Barbara Battiste runs a small office with a big assignment: figure out how women are faring economically across the state of Minnesota.
Known as the Office on the Economic Status of Women, the agency has been reporting to the Minnesota Legislature about challenges for women finding good paying jobs in the state for the last four decades. But now it’s Battiste who might be the one out of job.
A bill passed last week to fund state government operations for the next two years moves the office’s functions into a broader legislative commission. But it also eliminates funding for the office’s staff, which consists of just one person: Battiste.
Lawmakers passed that budget bill in the final hours of a special session of the Legislature. It’s now on the desk of Gov. Mark Dayton, awaiting his signature or a veto. Republicans in control of the Legislature say the change still preserves the office while making it more accountable to legislators.
Still, the change sparked plenty of protest from DFL legislators, who say eliminating funding for the office is a huge blow to efforts to create policies that help women succeed in the workforce. It also comes after a divisive election that brought women’s issues to the forefront and sparked massive marches across the nation.
“There’s been such an assault on women at the national level and the state level,” said Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton. “Why would we do this now? What does that say?”
The homemaker myth and equal pay
The Council on the Economic Status of Women was created back in 1976, during the second wave of feminism in the United States — a time when women were entering the workforce in huge numbers but being paid far less than men.
Minnesota lawmakers from both parties overwhelmingly approved the creation of the office. The council’s first report, issued in 1977, interviewed four Minnesota women with different economic challenges: recent widows, divorcees and single women with no support systems. It noted that divorce rates were on the rise, and women were increasingly the only support system for their children. “The general image of women as protected homemakers or secondary wage-earners is simply a myth,” it read.
Back then, the council had a more direct role in creating state policies. Its biggest victory was a series of laws that required all public jurisdictions — state government, cities, counties, and school districts — to eliminate any gender-based wage inequities in compensation. That happened after the council dug into wage data and showed legislators how much less women in government were making than their male counterparts.
In 1983, lawmakers changed its name to the Commission on the Economic Status of Women and gave it more of an advisory role to the Legislature. The commission dug into Census data, produced fact sheets and reviewed how various pieces of legislation would impact — for better or worse — the economic standing of women in Minnesota.
Even after major equal rights victories in Minnesota and across the country, however, wage gaps persisted. As a 1994 report from the office showed women entering the workforce were often pushed into “women’s work” — cashiers, clerical work and services jobs — which had lower pay. Things were even harder for women of color, who were paid less than white women in the same jobs.
In 2005, the office was renamed one last time, becoming the Office on the Economic Status of Women, and put under the Legislative Coordinating Commission, which acts as an umbrella organization for all boards and commissions created by the Legislature.
Battiste was brought on in 2013. She experienced her own challenges entering the workforce after spending 15 years at home to raise her children. She decided to go back to school and get a Master’s degree in public policy at the University of Minnesota, where she wrote her thesis on the struggles of older women to find work. “I was concerned about women, 50 and up,” she said. “I saw how many of them were struggling economically because of a combination of ageism and sexism.”
Part of a ‘disturbing’ trend
In Battiste’s first year in the office, legislators passed the Women’s Economic Security Act, which extended workplace protections and flexibility for pregnant women and nursing mothers and aimed to reduce the pay gap through increased enforcement of equal pay laws. During that first year, Battiste was struck by the fact that few women from Greater Minnesota made it to hearings to testify. “It was understandable,” she said. “They couldn’t leave their jobs and couldn’t leave their children.”
So between legislative sessions, Battiste traveled around the state holding listening sessions about the economic challenges facing women who lived outside the Twin Cities metro area. She expected to hear that child care or lack of job options was the number one barrier to finding a good job, so she was surprised to learn that a seemingly basic issue was even more problematic — finding transportation to get to work.
Bernardy, the lead Democrat on the Transportation and Regional Governance Policy Committee, said she’s relied heavily on the research and testimony that Battiste gathered in trying to raise transportation as a women’s issue in her committee work. “If we don’t have these kinds of resources, it becomes the same old same old status quo,” she said.
Republican Rep. Sarah Anderson, chair of the State Government Finance Committee, said bringing the office into the Legislative Coordinating Commission would mean “greater legislative oversight.”
“We are blessed with some very intelligent non-partisan staff who track these issues and track how these issues are working in other states,” she said. “It would be better for us to have the commission itself under those hands, [rather] than having it in the closet somewhere where it doesn’t get the light of day.”
Anderson said it’s disingenuous to say the move is any kind of statement against women — the authors of the state government bill in both the House and Senate are women. “I think that’s political pandering at its worst,” she said. “When it comes to this issue, we will have more involvement from legislators.”
Earlier in May, Dayton held a press conference with a group of DFL women legislators and said it was “deplorable” that Republicans proposed eliminating funding for staff in the office. “They would eliminate funding for this one-person office that does a lot of good work,” he said at the time. “It shows how absent proper priorities are for the economic status of women.”
Dayton hasn’t said how he’ll act on the budget bills, but they were the result of days of negotiations with his administration during a special session of the Legislature. Vetoing the state government budget bill would require lawmakers to come back and pass it again before June 30 to avoid a state government shutdown.
Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, has authored more than a dozen bills that aim to improve the economic status of women and girls of color across the state, relying heavily on the Office of the Economic Status of Women for data and research for that legislation. The country has come a long way since the 1970s, she said, but there are still plenty of gender inequalities in the workplace. White women make about 80 cents on the dollar compared to men, she said, while black women make about 62 cents on the dollar.
“It’s part of a disturbing trend,” Moran said. “Closing this office now, at a time when progress for women and girls is under threat, would be a major mistake.”