Asked to pinpoint the cutting edge of feminist progress in the country, most people probably would not mention the state of Washington. Nevertheless, women who live in the state of Washington are better protected by state law than women anywhere else in the United States.
Others in the top 10 states for women's legal rights are Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Michigan, Alaska, Maryland, New Jersey, Hawaii and Minnesota (tied for 10th place). California came in 14th, not only behind the above listed states plus Oregon and Iowa, but tied with North Carolina for the position.
This assessment is the result of a four-year survey of laws affecting women in the 50 states and the District of Columbia conducted by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. The survey has been published in a book, "The State by State Guide to Women's Legal Rights" (McGraw-Hill, $12.95).
"The way we think of the book--and Los Angeles is particularly aware of NOW celebrating its 20th anniversary--is that it stands as a record of the last 20 years of women's achievement in this country," said Marsha Levick, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The study examined state laws in 16 areas affecting women in the fields of home and family law, employment, education and community life. The indices used to rank the states were whether there is a state equal rights amendment, equal employment, pay and pay equity laws, and a state Title IX (pertaining to equality in education). Home and family criteria were whether there is state funding for abortion, child support legislation and protections for women in the areas of domestic violence, displaced homemakers, community property, joint custody and a uniform marital property act. The other laws studied were those offering protections for women in insurance, credit, public accommodations and housing.
States were given points in each area to determine their ranking, and the points indicate that no states are doing extremely well. Washington, ranked No. 1, received only 36 points out of a possible 64, and only four states received as many as half the possible points. California received 25 points. The nation's capital, Washington, D.C., ranked 28th with only 19 points.
The worst places to live for any woman concerned with equal rights under the law are Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, Alabama and South Carolina, all with 10 or fewer points. Others in the bottom dozen were Kansas, Arkansas, Arizona, Delaware, Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma.
"It (the book) can be viewed as a consumer's guide for women on how to use the legal system," Levick said, and it can also be viewed as a blueprint for change. "Learning what rights are and how to enforce them are prerequisites to ending discrimination," she said. "Action for change is certainly one of the by-products we hope for. We hope by educating women to encourage activism for better laws."
Also, Levick said, the results of the survey provide objective support for the failed federal equal rights amendment. "I think it (the book) is a testament to the equal rights amendment. Seven of the top 10 states had state ERAs. The presence of an equal rights amendment forces policy makers, judges, legislators to have a higher standard of equality for women. This is evidence of the difference that a federal ERA could make in this country."
"California stands fairly well. It has some good strengths," Levick said. "It's hanging in there on funding for abortion. (Only 15 states provide public funding for abortions for poor women.) It has one of the best equal education laws in the country. This is important since equal education law at the federal level was gutted by Grove City (the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision that narrowed the Title IX prohibition of sex discrimination in educational programs receiving federal funds; the court ruled that the anti-discrimination law applies only to those programs in a school that receive federal funds, not to the institution as a whole). The Supreme Court put equal education in an abysmal state," Levick said.
The majority of states don't have equal education laws. California's education law "to many is a model of what state legislation should look like," Levick said. It prohibits sex discrimination among students and employees and sexual harassment in all state educational institutions. And "California has always had one of the best civil rights laws," Levick said.