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"The National Women's Law Center,"

by Nancy Duff Campbell July/August 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

Since its inception in 1972, the National Women’s Law Center has worked to protect and advance the progress of women and girls at work, in school and in virtually every aspect of their lives. The Center has been at the forefront of the major legal and public policy initiatives in this country to improve the lives of women and their families: educating state, local and federal policymakers and members of the public about critical women’s issues; building and leading coalitions; litigating ground-breaking cases and informing landmark Supreme Court decisions.
The Center focuses on major policy areas of importance to women and their families, including family economic security, employment, education and health, with special attention given to the concerns of low-income women. Because women are disproportionately affected by racism and poverty in our society, the work of the Center continually intersects with PRRAC’s mission.

Family Economic Security. The Center is working to improve the economic security of women, especially low-income women, by advancing laws and public policies that address the economic disadvantage many women face because they are the sole or primary support for their families or have borne a disproportionate share of unpaid family caretaking responsibilities. Single-mother families experience poverty at a rate dramatically higher than married-couple or single-father families. Of families with children headed by an African-American woman, 47.5% had incomes below the poverty line in 1998. More than half of female-headed Hispanic families with children were poor.

Since passage of the 1996 welfare reform law, the number of families receiving public assistance has dropped dramatically, but few mothers are able to support their families on their own low wages. The Center has worked to increase the support available to children from both parents by improving the federal-state child support enforcement system. The Center has also launched the Common Ground Project, in collaboration with the Center on Fathers, Families and Public Policy, to develop a series of policy recommendations on child support and related family law issues that are more responsive than current practices to the diverse and complex circumstances of low-income mothers, fathers and children. Building on and informing its national child support work, the Center’s D.C. Child and Family Support Project assists low-income women in the District of Columbia with child support problems by educating individuals about their legal rights, helping them enforce their rights and working for systemic improvements in the child support system.

Another important priority for the Center in the area of economic security is working to protect and improve Social Security through public education, research, advocacy and technical assistance to policymakers at the federal level. Because of the high poverty rates among some groups of elderly women — more than one-fifth (21.4%) of elderly women living alone had incomes below the poverty line in 1998 — it is imperative that any plan to reform Social Security take into account the specific needs of women. For elderly women who are also members of minority groups, the need to protect Social Security is even more acute — about half of elderly African-American and Hispanic women living alone (48.1% and 52.7%, respectively) had incomes below the poverty line.

Employment. The Center works on several fronts to strengthen and enforce the laws and policies against discrimination in the workplace, especially on issues involving affirmative action, equal pay, sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination and women in the military.

The Center has long worked to protect affirmative action through public education efforts, research and monitoring of new anti-affirmative action proposals as they are put forward, and taking an active role in shaping litigation around the country where affirmative action programs are under fire. The work undertaken by the Center highlights the stake that women, including women of color, have in affirmative action programs in all areas, including employment, contracting and education.

Another long-standing priority for the Center is addressing the persistent pay gap between male and female workers in the U.S., an area where the intersection of race and gender creates stark disparities in income levels. Today, on average, women working full-time earn only 73 cents for every dollar earned by men. Minority women fare significantly worse. An African American woman earns just 63 cents, while a Hispanic woman earns only 53 cents, to every dollar earned by a white man.

In addition, over the last several years, the Center has made significant strides in developing and advancing a child care agenda aimed at improving the availability, affordability and quality of child care, especially for low-income women. As co-chair with the Children’s Defense Fund of the Child Care NOW Coalition, and drawing on Center expertise in tax law and financing, the Center has taken an active role in educating and providing technical assistance to policymakers, advocates and others to help them understand the ways public investment in child care can be increased. For example, eight states have increased the tax assistance they provide to families with child care expenses, spurred by the Center’s report Making Care Less Taxing: Improving State Child and Dependent Care Tax Provisions. In the coming year, the Center hopes to use its newest report, Be All That We Can Be: Lessons from the Military for Improving Our Nation’s Child Care System, to press for systemic reforms nationwide.

Education. The Center provides leadership in promoting gender equity and educational opportunities for women and girls throughout the country. Focusing on sexual harassment, affirmative action and athletics, among other issues, the Center uses research, litigation and public education to effect change.

For many young women of color, the intersection of racism and sexism means significant obstacles to educational opportunities and the high-skill, high-wage jobs traditionally held by men. The Center’s project on Gender Equity in Career Education is designed to advocate for the legal rights of women and girls in career education programs, including vocational training programs, School-to-Work programs, technical education and job training programs. As part of this project, in March of this year the Center published a booklet, Putting the Law on Your Side: A Guide for Women and Girls to Equal Opportunity in Career Education and Job Training.

Recognizing that participating in sports has much to offer female students, both minority and non-minority, the Center conducts litigation and public education efforts around the country to ensure that women and girls have equal opportunities in school athletics. Last year, for example, the Center achieved resolution of 24 complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, creating a strong policy that will begin to eliminate the athletic scholarship gap for women and girls across the country. For many low-income women, intercollegiate athletics provides a gateway to an education they otherwise could not afford.

Also in 1999, the Center argued and won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision (Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education), which will require schools to address student-to-student sexual harassment. This significant legal victory will help clear the way for the creation of a safe learning environment for every student.

Health. The Center is working to improve the access of American women to quality health care services, including the full range of reproductive health services, through public education, research, advocacy and legal and technical assistance to policymakers and advocates working in communities across the country.

The Center’s major initiatives in reproductive rights and women’s health include development of the first women’s health “report card.” Scheduled for release later this summer, Making the Grade on Women’s Health: A National and State-by-State Report Card is designed to develop a consensus around the full range of indicators to measure the status of women’s health — including a strong focus on women’s overall well-being and not simply the absence of disease — and to measure government policies and public investments in women’s health across the United States. The report card will, among other things, document how women’s health varies considerably by race, ethnicity and income, as well as other factors such as age, sexual orientation and disability, and it will make recommendations for policies to improve women’s health at the state and federal levels.

After almost three decades of work, the Center has used, and will continue to use, every available tool to ameliorate the effects of sexism, racism and poverty in our society – litigation, advocacy, coalition-building, public education and public policy research and analysis. Working with PRRAC and other allies, we will move our nation closer to our shared goal: that one day all people will enjoy economically secure and fulfilled lives without limitations or barriers based on their race or gender.

Nancy Duff Campbell is Co-President of the National Women’s Law Center, 11 Dupont Circle, #800, Wash., DC 20036. For copies of the publications mentioned in this article, or for a complete list of Center publications (some of which are free), please e-mail a request to or call 202/588-5180

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