Claiming Our Power as Women: Martha Burk Speaks


Martha Burk has played many roles on the frontlines of the feminist movement. She presently works as a gender pay equity consultant to corporations, non-profits, and government.  Her book Your Voice Your Vote:  The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Politics, Power, and the Change We Need is a widely acclaimed resource for putting womanpower into action to create a more just and livable world, not only for women but also for the communities we live in and contribute to.  

By Jerilyn Bowen

Martha Burk became a feminist by the proverbial seat of her pants.  She grew up in an industrial suburb of Houston and married young, long before the second wave of feminism.  Soon finding herself a traditional housewife at home with two young children and a husband who was away at work most of the time, she awakened to her then subversive desire to have a career outside the home.  After managing to finish her B.A. and obtain two advanced degrees, during her second marriage she moved to Wichita, KS and became the president of the local chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW) around the time an abortion clinic there was bombed, an event she recalls as lastingly traumatic.  

Eventually Burk wound up in Washington D.C., where she chaired the National Council of Women’s Organizations and lobbied on Capitol Hill.  She became Money Editor and contributor to Ms. Magazine and in 2003 was named a Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year.  Burk moved to New Mexico in 2006 to serve as Senior Advisor on Women’s Issues to Governor Bill Richardson and now lives in Corrales. In addition to her ongoing consulting, she’s presently producer and host of Equal Time with Martha Burk, a podcast that runs on KSFR public radio in Santa Fe.  

Feminists have our work cut out for us, Burk observes, pointing to the all-out assault on reproductive rights that is underway, with over 20 anti-abortion cases working their way through the courts in hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade in a Supreme Court now packed 6-3 with rightwing justices, three of whom are Trump appointees.  Burk supports expanding the Court to rectify its present dangerous and unfair imbalance, noting that such expansions have been done in the past and– especially under these circumstances–should be considered not only legitimate but also imperative.

Burk is likewise concerned that Trump modeled patriarchal and abusive attitudes towards women that served to embolden the worst forms of sexism.  Although a majority of white women voted for Trump in the 2020 presidential election, she surmises that many of these women were misled into believing that Trump would make their lives better, and that the more affluent among them may have felt he would protect their economic and class interests.  If we want to reach out to the Trump-supporting women, she advises that we “change the subject from personality to policy” by talking about what’s needed in our communities, who’s going to address that, and how change for the better can come about.                

 In doing so, moreover, she believes that we should not shy away from terms like “socialized medicine.”   Instead, we should explain what the word “social” actually means and point out that our most cherished and fundamental government programs are forms of socialism–e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veteran’s benefits, public schools, interstate highways, and many other essentials of a viable life in the land of the free and home of the brave.  To that we might add that the socialist democracies of Europe and Canada, are working for their people far better than our own less regulated system does.               

Now that the obsolete New Mexico abortion ban law has been repealed, Burk sees priority issues for NM women as intertwined, starting with an ongoing pay inequity in which women overall make 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, with women of color in the 69-66 cent range.  Key related issues for women and their families are paid sick leave, childcare allotments, and nutritional programs.             

In addition, Burk holds that even a $15/hour minimum wage would not be a living wage, adding that low wages are a de facto tax payer subsidy to the corporations that pay them; when workers can’t live on what they make, they’re forced to turn to public assistance programs.  For this reason, Burk supports reactivation of a Richardson executive order requiring state contractors to disclose their pay scales, including what they pay men and women for doing the same job.

 As for the big picture, Burk finds cause for hope in the advent of national women leaders of all ethnicities.  She cites the lead story in the January 2021 issue of Ms. Magazine, “Kamala Harris and the Feminist Future of America,” which also highlights our own Deb Haaland.  Burk feels that Harris becoming Vice President “makes a huge difference” for the women who come behind, especially women of color.  She points out, however, that only  women committed to basic human values deserve our advocacy.  That said, she sees women in general as tending to be cooperative about finding workable solutions to public problems and more interested in the common good than in ‘winning’ at any cost. 

With the Republican Party devolving into an authoritarian cult of personality, Burk notes that fascism has become a real threat in the U.S.  At the same time, the Republican party’s shrinking base presents the Democratic Party with an opportunity to grow, make needed reforms, and implement an agenda that better serves the people of America.  At the grassroots level, nonviolent mass action is still the most effective way to start turning things around when the chips are down, she says, citing as a premier example the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the George Floyd murder last year.  

 On the issue of reproductive rights, Burk points out that most men support them and benefit from them too, but don’t take out-front positions in the movement.  She feels that organizers for choice should recruit some of their male allies to take a more public role in the battle that lies ahead.

Burk’s closing words of advice to young feminists just entering the fray is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, come what may.  And to enlist more of their kind in the sisterhood, not with rhetoric but with undeniable facts, starting with unequal pay.  

“We can’t change it all at once but sure as heck can’t change it if we don’t keep trying!” she adds.