Real Benefits for Women Now That DOMA Has Been Struck Down!

This post was originally published on the National Women’s Law Center’s blog. 

Written by Colette Irving, NWLC Intern; Emily Martin, NWLC Vice President and General Counsel; and Lauren Hartz, NWLC Intern. 

Today, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which provided that only a marriage between a man and woman would be recognized under federal law. The Court found that this provision of DOMA violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. This decision is historic in its recognition that the Constitution provides important protection against discrimination against same-sex relationships.

Moreover, this ruling will have a huge practical impact, providing access to important benefits previously denied to same-sex couples. As the Court wrote, “By its great reach, DOMA touches many aspects of married and family life, from the mundane to the profound.” The practical impact of this victory is particularly significant for women. Women make up about 53 percent of LGBT adults and 51 percent of same-sex couples, and women in same-sex couples are more likely than men to marry their partners. In fact, the Williams Institute found that 62 percent of same-sex couples who married or acquired some other type of formal legal status were female, in the eight states for which data is available.

Because women are more likely than men to be poor, female same-sex couples are at particular risk of financial instability. The Williams Institute compiled data from the 2000 Census and concluded that female same-sex couples face poverty at a rate of 6.9 percent. That rate is 4.0 percent for male same-sex couples and 5.4 percent for different sex couples [PDF]. Further, LGBT women are more likely than men to become parents and LGBT parents are more likely to live close to poverty. In striking down DOMA, and granting married same-sex couples access to federal benefits that provide increased financial stability, the Supreme Court has made it easier for these women, and all married same-sex couples, to make ends meet.

Twelve states give same-sex couples the freedom to marry, and approximately one-fifth of the U.S. population lives in a state that provides this freedom to marry or recognizes out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples. Here are just a few of the benefits and legal protections married women in same-sex relationships living in these states should expect to access:

  • Social Security: Certain benefits are available to the spouses, surviving spouses, and divorced spouses of workers covered by Social Security. Because of DOMA, in order to receive those benefits, spouses had to be different [PDF] sex spouses legally married in their state. While we may have to wait to see exactly how the federal government will proceed in implementing the decision today, all couples whose marriages are legally recognized in the state where they live should be able to receive these benefits.
  • Tax on Employer-Provided Health Benefits: Health insurance premiums paid by an employer for an employee and her spouse are usually excluded from that employee’s gross income. That means the employee does not pay taxes on the amount her employer contributes. Because of DOMA, same-sex spouses could not avail themselves of this tax benefit [PDF], which could mean $1,000 more paid in taxes [PDF] each year for these families. Now, all employees who are legally married in the state in which they live should be able to exclude these contributions from their income for federal tax purposes.
  • FMLA Leave: The Family and Medical Leave Act entitles employees to job-protected leave to care for children, spouses, and parents. DOMA has prevented same-sex married couples from taking FMLA leave to care for each other, even when they live in states that recognize their marriages. By striking down DOMA, the Supreme Court makes FMLA available to these couples.
  • Federal Employees Health Benefits: The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program provides health insurance to federal employees and members of their family, including their spouse and children. DOMA denied this insurance coverage to same-sex spouses of federal employees. The Supreme Court’s decision means that the federal government will provide health coverage to same-sex spouses whose home states recognize their marriages.
  • Immigration: Family unification is the cornerstone of our nation’s immigration policy. The Immigration and Naturalization Act allows United States citizens to petition for their children, spouses, and parents to be classified as “immediate relatives,” making them eligible for an immigrant visa and lawful permanent residence in this country. DOMA changed the federal government’s longstanding practice of looking to the law of the state where the marriage occurred to define spouse. This prevented gay and lesbian citizens from sponsoring their foreign partners for immigration benefits even when they were legally married under the law of the state where the marriage occurred. The Court’s decision restores this critical opportunity to bi-national same-sex couples.

The Court’s historic decision has tremendous significance for millions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Americans in affirming their right to equal protection under the law. This victory is important not only for its symbolism but also for its real-world impact. Now many same-sex married couples can access these critical federal benefits on equal footing.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org

Shining a Light on the Wage Gap

HHFifty years after the Equal Pay Act, employment discrimination persists but is harder to see.

By Dr. Heidi Hartmann

When the Equal Pay Act (EPA) was passed 50 years ago, discrimination was, in many ways, openly accepted in the workplace and women were expected to earn less than men in the same jobs. The EPA signed by President John F. Kennedy on June 10, 1963, helped to reduce this type of blatant employment discrimination, but it is still present and the wage gap persists.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) was founded 25 years ago, at the end of the 1980s, the decade which saw the most sustained narrowing of the gender wage gap since passage of the EPA. Between 1981 and 1990, the gender wage gap closed by more than ten percentage points. In the most recent decade, progress has stalled and the gap narrowed by no more than one percentage point.

There is no single cause for the pay gap. Jobs dominated by women pay less than jobs dominated by men. Over their lifetimes, women still take off more time from paid work for family care than men. Women also still face subtle—and not so subtle—discrimination when they do the similar work to men. Direct discrimination is still estimated to account for between one quarter and 40 percent of the wage gap, according to several reviews of social science research.

Employers can no longer advertise jobs at different rates for men and women. But paying women less for similar performance, giving women less access to career-enhancing opportunities, and making it harder for women to get promoted are practices that continue to hinder progress towards equal pay.

Tackling those types of employment discrimination is surprisingly difficult because employees may still be fired simply for discussing their earnings with a colleague or coworker. In an age when information sharing has become widespread and hearing about a major life event over social networking is not uncommon, exchanging pay information remains frowned upon by many employers. Pay secrecy allows disparities, discrimination, and unequal pay to hide under the rug.

President Kennedy hands out pens at the White House signing of the Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963.  Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
President John F. Kennedy hands out pens at the White House signing of the Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

According to an IWPR/Rockefeller survey, half of all workers (51 percent of women and 47 percent of men) report that the discussion of wage and salary information is either discouraged or prohibited and/or could lead to punishment. The Equal Pay Act does not protect workers against retaliation for sharing salary information with their co-workers. In the public sector, where pay information is publicly available, a smaller pay gap exists compared to the private sector.

The 2009 Lily Ledbetter Act provides that every paycheck that pays a woman less than a male colleague for equal or similar work can be challenged in court, but the act did not address pay secrecy. Ledbetter worked for a company that prohibited the discussion of one’s salary. After 18 years on the job, Ledbetter sued when, in an anonymous note from a coworker, she received evidence that she was being paid unfairly. The Paycheck Fairness Act was introduced in the last Congress, but failed to pass to a vote in the Senate. This bill would have protected workers against retaliation for sharing pay information.

Women don’t have the time to wait to earn the same as men because their families need the money now. According to the most recent estimate from IWPR, however, the wage gap is not expected to close until 2057. Many women working today will never see equal pay, harming their long-term earnings and leaving them with lower retirement income.

In an age where women in the United States are almost half the workforce, are more likely to gain higher levels of education than men, and increasingly are the main or co-breadwinner in families, we cannot wait for another 44 years for the gender wage gap to be finally relegated to the history books.

Dr. Heidi Hartmann is President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. 


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org