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Lawrence, House Democratic women detail agenda for advancing women

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Democratic Congresswomen, dressed in 'suffragette white,' pose for a group photo Tuesday before the State of the Union address by President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill, Tuesday.

Washington — When President Donald Trump on Tuesday gives his second State of the Union address, he will look out at a chamber filled with the most women that have ever served in Congress.

On the Democratic side of the House, he'll also see a sea of women wearing white in honor of the suffragettes and the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. 

A record-setting 102 women won election to the U.S. House last fall and 25 to the Senate. They included three female newcomers from Michigan — Elissa Slotkin of Holly, Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills and Rashida Tlaib of Detroit — the first time Michigan has five women in the U.S. House and six women overall in Congress.

Ahead of Trump's speech, Democratic women leaders now serving in the House majority said they're determined to push measures to advance causes related to women, whom they say have suffered under the first two years of Trump's administration. 

They have in their sights equal pay for women, family-friendly policies, access to education, affordable health care, and fighting workplace harassment and discrimination.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Southfield is poised to have a leading role in the effort as the new chair of the Democratic Women's Working Group and co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Women’s Caucus, which dates to 1977. 

"It's profound. At this time in our history, after we just went through the #MeToo movement, through the Women's March, and now we have a record number of women in Congress, and we're celebrating the suffrage movement," Lawrence said. 

"This is a pivotal time to be in leadership and be able to push the agenda of the voices of women in America. We so often had to beg for permission to do this. We are not asking for permission anymore. We are so strong." 

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, speaks during a discussion on the state of women in our nation, on Capitol Hill, Tuesday.

Lawrence plans to focus in part on domestic violence and women in poverty. She also said she wants to investigate why more American women are dying of pregnancy-related complications than any other developed country.

And while the U.S. maternal mortality rate has climbed overall, the risk of pregnancy-related deaths for black women is three to four times higher than for white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

"We are doing worse than some Third World countries. This has got to be a full-court press," said Lawrence, who is second vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

"We're going to be energizing our caucus and our Congress. This is a bipartisan issue, and we're working on this."

The fate of the initiatives remains unclear in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The House Democratic caucus has 96 women, including a record 22 black women. Women hold five committee chairmanships and 23 subcommittee chairs, said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut. 

"The fate of women is resilient in the face of the Trump administration, whose coordinated hollowing out of government is hurting women," DeLauro told reporters on Capitol Hill. "We are not shying away. We are fighting." 

DeLauro ticked of a list of "rollbacks" by the administration that she says have harmed women, including decreasing nursing home protections for seniors, altering the rules for Title X family planning grants, and making it easier for some employers to exclude birth control from health insurance benefits under the Affordable Care Act.

"Women made ourselves heard in the 2018 midterms, and we are making ourselves heard now because in spite of this administration and their regulatory attacks, the state of women is, was and will be strong," DeLauro said. 

The White House said in a Tuesday statement that Trump has empowered women in his first two years in office. 

"He signed historic tax reform legislation, providing families and working mothers with trillions in tax cuts, and increased the child care tax credit," said White House spokesman Judd Deere. 

"Unemployment for women has plummeted, and more support has been given to women entrepreneurs. And the president is fighting to make sure every child grows up in a safe and secure America with strong borders free from crime and gangs.”

Last week, House Democrats reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act, highlighting that women working full-time and year-round still earn on average 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. 

The 80-cent statistic has been criticized by experts as overly simplistic.

The wage gap is affected by many factors, including that women tend to leave the workforce for periods to raise children, seek jobs with lower pay but more flexible hours and have less work experience than the average man, argues June O’Neill, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

During his Tuesday address, Trump said women filled 58 percent of jobs created in the last year and acknowledged the historic number of women in office in 2019. 

"No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women," Trump said to applause.

"We have more women in the workforce than ever before — and exactly one century after the Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in the Congress than ever before."

Lawmakers took to their feet at this part of the speech, with the women clapping and exchanging high-fives. Then the entire chamber then broke out into a chant of of "USA! USA!"

Trump also said his administration is launching Thursday the "first-ever" government-wide initiative focused on economic empowerment for women in developing countries.

Lawrence and other Democrats are pressing for enactment of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which passed Congress in the 1970s and would establish gender equality under the law. 

The ERA needed two-thirds of states to support it to become law, and 37 states have ratified the amendment to date. Activists have targeted Virginia and other couple states for ratification. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., center, is joined by other Congresswomen wearing white, as they pose for a group photo Tuesday before the State of the Union address by President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill.

Lawrence noted that artists have often used figures of women to represent American democracy and justice in statues such as the Statue of Liberty. 

"A country that, every time they try to pull the soul and dignity and passion of this country together, it's on the arms and shoulders of a woman," she said. 

"As this caucus grows — and we're at the largest we've ever been — we will continue to be the voice, the compassion and the driving force of this democracy."