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Women in Garbage: Fair Pay, Politics, and the Pawnee Sanitation Department

Given the fact that the anniversary of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was yesterday, it seems only fitting that this past week’s episode of NBC’s Parks & Recreation focused on gender equality in the workplace.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Parks & Recreation (or Parks & Rec, as it is known lovingly among its fan base) is about Leslie Knope, a mid-level government employee in a small town in Indiana. She is dedicated to her job and the town she grew up in, and many feminists and TV fans have lauded the show as an example of a great feminist character. And for good reason – Leslie is dedicated, passionate, and very human (she has an absolutely adorable relationship with her fiancée, Ben, and a deep love of waffles and whipped cream that I can 100% relate to). Leslie has grown from simply a government employee to a City Council Member, and she aspires to climb the ranks all the way to President. Plus, the show is just absolutely hilarious.

This week, the episode opened with the ladies of the Pawnee, Indiana Parks Department in a meeting with the first female city councilmember. She lamented about the fact that her male counterparts used to keep a calendar of her menstrual cycles – something that sounds beefed up for the sake of comedy, but actually hits closer to hope than you might think: In October, CNN posted (and quickly took down) a story saying that hormones can make female voters vote more liberally because it makes them “feel sexier.”

Not recent enough for you? Just last week, Rush Limbaugh offered up an idea to keep women in combat zones from getting pregnant: put a group of women together until their menstrual cycles sync up.

“No matter when you need them, you’re always going to have a combat-ready battalion of women on PMS,” he continued. “Pregnancy problem solved. And pretty damn good during combat at the same time. Talk to any man, not being sexist here, just dealing with reality. That’s how you do it.”

The similarities to reality don’t stop there – Leslie forms a commission for gender equality, asking department heads to send her two staff members from each department, only to end up with an all-male group. Underrepresentation on the issues that matter happens on a much wider (and real) scale than the small-town government of Pawnee, Indiana - currently, Women hold only 97 (18.1%) of the 535 seats in Congress.

Leslie demands that there be an increase in the number of women in the Sanitation department, only to be met with a scoff from sanitation workers. Leslie is told that working as a sanitation worker is “a very physically demanding job, your average woman can’t handle it.” Leslie, obviously, accepts the challenge, dons a neon-orange vest, creates some organized binders (because she believes in “being thorough”), invites along a reporter, and takes to the streets. As she tells April, the Parks & Rec department member who joins her on the excursion (because she “loves garbage”), they need to blow the task out of the water: “We can’t be just as good as the men, we have to be better.”

And they are. Leslie and April are more efficient, running ahead of schedule and picking up trash left and right. All hail the power of the organized binders! However, the sanitation workers accompanying them aren’t pleased that they’re being shown up – and trick Leslie and April into trying to move a large refrigerator by themselves that the men couldn’t move. Leslie grows desperate as time goes on. “We have to solve this problem, or they are going to point to this forever as a reason not to hire women,” Leslie moans.

The episode is practically a case study of women and equality in government in the workforce – many women are less likely than men to feel qualified to run for office, because, in part, they feel as though they are judged more harshly due to their gender.

Women, such as those at Wal-Mart, have watched less qualified men be promoted above them in the workplace for years, and women are still paid 77 cents to the dollar of what their male counterparts make.

While Leslie eventually comes up with a solution to the problem, and the department is forced to hire more female sanitation workers, the lack of a clear-cut finale and solution to all our problems is evident when you look at the staggering statistics surrounding women in power, politics, and fair pay.

On this 4th anniversary of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, let’s celebrate the act’s landmark restoration of pay discrimination laws, but also take a step back to think about how far we still need to go before we reach full equality in society – whether it’s in our paychecks or – yes – picking up garbage.  

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