News & Politics

16% Think It's OK for a Man to Hit His Wife? 5 Shocking Facts About Gender in America

A new report reveals that some Americans still think it’s okay for a man to hit his wife, the insane wage gap between women of color and white men, and other disturbing trends.

With the GOP-waged wars on women, middle-class workers and poor families in full swing and steadily whittling away at women’s status in the US, it’s obvious that we have a long way to go in terms of equality of all kinds. But a new report sheds light on some surprising numbers highlighting that imbalance.

Without the right to abortion, or the ability to prevent and prosecute rape, or the ability to support one’s family, a woman cannot be a full human being, a citizen exercising her rights. This is a given. But did you know that many Americans--16 percent--still think it’s okay for a man to hit his wife? And did you know just how massive the wage gap remains between black and Latina women and white men? What about the fact that until recently, it was almost impossible for native American women to file rape charges if they were assaulted on reservations or that we’re positively the worst “developed” country on parental leave, bar none?

The list goes on, thanks to a recently released global report, “Progress of the World’s Women.(pdf), which focuses on the access to justice of women worldwide. The report comes from the dynamic new group, UN Women. Headed by Michele Bachelet, former president of Chile, the group is hopefully a nascent force for accelerating global gender equity. UN Women has released individualized information on all regions, and the North American fact-sheet (pdf link) highlights some fascinating, surprising and disturbing statistics that background our current climate. 

Most importantly, when stacked up to other countries worldwide, the facts show that we’re not some pillar of opportunity for women compared to other countries and regions, but rather saddled with our own major problems. As Flavia Dzodan wrote for Tiger Beatdown, “I think this report does a good job at showing that inequalities and injustices are a global problem and that each region faces a unique set of issues, defined by their socio-political and cultural region in the world is without serious troubles.” Dzodan also makes the apt point that  LGBT issues are absent from the report, which is unfortunate given their frequent close link with gender, race and class inequity. Abortion and reproductive health issues are not included in the US fact sheet, either.

Still, there’s a lot to learn about ourselves here.

Here are five of the most shocking facts from the "Progress Women" report pertaining to the USA, and the way they affect the current climate that can only be described as bleak. Read to the bottom for a few slightly more positive trends.

1. Dogged by Violence. This pervasive inequality extends far beyond the pay gap, threatening the physical and legal safety of women of color, and indeed, all women.

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn case has brought the economic, racial and sexual bias that informs the pursuit of justice in rape and domestic violence cases to the fore. And the numbers found by UN Women back up the way the press has reacted to this high-profile case: “Evidence shows that jurors in the USA are especially likely to question the credibility of African American and Latina female witnesses in rape cases.”

One of the most shocking statistics in the report? The public perception of gender violence as sometimes acceptable, within the context of marriage. This is from the report’s language: “In the USA, 16 percent of women and men agree that it is sometimes justifiable for a man to beat his wife.”

Sure, 16 percent is a fairly standard number for representing the lunatic fringe of American culture, but the fact that these respondents willingly admit they think it’s okay certainly sheds a disturbing light on why violence against women remains widespread: “Prevalence surveys in the USA show that 22 percent of women have experienced physical violence, and 8 percent have been targeted for sexual violence in their lifetimes.”

One other element to these statistics that may be lesser-known is the issue of rape against Native American women, which is astoundingly high. Native American women are more than twice as likely as other women to be raped. One of the things compounding the problem was a confusion over judicial jurisdiction: “Crimes committed by non-Native Americans on reservations often went unpunished, due to uncertainty over which jurisdiction applied. This is thought to have contributed to the high levels of rape of Native American women, Progress shows.“ In other words, a culture of impunity existed.

Last year, UN Women notes, the Tribal Law and Order Act was passed, which hopefully will increase centralized coordination and aid women seeking protection and justice.

2. Persistent Pay Gap. We passed Lily Ledbetter, right? So why is this still an issue? Well, the gender pay gap remains at 23 percent in the USA, according to the new fact sheet from UN Women. If that number isn’t dismaying enough, for African American and Latina women, that gap swells to huge proportions: “On average 39 and 48 percent less than white men, respectively.”

Add what’s happening right now--public workers losing their benefits and their right to collectively bargain, layoffs and festering unemployment-- to that number and you get a level of racial and gender stratification that is staggering.


3. Under-Represented in the Justice System. One of the hindrances to women seeking a fair application of the legal system is a lack of women’s representation in that system's hierarchy. While three female Supreme Court justices are certainly a step in the right direction, even that huge stride gives women disproportionately small representation.

Women are under-represented as prosecutors, judges and police officers throughout North America. Statistics cited by UN Women indicate that “data from 40 countries where women are present in the police, reporting of sexual assault increases.”

4. Packed Prisons. As our ballooning prison-industrial complex--and the drug war that feeds its engines--comes into greater focus, it’s worth remembering the women who are caught in the gears of this incarceration machine. A lesser-known fact about US prisons is that we have one of the highest rates of women’s incarceration in the world, UN Women notes. Adding insult to injury, women in prison “are typically young, have low levels of education and have dependent children. Many have histories of substance abuse and violence.”

These are often the women who need help, not incarceration.

5. Miserable Maternity Leave. The United States is the only--that’s right, the one and only--developed country in the entire world that does not offer paid maternity leave. Yes, under Federal Employment law, there has to be maternity leave. But it doesn’t have to be paid. And, the report notes, “The USA is one of only a few developed countries that do not oblige employers to offer paternity leave, which is proven to help encourage a more equitable division of childcare responsibilities.”

As for free daycare, which the report doesn’t even mention, the sensible idea seems laughable given our current obsession with “austerity” and slashing government programs.


 A Few Heartening Numbers

 The report did have a few interesting, more positive trends to highlight, a counterweight to the areas lagging so terribly.

* Research shows that since the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed in the USA in 1994, non-fatal, violent victimizations committed by  intimate partners declined by 49 percent.

* Between 1997 and 2010 the proportion of women in the US Congress increased from 11 percent to 17 percent, and a third of ministerial positions are held by women – almost double the world average.

Small steps, but evidence that forward progress is possible.

Read about how we stack up to the world's other regions at


Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at