When President Biden took his oath of office on Wednesday, the most diverse administration in U.S. history came into power. It has done so at a time of multiple crises: The coronavirus has spiraled, even as vaccination efforts are underway. A massive economic downturn has disproportionately driven women out of the workforce — most of them Black and Latina. And while Donald Trump is out, Trumpism continues to roil the country.
Still, many advocates say they are hopeful a new administration will bring policy changes that could have direct impact on the lives of millions of American women, pointing most recently to Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic and health-care relief package, unveiled Thursday.
“Everything starts with covid,” said policy analyst Matt Robison. “You have to get a handle on the virus first to be able to get a handle on the economy. And you have to get a handle on the economy to be able to do anything else on your agenda.”
In the summer, Biden’s campaign released its Agenda for Women, which touched on a broad range of issues, including an increase to the federal minimum wage and reauthorizing and expanding the Violence Against Women Act.
But Robison cautions that historically, presidents do not have much time to make good on ambitious policy proposals once they take office — about 18 months.
“After that, the power of the presidency wanes a great deal,” he said, citing the routine ebb and flow of midterm elections.
Despite the challenges, experts and advocates broadly say they are optimistic about the progress the Biden administration can make on issues that disproportionately affect women.
Here’s what they told us:
When schools and day cares shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, many women were forced to choose between work and children. But not all women, noted Michelle Holder, a professor of economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.
“The cleavage in the recession has been among workers who had flexibility — those who could do their jobs from home, could manage child care if they needed it, and those who couldn’t: workers who had to be on-site or had no viable child-care options,” she said.
These are primarily women working lower-wage jobs who are also considered “essential.” They are disproportionately Black or Latina, women who are more likely to be the primary breadwinners of their homes.
Biden’s plan to give $40 billion to the child-care industry could have a direct impact on these women, as well as child-care providers themselves, many of whom are low-wage workers and women of color.
Julie Kashen, director of women’s economic justice and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said the money could make a “huge difference” not just in bringing this sector back to life but making it more robust than it was pre-pandemic, when it was struggling to meet many working parents’ needs.
This is a crucial issue for Black and Latino workers, who have less access to paid leave than their White peers. It has an even greater impact on women, who are often saddled with caregiving responsibilities.
Biden’s proposal would reinstate a requirement from last year’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act that mandated certain companies provide at least two weeks of paid sick leave to workers at 100 percent of their pay. It would add paid leave benefits for an additional 12 weeks for workers who need to care for children or family members for coronavirus-related reasons, compensating them at two-thirds of their pay.
The proposal is expected to cover three-quarters of U.S. workers.
The incoming administration has also proposed 12 weeks of paid family leave for all workers to use toward caring for newborns, newly adopted children or other family members. A comprehensive plan would require the support of Congress.
Equal pay and the minimum wage
Women make 82 cents for every dollar a White man makes. If you are Black, Latina, Native or transgender, this rate is even lower — Latinas, for example, earn just 55 cents for every dollar a White man makes. Holder notes that when women are underpaid, less resources are going to their families and their communities.
“The African American community is losing billions of dollars,” said Holder, “because Black women workers are underpaid in this country.”
The current federal minimum wage has been set to $7.25 since 2009, and while nearly 30 states have mandated higher pay rates, this still leaves large swaths of the country where working a full-time job could still leave you — by the federal government’s own definition — among the “working poor,” said Holder.
Most minimum wage jobs — 60 percent, by some estimates — are held by women, which experts say is due to a historic undervaluing of women’s work, compounded with deep racial divisions in the labor market.
Robison warns equal pay and minimum wage efforts under Biden may hinge on garnering buy-in from pro-business lawmakers, who might worry that advocating for such policies would ruffle their supporters, particularly small-business owners. The incoming president has said he would seek to raise the federal minimum wage to $15.
Regarding equal pay, Holder says the Biden administration could bring back an Obama-era requirement that asks private companies to submit data on their staffing. This practice, discontinued under Trump, gives the administration clear data on gender wage disparities.
A 2020 report from the American Association of University Women found nearly two-thirds of all student debt is held by women, with Black women accruing the highest rates of debt.
Biden has proposed canceling up to $10,000 of federal student loans per borrower, far lower than the number sought by more liberal Democrats who have urged the incoming president to cancel $50,000 worth of debt per borrower. Congress would need to agree on a number.
Kristen Broady, policy director of the Hamilton Project and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that student debt cancellation would allow Black women to take the money they would have paid back for their college education and use it to buy a house or pass on an inheritance to their children — both of which could help remedy the country’s worsening racial wealth gap.
Maternal health care
Tina Sherman, a campaign director at advocacy group MomsRising, expects new vice president Kamala D. Harris and Biden to draw attention to Black maternal-care issues, especially as the pandemic has compounded the systemic harms many Black women face when giving birth. Pulling data between 2007 and 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Black mothers died of pregnancy complications at nearly three times the rate of White women.
“One of the exciting things coming out of the most recent Congress has been the Black Maternal Health Caucus,” said Sherman. Founded by Reps. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) and Alma Adams (D-N.C.), the caucus put forward a sweeping set of bills in 2020 aimed at reducing disproportionately high maternal mortality rates among Black moms. Among their co-sponsors was then-Sen. Harris, who introduced the package, known as the Black Maternal Health Momnibus, to the Senate.
The Biden administration pointed to California’s approach in cutting its maternal mortality rates as something it would try to replicate and named the issue as “just one example” of the equity lens it will be applying to all health policies. Former California attorney general Xavier Becerra, Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, will be charged with overseeing these efforts.
Coronavirus “is clearly going to be the priority coming in,” said Sherman. “But I also believe that [lawmakers] can walk and chew gum at the same time. And America’s moms need them to do that.”
Chief among the issues reproductive health advocates say they are looking toward in the early days of Biden’s administration is a potential repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal dollars from being used to pay for abortion except in rare circumstances.
“The Biden administration has really critical accountability here,” said Kimberly Inez McGuire, executive director of Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity. “Biden had a very public evolution on the issue of Hyde,” she added, referring to Biden’s 2019 reversal on the issue.
Democratic congressional lawmakers will also feel pressure from their base to overturn the amendment with their new majority, says Danny Weiss, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank.
“Advocates will press Democratic lawmakers to go to the mat for it, but it will still be a hard fight,” Weiss said.
Within the first few days of his presidency, Biden is also expected to overturn the “global gag rule” reinstated by Trump. The policy bans U.S. foreign aid from supporting organizations that provide abortion services, counsels patients about terminating a pregnancy or advocates for liberal abortion laws.
And with Democrats’ majority in Congress, experts say abortion legislation could be possible despite the Supreme Court’s conservative majority. Congress could pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, a piece of legislation that would outlaw a slate of abortion restrictions — such as mandatory ultrasounds and requirements for doctors to obtain hospital admitting privileges — that have been instituted or attempted in antiabortion states, said Jennifer Dalven, the director of the Reproductive Freedom Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. It will probably come up for a vote in the new session.
Protections for transgender people
Expected in the first 10 days of Biden’s presidency is a reversal of Trump’s executive order banning transgender people from serving in the military.
Biden also specifically pointed to combating the high rates of physical violence that trans women, particularly trans women of color, experience. Part of this will be done through budgeting — he said he would seek permanent funding for the National LGBTQ Institute on Intimate Partner Violence, which advocates for and provides services to trans survivors. He also said he intends to add and enforce nondiscrimination protections, most notably by reauthorizing the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act and by prosecuting those who attack trans women for hate crimes.
But Inez McGuire says she is most interested in what Biden can do to support gender-affirming health care for trans people after the Trump administration attempted to reverse Obama-era guidelines that allowed gender-affirming care to be covered under the Affordable Care Act.
During his campaign, Biden pledged to ensure “comprehensive care, including cover care related to transitioning.”
Inez McGuire says that, especially for trans women, these procedures can be “lifesaving,” vastly improving their mental well-being and reducing the likelihood they’ll be targeted for harassment.
Biden has also said he would ban so-called conversion therapy.
When Biden was a senator, the 1994 Violence Against Women Act was one of his key pieces of legislation. Among many things, it gave funding for law enforcement and training, shelter, and transitional housing, said CarolAnn Peterson, a lecturer at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work.
Congress did not reauthorize VAWA in 2018, which means there has been no update or expansion to these services since 2013.
Reauthorizing the bill will not be easy, experts said.
“Improving our policies to limit violence against women has been blocked largely over the gun-control issue,” said Weiss.
The Biden administration will also face challenges in reversing former education secretary Betsy DeVos’s guidelines about how to investigate sexual assault on college campuses. Biden has said this is a top issue for him, but Robison predicts that the incoming administration will need time to figure out how to fix these rules, which survivor advocates say unfairly privilege the accused.
Because of the pandemic, there is more focus on addressing intimate-partner violence through economic initiatives. Here, the Biden administration has made some important indications, says Amy Durrence, director of Systems Change Initiatives with FreeFrom, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group.
Under Biden’s proposals, survivors would have access to paid leave to deal with the consequences of abuse. Durrence was also heartened by the administration’s targeted focus on LGBTQ, immigrant and disabled survivors, who “need even more tailored support.”