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Senator Warren Delivers Keynote Address at NWLC's 45th Anniversary Gala

Date: Oct. 19, 2017
Location: Washington, DC
Issues: Women

I'm really glad to be here tonight with all of you, because the issues that the National Women's Law Center focuses on are deeply personal to me.

Fatima told us a little bit of this story, but I really wanted to tell you why the work of the NWLC matters so much to me. I grew up in a family in Oklahoma, and we were one of those paycheck-to-paycheck families, the kind just barely hanging on to our place in the middle class. When I was growing up, the path was very different for boys and for girls in America. Expectations were very different. Opportunities were very different. Back then, it was a world where most women stayed home. Little girls could do almost anything they wanted, so long as what they wanted to do was be mommies, nurses or teachers - and nothing else. I still remember, it was in second grade, when Mrs. Lee told me that I could be a teacher, and, God bless her, I said that's what I was going to do, and it changed my life.

Now, all three of my older brothers - I have three much older brothers - I came along many years later. My mother always referred to me as the surprise. I was about thirty before it hit me what that meant. I thought surprises were good things! That's a whole different story, but all three of my older brothers went off to the military - they didn't graduate from college - that was their chance to build a future, their ticket to the middle class. But if I wanted to teach, I needed a college diploma, and it is a long and complicated story, including getting married at 19 and dropping out of school - man, was I smart at 19!

But here's the key on that story. I grew up back when America was building more chances - not just first chances, but second chances. And for me, that second chance was a commuter college that cost $50 a semester. I understood what it meant to get a second chance-and you better believe, once I got it, I hung on for dear life. Two years later, I graduated.

I can still remember the first day of school as a special needs teacher. The classroom all shined up and ready to go. There were cheerful pictures that I'd hung on the wall. The children were all ready for a new adventure. I loved that job. I truly loved that job.

But by the end of the school year, I was pretty obviously pregnant. The principal did what I think a lot of principals did back then - he wished me good luck, and he didn't ask me back for the next school year, and hired someone else for the job.

I stayed home, and I tried desperately to be a good wife and mother, but I really wanted to do something more. So, I came up with a plan to go back to school, and this time I found a law school that was nearby.

I cannot describe to you how crazy the idea was of my going to law school. My mother said many, many times, very loudly, that she thought I was jeopardizing my marriage. My brothers - all three of them - just thought I was plain nuts. My then husband smiled indulgently, making it clear that he knew that I could not possibly pull this off. But I bowed my head, I pushed on. You might say, nevertheless, I persisted.

But I was determined, and so I took all the needed exams, I filled out the application; I budgeted and figured out how I could pay the $450 tuition. I worked out what the commute in my trusty blue Volkswagen and I had it all figured - all of it - until I hit the one big boulder that nearly crushed me: child care.

My daughter Amelia was about to turn two, and if I wanted to go to law school, I needed child care. And I know it sounds like I wasn't very smart, but I hadn't really realized exactly how hard that was gonna be. You know, I visited all kinds of places. I went everywhere - and I struck out everywhere. They cost a fortune or they smelled funny or the kids looked miserable. This went on for weeks, and it's getting to be the end of the summer, and I'm starting to sweat. We were bearing down on the start of school, and I knew that if I couldn't get childcare worked out, my idea of going back to school was over before it started.

Finally, finally, less than one week before classes were starting, I found a place that seemed nice. Cheerful teachers, a good playground, it smelled good. That thing matters, you know. There was only one problem: they only took children who were "dependably potty trained." Man, I filled out that application, I said "Sure. Dependably potty trained. Got it! We are so on this."

And I left there knowing I had five days to turn my not-quite-two-year-old into a ready-to-go, dependably potty-trained partner. And I just want to say that I'm here today courtesy of three bags of M&Ms and a cooperative two-year-old who loved chocolate. That's my story!

I've got to say, going to law school and trying to raise a toddler wasn't always easy, but actually, it was a really special time. Amelia and I were buddies. We both had backpacks, and she allowed me to believe that a life that combined the inside and the outside - family and not family - could actually work.

Now, we made it through three years of law school and by the time I graduated from law school, I was hugely pregnant with Baby Number Two. By now, I was actually starting to think about career choices after law school, but law firms at this point were barely crossing the line to hire women, and hugely pregnant women were not on the recruitment list. Everyone smiled, no one said a word, and no one invited me back for a second interview.

So, baby was born. I stayed home. Eventually, I got a job teaching at a law school, and when I got that job, I was beyond excited. I was back in the classroom. This time the kids were taller, and I didn't decorate the classroom with pictures of animals, but I still loved it. I loved every single minute of it.

But what was going on in my life outside the classroom was not going so well. I had been teaching for just a few weeks when the babysitter quit, and from then on, I was just on the treadmill. We cycled through one child care arrangement after another and every transition sent me into a near-panic. Every time, it represented a failure.

One night after I'd put both the kids to bed, my 78-year-old Aunt Bee called long-distance from Oklahoma to just see how I was doing. I said, "Sure, I'm fine. I'm doing okay, I'm fine." And in the middle of a sentence, I just started to cry. And once I started, I could not stop. I was failing. I was failing my kids, I was failing my family, I was failing my teaching. I was doing laundry at 11 o'clock at night and class preps after midnight, and I felt like I was always behind.

And then I said something that shocked me when I said it: I told Aunt Bee I was going to quit my job. My beloved teaching job. It's like it just fell out of my mouth.

Aunt Bee's waiting on the other end, long-distance, she waits for me to quit crying, waits for me to blow my nose and get a drink of water. Then she very matter-of-factly said, "I can't get there tomorrow, but I can come on Thursday." And she arrived with seven suitcases and a Pekingese named Buddy - and stayed for 16 years.

I'm a United States Senator today in part because my Aunt Bee rescued me on that Thursday in 1979. Without child care, I was a goner. And I know how lucky I was, because so many working moms don't have an Aunt Bee with a dog named Buddy who can fly in and help out.

Now lots of things have changed since the days when I headed off to school, and a lot of things have changed since I started out as an assistant professor in law. There are a lot more women attending college, a lot more women in the workforce, a lot more women in corner offices and a lot more women in operating rooms. A lot more opportunities, and we celebrate those opportunities.

But we also know that there are still plenty of obstacles facing working women, especially women with young children. And the challenge of finding reliable, affordable child care is a huge boulder firmly wedged between women and a million opportunities.

Yup. It is a big obstacle. Take a look at the basics. Tens of millions of families, ordinary, hard-working families, simply don't have enough money to make it to the end of the month. I'm not talking about enough money for fancy vacations or a new pair of sneakers. I'm talking about families don't have enough money for housing and food and transportation. They don't have enough money to cover health care and education. And on top of all that, they don't have enough money for the child care they need so they can go to work and try to make some more money.

Over the past generation, from 1970 to 2015, wages have effectively remained flat, while the costs of all kinds of basic expenses have gone up. Housing costs have risen by 50 percent, health insurance expenses have doubled, college degree costs more than tripled, and those are all huge increases. But the cost of child care? It has gone up nearly 1,000 percent. One thousand percent. In nearly half of all states in America, child care costs are higher than the cost of in-state public college tuition. That is a giant boulder that rolls across right in front of working women and families all across this country. And for single parents and for parents working near the bottom of the income scale, the cost of child care often stretches families' paychecks past the breaking point.

Think about the consequences of these skyrocketing child care costs. Today, about two-thirds of mothers of small children have jobs. That's millions of mamas scrambling to make sure that someone is taking care of the baby while they head off to work. High child care costs limit career opportunities for those women, especially for single moms. They put economic pressures on families by making it tougher to save money for retirement or for a home. And they force families to make difficult compromises on the quality of the care that they can afford.

There is a lot of research showing that high-quality early education helps kids succeed in school and helps them do better in life. It can be a powerful tool to close the achievement gap. But skyrocketing costs often mean that families have to settle for lower-quality care.

For some parents, that tradeoff is really grim. Unlicensed care - a home where several children are parked in front of a television set all day. A relative who really isn't up to the task of keeping up with a two-year-old. Families do the best they can under difficult circumstances.

Even if a family can pay, care often isn't available. Try finding child care for a six-month-old. Or for a child with special needs. Or a place that isn't 40 minutes from home. Or a place that's open early enough that you can get you to your job by 8:00 in the morning or open late if you get caught in traffic or an emergency comes up, you know your kid is somewhere safe. About half of all Americans today live in a child care desert. And this disproportionately affects families of color and low-income families who have the most to gain if mom can get a decent job.

The fact is that even as expectations and opportunities for women in the workforce have shifted in so many ways for the better, child care in America remains an enormous roadblock. Compared to the rest of the developed world, the United States significantly underinvests in child care programs. Preschool enrollment in America is much lower, and the average teacher to child ratio much higher. It is time for America to step up on this.

Last month I joined with several of my Democratic colleagues in Congress to support the "Child Care for Working Families Act," this has been led by Senator Patty Murray from Washington and Congressman Bobby Scott from Virginia. This legislation would create a partnership between states and the federal government to ensure that no low-income or middle-class family pays too much of their income on child care, regardless of the number of children that they have.

It is a step toward making child care and early education more affordable for working families who need it most, and I just want to shout out how much we appreciate the NWLC's support of this legislation. They're the ones giving it momentum and Congress should pass it now. Can we all just be clear on that? Go get "em.

And there's more we could do. You know me, I never come with just one ask. Consider scheduling. Think about this one for a minute. Half of all low-wage workers have little or no say over when they work, and an estimated 20 to 30 percent are in jobs where they can be called in to work extra hours at literally the last minute. Just think of how much of a challenge it is to plan for anything, like doctor's visits, or going back to school, a second job - or, yes, child care -without even knowing when you'll be working next week.

So, I've introduced the "Schedules That Work Act" in the Senate, to put some basic fairness into scheduling. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro - the best - has introduced the legislation in the House. This is a bill that will help working families, and especially lower-wage and minimum wage workers. And again, NWLC has been right there alongside me and alongside Rosa on this bill from the very beginning, and I am very grateful for that. We're going to get this done together, Fatima. We're going to do this.

So that's two, but I've got to have three. These are good steps, they are, but it's time to be bold. Think of it this way: America has agreed that every five-year-old should have access to a neighborhood school that will provide a safe place and be there five days a week and will teach that child to read, and write, and add numbers, and take turns and not to hit their neighbors. We've got plenty of work to do to make sure that our public schools are providing real opportunities for all our children, but that's the basic goal. We've all agreed on the target. I believe that same kind of opportunity should be available to four-year-olds and three-year olds and two-year-olds and all our children - and all their families.

It's a big goal, but no one builds a future without investment. Whether you and I have small children or not, we have an interest in the future of this country - and that means we have an interest, and a responsibility - to invest in America's children. And that means making sure that their teachers and their caregivers are adequately paid and adequately trained. We don't climb up on someone else's backs. And it means making sure that when parents are working, their children are safe and loved and learning and growing.

So, this is how I see it. Until we decide, until all of us decide - men and women, married and single, black and white, old and young - that we are willing to invest more in all our children, then we cannot build a country in which women have equal opportunity to build a future. That's how I see it.

So that's why I wanted to be here tonight. I wanted to be here tonight because I believe in change, and I believe that the energy to make these changes will come from people like you, people who fight for equality every day. And most importantly, the energy will come from the many people all across this country who have joined this fight and made it part of their lives.

The day after President Trump's inauguration - you all remember that day, right? Now I remember the day of the inauguration, but I remember the day after. I went to Boston Common for the Women's March. Did anybody in here go to the Women's March? So I've got to tell you, in Boston, we know how to do a Women's March. We had about 175,000 people who showed up at Boston Common. In fact, our March was so big for the space available that the marching part of it consisted of clearing a little space in front of a few people so we could march a few steps, and then finally we all just gave up and hugged each other, and that was the end of it.

But I wanted to tell you what it was like. It was an amazing moment. I look out and here's just this sea of people and women - many of them wearing pink pussy hats and waving handmade signs. And one of my favorites is, I saw a little girl riding on her daddy's shoulders, and she had this hand lettered sign, and I know she made it, and the reason I know is because it had a lot of glitter on it. Glitter and rainbows and horsies. And right in the middle, as she's waving it up on her daddy's shoulders, her sign said, "I fight like a girl." I thought, me too, sweetie. That's where our army's coming from.

And that's it. That is our army. And that's how we'll fight for a level playing field for boys and girls, for men and women. And that's how we will win. So, to every one of you: Thank you for being part of this fight, we're going to win. Thank you.


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