The White House just got a formidable new opponent in the fight over women’s rights.
On Wednesday morning, the nonprofit National Women’s Law Center announced its new Legal Network for Gender Equity ― staffed by 73 lawyers ― meant to aggressively defend women and girls from sex discrimination in the workplace, in schools and in the health care system. The network’s lawyers will take on cases, collect data on sex discrimination and share resources on key legal developments in this area of law.
The initiative comes at a particularly fraught and seemingly paradoxical time for women facing sex discrimination, harassment and assault. More and more women are speaking up about their experiences with such abuse ― witness the spate of stories accusing Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of a decades-long history of harassment, assault and rape.
Yet, at the same time, the White House is launching what essentially amounts to an assault on women, rolling back regulations meant to promote gender equality and increased reporting of sexual assault while relaxing enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.
The need for private lawyers to step in and enforce the law is urgent, Fatima Goss Graves, the president and CEO of the women’s law center, told HuffPost.
“In real time we are seeing an erosion of our civil rights and it’s critical that we send a message that these laws still apply,” Graves said. If the federal government won’t stand up for women, the private bar is ready, she said.
The law center also announced its first case on Wednesday ― one of its lawyers is representing a law enforcement officer in Virginia, who alleges she faced discrimination while pregnant. She recently filed suit against the Stafford County sheriff’s office in federal court.
The idea for the network came about after the presidential election, Graves said, when increases occurred both in the number of women calling her group for help with sex discrimination and in lawyers reaching out to ask how they could be of service in the era of President Donald Trump.
“We received an outpouring from so many people but in particular from lawyers, [asking], ‘How can I help right now?’” Graves said.
We have seen a series of efforts that have seemed like an all-out assault on women’s rights. Fatima Goss Graves, of the National Women’s Law Center
In recent months, women’s groups and civil rights outfits like the 45-year-old law center, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have expressed outrage over what seems a multi-prong effort from the White House to pullback on enforcing discrimination laws and curtail women’s rights.
The administration last week rolled back the requirement that employer-provided health insurance cover birth control, allowing companies to opt out for “moral reasons.”
Also last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Department of Justice would no longer protect transgender people from workplace discrimination.
In September, the Department of Education got rid of Obama-era guidance under Title IX on how colleges should handle sexual assault complaints, making it harder for female students to pursue such cases.
The month before, the administration decided to stop the implementation of a new rule that would have required companies to report data by gender and race on employee salaries ― meant to combat pay disparities.
In May, the administration announced the elimination of a Labor Department division that ensures federal contractors comply with anti-discrimination employment laws. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, responsible for conducting audits of companies ― like the one that just resulted in the investment firm State Street paying millions to settle claims that it paid women less than men ― was disbanded and folded into another federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“We have seen a series of efforts that have seemed like an all-out assault on women’s rights,” Graves said. “Many of us thought these questions ― on equal pay, Title IX, birth control ― were settled.”
A DOJ spokeswoman declined to comment on the administration’s moves. A spokesman for the Labor Department did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
In public statements, White House and DOJ officials have insisted they’re still committed to civil rights enforcement, but say the Obama administration pushed too far in such efforts.
“The Trump administration has an unwavering commitment to the civil rights of all Americans,” White House spokeswoman Kelly Love told The Washington Post for a story that spotlighted the rollback civil rights enforcement.