South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg wants women to know that he is an ally. That he gets their frustration over the gender pay gap. That he knows what consent means and what the “motherhood penalty” is all about.
On Thursday, he released a 26-page agenda focused entirely on women’s rights. It’s one of the most detailed plans focused on women so far in the Democratic primary.
Much of the agenda includes promises that other candidates have already made, such as guaranteeing 12 weeks of paid leave to new parents and endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment. But he goes even further than others in some cases. For example, he vows to nominate women for at least half of the cabinet positions and judicial seats if he makes it to the White House. He also said he would support the creation of a Smithsonian Women’s History Museum on the National Mall and would establish a commission to increase the number of national monuments dedicated to women. He would also put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.
Buttigieg’s women-focused agenda comes as he prepares to meet this weekend with New Hampshire voters at a town hall focused on women’s economic empowerment and a roundtable focused on family issues. “It’s an important plan for Pete to put out to demonstrate his commitment to taking on gender inequality as president,” a campaign spokesperson said in an email to Vox.
It’s also a smart political strategy.
Polls show that Buttigieg has some support from female voters, but he could do better. The latest Morning Consult polling shows that he’s the top pick for 4.9 percent of women who will likely vote in the Democratic primary, compared to 6 percent total support among primary voters. Former Vice President Joe Biden is the top pick for women, according to the poll, followed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. But Buttigieg’s closest primary rival, Sen. Kamala Harris, has more support than he does: 5.8 percent.
Harris has her own plan focused on women and gender equality, and she has repeatedly brought these issues to the forefront of her campaign. With a record number of women vying for the White House, Buttigieg is trying to show voters that male politicians can be feminists, too.
Buttigieg’s plan to close the gender pay gap offers much-needed transparency
Part of Buttigieg’s plan focuses on enforcing laws that are already on the books.
He wants to double funding for the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for example, which enforces anti-discrimination laws in the workplace. Right now, the EEOC is severely underfunded, which has caused a backlog of cases for staff lawyers to investigate.
His plan also shows a deep understanding of the barriers working women face. He wants to ban companies from asking new hires about their salary history, as basing salary offers on past compensation perpetuates discrimination that keeps women’s salaries lower then men’s. Some cities and states have already banned the question.
Buttigieg also supports legislation that would require companies to publish the median pay gap within its workforce, specifically the difference in earnings between women and men, and between white employees and workers of color. That would be a huge step toward helping identify pay disparities. The EEOC just began requiring companies to submit detailed pay data broken down by gender and race, but none of that information is public. Letting the public see this data would give companies a strong incentive to address pay discrimination.
“Transparency allows the public to hold companies accountable for treating women fairly, and enables women to make decision about where to work and what salary to negotiate,” Buttigieg states in his plan.
In other areas, Buttigieg plays it safe by endorsing legislation that most Democratic candidates have already endorsed.
Buttigieg said he supports legislation similar to the Family Act, which would provide parents with 12 weeks of partially paid parental and medical leave, funded through an increase in payroll taxes on workers and businesses. The bill is endorsed by most Democratic frontrunners, though Buttigieg says he will tweak it so that using parental leave doesn’t decrease the amount of paid medical leave an employee can take.
He also endorses the Schedules That Work Act, which guarantees predictable schedules for workers, or extra pay if they have to work irregular schedules. He also backs the Healthy Families Act, which would require most businesses to provide full-time workers with at least seven days of paid sick leave. Most Democratic candidates also endorse these bills.
The South Bend, Indiana, mayor does have an interesting idea to get more women into federal politics, though. He wants to use federal funds to match donations to women and low-income candidates, considering that fundraising is a key barrier to women seeking office. Public financing for federal elections will “level the playing field” in politics, he writes.
Buttigieg’s promise to make child care affordable for everyone is a bit vague, though he says he will release a detailed plan soon. It’s an important issue: The high cost of child care is an enormous barrier for mothers who want to join the workforce, and a huge burden on families who pay for it.
He would also spend $50 billion to increase access to capital and mentorship for female business owners. He just doesn’t say where this money would come from.
One of the most novel parts of his plan involves extending Social Security benefits to caregivers. Right now, people who take care of children and relatives full time do not receive Social Security credit for their work. Under the plan, they would get the equivalent of 50 percent of the average earnings of a full-time worker. Once again, he doesn’t say how this will get funded. After all, caregivers don’t pay Social Security taxes like other workers do, and it’s not like the Social Security Trust Fund has a lot of extra money to spend. But the idea makes sense and would go far toward giving women a more secure retirement.
Buttigieg’s plan to promote women’s health, safety, and reproductive rights
When it comes to abortion rights, Buttigieg’s plan is hardly revolutionary. It mostly mirrors what other Democrats have promised to do.
Most of the 2020 Democrats agree on a few broad policy proposals on abortion: repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for most abortions; codifying the right to an abortion in federal statute if Roe v. Wade is overturned; and repealing the domestic and global gag rules to allow recipients of federal family planning funding to perform and refer for abortions.
So does Buttigieg.
Abortion matters to American voters. In a poll earlier this year, 79 percent of likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers said support for abortion rights is essential for a candidate — more so than any other issue.
As abortion opponents are continuing their efforts to chip away at Roe v. Wade, a case before the Supreme Court this year could significantly weaken the decision. The next president will almost certainly have the opportunity to make at least one appointment to the Court, helping determine whether the march of abortion restrictions hastens or slows.
With many state laws already in place restricting access to abortion services, one notable aspect of Buttigieg’s plan involves expanding access by letting doctors prescribe abortion medication remotely to women who don’t have a clinic nearby.
Preventing and responding to sexual harassment is also a central focus of Buttigieg’s agenda. He wants all public school students to be trained on the basics of sexual consent and bystander intervention. He also wants to force companies to disclose the number of sexual harassment incidents reported, investigated, and settled each year. And he plans to ban the use of nondisclosure agreements, which are often used to silence women who have experienced sexual harassment on the job.
The next president will also need to focus on maternal health care. Right now, women are dying from childbirth at a higher rate than they did a generation ago, and women of color have the highest maternal mortality rates. Buttigieg plans to address this alarming trend by supporting legislation that requires hospitals and clinic staff to take anti-bias and anti-racism training. He also said he would increase funding for the Maternal Mortality Review Commissions and expand postpartum mental health services.
Also, in often-overlooked health care, Buttigieg also wants to require health insurance companies to cover the costs of gender affirming medical treatments for transgender women.
How Buttigieg’s women’s plan compares to other candidates’ proposals
Aside from Harris and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, none of the other candidates have released a thorough agenda focused entirely on women’s rights. The majority do have plans to make abortion more accessible to women who need them, similar to what Buttigieg proposes. Nearly all of the candidates also have a plan to address the high rate of maternal mortality, some even more ambitious than Buttigieg’s. Elizabeth Warren, for example, wants to reward hospitals that reduce black maternal mortality rates and punish those that fail to do so.
O’Rourke wants to allocate $100 billion in federal contracts to women-owned small businesses.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, like Buttigieg, also wants to close what is known as the “boyfriend loophole,” which would stop people who have a history of abusing dating partners from owning guns.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has a campaign webpage focused just on women’s issues, but it doesn’t include anything more than what everyone else has already promised. Tom Steyer’s campaign webpage on women’s equality has even fewer policy details.
While Harris and Buttigieg have the most detailed policy proposals, Harris’s are more ambitious. For example, she wants to put the burden on companies to prove that they are paying women and men equally by requiring corporations to obtain an Equal Pay Certificate. Companies that can’t get the certificate will be fined 1 percent of their profits for every 1 percent in their wage gap.
That said, no one but Buttigieg has made a firm commitment to nominate women for 50 percent of cabinet positions and judicial seats.
All in all, Buttigieg’s campaign seems to have a deep understanding of some of the biggest challenges women are facing. While some of his policies stand out, most are pretty safe choices. However, it may be enough to persuade more women to pick him.
Clarification: A previous version of this article omitted the fact that Beto O’Rourke has also released a detailed plan to address gender inequality.