The idea that women and men should be paid equally for the same work should be uncontroversial. Yet, two states in the country offer women no equal pay protections, beyond what’s required by federal law: Alabama and Mississippi.
Soon, Alabama might stand alone.
In Mississippi, where the average pay for women is the lowest in the country, bipartisan support is growing for two different equal pay bills proposed by Democrats in the state legislature.
The momentum in one of the most recalcitrant states for civil rights is a somewhat encouraging sign. Even as so many women prepare for a nationwide demonstration to protest the incoming president, most of the country seems to believe in at least this basic right for women.
“This is evidence of growing bipartisan agreement that equal pay is an issue we can all get on board with,” Andrea Johnson, a fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, told The Huffington Post.
At this point 48 states either have a specific equal pay law on the books for women or include it in broader discrimination laws. And many states introduced new equal pay measures over the past few years to strengthen existing laws.
In 2016, Utah passed an equal pay law and became the last non-Southern state to get on board. The same year, Massachusetts passed an innovative new law prohibiting employers from asking job applicants about their salary history. Those questions often reinforce pay disparities between women and men. You essentially wind up carrying your unfair wage from job to job. New York and California strengthened their pay laws in 2015.
For all the momentum on equal pay legislation, however, the gender pay gap between men and women remains. That’s because straight-up discrimination is only one reason women make less than men. There are also biases that lead women into lower-paying professions and biases that depress wages in female-dominated jobs. Women also see their wages fall after they have children ― in part because there is no paid family leave that would let them stay in the labor force.
Nevertheless, prohibiting wage discrimination is a necessary part of closing the gap.
Earlier this month, Democratic state legislators in Mississippi floated two different equal pay bills. On the first day of the session, State Rep. David Baria proposed a law that would essentially reaffirm federal rules regarding how long a complainant has to file a discrimination claim in court. The following week, female legislators in the state house and Senate put up a different, stronger, equal pay bill.
Baria proposed a similar law last year, but it died in committee. This time around, Republicans appear amenable. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) publicly voiced his support last week for women getting equal pay for equal work. “While the authors have in the past used this and similar bills to score cheap political points, I welcome a serious conversation about the issue,” Bryant said.
GOP members of the state house also may be on board. “I have spoken to a few female legislators on the other side of the aisle and they definitely view it as an issue that needs to be addressed,” said Rep. Sonia Williams Barnes, who sponsored the equal pay bill in the state house.
“Women are the sole providers in many households in our state,” Barnes said. “For women to be able to care for their families … it’s not a partisan issue.”
Women in Mississippi face a huge raft of economic challenges, earning an average $31,110 a year, the lowest pay in the country and only 76 percent of what men make, according to a look at Census data compiled by the American Association for University Women. The wage gap in the state is among the widest in the country.
Alabama’s wage gap is about the same as Mississippi’s. The office of the governor did not respond to a call or email from The Huffington Post on the pay issue.
Nationwide women make 80 cents on the dollar compared to men.
The numbers are worse for women of color. Black women in Mississippi make an average of $25,961 a year, compared to $46,557 for men, according to a 2014 study from the National Women’s Law Center.
Put another way, white men earn nearly twice as much as black women in Mississippi.
“Mississippi is a very conservative state and there is a real kind of patriarchal cultural dominance here,” said Carol Burnett, the executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative. The lack of an equal pay law isn’t that surprising considering the state’s Christian conservative traditions, which conform to traditional beliefs around men and women’s roles, said the 60-year-old Burnett. As one of the first female Methodist ministers in the state, Burnett’s been working on social justice issues for decades.
Her group is backing a raft of policy proposals to help women in the state, including better childcare, paid leave, and, of course, equal pay. She’s cautiously optimistic.
“It’s a state where there’s a long track record of hostility to equity and civil rights” she said, “and that spills over onto women, as well.”