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The Least Among Us

by Irma Montoya

What will be our measure of women's progress on International Women's Day, 2008?

Is it Hillary Clinton, the first viable female presidential candidate in U.S. history?

Is it the average working woman, who now finally earns more than four-fifths of the average man's wages?

Is it the female students who now outnumber males at colleges?

Or should our measure be the women in the lowest paying jobs, those who sew our clothes, care for our elderly and our children, pick and prepare our food? Across the United States, women are much more likely as men to earn minimum wage and to be uninsured. When we think about how far women have come, do we think of these least among us, or only of the pioneers breaking glass ceilings?

Contrasts in the status of women are especially dramatic in Texas. The third richest woman in the world lives here: Alice Walton, a Wal-Mart heir. Her $16 billion fortune was boosted by global trade rule changes, such as North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which benefited many multinational corporations. But Texas is also home to some of the poorest women in the US, in the border region that was devastated by NAFTA. Many of them, ironically, shop at Wal-Mart for its low prices. When the Democratic candidates sparred over NAFTA recently, neither of them mentioned the majority of single mothers in Texas who live under 125% of the federal poverty line -- too little to support a family.

These are not the kinds of records we want to set: Texas had the highest percentage of uninsured people in 2006, according to the Census Bureau; two-thirds of uninsured Texas parents are female. Texas has the second largest gap between the top and bottom fifth, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Here in El Paso county, more than two-thirds of single mothers with children under 5 live in poverty. My organization, Mujer Obrera, helps low-income immigrant women, many of them displaced from the garment industry, rebuild their lives and start businesses.

Mujer Obrera is part of a national effort to amplify low-income voices during this election year, the Equal Voice for America's Families campaign. At our Town Hall meeting on International Women's Day, we will hear the story of Señora Maria Fernández, who worked in a Farah factory for 25 years before the plant closed due to NAFTA. She fell into a deep depression when she was unable to find another job. With the help of La Mujer Obrera, she was able to open her own home daycare business.

We will also hear from Señora Elizabeth Colunga, sole supporter of her five children since her husband was deported to Mexico. He was randomly stopped by a border patrol agent while jogging in the park. Her children suffered from the loss of their father and from the family's sudden poverty. Mujer Obrera helped her find a restaurant job where she can pursue her dream of becoming a chef.

But no matter how many hundreds of women Mujer Obrera can help, there are hundreds of thousands more just one organization can't help. The crisis on the border has brought a tidal wave of poverty crashing down on low-income women and their families.

Skeptical readers may wonder if such poor women did something wrong to bring these hardships on themselves. But no-one can call them lazy, as they work very long hours. Their hard work is simply less rewarded than others'.

What about immigrant status? In fact, both the women mentioned above all have legal status in the US. True, many women who come to Mujer Obrera are undocumented. But this does not give employers the legal or moral right to cheat them.

What all women in Texas share is fierce dedication to their families. But too many of the next generation are being raised in families without enough income to provide a steady home and nutritious food.

A majority of us may vote for a woman for president, but will we forget the woman who sewed her power suit? We will be judged by how we treat the least among us. By this standard, our society, despite women's astonishing progress, continues to fail.

Irma Montoya, a former garment worker, is the Executive Director of Mujer Obrera, an economic development organization of Mexican immigrant women in El Paso, and an organizer of the March 8 Town Hall meeting sponsored by the Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice for America's Families campaign (www.equalvoice2008.org).

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