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Pelosi's Secret Women's Issue: Minimum Wage

Thursday, Nancy Pelosi and other female House Democrats braved the heat on the Capitol steps and rolled out a plan to put working women’s issues in the national spotlight. The campaign centers on equal pay and work-family balance policies like paid medical leave and affordable childcare; for an excellent explainer on what Congress should do here, read my colleague Jonathan Cohn’s piece from this morning. At a lunch before the announcement, Pelosi and her longtime colleague Rosa DeLauro suggested much of what they’ll be doing is drumming up grassroots energy to push a few very old pieces of legislation back to the fore—like the Paycheck Fairness Act, which DeLauro wrote and has introduced repeatedly since 1997. Pelosi and DeLauro emphasized another policy battle with a long and frustrating history in Congress, too: the effort to raise the minimum wage.

Of course, the minimum wage isn’t technically a women’s issue, and that’s sort of the point. Pelosi made no bones of the fact that she intentionally left more controversial women’s issues—not just reproductive rights, domestic violence, and so on, but the more relevant topic of workplace harassment, too—off this platform in the hopes of building a broad base of support. “This is about how to pay the bills,” she said over Cosi salads in a narrow room of the Capitol Building. “That’s not to say it’s inclusive of every women’s issue that’s out there.” She added that she sees a “core disrespect that is out there for women in the workplace in terms of how their work is rewarded, how their time is respected and the role that they play at home is respected.”

But then again, minimum wage is a women’s issue. As DeLauro pointed out, about two-thirds of Americans earning minimum wage today are women. And the battle for a living wage is a work-family issue, since a growing number of women are their families’ primary or co-breadwinners—an estimated 60 percent as of 2010. A person working full-time for minimum wage makes about $15,000 in a year, which is about one-third of the average income in the United States. Women are “at the bottom” of all of these trends, Pelosi said.

Minimum wage may be more of a consensus issue than, say, anything having to do with women’s bodies, but it’s hardly a bipartisan meeting point. The most recent bid to raise it—to $10.10, via a bill introduced by U.S. Representative George Miller and Senator Tom Harkin this March—has a 7percent chance of passing out of committee and a 2 percent chance of enactment, in the estimation of And Pelosi admitted that no matter how uncontroversial she tries to make her rhetoric, she’s not optimistic about garnering Republican allies—even among other women of Congress. “Leading the charge against” this type of legislation, “there’s been Republican women,” she said, recalling U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn’s recent comment that women “don’t want” equal pay.

Pelosi et al. face an uphill climb in Congress, but their ideas might find an audience in other parts of Washington: President Obama made equal pay for women a significant plank of his 2012 campaign, and mentioned minimum wage for the first time ever in his most recent State of The Union. And they might find an audience outside the capital, too: Recent job reports show that the recovery is adding more low-wage work than anything else. Pelosi said her goal is “to get a drumbeat going around the country, so it’s not a voice from D.C. … It’s an echo.”    

Correction: 60 percent of women are their families' primary or co-breadwinners; 40 percent are primary breadwinners.

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ncaplanbricker.