Navigating the Road Ahead in the Fight for Women’s Progress
The Biden-Harris administration’s early executive actions—accomplished during one of the most contentious pre- and post-inauguration periods in modern history—have sent an important message about the new administration’s priorities, commitment, and immediate direction. Among its most important shifts, the new administration has reversed the Trump administration’s anti-women agenda, choosing instead to center gender and racial equity in the debate about how best to boost the economy, recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and chart an inclusive course for the future. These changes included President Joe Biden rescinding restrictive executive actions on reproductive rights, proposing critical new investments to address a range of caregiving challenges disproportionately borne by women, and establishing a White House council to elevate gender policy priorities across the administration.
The early days of the new administration have also offered a glimpse of the barriers that continue to impede women’s progress—particularly at the legislative level—and constrain the development of policies in scope and shape. These hurdles reveal systemic problems that continue to erode women’s opportunities and standing, providing a roadmap for the types of interventions that are needed, from structural reforms to stronger enforcement mechanisms. Lasting progress requires intentional, sustained action that must extend well beyond the earliest days of any incoming administration and provide a foundation for ongoing improvements that can build over time.
Early progress shifts tone and provides a framework for future action
The 100-day marker of an incoming administration is frequently used as an early measure of its ability to quickly and decisively launch its agenda. On the subject of women’s progress, the current administration has set the tone from the start, affirming that women are and have always been central to the nation’s success. The Center for American Progress previously identified more than 100 actions to improve women’s lives and overcome regressive policies pursued by the Trump administration. Over the course of its first 100 days, the Biden-Harris administration made substantial progress on that list. These early but significant steps provide an important framework for action that not only focuses on individual policy changes, but also includes structural interventions to help ensure that a gender equity lens becomes embedded in the decision-making process going forward. These actions have included:
- The establishment of the White House Gender Policy Council
- Women representing nearly 50 percent of the president’s cabinet and nearly 60 percent of roughly 1,500 agency appointees by the 100-day mark
- Groundbreaking proposed investments in child care, education, paid family and medical leave, home- and community-based services, and job quality for care workers and educators as part of the American Families Plan
- Strategic, data-driven, and equitable actions to combat the ongoing pandemic and equitably lead the recovery, including establishing a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force and supports through the American Rescue Plan (ARP)
- Protecting and strengthening the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by opening a special enrollment period for health coverage and ARP provisions enhancing subsidies for purchasing coverage
- A temporary expansion of the child and dependent care tax credit
- Rescinding the Global Gag Rule and restoring the U.S. contribution to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA)
- Proposed rule-making to undo the Trump administration’s domestic gag rule and restore the Title X family planning program, as well as proposed increased funding for the program
- Creating a new state option to extend Medicaid coverage to 12 months postpartum through the ARP
- Removal of the Hyde Amendment from the president’s budget proposal
- Initial steps to improve Title IX protections for survivors of campus sexual assault and discrimination
- Expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits
- Emergency investment in the child care sector
- A $15 minimum wage for workers working on federal contracts
- Suspension of enforcement of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) in-person requirement for medication abortion for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and the announcement of a full review of the FDA’s medically unnecessary restrictions on medication abortion
- Enhanced support for minority- and women-owned businesses
- A proposed $10 billion investment in enforcement of civil rights protections as well as workplace safety and health rules
- The launch of a White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment
- Marking Black Maternal Health Week through a presidential proclamation; event; Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approval of Illinois’ postpartum Medicaid extension waiver, the first state approval; and dedication of new funding for the Rural Maternity and Obstetrics Management Strategies program
- Directives to agencies to undo Trump administration regulations and court positions that undermine equitable access to health care
This is the start of important progress, but the work ahead—for broad and lasting change—will be more difficult to accomplish and will require more than a checklist of future policies. There must be a continuous, intentional focus on how to address systemic practices and entrenched cultural norms that have consistently eroded women’s opportunities, autonomy, and overall standing across society—from the economy and workplaces to classrooms and health care settings.
The progress that women still need
The change that women need will require reimagining a new normal that builds on the lessons learned from a global pandemic that exposed enormous gaps in the nation’s health care and economic infrastructure. It will require going further with bold policies and ideas that, together, can begin to uproot the biases that for too long have marginalized women—particularly women of color, disabled women, immigrant women, survivors, and LGBTQ people. It will require a new framework for future action, guided by several core principles to achieve the progress that women deserve. These principles include:
- Centering equity as a core principle to create environments free of discrimination. The country must confront head-on the persistence of racism, sexism, and other forms of bias that are used to diminish, stereotype, and/or disempower women—especially women of color. Progress requires the rejection of long-standing narratives that purport to celebrate women’s resilience as an excuse to avoid taking concrete action.
- Valuing the roles that women play and the work that women perform. Women play critical roles as caregivers and care workers, performing work that sustains the economy, families, and society. Yet, this work, consisting of paid and unpaid labor disproportionately shouldered by women of color, is consistently undervalued and its importance disregarded. Robust investments in care are essential to maximize women’s ability to participate fully in society and access different opportunities.
- Utilizing an intersectional lens to recognize the diverse experiences of women and gender minorities. Women are not a monolith; they bring diverse experiences to the table. The combined effects of multiple identities, reflected, for example, in the intersectional realities of women of color, trans women, and other gender minorities, can lead to differences in how they are treated, the opportunities that they receive, and overall measures of health and economic well-being. Taking concrete steps to surface, measure, and analyze disparities and unique needs must be a priority to ensure responsive policy solutions.
- Prioritizing and respecting women’s autonomy and rejecting efforts to undermine women’s ability to make their own life choices. Women’s autonomy must not be eroded or compromised as a result of gendered biases. This includes the ability for women to decide if, when, and how to raise children, which requires the meaningful ability to make their own health care decisions, including the ability to live in a safe environment; have economic security; and access an abortion, a full range of contraceptives, and other reproductive health services. Constraining women’s ability to direct their own lives effectively makes them second-class citizens without the full authority to participate in society in the way that makes sense for them.
- Recognizing the essential role of government in enforcement and in securing protections critical to women’s progress. Leveraging the power of the government, especially as an enforcer of legal protections, to protect women’s rights has been vital to women’s progress for decades and will continue to be important and require a robust, steady commitment to enforcement and related resources.
- Pursuing structural reform and policies that can catalyze institutional change. The changes women need require immense work across every institution and level of government. The administration and policymakers must eschew superficial half-measures that meet neither the moment nor the scope of the problem to examine how systems function in practice. This work will require bold, structural policies to change the status quo and address persistent inequalities that have held women—particularly women of color—back.
These principles must inform the actions taken going forward and be used to guide how solutions are analyzed and designed. Below are key policies and broader efforts needed to continue building towards meaningful progress to ensure that all women can participate fully in the economy and live healthy and productive lives.
Ensuring economic security
The Biden-Harris administration and other policymakers must address women’s immediate needs related to the coronavirus pandemic and recession, particularly addressing women’s employment and caregiving challenges. This means creating a robust care infrastructure, inclusive of universal access to permanent, comprehensive paid family and medical leave as well as earned paid sick leave; improved access to high-quality, affordable child care and universal preschool; increased funding for home- and community-based services; and improved job quality, pay, benefits, and protections for care workers and early educators. These actions would help address longstanding workplace policy failures and structural biases that have disproportionately penalized women because they often assume most of the care responsibilities in their families. These interventions also would help address persistent racial and ethnic disparities that have resulted in lower wages, higher rates of unemployment, and fewer work-family supports for many women of color. As a starting point, much of this could be achieved by enacting both the American Families Plan and the American Jobs Plan, both of which would help families stay afloat and help employ women seeking work.
Women’s employment is not enough without access to good-quality, fair-paying jobs free of workplace discrimination and harassment. Therefore, Congress and the Biden-Harris administration must continue to work to improve workplace protections and job quality for American workers, especially workers who face gender-based or combined forms of bias. To ensure that workers are fairly compensated and treated with dignity and respect in the workplace, the country needs key legislation such as the Paycheck Fairness Act to improve equal pay protections; the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to improve protections against pregnancy discrimination; the Equality Act to expand U.S. civil rights laws to ensure explicit and comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people and other protected groups; and bills such as the BE HEARD in the Workplace Act and/or the EMPOWER Act to improve protections against workplace sexual harassment. Congress must also pass the PRO Act to protect workers’ right to join a union and improve their collective bargaining power as well as the Raise the Wage Act to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped workers and disabled workers. These measures would address discriminatory practices that disproportionately hurt women workers and would help raise the wages of the lowest paid workers who are most likely to be women. Furthermore, policymakers must work to improve and enforce protections against discrimination targeting workers with caregiving and care work responsibilities. They must also address challenges facing nontraditional workers and workers—often women—subject to unfair scheduling and other inflexible workplace policies. All of this work together is key to addressing long-standing disparities by race and gender, targeting practices with disproportionate effects, and building a foundation for a future and an economy that actually works for women and families.
Securing women’s health and bodily autonomy
The Biden-Harris administration must continue to take action to advance women’s health and rights and undo the harms of the Trump administration. This includes continuing the work the administration has already begun to rescind harmful regulatory actions on family planning, abortion coverage, health care discrimination, and more. The administration must also continue work to build on the ACA to ensure that everyone has access to quality health coverage that is inclusive of comprehensive reproductive and maternal health care.
On maternal health in particular, the administration can build on the ACA to advance maternal health equity by creating a special enrollment period for pregnancy and establishing coverage and network standards for maternal health that are inclusive of robust prenatal and postnatal services, as well as ensure access to a broad range of providers and perinatal workers such as midwives and doulas. The administration should also support passage of legislation such as the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act—a suite of 12 bills that aim to address the maternal health crisis by, among other things, diversifying the perinatal workforce, assisting pregnant people in climate-affected areas, and funding innovative care models—and the MOMMA’s Act and the MOMMIES Act, which would make pregnancy-only Medicaid coverage mandatory for at least one year postpartum.
There is also much that the administration can and should do to advance a proactive agenda for abortion. This includes permanently rescinding the FDA’s medically unnecessary restrictions on medication abortion beyond the pandemic. The president must also publicly and unapologetically support abortion rights. Specifically, the administration must act to condemn ongoing state attacks on abortion rights and work with Congress to enshrine access to meaningful abortion rights for all into law, something that can be done by passing the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act. This bill would permanently repeal the Hyde Amendment, an annual appropriations rider that prohibits a large swath of federal funding for abortion except in limited circumstances, as well as remove Hyde-like restrictions from plans offered by some other federal insurance programs. It would also guarantee abortion coverage regardless of employer, insurance coverage, or geographic location. In the international policy space, the administration should act to repeal the Helms Amendment, which further restricts U.S. funding for abortion care abroad.
The administration should also continue its efforts to strengthen Title X—the nation’s only domestic family planning program—which has served the family planning and preventive health needs of millions of low-income women and men in the United States since 1970. It should also rescind the Trump administration’s harmful domestic gag rule. Indeed, since the Trump administration finalized the rule last year, 19 grantees—including Planned Parenthood and almost a dozen other nonprofits and state departments of health—have left the Title X program, reducing the network’s capacity by almost half and leading to 1.6 million women losing access to services. Thankfully, in April 2021, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a proposed rule that would rescind the domestic gag rule and adopt additional changes to further strengthen the Title X program. Finalizing this proposed rule—and formally rescinding the domestic gag rule—is not only critical for adults but for adolescents as well, who rely on the program for confidential, comprehensive family planning services. It is also important that the administration create a pathway to reentry for the grantees forced out of the program, which it can do by releasing a new funding opportunity announcement.
Improving judicial representation and access to justice
The Biden-Harris administration should also continue to nominate federal judges who are committed to upholding civil rights—including reproductive rights—and equality, and who come from a diverse range of personal and professional backgrounds. In particular, the administration should make a concerted commitment to increase the numbers of Latinx, Black, Native, and Asian American and Pacific Islander women appointed to the bench. Furthermore, the Biden-Harris administration should reinstate the Obama-era Office for Access to Justice within the U.S. Department of Justice to better coordinate efforts across the federal government to improve legal outcomes for low-income women, immigrant women, women of color, and many more.
The Biden-Harris administration has taken early important steps to effectuate its commitment to gender equity. But these actions must only be the start. Informed by a framework guided by strong principles rooted in equity and autonomy, the administration must now follow up its promising first steps with additional bold actions to move women forward. Women’s progress depends on it.
CAP’s Women’s Initiative is a comprehensive effort to marshal CAP’s broad expertise and promote public policies that advance gender equity, enable women to participate fully in our economy, and center women’s unique health needs in health care and public health.
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