Ben Downing: Women's History Month

Mar 14, 2019

Throughout March we honor women’s contribution to progress and remember all that must be done to ensure full equality today. In honor of that I want to recognize the incredible women in my life. I am the proud grandson of Gertrude Martin Downing, who raised nine kids after her husband passed away suddenly, and Shirley Trusselle Brackett, who beat back Polio, the proud son of Pamela June Brackett Downing, whose quiet strength is the only thing more impressive than her creativity, the proud brother of Maggie Downing whose can do spirit helped clean up after Katrina and is helping revitalize a canal in Washington, D.C., the proud husband of Micaelah Burke Morrill, who knows more about how to actually turn innovation into real things than anyone I know and also happens to be an incredible friend, mom and wife. I could talk for hours about all of them or any one of them, but none of them would like that and my guess is none of them would think that is in the spirit of this month.

I am lucky to have been guided by these women and many others. I have learned from them and become a better person thanks to them. I am proud to honor them on International Women’s Day and throughout this month. In their spirit, the best way to honor them is to reflect on how we can make sure every woman has the opportunity to make the most of her talents, because when women succeed our communities thrive.

We all thrive when the benefits of our economy are widely shared. Poverty is the outcome of our economy doing the opposite and its negative impacts disproportionately impact women. Living in poverty is directly related to a variety of negative health outcomes. For every adult age group, the poverty rate in the United States is higher for women than men. Nationwide the poverty rate is 15 percent higher is for women.

Volumes of reports show that women’s income is tied to the economic health and wellbeing of their families. Half of all homes across the US with children have female workers providing at least 40 percent of family income. Children living in poverty are less likely to succeed and advance in school, more likely to have behavioral and mental health issues and more likely to be exposed to violence.

Poverty, especially as experienced by women and single mothers, is not a function of job loss or unemployment. The poverty rate for employed single women in Massachusetts is 26.9 percent. Nearly a quarter of women work in jobs that keep them below the federal poverty line, a designation which many argue understates the problem.

The discussion around closing the wage gap tends to gravitate towards boardrooms and executive offices. Those are important areas to close the gap, but we shouldn’t forget, closing the wage gap is also an anti-poverty effort. If the 26.9 percent of employed single moms living below the poverty line were paid what their male counterparts made, 70 percent of those women would no longer make poverty wages. By supporting and valuing women’s work, we are not just righting an obvious wrong, we are fighting poverty, strengthening communities and families across the country.

The incredible women in my life are who they are for many reasons, not the least of which is they had the opportunities to make the most of their many talents. Living in poverty restricts the ability of too many of other women to do the same. In their names, I hope we spend the other 364 days and the other 11 months working to ensure others have those opportunities as well.

Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

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