Health Care Victory Was an Historic Achievement for Women: Now Let's Fix The Rest of Our Economy

To commemorate Women's History Month, the Roosevelt Institute's New Deal 2.0 blog asked me to reflect on past accomplishments and explore today's key challenges as part of its ongoing 'Feminomics' series. Here's my take on what women have achieved through the health care victory and what remains to be done.

This week, we proved that "yes, we can."

The vote we'd been working towards for years -- ever since presidential candidate Barack Obama stood on a Las Vegas stage with the rest of the Democratic contenders and told SEIU members of his plans for national health care reform -- was finally a reality, and I was beside myself.

We'd shown that working families struggling to make ends meet could prevail over millionaire insurance company CEOs. We'd stood up to the obstructionist tactics of Republican leadership, who'd rather deny our president a political victory than do the right thing for our country. We'd shown that even in this toxic political environment, progress was indeed possible.

I was especially proud that, over the course of a year-long debate, we'd given voice to the injustices that women face when securing health care: being asked to pay more for the same exact coverage as men, being denied care for being a victim of domestic violence, or for having had a C-section, or even a yeast infection... in short, for being a woman.

Yet as the House called roll and the "aye" votes hit 216, I could only think of some women I'd met along the way for whom this vote came far too late.

I thought about Melanie Shouse, as fierce and wonderful an activist as I've met. Melanie had been battling breast cancer -- a fight that, as Congress continued to debate, Melanie lost. When she died, she was still fighting with her insurance company over chemotherapy treatments. Earlier this month, several people set off from Philadelphia to walk 135 miles to Washington, DC in Melanie's honor.

I thought about Pat DeJong, whose husband Dan, a fourth-generation rancher from just outside Libby, Mont., died from Hodgkin's lymphoma. During his treatment, his medical bills became so unbearable, Dan and Pat were forced to sell their family's farm and apply for Medicaid and food stamps. After Dan passed away, Pat was forced to sell her house again, moving into a more affordable place.

And I thought about a woman I'd seen at a health care march earlier this month. She appeared to be in her 20s, and her sign, devastating and unvarnished, read, "Rape was my pre-existing condition."

That's why, as sweet and proud as this moment is, we must keep moving forward. There's just too much going wrong in the country, far too many people in economic pain, to let this victory stand alone. For all the Melanies out there, we need to let health care reform be the building block of a broader progressive agenda to reshape our economy-and we must act before it's too late.

The health care bill that just passed will amount to the largest middle-class tax cut in history, and will create millions of healthcare-related jobs. We're not kidding when we say that the health care bill *is* a job creation bill. But it's not nearly enough.

As we speak, tens of millions of people across America are in dire economic straits. Twenty percent of the country -- one in five -- are unemployed or underemployed. And although men are traditionally seen as bearing the brunt of this recession, the fact is that women, as the majority of the workforce for the first time, as well as the head of many households, are hugely impacted.

The unemployment benefits and Medicaid relief extension that just passed Congress is a great first step for many, but on behalf of the 27 million out-of-work Americans-including the millions who've been out of work for more than 6 months -- we need Congress to take action on direct job creation.

We need Wall Street to step up and take responsibility for the economic disaster they created -- to stop foreclosing on families, to expand lending to small businesses to jumpstart job creation, and to help states and cities that continue to send billions to Wall Street at the same time they cut first responders and teachers.

And we need to reform our labor laws, so that women can truly have a voice on the job and share in the prosperity they helped create.

I can't tell you how proud and excited I am of the moment we just experienced. But it would be a tragedy if we allowed it to be seen as anything other than a call for more bold action.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.