Milestones on the Road to Women’s Equality

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At the Vancouver Peace Summit in 2010, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said that western women would save the world. He explained that western women offered the combination of the compassionate and nurturing nature of women and their collaborative approach to consensus building with the educational and economic resources to implement positive change.

He’s probably right. But not all western women have equal access to those educational and economic benefits; those who do are the beneficiaries of a long, hard fight for equality. And the fight isn’t over.

We celebrate Women’s Equality Day in honor of a very large milestone. Ninety-five years ago this week, the 19th Amendment was certified with a one vote margin in an all-male Congress to guarantee the right to vote for white women. We must acknowledge that African American and Native American women were not included in this first round victory.

It’s good to celebrate other milestones along the women’s road to equality in the United States. Similarly, it’s important to point out that it was Democratic presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have spearheaded reform efforts to increase equality and opportunity for women – efforts that were vehemently opposed by Republicans in Congress. From Social Security and Medicare to civil rights and the Affordable Care Act, Democrats have been at the forefront of improving the lives of women and all Americans.

Here are a few milestones:

  • 1935: Social Security relieved the burgeoning rate of poverty among the elderly. Social Security is especially important to the quality of life of women who have longer life spans, earn less than men, and are the primary caregivers of the disabled who depend on social security.
  • 1944: World War ll expanded opportunities for women to join the work force and armed services. Today, nearly 1.5 million women serve, representing 14.6 percent of our armed forces.
  • 1960: FDA approved the use of birth control pills. For the first time, women were able to plan their pregnancies. This allowed more women to balance their education, careers, and families. In essence, it gave women control of their lives.
  • 1964: Civil rights laws delivered equal employment rights for women and anti-discrimination laws like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act that made it illegal to fire a woman due to pregnancy. Today, out of all American mothers, 70 percent of them are in the workforce. According to the Pew Research Center, America’s working mothers are now the primary breadwinners in a record 40 percent of households with children.
  • 1965: The Voting Rights Act guaranteed the right to women of color. Although women could technically vote after 1920, it took another 45 years for many minority women to get the same right.
  • 1972: Congress passed Title lX to remove restrictive admissions quotas for women to attend publicly funded colleges and universities. Today, three women graduate from college for every two men and the gap is growing.
  • 1974: The Equal Credit Opportunity Act eliminated discriminatory practices that prohibited women from having credit cards or taking out loans. Despite this law, women still face greater challenges than men when it comes taking out loans to start businesses, buy homes, and other major purchases.
  • 1992: President Clinton appointed the most diverse Cabinet in history. Women made up 44 percent of Clinton Administration appointees, including the first woman to serve as Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, and the first to serve as Attorney General, Janet Reno. President Clinton appointed three times as many female judges as the two previous administrations.
  • 2008: Passage of the Affordable Care Act ended discriminatory practices of insurance companies of charging women more than men and refusing insurance to women of childbearing age on the grounds that their potential to bear children was a  “pre-existing condition.”

So, all this sounds good — and it is. Or, it would be if only women weren’t still fighting many of these same battles.

Ninety-five years after women were guaranteed the right to vote, women are voting in greater numbers than men, but men still hold 80 percent of federal offices and the vast majority of other elected offices. These majorities continue to give them control of the political agendas that too often fail to address inequities that continue to affect the lives of women, and society as a whole.

While women in the United States certainly enjoy many privileges and freedoms that others envy, we still have a long way to go.

The United States is currently ranked 75th in the world in proportional representation of women in federal office. Having a critical mass of elected woman in office is necessary to assure that all issues are addressed from diverse points of view and that debates represent the interests of all Americans.

Studies have shown, that whether it’s in the boardroom, state houses, courtrooms or the halls of Congress, outcomes are more equitable and prosperous when men and women are policy-making positions together.

A 2011 Harris School study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that women ranked as the most effective lawmakers in the land. The research was the first to compare the performance of male and female politicians nationally, and found that female members of the House exceeded their male counterparts in both garnering funding for their districts as well as shaping policy.

If electing more women to office is one way of achieving gender parity and effective policies, closing the gender gap in pay is the fastest way to cut poverty in America in half and increase prosperity.

The average pay among women who work full-time, year-round is 78 percent of what white men are paid. However, the gap for women of color and women living in different geographic areas is considerably larger. Hispanic women’s salaries show the largest gap, at 54 percent. Black women’s salaries stand at 64 percent. Regardless of age, education or profession, women are consistently paid less than men.

Every step of the way, Democrats have taken the lead in electing women to office and supporting legislation to promote equality, opportunity and prosperity for women.  It’s a never-ending battle, but one well worth fighting.

Certainly, there are more frontiers to conquer on the front lines of the battle for women’ s equality, but right now, I have to find some time to save the world. I wouldn’t want to disappoint the Dalai Lama.

Francine Busby
Chair, San Diego County Democratic Party

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