Spotlight Exclusives

Engage: Promoting Economic Opportunity for Women from ‘Cradle to Grave’

Rachel Pearson Rachel Pearson, posted on

Rachel Pearson is no stranger to Washington policy and political battles, having worked on numerous Senate campaigns and three presidential elections, in addition to heading up Pearson & Associates, a firm that offers strategic counsel to corporations, associations, and nonprofits. But after the 2018 midterm elections, she decided something was missing from the Washington scene: a bipartisan organization that focused solely on expanding economic opportunity for all American women. Engage was born in November of that year and tries to forge bipartisan consensus on a range of issues that impact women’s economic hopes and dreams from cradle to grave but takes no positions on reproductive rights/right to life or judicial nominations. Spotlight spoke with Pearson recently about the 2023 agenda for Engage; the transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

So, tell us how Engage came about

I founded Engage in November 2018.  I’d probably been thinking about it unconsciously for a while, but I started a bit earlier that year putting together the pieces for its launch. It is a nonprofit that exists to promote women’s economic security and advocate for bipartisan, commonsense solutions. And it’s different in at least one fundamental way: we talk about the thread of a woman’s economic life to make the point that from a young girl’s first breath to her last breath when she goes to heaven, there are a whole lot of factors both within and outside of her control that impact her ability to achieve her full economic potential. We don’t think about things holistically that way often enough — tracing the path from the individual young girl who would at eight years old does not yet know to think: how am I going have a secure retirement?

That approach accomplishes a few things. It creates a way to comprehensively think about public policy, but specifically how public policy can get the biggest return on investment. If the government’s goal is to help develop American citizens, and in this case American women, into productive people who can work and add value, and hopefully get to pursue their happiness, then how do we get there?

We’re looking at issues like the pay inequities women face in the workforce and the burden women are bearing when it comes to caregiving. The average caregiver in this country is a 49-year-old woman caring for an aging parent or sick child. It’s a huge problem. Seven out 10 caregivers are women. It’s the single biggest unifying factor I have found for women. I can be on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, or I can be talking to women in the middle of America, which I did by Zoom a lot during Covid. And if you say, “how many of you are caregivers?” Hands are raised and you have found the common link between all women. It’s powerful.

This “cradle to grave” lens helps me if I’m talking to more Republican or fiscally conservative groups of women, to remind them of the early impediments many women face that are beyond their control. If a little girl doesn’t get good healthcare, good mental healthcare, if she can’t read by a certain age, if she’s in an abusive environment, all of those things. Another big marker is that 50% of the marriages in this country end in divorce and that usually puts women into less good economic situations 99.9% of the time.

The second thing that makes us different is we take reproductive rights/right to life positions and judicial nominations off the table of conversation. One of the reasons for me starting this journey was because I had lived through the Kavanaugh hearings, and I didn’t think we could get much more broken. It seemed important to me at that point to find ways to build commonality. I understand that reproductive rights/right to life positions may be the single most important thing to you, but when women’s heads hit the pillow at night, they are thinking about their economic lives and the economic lives of their families.

Women outnumber, outvote, and outlive men, as trademarked by Engage, but if we immediately divide ourselves, we never feel or imagine our political power. It was a bit of an experiment, and it has turned out to be a very winning one. It makes us unique because 99% of women’s organizations can’t keep themselves from taking a position on those issues.

Have you had pushback since the Dobbs decision that it’s harder to not take a position?

I was a little worried about it, but I think that if anything, it underscores what makes us different. Another thing that makes us different is that we’re pro-Congress and pro-elected officials generally. I happen to think that this is still the best country on the planet. And we want to help them help us, to develop the muscle of thinking about what they are doing for women’s economic security and that it’s a winner electorally.

We’ve just completed a three-year strategic business plan, and our serious legislative efforts will begin in earnest in 2023. But there are already examples of bipartisan agreement on these kinds of issues. The Violence Against Women Act, which we weren’t directly involved with but talked a lot about, is one of the single biggest stories of last year that the media ignored.

In early January, we’re going to do the first-ever survey to all 535 congressional offices asking every member of Congress what they’re doing for women’s economic security. Not in a “gotcha” kind of way, but rather: what are you working on and how can we help you? And if you’re not working on anything, here are a bunch of ideas — girls in STEM, military families, disability, paid family leave. I’m very excited about this.

What about paid leave? Does some version of that have a chance in the next Congress?

Look, broadly and oversimplified, Republicans don’t like big, sweeping things. But I think there are some developments that may reap some progress. Sens. (Bill) Cassidy (R-La.) and (Kirsten) Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) are setting a bipartisan table in the Senate and there’s a Paid Family Leave Caucus being established in the House. This issue is hard, but with Build Back Better behind us and after an election in which Republicans didn’t do as well with women as they wanted to, I feel like we may be in a moment.

We also hope to find pieces of legislation that already have bipartisan co-sponsorship that may just need a little push. For example, Sens. (James) Lankford (R-Okla.) and Gillibrand have an adoption bill to aid adoptive families. We’ll be looking for things to support that aren’t hugely expensive or controversial, but which women can come together around, while also helping explain to the public what the big legislative fights are really about and why compromise is both so hard and so necessary. Right now, we have the dynamic where members of Congress don’t think it’s a winning proposition to be for a compromise because there is no 1-800-I’ll Take a Compromise number to dial to reach the millions of people who would be happy to know that they found agreement, and something was made better. To my mind, that’s an important civic responsibility that not being discharged right now.

Do you see a role for Engage in 2024?

My goal would be that we can have some muscle behind issues of women’s economic security. As I said earlier, Women outnumber, outvote, and outlive men™. Women are the deciders of elections in nearly every congressional district in this country. It is in every candidate’s best interest to speak to women and the challenges that they face. Another factor that gets missed too often is women’s spending power. We use the figure $7 trillion in our presentations; women are the ones that pay the utility bills. They pay the cable bills. It’s good economics for the country for women to do well. Women need economic agency.

Another motivation for me in starting Engage was to address the big gulf between the fact that in every single poll in this country, people want bipartisanship and yet we have still have the dysfunction and the hyper-political environment that we do. There are a whole lot of reasons for that, and just one thing is not going to fix everything. But I do believe that there are millions of Americans and certainly millions of women that just want to see some progress.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives