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The Women's Atlas of the United States by Anne Gibson and Timothy Fast (Facts On File: $35; 248 pp.)

March 01, 1987|Laurien Alexandre | Alexandre is instructor in media studies at Cal State Northridge

Despite the sunshine, spas and beach-bunny image of advertising fame, California's women certainly do not have it made. The state is ranked as one of the highest in reported rapes and has one of the lowest records in rape arrests. More women (relative to male residents) live here, and California has one of the highest national concentrations of single females (with Utah being one of the lowest). That, in and of itself, wouldn't be bad, except that supporting that independent status--be it single, widowed or divorced--is quite a problem. Although ranking second to the highest (next to Alaska), the median earning of California women employed full time in 1980 was $14,000, and that was far above the rest of the country. In some states, more than one-third of all female householders and their families live below the poverty level. In terms of our health, California's women have the lowest percentage of obesity, but our state ranks as one of the highest in breast and vaginal cancer. And, in terms of politics, although California has the most women mayors of the country (23), it has a low rate of women running for state office and a low percentage of women elected to the state Legislature.

These are just some of the facts offered by "The Women's Atlas of the United States," a new compilation of more than 145 maps and brief historical essays that explore the status of women and illustrate the relationship between the sexes in the United States. In the words of the authors, "We hope not only to stimulate your interest, but also to shock and surprise you." And shock they do! The oversize atlas examines women's participation in various social systems that affect their lives--education, employment, family, health, crime and politics. And, based mostly on 1980 census data, the patterns are alarming.

In broadest terms, the relationships between men and women continue to be unequal, and the changes that have come have done so unevenly within states and between regions. In 45 states, women outnumber men, yet, nationwide, women earn less than men; they are more likely to live in poverty; they are less likely to have a voice in politics, and they are more likely to be the victims of family violence and rape. Yet, it is the differentials between states, and thus between women in different parts of the country, that are quite surprising.

An example will illustrate the atlas' value. In terms of health, more than 22 maps illustrate themes from women as health professionals to women as drug dependents. Medicine is, overall, a male-dominated enclave, with women making up only 11% of the physicians and 16% of the psychiatrists. Although limited in their participation as health-care professionals, women rank high as recipients. While suicide rates are much higher for men than women, the proportion of women in mental institutions was higher, particularly in the Eastern Seaboard. Although since Roe vs. Wade it is illegal for states to prohibit abortions during the first/second trimester, abortions are unequally available to all women in all states. Many states have prohibited the use of public monies for abortions. California, New York and Massachusetts offer the highest access to abortion services, whereas 40% of women from South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming getting abortions had to go out of state.

While the maps themselves are sometimes less than inspiring, the book as a whole is a welcome addition to the new outpouring of creative atlases exploring the status of women domestic, and worldwide.

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