When the National Organization for Women of Indiana (Indiana NOW) convenes for its state conference this Saturday, the group’s acronym will also represent the timeline for their call to action.
The Equal Rights Amendment is at the center of this year’s state conference for Indiana NOW. Events of the day will center around the theme, “The ERA Today: Closing the Gaps, Opening the Gates.”
NOW president Terry O’Neill will be the keynote speaker over lunch. The leading voice of feminism in America has been especially busy over the last two weeks talking to the national media about domestic violence in our society following the Ray Rice incident and calling for Roger Goodell’s head.
After O’Neill’s speech, the Indiana NOW state conference will conclude with a march and rally at the Indiana Statehouse beginning at 2:30 pm Saturday. Capitol and Washington Streets in downtown Indianapolis will be a busy place. As the NOW rally begins to assemble, the Indiana Moral Mondays march from Crispus Attucks Medical Magnet High School should be arriving to rally, adding their voices to the larger call for change.
O’Neill’s passion about public policy that works for the benefit of women is evident. She talks about every point with a conviction that seems born directly out of personal experience. While much of our conversation focused on economic justice, that’s just one of the six core issues NOW works to change. Constitutional equality, reproductive rights, racial justice, LGBT rights, and ending violence against women are also high on the NOW priority list. O’Neill says the equality for women can’t truly be achieved unless all of those issues are addressed. In addition to what’s covered here, my conversation with O’Neill also touched on Ferguson, Missouri and systemic racism in our society. O’Neill defined the term “poverty violation” — how low-income women, especially women of color, are victimized by their lack of resources.
O’Neill spoke to NUVO by phone prior to her visit.
NUVO: What are the biggest issues facing women today?
Terry O’Neill: I think the most pressing issue facing women right now is the coming elections in November. It sounds like it’s not an issue, but it really captures all of the issues that are facing women. Women are getting [screwed] financially because our wages are too low. Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women. That could improve if we elect the right people in November and will get way worse if we elect the wrong people in November. NOW believes strongly in a living wage, a prosperity wage where you’re not just scraping by, but you’re actually able to have a vacation once a year. We’re also working to eliminate the difference between tips workers’ minimum wage and non-tips workers’ minimum wage. Currently the tips minimum wage is like $2.13 an hour. The National Restaurant Association is out of control. They have viciously opposed any improvement. I mean, we’re talking waitresses who work at diners. I think their median actual pay is like $5 an hour. And then of course it’s all the other things that go into women’s financial or economic security like the gender pay gap. We’re not enforcing the equal pay laws the way we should. We need legislation for better enforcement. Child care. You know, it’s adding insult to injury … when you’ve got less money coming in when you work because you’re female and more money going out the door because you are responsible for children much more likely than men are. Those things can get better for women. We know what the policies need to be. We know that we need elected officials to enact those policies, and then enforce the policies. That’s what elections are really all about. And it’s extremely important.
NUVO: So the term “off-year” election is a misnomer?
O’Neill: It’s Congress that does the work — that’s number one. Number two, the right-wing, which took over the United States House of Representatives in the last mid-term off-year election that we had, they were thrilled. And what they’ve been able to do is bring Congress, really bring legislative work, to almost a stand-still. Not the government shutdown, but just the inability to get anything done. House Republicans are simply determined that if it would make Barack Obama look good, they’re against it. They don’t care what it is. It’s absolutely outrageous. Those are the guys that are running the House of Representatives right now. What the Koch brothers and the other right-wing very wealthy leaders are trying to do this year is to take over the United State Senate. They figure this is another off-year where they can do in 2014 what they were able to do in 2010. And if they take over the United States Senate, they are going to be passing a lot of legislation that is going to be absolutely dreadful for women and the president is not in a position to veto all of it. Obviously he will veto the worst of it, but he’s not going to veto all of it. They would be stopping the legislation that would help us: equal pay laws and childcare funding and funding that would help women get into better jobs. They would stop those kinds of programs, but then they’re going to start passing laws like restrictions on birth control. There’s a bill that already passed the House that would take birth control out of the standard insurance contract. It’s basic health care for women and they want an insurance contract to not include basic healthcare for women. That will pass, I predict, if we lose the Senate. So it’s all those kinds of things that are desperately important and we need to stop that from happening.
NUVO: You have been very vocal about the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell following the recent Ray Rice incident. From your perspective, what should be learned from this?
O’Neill: “It was handled wrong from day one and to Roger Goodell’s credit, he recognized that he handled it wrong. We have called on him to resign nonetheless. He admits that he did things wrong, but he has not rectified the situation. Instead, he has consistently done just the smallest littlest bit he could possibly get away with to make the issue go away. He just wants it off the headlines so that he can ignore it again, sweep it under the rug, deny, evade, diminish. We’ve called for Roger Goodell to resign and for his successor to appoint a truly independent investigator who will do a top-to-bottom review of all of the domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking incidents within the NFL community, and make recommendations. On numerous occasions of domestic violence, Roger Goodell has swept it under the rug. A failure to respond appropriately, slaps on the wrist for the perpetrators, etc. When someone within your community, like the NFL, as the head of the organization, the first thing he should be asking when there’s an incident of domestic violence is, ‘Is she safe? What do we need to do to ensure her safety?’ That is your first question. And near as I can tell, nobody asks that question in the NFL. That’s a problem. That’s a systemic problem. So, I’ve been saying all along, the NFL does not have a Ray Rice problem. The NFL has a violence-against-women problem.”
NUVO: Indiana’s ban on same sex marriage could be under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court in the near future. What would be NOW’s contribution to that national conversation?
O’Neill: We’ll be working with our allies. We will not spearhead the drafting of an amicus brief, but we certainly will be very much involved in the strategy around the amicus brief. We have amazing organizations like Lambda Legal that we work with. We keep advocating for a sex equality analysis to play into [the] same sex marriage [conversation]. In other words, we believe that it is an aspect of sex discrimination to prohibit same sex marriage. It’s a discrimination based on the sex of your partner. We think things like the Equal Rights Amendment, and by the way that is bubbling up again around the country, are essential. If the Equal Rights Amendment were to become actually the law of the land, to amend the Constitution, NOW has long taken the position that the Equal Rights Amendment guarantees full civil and human rights for the LGBTQIA community because discrimination against those persons is really sex-based. So, whether it’s based on sexuality or sexual expression or gender expression, we think that the ERA would cover it. So we have worked with our allies to file amicus briefs that make that claim. Now, I will tell you that it has not succeeded in very many courts, yet. But it is a legitimate argument, it’s got good research to back it up, and I believe it will eventually start gaining traction.”