and inventions have shaped modern society, but who – like innumerable women throughout history – have not received the credit or recognition they’re due.

"Katherine Blodgett is a good place to start. In 1935, she invented the first transparent glass that eliminated distortion and glare.  Before her, glass contained small bubbles and inclusions that was suitable for windows, but little else.  Her method of producing and cutting glass revolutionized the material, and is the reason we have camera lenses, microscopes, and eyeglasses today.  Without her pioneering work, our ability to see and our ability to look into the universe would be degraded.

"In 1942, the actress Hedy Lamarr and a partner were granted a U.S. patent for a secret communication system that involved manipulating radio frequencies to form an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted.  The significance of her invention was not fully realized until the 1960s, when it was used by naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  We were able to navigate that perilous nuclear threat successfully in part because of her self-taught inventiveness and skill.  Lamarr’s coded communications system has been used by numerous military agencies since.

"Just two years later, in 1944, Grace Hopper made her own kind of history, becoming what many consider to be one of the world’s first computer scientists.  She invented the compiler that translated written language into computer code and coined the terms “bug” and “debugging”.  Fifteen years later, she led the team that developed COBOL, one of the very first programming languages.

"More recently, in 1965, Stephanie Kwolek invented Kevlar.  We know Kevlar best as the material used to manufacture bulletproof vests, protecting our police officers and first responders in their greatest moments of crisis.  But Kevlar is widely considered to be one of the strongest, most durable materials ever invented, and has become a critical component in the manufacturing of airplanes, boats, cars, and bridge cables.

"I pause to honor these great inventors and scientists because their names should be familiar but they aren’t.  As long as toxic, gender-role stereotypes persist, these women serve as important examples that such stereotypes are hollow and wrong.  Women have been serving on the front lines of war, science, and invention since long before men “allowed” them.

"These women, and others, are part of our untold history.  You’ll rarely hear them discussed in American classrooms and you will seldom find their stories printed in textbooks.  Most people wouldn’t even recognize their names.  Yet our lives and fortunes have been shaped by them.  Every day, men go to work protected by Kevlar vests, live their daily lives with the benefit of eyeglasses, or boot up their laptop computer using the devices and tools women gave them.  That is both the majesty and tragedy of women’s history: it is inextricable and powerful, and entirely undervalued.

"This Women’s History Month should not pass without each and every one of us, at the very least, taking the time to acknowledge and appreciate the women of history who helped to invent modern society, who fought alongside men in every war, who gave us more complete rights and equality, who endured the habitual and everyday scorn of sexism – and who did so generation after generation without accolade or recognition.

"Perhaps the best way to honor the past is to secure the future.  The denizens of women’s history didn’t endure systemic misogyny or work so hard to change our world so that we would peer backward and applaud.  They did so with the hope we would look forward and make progress.

"We still have a long way to go but we have made progress.   Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, being a woman is no longer considered a “preexisting condition” that warrants higher premiums and deductibles.  Also thanks to the Affordable Care Act, preventative services for women – like mammograms, cervical cancer screenings and prenatal care – are covered by insurance companies.  Today, more than 48 million American women take advantage of that.

"Thanks to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, women have extended protection in cases of wage discrimination.  The Lilly Ledbetter Act finally recognized that when pay discrimination occurs, it is not a single event, but a chronic and repeated offense that inflicts ongoing damage with each and every substandard paycheck.  This simple and commonsense recognition has allowed women to seek justice against the kind of economic disenfranchisement that has plagued generations.

"Progress, however, does not have its own autopilot button.  We must be its stewards and its champions.  We must be its agents.  We must protect it actively, and each and every day, or else we will be complicit in its loss.

"I’m talking about women’s reproductive rights.  A woman’s right to make her own decisions is under threat today.  Her body is her body.  It is not ours, and it certainly is not the government’s.  Roe v. Wade decided that in 1973, yet 44 years later, the Federal Government is run by a party that uses every tool at its disposal to chip away at reproductive rights.  Whether it’s State policies to limit the types of buildings abortions can be performed in, or the threat to defund Planned Parenthood, women’s rights are under attack.

"Let’s be clear that federal funding for abortion services is already banned under the Hyde Amendment.  Today’s witch hunt against Planned Parenthood is not substantive in nature – it is a thinly-veiled attempt to prolong a culture war with the hope of assuaging far-right voters.  But women’s reproductive rights deserve more than to be treated as a political punchline.  Reproductive rights were hard-won by centuries of activism and pain, and we – all members of this Chamber – must vow, this month and every month, to honor that with our votes and with our voices.  We must vow not to let women’s reproductive rights be diminished on our watch.

"It is 2017, and still women are expected to be everything simultaneously, all while they are refused the tools and the freedom to balance such difficult demands.  It is 2017 and still families – mothers most of all – are too often forced to choose between parenthood and economic security, between recovering from childbirth and their career.  No woman, no matter what her line of work or zip code may be, should be forced to make such an impossible decision.  It’s our job to pass legislation to ensure no woman has to.

"Even with the Lilly Ledbetter legislation, women today are paid, on average, just 77 cents for every dollar men receive for performing the same work.  That gap is even worse for women of color: African-American women only earn 64 cents to the dollar, while Latina women earn only 55 cents.  That is a problem begging to be solved by Congress.  That’s a problem for all of us.  Women are powerful economic engines in this country, and if we continue to stand idly by while their work is underpaid and undervalued, we will all suffer.  And we will all have to explain to our daughters and granddaughters why we didn’t fight harder for them.

"Critically, there is also the issue of violence against women.  It is a moral outrage that women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical and sexual assaults every single year.  When women stand up and tell us the stories behind this number, we must sit down and listen.  We must stop speaking over them with advice on how to protect themselves or avoid certain social situations.  They shouldn’t have to.  And it is insulting to presume they require lectures on personal safety but that men don’t require lectures on consent.  This problem demands a cultural shift, and we must be its purveyors.

"There is the issue of college affordability.  A related issue is access to and participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs – and, of equal importance – encouragement to join them.  Women need to be better represented in positions of power.

"These and other issues are what’s at stake.   These and other issues are why we recognize Women’s History Month: to remind ourselves and each other that women helped build this nation and this world.  We need to remind ourselves that women are therefore entitled to equal representation in it and equal access to its opportunities.  We need to remind ourselves that women deserve equal respect and equal protection under the law and that women’s rights are human rights.  We all prosper when we fight to protect them.

"Toward these ends, I have led the charge in Congress to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.  Many Americans would be shocked to learn that the Constitution still lacks a provision ensuring gender equality.  That is wrong – but it is fixable.  I have introduced S.J. Res. 5, legislation to remove the deadline for States to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which would pave the way for its formal adoption.  Nevada recently passed the Equal Rights Amendment, leaving us just two States shy of success.

"The Equal Rights Amendment is only slightly longer than two tweets, but its ratification would finally give women full and equal protection under the Constitution.  It reads as follows:

Section 1.  Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Section 2.  The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3.  This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

"It is that simple.  And it is both necessary and past time to adopt it.

"When Congress passed the ERA in 1972, it provided that the measure had to be ratified by three-fourths of the States (38 States) within seven years.  The original deadline was later extended to 10 years by a joint resolution enacted by Congress.  Ultimately, 35 States ratified the ERA by the time the revised deadline expired, leaving advocates a little short.

"Article V of the Constitution contains no time limits for ratification of constitutional amendments.  In fact, in 1992, the 27th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting immediate Congressional pay raises was ratified after 203 years.  The Senate could pass my legislation removing the 10-year deadline right now.  I strongly encourage the Majority Leader to bring S.J. Res. 5 up for a vote as soon as possible. 

"American women deserve to know that their most fundamental rights are explicitly protected by our nation’s most venerated document.

"I have often said that how a nation treats its women is a good barometer of that nation’s potential for success as a whole.  I hold the United States of America to that standard.  Every day, I weigh the successes and failures we’ve had along the path toward fair treatment and gender equality, and I assess ways Congress can facilitate more successes.  Every day, I reevaluate how best to fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, how best to protect reproductive rights, how best to fight for paid family leave and affordable higher education and greater representation in this very Chamber.

"I invite every Senator to do the same – both because those are the right battles, and because fighting them protects gender equality progress that has been so hard-won by the women of this nation.  We must not allow those victories to be reversed.  We must keep progressing.

"This Women’s History Month, I am reminded of what the poet G.D. Anderson once said: 'Feminism is not about making women strong.  Women are already strong.  It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.'  

"Let us remember it is precisely that strength that has propelled our world forward.  It is precisely that strength that serves as the foundation of so many of this country’s successes. And it is precisely that strength we must remember and meet with our own, when women’s rights are under siege."

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