New York Women’s Equality Act
In New York, the Women’s Equality Coalition (“WEC”) worked, from 2013 to 2015, to support passage of a legislative package, the Women’s Equality Act (WEA). The WEA was a 10-point bill designed to address barriers to women’s equality and to promote equity. The bill’s provisions included the codification of Roe v Wade into New York law, an equal pay requirement for all genders, and new protections for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. It also combined several controversial issues that advocates had been unable to pass in the Republican-controlled State Senate, including provisions that addressed abortion and equal pay. It took two legislative sessions, but in 2016, 9 out of 10 of the provisions were enacted into law.
This WEC effort demonstrated the power of working collectively across organizations and issue areas to achieve policy change. Many of the bill’s provisions had been languishing in the legislature for years until the coalition was formed and tapped the collective strength of its members to build public support and push the State Senate to pass all but the most controversial abortion provision. Prior to the coalition’s formation, many of the groups had never worked together, with groups siloed into advocacy addressing their respective issue areas. By combining several bills, all important to the health and welfare of women and families, WEC created a compelling agenda to support many issues critical to New York women’s lives.
Formed as a 501(c)(4) in 2013, WEC had a steering committee that included representatives from 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), and 501(c)(5) organizations including the state’s Planned Parenthood affiliates, the New York Civil Liberties Union, A Better Balance, AFL-CIO, League of Women Voters, AAUW, NOW NYC, YWCAs of New York, the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Sanctuary for Families, and representatives from coalitions that had formed to address human trafficking and equal pay. The Coalition prepared a written operating agreement that created the steering committee and provided a mechanism for conflict resolution.
WEC grew to over 800 organizations comprising women’s groups, businesses, religious organizations, medical, and other advocacy groups. It grew its membership as a show of strong support for the WEA. Polls showed that voters were also on their side, with over 60% of New Yorkers supporting all 10 points of the original bill.
Despite their limited lobbying ability, the (c)(3) coalition members played important advocacy roles. Some of the WEA issues were new to coalition members, so the (c)(3) members, such as New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, served as subject matter experts, educating other members about the specifics of the different provisions. For instance, the Executive Director of NYCADV explained that her organization joined the coalition “because every plank of the WEA affected victims of domestic violence.”
Many of the (c)(3)s provided information about experiences of other states, created fact sheets on issues addressed by the WEA, and educated their own supporters and communities across the state about the need for the bill. The (c)(3) organizations also lobbied, including doing targeted phone banking to connect supporters of the legislation directly with their lawmakers.
Although there were some educational aspects to the advocacy around the bill, the majority of WEC’s work was lobbying. Under New York State law, WEC itself needed to register as a lobbyist because it reached the spending threshold that triggers registration as a lobbying entity. The majority of lobbying conducted under the WEC’s name was through TV and radio ads designed to gain public support for the bill. These ads were paid for from contributions from businesses, individuals, and coalition members, with the larger c4 members contributing the bulk of the funds because the (c)(3) members had limited funds that could be devoted to lobbying. While the public advertising was paid for and reported by WEC, a large portion of the direct lobbying was conducted by coalition members in their own organizational capacity. For example, the NYCLU delivered thousands of postcards from voters supporting WEA directly to the state lawmakers. NOW-NYC also posted action items on their website to encourage the public to contact their lawmakers in support of the bill. Some Coalition members also organized a rally and sit-in against one member of the Senate who was wavering in his support for the abortion provision. These lobbying efforts were separately tracked and reported by each organization.
Some of the non-(c)(3) coalition members even got involved in electoral activity, with NARAL Pro Choice’s PAC running independent expenditure ads in several legislative races following the first year of the Coalition’s existence. The NYCLU sent mailers to voters connecting legislators to their positions on the WEA and sponsored radio ads.
WEC faced organized opposition from Feminists for Life, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedom, and the New York State Catholic Conference. In WEC’s first year, the Democratic controlled Assembly passed the full 10-point agenda. The Senate, however, refused to move on it because of the abortion provision. Not wanting to be depicted as voting against women, the Senate passed nine of the ten provisions as separate pieces of legislation. The opposition considered it a “win” when the full bill failed to pass in the first year.
The WEC had a choice—should it support the passage of the incomplete package or hold out for all the components of the original bill? WEC stood firm the first year, as did members of the Assembly, and withheld support unless the abortion provision was included. The following year, WEC supported the Assembly’s passage of nine provisions. Although WEC members were disappointed that they were unable to secure passage of the provision to codify Roe v Wade, coalition members felt its inclusion in the original bill was ultimately helpful in securing passage of the equal pay provisions that had been stalled for many years in the conservative-leaning Senate. In their re- election campaigns, Republican lawmakers claimed they were “pro-women” even though they had voted no on the abortion provision.
Years later, the Women’s Equality Act continues to be an issue in New York politics. Lawmakers, candidates and advocacy groups alike, make reference to the Women’s Equality Act to advance their legislative and electoral activities. Katharine Bodde, Senior Policy Counsel for the NYCLU, believes the Coalition helped to build lasting relationships among nonprofits who had never worked together before. Due to WEC’s work, New Yorkers now benefit from stronger pay equity and anti-discrimination laws, greater access to courts for victims of on sex-based employment and credit discrimination, and more support for survivors of human trafficking. A summary of the laws can be found here.