By Phyl Newbeck
More than 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy asked states to create a “Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women” with the dual goals of encouraging women to use their abilities and to reduce discrimination against women. The Vermont Commission on Women, known as VCW, was established two years later in 1964 by Gov. Philip Hoff. In addition to lobbying for women’s rights, the VCW serves as an educational resource and engages in partnerships with other organizations. It consists of 16 commissioners, three staff members, and a wide-ranging advisory council made up of members of like-minded organizations.
Over the years, the VCW has had a number of remarkable achievements including getting the Department of Education to stop suspending pregnant high school girls in the 70s, successfully advocating for regulations requiring insurers to provide equitable maternity coverage in the 80s, working on an amendment to the Parental and Family Leave Act to allow for short-term family leave in the 90s, ensuring the rights of nursing mothers in the workplace in the 2000s, and addressing domestic violence in cooperation with the Attorney General’s office in the 10s.
In January, Act 31—a new law for which the Commission lobbied—will provide all Vermont employees with the right to request a flexible working arrangement for any reason and will require employers to consider such requests at least twice a year. While flexible arrangements can benefit all employees, they are particularly useful for mothers who work outside the home. VCW Executive Director Cary Brown said the new law does not require employers to grant such schedules, but it does protect those making the requests from being fired.
Brown said the Vermont Commission on Women focuses a great deal of energy on shrinking the wage gap between men and women. In 1963, when the federal Equal Pay Act was passed, women working full time earned 59 cents for every dollar of their male counterparts. Nationally, this number is now 77 cents, and in Vermont it’s 87 cents. “We’ve been working on this issue since day one,” said Brown. “The wage gap has shrunk considerably and we’ve been part of a comprehensive coordinated effort by many groups to help make that change.”
In the upcoming year, the VCW plans to do extensive educational outreach on Act 31. In addition to the section on flexible scheduling, the law allows workers to inquire about and discuss the wages of fellow employees without fear of termination. The commission also intends to focus on women in the correctional system. It has been three years since female prisoners were moved from Swanton to South Burlington and the commission wants to make sure it has been a smooth transition.
This year, the Vermont Commission on Women will celebrate its 50th anniversary. There will be small-scale events throughout the state hosted by individual commissioners, as well as a bigger celebration at the Statehouse in April featuring former Gov. Madeleine Kunin, among others. Brown believes that even though there have been dramatic improvements in women’s rights over the years, the commission is still relevant.
“Women are still not making as much money as men,” she said “and in certain careers there are still huge disparities.”
Legislation has made life easier for women in the workplace but the commission still has work to do. “We want to ensure that employers allow women to take care of family responsibilities and still have a career,” said Brown. “We want to ensure that you don’t have to give up your work life to have a family life.”
For more information, visit women.vermont.gov.