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Three questions every candidate should answer at the debate

The headlines and protest signs tell a unified story: this is an extraordinary time for women in this country. Everywhere, they are leading the charge. In the 2018 midterm elections, women won a record number of seats in congress with a total of 127 women now serving in the House and Senate. It’s also remarkable that five Democratic women are currently in the presidential race.

Women continue to march, vote and run for office in unprecedented numbers. And, once again, women will play a pivotal role in determining who wins the presidency in 2020.

Yet, in last month’s Democratic primary debate, moderators asked over 40 questions — and made no mention of abortion, reproductive rights, child care or the gender wage gap. Absent too were any questions about sexual harassment, which is all the more shocking given the two-year anniversary of the virality of the MeToo movement this fall.

So why did the primary debate bypass several issues that are central to women’s lives?

With multiple states racing to ban abortion, women dominating the lowest-paid fields, child care costs rising, and sexual harassment continuing largely unchecked across industries, this is not the time for moderators to draw from a stale playbook. The policy priorities that are often condescendingly labeled “women’s issues” are not niche concerns.

Each time women’s lived realities are ignored during a debate, the public loses the chance to hear directly from candidates on issues that are relevant to their lives.

And to be clear, what’s lacking is not voter interest — it’s airtime. Moderators, your questions can finally place abortion, child care, and sexual harassment at the center of the debate, where they have always belonged.

I urge you to ask each candidate the following three questions:

Do you think every person in the US should be able to access abortion care, no matter where they live or the money they make? (And, if the answer is yes, how do you plan to advance access for everyone?)

About one in four women will have an abortion by the age of 45 and 61% of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Yet some states are still working to ban abortion care, shutting down clinics, criminalizing providers and shaming women. It’s people struggling to make ends meet, those who live in rural areas, and communities of color who are harmed the most by these efforts.

The federal courts have long been a backstop to protect against unconstitutional laws. But President Donald Trump and his Senate allies have remade the federal judiciary. Since Trump entered office, the Senate has confirmed over 150 Supreme Court, federal district, circuit and international trade judges, many of whom have long anti-abortion records. Trump’s Supreme Court picks Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh may, with the rest of the bench’s conservative majority, overturn Roe v. Wade and fulfill Trump’s promise to his base. Just last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could give the Court the chance to undermine abortion access.

What will you do to make sure that all families have access to affordable, high-quality child care?

Low-income families who pay for child care spend 35% of their income on it — leaving them little money for housing, food and other necessities. Many parents also discover that there are not enough child care spots to go around, forcing some to quit their jobs. At the same time, child care workers — many of whom are women of color — are paid such low wages that some need to rely on food stamps to feed their own families. Everywhere, families and workers are living the child care crisis.

When parents can’t rely on affordable, high-quality child care for their children, everything becomes precarious. They’re forced to make impossible choices to balance work and family, and children miss valuable learning opportunities with lifelong dividends.

What will you do to address sexual harassment and make workplaces safe and fair for all workers?

In June, the National Women’s Law Center commissioned a bipartisan poll about workplace sexual harassment. The findings are clear-cut: two-thirds of voters, regardless of gender and party, want lawmakers to change the law to better prevent and address workplace sexual harassment. For an overwhelming majority of voters, sexual harassment legislation is a priority.

It’s not hard to understand why. Two years ago, Tarana Burke’s MeToo movement went viral and inspired an outpouring of stories from those who had experienced sexual violence and harassment, at work and beyond. Women spoke about the pain they had endured — the damage to their mental and physical wellbeing, the loss of jobs and careers, and the betrayal of workplace retaliation.

Our culture has forever been transformed. But we’ve just barely begun to address the systems that provide cover for this abuse. We are in the middle of an exceptional public conversation — one that, so far, has been noticeably absent from the debate stage.

Millions of women will be watching on Tuesday. Moderators owe them the chance to hear about candidates’ plans to tackle issues that directly affect their lives. Women are more than half of this country, and it’s time for candidates to answer to them.

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