AAUW Finds Governors’ Annual Speeches Celebrate Women but Still Fail to Adequately Acknowledge Disparities

Michigan Governer Gretchen Whitman (Brunette on dark red dress) with her hands raised in celebration behind a podium.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) giving her gubernatorial acceptance speech

April 29, 2019


In the annual “state of the state” addresses delivered by the nation’s governors, there was more discussion than in recent years about the challenges women face, such as pay discrimination, sexual harassment and lack of access to paid leave, according to a yearly AAUW analysis. 

What’s more, governors paid tribute to the success of women in the the 2018 elections: Six governors celebrated significant “firsts” in their state, including Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) who noted that, for the first time in Michigan’s history, the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court are all women. Governor Steve Sisolak (D-NV) spoke about how women now make up the majority of Nevada’s Legislature, a first in any state. And Governor Mark Gordon (R-WY) noted that for the first time, the Wyoming Supreme Court bench is majority women.

Still, the AAUW analysis of the speeches found that women continue to be short-changed: Seven governors didn’t mention women at all, and 14 governors did so only fleetingly. AAUW concludes that governors are not fully grappling with the disparities women continue to face.

Pay Equity

Five governors discussed issues related to pay equity, such as salary history bans and additional equal pay provisions, an increase of two from the previous year. While reliance on pay history can contribute to the gender pay gap, additional factors such as paid leave also influence women’s economic security. A majority of workers do not have access to paid leave, and this disproportionately impacts women who have less education and lower paying jobs. However, only eight governors mentioned improving access to paid leave in their state.

Increasing Wages

Seven governors and Mayor Bowser (D-DC) addressed raising the minimum wage, and three governors broadly discussed increasing wages. This issue disproportionally affects women, who make up nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers; Black and Latina women are disproportionately represented within the ranks of low paid workers.

Over one-third of governors mentioned the need to increase wages for teachers, and four governors presented college debt relief programs for future teachers. Debt relief programs for future educators also specifically benefit women, as women continue to take on more student debt than men. However, absent from any of the speeches was the fact that most elementary and secondary school teachers are women. Teachers at these levels are among the lowest paid; the occupational segregation of women into these lower paying jobs factors into the overall gender pay gap.

Workplace Harassment

Despite the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment, only the governors from New York and Washington addressed the issue. This is a significant decline from last year when a third of governors spoke about sexual harassment, likely because of the spotlight on the then-emerging #MeToo movement. AAUW calls for sustained support and diligence in ending workplace harassment, as the issue continues to impact women and marginalized communities.


Nearly every governor addressed education within their speech, but only two discussed the disparities women and girls continue to experience in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) noted the underrepresentation of women in STEM professions, while Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) discussed a new $6 million school funding initiative geared towards ending the gender gap in computer science. Governor Cuomo was also the only governor to mention Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. Unfortunately, no governor examined the state role in combatting the current threats to Title IX, which would weaken protections for students who experience sexual harassment and assault in school.


While 19 governors discussed expansion of state Medicaid and 15 governors reflected upon access to healthcare in general, only 12 governors addressed access to reproductive healthcare. Problematically, the governors of Florida, Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Louisiana called for increased access to healthcare but explicitly expressed their opposition to abortion. This type of anti-choice rhetoric can influence policy decisions to limit abortion access. For example, Governor Mike DeWine (R-OH) included a thinly veiled anti-abortion message and then signed an extreme abortion ban into law the following month. Access to reproductive health care is essential to the pursuit of expanding healthcare and is critical to ensuring women’s economic security.


Despite the above-noted highlights in this year’s state of the state addresses, governors still failed to address many of the significant challenges women continue to face. For women to achieve full equity, state leaders must take active steps to oppose all forms of discrimination women experience.

This post was written by AAUW Public Policy Intern Gabby Winger.


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By:   |   April 29, 2019