Will Women Ever Achieve Equality?

Ninety years ago, a young man named Harry T. Burn, at the insistence of his mother to “be a good boy,” changed his vote from “nay” to “yea,” and the generations-long struggle for women’s suffrage was at last won.

It is easy to catalog the progress of the last nine decades. Women can vote, own property, earn a paycheck and keep the money in their own bank accounts, go to college and play sports there, and yes, run for and hold elected office. Three of the last four Secretaries of State have been women. The Speaker of the House is a woman. Three of the nine Supreme Court justices are women. And let us not forget that a woman very nearly won the Democratic nomination for president in 2008.

But -– and of course there is a but –- it is not enough. Because despite these achievements, control of our economy and our government still rests almost exclusively within the hands of men. For women to achieve full equality, they must have a real role in making the decisions that affect their lives. And that role requires real, and proportionate, representation -- something 90 years of struggle for equality has yet to achieve.

In the private sector, while women now comprise the majority of the labor force, they are still vastly outnumbered by men at the executive levels. As of 2009, only thirteen of the Fortune 500 companies were run by women. And those women CEOs make only 85 percent of what their male counterparts make.

In fact, a study by the non-profit research group Catalyst found that at the current rate, it will take another 40 years for women to achieve "parity with men in the corporate officer ranks."

Forty years.

Will it take that long for women to achieve pay equity as well? Maybe. The incremental progress toward pay equity has not come without legislation guaranteeing women the right to work and to earn the same wages as their male counterparts -- and even then, a significant pay gap still exists today. As does the forceful opposition to such legislation.

Despite protestations from those who scoff at evidence of this disparity, like the Chamber of Commerce -– who has, for decades, opposed every single piece of legislation intended to address this disparity, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act protecting pregnant women from discrimination, the Equal Pay Law, and the Paycheck Fairness Act -- the pay gap is real, and it is not merely the result of women choosing lower-paying jobs. It is a reflection of our deficiencies as a nation to recognize the obstacles and needs of half the labor force.

Just look at the utter failure of our country to address the reality of working mothers. Our country continues to treat working mothers as if they were an aberration, rather than the norm, and as such, any difficulties women encounter in trying to earn a living and care for their children is a problem for them to solve, a problem in which the government has no interest. Those women who "choose" to work and have families are left to their own devices, unworthy of the government's care or resources.  

But working mothers are, in fact, the norm: 80 percent of American women have children, and of those, 66 percent of them are employed, mostly in full-time jobs. A country that valued women, and mothers, would address the obstacles women face, rather than dismiss them as a consequence of women's choices, a consequence for which the solution is, according to the Chamber of Commerce, "choosing the right place to work and choosing the right partner at home."

That's really no solution at all.

From the moment a woman enters the work force, she will earn less than her male counterpart -- and if she has children, as the majority of American women do, it will cost her. She will end up making significantly less than men, according to a recent report by The New York Times.

And it will cost her in other ways. Unlike 168 countries that provide some form of paid family leave, most of which offer a minimum of 14 weeks and as much as a full year, the United States has only the Family and Medical Leave Act, which applies only to companies with 50 or more employees, and which guarantees only 12 weeks of unpaid leave. For most American women, three months without a paycheck is simply not a possibility. And even then, women still face the very real threat of losing their jobs anyway if they actually exercise that right.

Once working mothers do go back to work, they face the enormous expense of childcare -- an expense that ranges from $3,016 a year to $13,480 a year -- or more. Without any aid from the government because, according to those like the Chamber of Commerce, the government and society in general should not have to concern itself with the "choices" women make to work and have children.

But in a nation in which women are so severely underrepresented in positions of power, is it any wonder that the "solution" offered them is simply to figure it out for themselves?

For all the progress women have made, they still comprise a mere 16 percent of Congress and 12 percent of governorships. That's not real representation; it's token representation. And token representation is not enough to implement real, systemic changes that are necessary to improving the lives of women, and therefore all Americans. Such under-representation is not without its consequences.  

During the debate about health care reform, for example, Republican Senator John Kyl argued against a requirement that insurers offer basic maternity coverage. Why? Because it didn’t affect him.

"I don't need maternity care," Kyl said. "So requiring that on my insurance policy is something that I don't need and will make the policy more expensive."

Senator Debbie Stabenow was quick to point out to him, “I think your mom probably did."

Yes, John Kyl’s mother -– and 80 percent of all American women. Yet when the government is run largely by men, who see no need for something as basic as maternity care, is it any wonder that our system still refuses to acknowledge the needs of half the population?

That's what you get with token representation: the government's blind eye to problems that disproportionately impact women -- but, in reality, impact everyone. Senator Kyl certainly isn't the first to argue against legislation to help women, on the grounds that since he doesn't need it, it doesn't matter.

The antidote is greater -- much greater -- representation, a critical mass of representation.

Critical mass is an idea that has moved from science and sociology to political science and into popular usage over the last 30 years. The concept is borrowed from nuclear physics: It refers to the quantity needed to start a chain reaction, an irreversible propulsion into a new situation or process.

...[O]nce women reached a critical mass in an organization, people would stop seeing them as women and start evaluating their work as managers. In short, they would be regarded equally.

The report by The White House Project, assessing women's level of involvement and progress throughout the public and private sectors, offered the example of the Supreme Court (before Elena Kagan became its newest justice):

  • One woman is newsworthy -– she’s a first.
  • Two is better –- but still an exception, not the rule.
  • Three out of nine -– one in three -– stops being unusual.

We are a long way from women holding at least a third of the seats in Congress. It's no wonder, then, that legislation to address the needs of women is still the exception rather than the rule. It's no wonder, then, that too often, Congress dismisses as unnecessary programs to help women and their families -- programs that exist in every other industrialized nation in the world.

The answer, though, is not only to elect more women. There are now, as there have always been, women who work against the best interests of other women. Sarah Palin’s Mama Grizzlies are merely the latest incarnation of the anti-women’s movement -- a movement to oppose real solutions for women, dressed up in a skirt and lipstick, as if to legitimize their efforts to block progress. Palin is really no different from Phyllis Schlafly, the woman who made a career out of telling women not to have careers, the woman who fought –- and continues to fight -– against equality for women.

More Sarah Palins and Phyllis Schlaflys and Mama Grizzlies are not the answer. Just as progressives work to elect more, better Democrats, so too do we need more, better women in politics, so that women are not just the exception, so that the obstacles women face are deemed significant enough to merit real solutions, so that the most basic needs of women cannot be dismissed as unnecessary just because men have no use for them.

Ninety years after that young Tennessee representative cast the deciding vote to enfranchise women, a battle was won. Women could, at long last, have a voice in the process of choosing their leaders. But the last 90 years have shown that it isn't enough. To create a nation that truly recognizes and values women and their contributions, women need to do more than just have a voice in the process of choosing leaders; they must have a voice in the process of leadership itself.

And that battle is far from over.

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