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Women Losing Economic and Political Ground

Women's rights in the U.S. are at a low not seen since the Fifties.
 
 
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Summer isn't over yet, but the heat on women is already at full blast. Catalyst, one of the top research organizations on the status of women in corporate America, reports this week that females are losing ground in the top echelons of the Fortune 500. Growth in female-held positions has fallen dramatically in the past three years. The National Women's Law Center tells us that female degrees in math and computer science are way down. In what looks like a "back to the '50s move," Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan signed a bill last week allowing the return of single-sex schools in her state. All abortions were outlawed in South Dakota this spring, setting up a challenge to Roe v. Wade that has a good chance of succeeding in a Roberts Court.

Is the world crashing in on US women all at once? Not exactly. The long slide down from the gains of the 1970s started a while back - we're just seeing the results more starkly and more frequently now.

Reflecting on the bad news of summer 2006, I am reminded of a recent speech I was invited to deliver to the All China Women's Federation. Since China's totalitarian government has the power to simply decree women's status in employment, education, personal liberty and even the home, I was told the audience would be particularly interested in whether our government helps or hurts women's progress.

My assigned topic was "The State of Women in the United States." Easy enough, until I started to really think about it. Should I talk about how women in the US are doing when compared to women elsewhere in the world? Or how American women compare to American men - socially, economically and politically. Still another approach would be a contrast of women now and say, the turn of the 20th century, before we even had the vote. Finally, I could talk about the state of US women compared to an ideal - where we would be if we could indeed "have it all."

I decided to talk about today's reality - how women's status in the first years of the 21st century, and not so coincidentally in the reign of George II, compares to how it looked at the start of the "second wave" of American feminism beginning about 1963. The ongoing losses are the culmination of 20-plus years of conservative influence in the public square. Thanks to well-funded and well-placed right-wing think tank policy papers and their media machines shaping public opinion and influencing legislatures at all levels, we're losing ground and fighting hard just to keep the ideals of women's equality in the public debate. Popular mythology is all about women fleeing the workplace and the marketplace of ideas for hearth and home - just read The New York Times and countless copycats touting the exodus.

From the first years since that vibrant second wave made so many gains - abortion rights, equal credit, pregnancy leave, anti-discrimination laws in education and employment - the backlash has continued unabated. Women in the US have now taken the proverbial two steps forward, one step back in many areas we thought were so secure a generation ago.

Thanks to Title IX, we have achieved parity with men in college degrees, but female enrollment is down in business schools, and there has been a 28 percent decline since 1984 in women getting science and math degrees. The Bush administration continues to weaken Title IX through rule changes - a major change to Title IX policy now allows schools to force girls, but not boys, to prove that they are interested in participating in sports before they are given the chance to play.

While we gained the right to seek any job with those early victories, we're still lagging 24 cents on the dollar behind men in overall pay and that gap is not budging. We've already seen that the glass ceiling is not about to shatter as many hoped - it's in fact getting thicker. And if the Roberts court rules in favor of Wal-Mart in the largest sex discrimination suit in history - currently making its way through lower courts - laws protecting employment rights will be effectively gutted.

Our right to control our reproductive lives - hard fought all the way to the Supreme Court in 1973 - is now one case away from being overturned. Don't look to Anthony Kennedy to save us from a Bush created anti-abortion majority. The so-called new Sandra Day O'Connor swing vote, he has a record of limiting reproductive rights while appearing moderate.

Adult women are still the majority of those working for minimum wage, stuck at $5.15 an hour since 1997. There are 62 minimum wage bills on Capitol Hill that the Republicans won't even hear in committee.

We have universal health care for retirees, but women over 65 are the largest group living in poverty. That hasn't stopped President Bush from pushing cuts to food, housing and medical care for the elderly.

The current crop of Democrats is not disposed to stop the decline, even though a Lake Research Associates poll in this month's Ms. Magazine says a clear majority of women identify as feminists. Always willing to sacrifice the biggest part of their base to chase the ever-declining percentage of white males still in the party, Democrats promise women nothing and deliver less than nothing. Despite his own internal polls showing pay equity at the top of women's concerns, John Kerry wouldn't even mention it in the presidential campaign, and we're not seeing it on the DNC's agenda today. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid admitted he couldn't hold his own caucus together for a "no" vote on John Roberts or Samuel Alito - it would have looked too radical to oppose Supreme Court nominees who will vote to erode women's employment rights and possibly obliterate freedom of choice. The national Democratic party forced pro-choice Barbara Hafer out of the Pennsylvania senate race and replaced her with anti-choice Bob Casey, even though Hafer was a strong candidate who could likely have beaten Rick Santorum. It's no wonder that women say neither party is addressing their needs. So even if the House or Senate turns over in November, there is no guarantee women will benefit.

I now have a clear answer for those Chinese women. Government policies matter. We've had a generation to prove women won't make it "naturally" without legal protection and the political will for progress.

If we continue on our current path, it's going to be a long hot century for US women indeed.

Martha Burk is a political psychologist and author of "Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in Corporate America and What Can Be Done About It."