Monday, April 15, 2024

GUEST BLOGGER SERIES: Irasema Garza "Fighting for the Rights of Latinas"

Latinovations would like to thank Legal Momentum  President Irasema Garza for her contribution to La Plaza.

In the decades-long  journey to women’s equality, we have come a great distance. Over the last 50 years, groundbreaking anti-discrimination legislation and legal victories have cleared away many of the road blocks women encountered as they sought fair treatment at schools and workplaces.  Legal Momentum, the women’s legal defense and education fund, along with sister organizations, fought case after case to guarantee women’s rights: the right to work and study free from discrimination, and the right to make decisions regarding one’s body and health.

Still though, millions of women have been left behind as this “formal equality” failed to translate into real gains and economic security.  In large numbers, many of these left behind are Latinas. While women account for 49 percent of the workforce, they are still 40 percent more likely to be poor than men. Nearly 70 percent of minimum wage and below-minimum wage workers are women, in jobs that often lack benefits or paid sick leave. The disparities are even starker for Latinas, who are more than twice as likely to be poor as white women, and who are paid only 59 cents compared to white men.

According to the latest census data — which was taken before the economic crisis wreaked havoc on businesses and families across the income spectrum — nearly one out of every five Hispanic men, and one out of every four Hispanic women subsists below the poverty line.

Just a week ago, we learned from the National Women’s Law Center and the Mexican Legal Defense and Educational Fund that a staggering 41 percent of Latinas do not finish high school, which hampers their career options before they even reach adulthood.

The current economic downturn has exacerbated an already bad situation for women, Latinos and many others.  While all income brackets have felt the repercussions, low-income and poor individuals and families are bearing the brunt of the economic storm.  Families that were previously comfortable are now struggling to get by on just the earnings of wives and mothers, driving home the stubborn disparity between men and women’s earnings.

If we as a nation are to fight the persistent poverty, from Los Angeles to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to Washington DC, we must invest in women and girls.  We now have a unique moment in history to do so.

First, after years of “trickle down” policies have exacerbated poverty and economic inequality, the highest levels of government have finally made a substantial commitment to and investment in America’s working families.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act represents one of the largest infusions of government capital in the nation’s history.  As states and agencies begin funding projects around the country, we can ensure that fair and equitable implementation of this legislation allows women and other traditionally excluded groups to have an equal part in the nation’s recovery.   For example, enforcing the legal rights of women to access traditionally male-dominated fields like construction and engineering, as well as the burgeoning array of “green jobs,” is critical to combating the occupational segregation which has resulted in vast earning disparities between men and women.

Second, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, commonly known as welfare (or “TANF), is due for Congressional reauthorization in 2010. The nation’s largest social safety net program serving women and families – 90 percent of adult TANF recipients are women –is desperately in need of an overhaul. Legal Momentum has recently released a series of reports demonstrating how TANF fails to provide poor and struggling families enough support to cover even the most basic necessities, like food, shelter, water and heat. Moreover, while the number of families accessing this benefit has dropped over the past 10 years, the number of families in need has not decreased, meaning that many poor mothers and children are surviving on little to nothing.  In this economic climate, it is absolutely critical that as TANF is considered for reauthorization, the Administration and Congress amend the current legislation to create a true safety net.  These provisions, for example, must include raising the benefit level to ensure families have adequate resources to meet their most basic needs; real pathways to employment; and, most importantly, placing an enforceable responsibility on states to use TANF funds solely for benefits to families.

Third, domestic violence continues to be one of the most intractable impediments to women around the county.  The Violence Against Women Act, also due for Congressional reauthorization in 2010, continues to be a critical force for ensuring that women have the resources and support to leave abusive relationships and create lives free from fear and violence. The economic crisis has led to a sharp uptick in incidents of domestic violence, making this piece of legislation all the more critical.  Extending outreach and programs to immigrant women is particularly important, in that this vulnerable population is 40 percent more likely to experience violence than the average.

If the U.S. is serious about fighting poverty, we must invest in women.  Internationally, this is a well-established principle.  Just last week, the New York Times Magazine, in an article focused on international development, focused on this central lesson and point about women and poverty.   This international formula for fighting poverty applies to the U.S. as well.  Invest in women, and reduce poverty.  The time is now.

Irasema Garza is president of Legal Momentum. Before joining the organization in 2008, she established a reputation as a respected labor advocate with decades of experience working on behalf of women and minorities. She served as the first secretary of the National Administrative Office—which was charged with implementing the labor provisions of NAFTA—and later as the director of the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor.


  1. Like all problems with the U.S.-Mexico situation, poverty must be viewed across the border, not just on the U.S. side. It’s sad that the U.S. and Mexico can’t unite so that the Mexican side can be developed as a sector of the U.S. Click the url to read my Megamerge Dissolution Solution proposal showing how the Obama admin. can do it.

  2. Presently, I am teaching the “Role of Latinas in American Politics” at the Women & Politics Institute in Washington, DC. This is the first offering of this course at American University and is meant to expand the breath of knowledge and broaden understanding of the special circumstances faced by Latinas. My students use your newsletter to keep abreast of current issues pertinent to the Latina/o community. Irasema Garza’s “Fighting for the Rights of Latinas” is an excellent example of value information that facilitates our class discussion. Thank you, LMp