The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence begins: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”, a sentiment borrowed from philosophers such as Locke and Rousseau. The Constitution never mentions equality in the same way as does the Declaration, but the 14th Amendment mentions “…equal protection of the laws…”, a nod to the notion of legal equality.
So how are we doing with that equality thing? Women’s History Month ends today so I want to focus on gender equity since I’ve previously written about socioeconomic and ethnic issues.
In 1776, when America was fighting for independence from Britain, Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband John urging the members of the Continental Congress to “remember the ladies” while deliberating independence. The Congress instead chose to forget the ladies, a precedent often followed in the years since. The Constitution, written in 1787, did not mention gender but referred to “persons” and “citizens”, seemingly gender neutral terms but ones that in fact applied to men because of common law. Women were not given the right to vote in any elections until the 1860s when a few states began permitting them to vote in state elections. The 19th Amendment, passed in 1920, finally granted equal voting rights in all American elections. Interestingly, however, this amendment gave women the right to vote precisely fifty years after the 15th granted that right to former male slaves.
In this and other ways women have had to fight for every right gained. In the 1800’s the Supreme Court allowed states to interpret the term “citizens” to apply only to men, so women’s attempts to gain rights through the courts usually fell flat. Attempts to add an “equal rights amendment” to the Constitution beginning in the 1920s were also unsuccessful. Even in the 1960s the Supreme Court allowed states to eliminate women from juries, to prohibit women from serving or selling liquor, and to enforce other similarly discriminatory laws. And in 1967 the Boston Marathon attempted to keep a woman from running the race!
So that is all in the past. Correct?
- I’m sure you are familiar with statistics related to pay inequity. As of 2015 women were paid 80% of the average man’s salary. Hispanic women earned 54% and African-American women earned 63% of the average white male salary. As women age the pay gap increases steadily, and women earn less than men in almost every occupation category. The most optimistic projection is that the pay gap will not close until 2059, but numerous factors can impact that projection.
- A 2013 study found that girls around the world outperform boys in science at age 15…but not in the United States. It seems that American girls are more likely to be channeled into traditional women’s roles that focus less on science and math, and this places them at a disadvantage when choosing a career. Interestingly, the same phenomenon holds true for Canada and Britain but not most for Middle Eastern and Asian countries, and in Russia.
- Women hold 104/535 seats (19%) in the U.S. Congress. Although this has increased significantly in recent decades, this is still far below the 50.8% of Americans who are female. Oh…and of the thirty-four positions appointed by President Trump at this point…five are women. In case you are interested, 64% of the legislators in Rwanda are female.
- Only twenty-one CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (4%) are female. These numbers are obviously troubling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that 60% of college degrees and 60% of masters degrees are currently being earned by women, and a higher percentage of women hold college degrees than men.
- The United States is the only country among forty-one surveyed that does not guarantee paid maternity leave for mothers of newborns. In fact, The United States is one of only three countries in the world not providing that leave.
- More than 23 million American women have been raped. Almost half of those women were under the age of 18 when the assault occurred. By the way, until 1993 there were states that provided a “marital exemption” stating that husbands could not be charged for raping their wives.
- Other examples of unequal treatment of women are numerous. Some are subtle (name calling, other lingering stereotypical behavior and hidden sexism), and others more blatant (a boss demanding sexual favors).
- Interesting fact: In 1979 The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. To date 186 countries have ratified that convention. The seven that have not? Iran, Palau, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tonga and The United States.
These facts apply only to American women. Women across the planet face these and other more serious forms of discrimination and abuse. Approximately 59% of people forced into human labor or sex trafficking each year are women and 17% are girls. As many as 8,000 girls suffer genital mutilation each day to destroy their ability to enjoy sex as adults. In many countries women cannot sue for divorce, own property, or drive automobiles. Some young girls have either no or limited access to education.
Merriam-Webster defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes“. A feminist is one who accepts this theory. I’m a feminist and you should be as well.