By Mary E. O’Leary Topics Editor

HARTFORD — The biggest issue for women has been and will continue to be economic security and that security, apparently, comes at ever higher costs.

Looking at multiple factors, from health care to housing, child care, savings and retirement, a single woman with an infant, who has employment benefits, would need to earn $57,000 a year to cover all those elements.

If you don’t have health benefits, your salary has to reach $66,276.

With 41.2 percent of female-headed families in Connecticut with children younger than 5 living below the poverty line, it’s a huge reach that even with a raise in the minimum wage, a sizeable number of them will earn anything near these salaries.

The figures on economic security come from the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women and represent a sneak preview of documentation in the Basic Economic Standards Table, due out later this month.

Keeping track of women’s needs is not something Teresa Younger, a lawyer and executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, only turns her attention to every March — Women’s History Month — or when an issue such as contraception dominates the news cycle.

For Younger, it’s about issues percolating at the state Capitol, as well as nationally.

So, how are women faring in 2012?

“There is perception and there is reality. It is perceived that women have made enormous strides and that we are better off today than we were 40 years ago. The reality is, we are better off today … but the strides we have made and taken are only part of the picture,” Younger said.

“Women are expected to do more. They are expected to be a wonder woman and they are now expected to bring home a paycheck.”

That paycheck was optional in the 1960s, even if a single-wage household put a strain on the breadwinner.

In the last four decades issues that continue to be important benchmarks include the need for a family friendly workplace, issues of pay equity, wages for child care workers, salaries and benefits that are among the lowest, and sufficient retirement and health insurance.

“Women often are living in poverty at the end of their lives,” Younger said of a cycle that reverts back to the significance of earning power with Connecticut women in 2010 bringing home an average of 75.8 cents for every $1 earned by men.

Across a lifetime, or 47 years of full-time work, for college graduates, the U.S. Labor Department says this amounts to a loss of $1.2 million in wages, $700,000 for a high school graduate and $2 million for a professional school graduate.

“For as much advancement as we have made in areas of economic security, eliminating gender discrimination in health and safety, these issues are still as critical today as they were before. They are just a little bit more complex,” Younger said.

And then there is Rush Limbaugh.

Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown Law School, testified last month in favor of free contraceptives as proposed under the federal Affordable Care Act, citing the medical needs of a fellow student who had a prescription to control polycystic ovarian syndrome.

When her colleague stopped taking them because she could no longer afford the $100 monthly cost, she developed a cyst that required surgery and the removal of an ovary, which then sent her into early menopause at age 32.

Radio host Limbaugh twisted the testimony, calling Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” and said in exchange for the contraceptive coverage, the law student should post videos of herself having sex.

The fallout on the political trail and from advertisers pulling out of Limbaugh’s show is still playing out, and for many, the contraceptive issue focused the discussion on sexual and religious freedom.

The Catholic Church, based on First Amendment protections, is refusing to pay for contraceptive coverage for employees in the institutions it runs, such as hospitals and colleges, although strictly religious offices are exempted.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental right of all. This right does not depend on any government’s decision to grant it: It is God-given, and just societies recognize and respect its free exercise,” the Most Rev. William E. Lori, bishop of Bridgeport, wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama. “The free exercise of religion extends well beyond the freedom of worship,”

Lori is the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty and the group is expected to seek a full repeal of the mandate.

The accommodation from the Obama administration is that the insurance companies would cover contraception and sterilizations and the government will put off final enforcement for religious employers until after the November election.

Its argument is employers have to abide by all other federal rules affecting their businesses, so why should the health package be any different.

One unanswered question, however, is what happens to employers who are self-insured.

The federal government found that it did not see an increase in costs after it mandated contraceptive coverage for its workers and other private business studies showed that the cost to employers was higher when they failed to offer this coverage. “A 2010 Brookings Institution analysis came to the same conclusion, and projected that expanding access to family planning services under Medicaid saves $4.26 for every $1 spent,” according to the 2011 Guttamacher Policy Review.

Younger brings it to a more personal level.

“What we are really talking about is women’s freedom to make decisions and have access to preventive health care that allows them to support those decisions … we are not having the conversation about the real cost of a lack of preventive health care,” she said.

Multiply out the $100 monthly charge for contraceptives through a women’s reproductive years, plus the cost of a pregnancy and a woman’s potential earnings, and you are starting to get at the bigger picture, Younger explained.

In a tight employment market, there are also fewer options of where people can find work if they have to look around for better health care.

Younger said she was “irate” at Limbaugh’s attack on Fluke for standing up on the issue.

“But it goes to a very basic premise, which is women should be barefoot and pregnant and quiet and that is the assumption that is out there. Heaven forbid women speak up … women talk about having better lives for themselves and their families. He didn’t want to hear that,” Younger said.

Following the Limbaugh incident, there was a national uproar when Virginia lawmakers passed legislation last month requiring a woman to undergo a vaginal ultrasound before having an abortion with critics labeling it “state rape.”

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is said to have national ambitions, had the law softened to mandate the ultrasound, but not the invasive vaginal procedure. Virginia became the eighth state to require ultrasounds before an abortion and they are under consideration in others.

“The fact that people who are trying to promote freedom and individual liberty don’t seem to see women’s bodies or couple’s bedrooms as places where personal choice is the most basic of human liberties, is quite astounding,” said Marilyn Hoffnung, a psychology professor and head of women’s studies at Quinnipiac University.

“When you think of the responsibility of bearing and rearing a child, that anybody should be forced to do it … I used to tease my class … that rather than abortion counseling, people should have pregnancy counseling,” Hoffnung said.

She said there is more risk to a woman’s health and far more demand for at least 25 years in bearing a child.

Jennifer Sacco, assistant professor of political science at Quinnipiac, said she has been surprised by the turn in the Republican discourse in this election cycle towards birth control. “I thought the horse had left the barn on that one,” she said.

“I work a lot with teenagers and young 20-year-olds and they assume that all these issues are settled, that the women’s movement made all their accomplishments, that that was something a long time ago in the 1970s,” Sacco said.

Younger said she believes the sharp political dialogue is a wake-up call for the younger generation and for their parents who helped bring about the changes decades ago.

Sacco was alarmed by Missouri Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt’s amendment allowing all employers, not just those associated with strictly defined religious organizations, to have the option of not paying for medical coverage they find morally troublesome.

The amendment was tabled in a 51-48 vote and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is continuing to lobby on its behalf to protect conscience rights.
Sacco however, said some employers could say they don’t want to pay for reproductive coverage for unmarried women because they don’t feel they should be having sex. Others could game the system by simply stating a specific coverage wasn’t consistent with their views.

“It’s outrageous,” she said.

Given that the serious issue of rising health care costs is only getting worse, “the idea that this can be fertile ground, forgive the pun, for scoring political points — I was surprised,” Sacco said.

Younger takes the discussion back to getting women elected to political office as a way to address the issues that they care about.

In France, there is paid family medical leave so parents can stay home to take care of an infant in the first three to six months of life. There is also universal preschool and often child care in the workplace.

“You can tie all that back to what we as a society value or we don’t value,” Younger said.

In the Connecticut General Assembly, 29 percent of its members are female, while 32 percent hold top level positions in the government.

Women in the U.S. Congress in 2012 hold 16.8 percent of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 17 percent of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate. At that rate, Sacco said, it will take 200 years to reach parity.

Yi-Chun Tricia Lin, who is head of the women’s studies program at Southern Connecticut State University, said the global picture for many women is grim, but there are also flashes of advancement.

“I think we have a very complex picture. It’s not all progressing,” said Lin, who just recently participated in the 56th U.N. NGO parallel Commission on the Status of Women last month.

Her native Taiwan has done extremely well in moving toward gender equality, Lin said, while women suffer tremendously in the Republic of Congo, where rape is a weapon of war.

In Tunisa, where the society is feeling its way toward a post-Nuammar Gaddafi future, Lin said women have always spoken out, while in Egypt, she said she was moved by the powerful images of women demanding freedom in Tahrir Square.

She left the Ivory Tower of comparative literature to study and teach women’s studies and said she is proud of her students who are armed with a passion to make the world a better place.

“Women’s studies is a field that demands that you be on your toes and on your guard at all times, because you have to be watching what is going on in the world,” Lin said.

Forty years after the movement started she feels women’s rights are at a more challenging, but important moment.

As an inspiration, she said she always goes back to something anthropologist Margaret Mead said. “Never doubt that a small committed group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does,” Lin said.

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