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Sunday, August 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Neely: Make 2016 the Year of the Woman

This is the weekend when our hopes and visions for the New Year sparkle like sunshine on 20-degree snow.

Here’s one more: With the leading U.S. presidential candidate female, why not make 2016 the Year of the Woman?

So many policies to improve the lives of women and men and their families have for too long languished out of reach for working Americans.

I found my way into the workplace in the late 1970s. Women were suddenly taking roles previously held by men, and we encountered both hostile resistance and sometimes perplexed, but generally accommodating, management. The issues were crafted as problems to be confronted by individual women negotiating with individual bosses, and some of us were lucky.

But the fact that the American workplace evolved around traditional ideas about the lives of men has never been adequately addressed. We still need systemic change.

Tonight begins the sixth and final season of “Downton Abbey,” the English television drama that has explored the changes in the lives of British families in the early part of the 20th century.

When the series began, the only hope for one of the aristocratic Crawley daughters was to land a good husband. As the final season begins, Edith Crawley has transformed in the modern era into a single mother who runs a London magazine. That’s a trajectory that still remains highly unlikely for most women.

Then and now, a mother insulated by wealth can navigate a path nearly impossible for everyone else.

For the vast majority of American families, government policies providing parental leave, workplace flexibility, high-quality child care and caregiving options for children and the elderly, could transform lives for generations to come.

This should be the year to start with the first one on the list: parental leave. It’s in the first weeks and months of life that a child’s basic sense of security in the world is established. By allowing babies to attach to their mothers and fathers and parents to bond with their infants, we support relationships that have the potential to create more secure and emotionally stable citizens.

We have several avenues for making that happen:

A federal bill, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would provide paid family leave for new parents.

The 2007 Washington State family insurance program could finally be funded.

Cities around the country could follow the lead of New York City and extend paid parental leave to city workers.

A Rutgers study shows that women who have benefited from parental leave policies are more likely than others to remain employed and avoid receiving government assistance.

As comedian John Oliver pointed out last Mother’s Day, the U.S., joined by Papua New Guinea, are the only developed countries that don’t provide paid parental leave.

These policies are long overdue. I’ll never forget my hospital roommate 35 years ago when my first daughter was born. I was lucky enough to have three months of parental leave ahead. My roommate was a waitress. As we tended our new babies, she confided that she’d need to return to work the following week. I couldn’t even imagine that prospect.

To create a country that truly supports the pursuit of happiness for all citizens, we have to find ways to support caregiving for our most vulnerable family members.

The majority of voters in this country are women and the majority of women and men support policies such as parental leave. 2016 should be the year to make that one happen.

For Christmas this year, my 2-year-old granddaughter received both a pair of toddler-sized hospital scrubs and a chef’s uniform. It’s too early to tell whether it’s the doctor kit or the play kitchen that will sway her career path. One thing’s certain: She and her generation will need these policies, too.

Why not start them now?

Jamie Tobias Neely is an associate professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is jamietobiasneely@comcast.net

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