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Beyond suffrage: How far have women come since?

American women won the right to vote in 1920. But how far have we come since on other issues important to women?

August 26, 2011|By Eve Weinbaum and Rachel Roth

Today we celebrate the anniversary of female suffrage, a victory that took more than 70 years of political struggle to achieve. After women won the right to vote in 1920, socialist feminist Crystal Eastman observed that suffrage was an important first step but that what women really wanted was freedom. In an essay titled "Now We Can Begin," she laid out a plan toward this goal that is still relevant today.

Eastman outlined a four-point program: economic independence for women (including freedom to choose an occupation and equal pay), gender equality at home (raising "feminist sons" to share the responsibilities of family life), "voluntary motherhood" (reproductive freedom) and "motherhood endowment," or financial support for child-rearing and homemaking.

Since the 1920s, women have won many rights and opportunities in areas as diverse as higher education, professional sports and, in six states, same-sex marriage. But on the core priorities that Eastman identified, how far have we come?

Eastman optimistically called equality in the workplace "the easiest part of our program," noting that "the ground is already broken" on women's participation in various professions, trades and unions. One of the chief barriers was "inequality in pay," a problem that has proved remarkably enduring.

Women on average still make only 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts, according to the National Women's Law Center. This pay disparity is worst for women of color, who earn only 61 cents if they are African American and 52 cents if they are Latina. This pattern has been remarkably constant.

Women's lower earnings are related to gender segmentation in the workplace that relegates women to the lower rungs of the economic ladder. At Wal-Mart, for example — the nation's biggest employer — women make up about 70% of hourly workers but only about 30% of managers. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the retailer's female employees could not join together in a class-action lawsuit, making it nearly impossible for them to challenge patterns of discrimination.

Although women now outnumber men on college campuses, the upper echelons of most professions and political bodies remain male-dominated. Just look at Congress: Only 17% of its members are women. Between 1923 and 2011, only 28 women have chaired congressional committees, and only 45 women of color have ever served in Congress — just one in the Senate. The new congressional "super-committee" of 12 legislators charged with reducing the federal deficit has one white woman and not a single woman of color.

On the home front, gender norms have changed significantly since 1920, but women still do the lion's share of child care, elder care and household planning. And child-rearing is still regarded as a private matter rather than a contribution to society. Although a recent Time magazine cover story suggested an end to "chore wars," its own data showed that married women with children still do more work at home than their husbands, and full-time employed moms with children under age 6 spend more hours on household chores than any other group.

Given women's disproportionate responsibility for child-rearing amid lesser economic opportunities, the ability to plan whether and when to have children is critically important. As Eastman said: "Freedom of any kind is hardly worth considering unless it is assumed that [women] will know how to control the size of their families."

This was a tall order in 1920, when it was a crime simply to disseminate information about contraception. Fertility control is now legal, but women's reproductive freedom is under intense attack. The 2011 legislative session saw a record number of anti-choice bills introduced — and passed into law. In just six months, state legislatures passed 80 laws to restrict access to abortion.

State legislatures also have made deep cuts to family planning budgets, which has the perverse result of increasing unintended pregnancies. The Hyde Amendment bans federal Medicaid coverage of abortion, and only 15 states pay for abortion care with their own revenue. This means that low-income women in most of the country can have an abortion only if they can afford to pay for it out of pocket, making the right to abortion an empty promise for millions of women.

When it comes to support for child-rearing, the United States is the only major industrialized nation without a national policy guaranteeing paid parental leave. While a few states and cities have taken the initiative to implement their own policies, the vast majority of mothers (and fathers) have no right to paid time off to care for a newborn baby. Many workers do not even have a right to take unpaid leave, because the federal Family and Medical Leave Act applies only to relatively long-term workers in workplaces with 50 or more employees, leaving out small businesses, new employees and workers who have put in fewer than 1,250 hours at that job.

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