Women Still Gaining Ground

BERKELEY, CA. -- Women -- long the major beneficiaries of affirmative action programs -- are continuing to gain ground in higher education even as California scraps race and gender preferences. That fact alone may undercut efforts by proponents like Rev. Jesse Jackson who want to reinstate affirmative action in the name of widening access to higher education for women and minorities."Sex discrimination in admissions is a non-issue today," declares scholar Wendy Kaminer, a Radcliffe Public Policy fellow who writes on feminism and law. "My sense is that women need affirmative action programs much less today than they once did."More than half of the first year students enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley's Boalt Law School this fall are women. This continues a steady upward trend -- last year, 52 percent of all University of California undergraduates statewide were women, and in 1995, 44 percent of all first-year law students and 42 percent of all first-year medical students across the country were women.So what happened to the predictions that passage of California's Proposition 209 -- ending the state's affirmative action policy -- would have dire effects not just on minorities but on women?Elizabeth Toledo of the National Organization for Women, who co-directed the Stop 209 campaign, thinks the 1997 enrollment figures reflect the cumulative effect of years of affirmative action -- and that women have at best a fragile toehold."Finally, after 20 years of affirmative action we see parity," she says. "If those efforts had been banned (earlier), you wouldn't see 52 percent of women enrolled in the class of 1997."The picture changes dramatically if one looks through the lens of race, according to Irma Herrera, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco. Women may be taking a small edge in overall college admissions, she points out, but these are white women -- black and Latin women do not appear to be faring as well.A big problem is that there's almost no data that break down statistics for minority enrollment by gender or for women enrollment by race, Herrera says. For instance, the only reason we know no black women were admitted this year to Boalt Law School is because the news media identified the only black freshman as a male. But it is usually not possible to make such distinctions, as blacks and Latinos are all considered "minority," regardless of gender. At the same time, "women" in practice almost always refers to white women."We're encouraging Boalt and other schools to gather crossover statistics (gender broken down by race) so we can get a clearer picture of who's benefiting and who's not," Herrera says.The same blind spot applies to analyses of voting patterns. The California Democratic Party found that 58 percent of white women voted for 209, but did not break down the black or Latino vote by gender. Exit polls on 209 also failed to break down race by gender.White women may have voted for 209 in part because they never credited affirmative action for their gains, according to Toledo. In focus groups, she says, when women were asked if they thought they'd benefited from affirmative action, it was the non-white women who raised their hands.The gender question will only loom larger as Congress considers a new bill, called the Civil Rights Act of 1997, that would eliminate affirmative action in federal hiring and contracts.Some proponents of affirmative action believe that the tide will change as women in civil service and other jobs begin to feel the impact of eliminating preferences. "When they start to implement 209 and it becomes clear that women are not hired or promoted to state jobs, that police departments stop reaching out to women, there's going to be a very big backlash," predicts Kathy Spillar, a coordinator of the Stop 209 campaign.But Lydia Chavez, author of Color Bind, a new book documenting the history of Prop 209, says the picture is complicated by issues of class. By and large poorer women, regardless of color, gained little from affirmative action policies, unless they worked at the post office or fire department or had civil service jobs, Chavez says. Moreover, she found that working class women tended to view affirmative action as a negative because they saw it as threatening to their husbands and sons.As long as white women -- particularly affluent white women -- see themselves gaining parity in higher education, it's unlikely they'll support reinstatement of gender and racial preferences, even when the call comes from so persuasive a political figure as Jesse Jackson."I can see why Rev. Jackson wanted to include women in the recent anti 209 march, because it substantially increases the number in his interest group. But he doesn't have the real support of women behind that tactic," says Anita Blare, executive vice president of the Independent Women's Forum, an organization of professional women. "It's a tactic opponents of 209 used early on, and it never went anywhere."PNS correspondent Colleen O'Connor writes regularly on issues of culture and religion.

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