BOSTON — Women do a lot of caregiving — for their babies, for sick relatives, and for other peoples’ children in child care. But the law doesn’t make it easy, especially for women in low-wage jobs, SouthCoast women told their legislators during a day of advocacy on Beacon Hill Wednesday.
About 130 local women and girls joined others from around the state for a day-long event sponsored by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women. Students got a tour of the Statehouse and participated in some of the legislative meetings.
“It made me feel like my voice could really be heard,” said Keeilah Jewell, a 7th grader at Our Sisters’ School in New Bedford.
The women made their case for the Commission on the Status of Women’s eight top-priority bills, including expanded health coverage for contraceptives, accommodations for pregnant women at work, paid family and medical leave, and extra pay for workers whose employers make changes to their schedules within 10 days of a shift.
The SouthCoast group echoed the support for paid leave and brought additional requests focused on women’s need for quality child care so they can work or further their education. They pushed for more money for state-funded child care, better pay for child care workers, and progress on a gradual adoption of universal pre-kindergarten.
“The reality is that the majority of child care workers are women, and, as is true in so many other fields, women are underpaid,” said Yvonne Drayton of New Bedford, former director of the local YWCA.
Jewell, the student, said that when she was born, her mother lost their apartment because she didn’t have paid leave, forcing them to move in with relatives.
Valerie Bassett, executive director of the Women’s Fund of Southeastern Massachusetts, led a meeting with state Rep. Patricia Haddad, D-Somerset, who is speaker pro tempore of the House of Representatives. Speaking on paid leave, Bassett said that when her mother recently had a health problem, Bassett knew she could take time off to care for her if she needed to. But not all women can.
Haddad said discussions of paid leave need to consider the effect on small businesses, which worry about the cost.
“We really need to include the business community,” she said.
Other bills on the commission’s agenda include: ending sex discrimination in disability insurance, for which women pay upwards of 75 percent more than men; providing age-appropriate and medically accurate sexual health education; establishing new regional commissions on the status of women where they do not exist now; and prohibiting female genital mutilation.
Some women said they were surprised to learn female genital mutilation was not already illegal. The bill would criminalize the actual practice, as well as criminalize taking a child out of Massachusetts to have it done elsewhere. It would create a prevention outreach program for cultural communities that practice it.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, co-chairwoman of the Caucus of Women Legislators, addressed the group in the morning in the Great Hall of Flags. DeLeo drew praise for the unanimous House passage last week of accommodations for pregnant women at work. The bill does not yet have Senate approval.
The room broke into applause when DeLeo pledged to protect Massachusetts from what he called “actions out of Washington that may threaten the security of women.”
“Massachusetts will stand for the opposite, and we will be there to protect the women of the commonwealth,” he said.