As we enter the 21st century, the status of women is unrecognizable, certainly compared to a century ago, but even to what it was 20-30 years ago.
Globalization has profoundly affected women. New millions are employed in factories around the globe. And globalization’s impact on those most responsible for childrearing — for reproducing the next generation of workers — extends far beyond the workplace. Control of water, food production, pollution and markets: these are women’s equality issues, too.
The struggle for women’s political and social rights is being waged in new ways and new places, and against new threats from religious fundamentalists and the extreme right.
In the United States, the past 25 years of right-wing political ascendancy has had a huge impact in every arena of life. But it is clear that women have been in the bull’s-eye of the far right’s agenda, both politically and ideologically.
Make no mistake: the goal of the extreme right is to dismantle the political, economic and social gains that women have earned through decades of struggle. And it is clear that women’s previous political, cultural and social gains have slipped under right-wing rule.
True reproductive rights
An obvious case in point is the full court press to criminalize and outlaw abortion. While this is by no means the only reproductive rights issue, it has certainly been the focus of the extreme right.
Reproductive rights — the right of women to decide for themselves about childbearing — have been under a stepped-up attack by the Bush administration and the radical right. This basic human right, this fundamental right of choice, was won through years of struggle. It is currently being repealed, piecemeal, by presidential order and by anti-choice majorities in Congress and many state legislatures.
The recent action by South Dakota’s Legislature and its right-wing governor, banning and criminalizing all abortions except those necessary to save the life of the woman, is a case in point.
For the right wing, biology is destiny: women, because they become pregnant and bear children, are “naturally” subordinated to men. As a consequence, such people reason, women’s educational, civic, vocational and social aspirations are secondary to men’s.
Such ideas have had considerable influence. It is remarkable, for example, that in 2004 the head of Harvard University felt free to opine that women’s brains aren’t suited to science. That opinion, we are happy to report, ultimately cost him his job. But it was offered in all seriousness.
The social subordination of women has led to a distortion of the right to self-determination for half the human species, and of society itself.
Without the achievement of social, political and economic security, true equality for women will never be attained. And reproductive rights are a precondition for women’s full participation in social and economic life.
True reproductive rights represent a whole spectrum of health, justice and economic issues. Among these are access to quality and competent abortion services, the availability of safe, effective and affordable contraception, an end to sterilization abuse, access to quality health care and child care, adequate housing, a livable wage, adequate and compensated maternity/paternity leave and the legally protected right to shorter working hours for parents without a loss of pay.
True reproductive rights also include the right of a woman to freely express her sexual orientation.
What is the ‘right to choose’?
It is the right of any woman, regardless of income, marital status, class, social or economic status, belief system or sexual orientation, to choose when or if she will bear children. The right to choose also codifies, in law, her right to access contraception and abortion as tools in managing that choice.
The right to choose assumes that women are moral, intelligent and fully human and are, therefore, free to exercise that choice. It is an expression of the ethical principle of autonomy, as in the right to make decisions about one’s own life and body.
The most well known right-wing attacks have been leveled, since 1973, against Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that freed a woman to decide, in private consultation with her physician and family, whether to maintain a pregnancy or terminate it. Because poll after poll clearly indicates that a majority of people in the U.S. support a woman’s right to choose, the “right-to-life” (or mandatory pregnancy) movement gave up on its frontal legislative assault aimed at an outright nationwide ban on abortion.
In response, the religious and political right wing developed more devious, and sometimes more menacing, tactics. The more obvious ones include terrorist attacks on abortion clinics, physicians, patients and staff.
Other tactics include erecting legislative barriers, such as parental consent forms, onerous waiting periods and mandated unnecessary and inflammatory “education programs” for pregnant women seeking abortions. These programs typically belittle the intelligence and needs of pregnant women and their families.
Even more disturbing is the legislation passed by Louisiana that bans abortion under any circumstances, including the possibility of the death of the woman. The life of a pregnant woman apparently has no meaning other than as an incubator for a fetus.
Within the past year, legislators in many states have passed bills that stiffened parental consent requirements (in Arizona, for example, by requiring a notarized signature — a requirement that would eliminate any idea of privacy), required doctors to provide non-scientific information to women (such as a spurious link between abortion and breast cancer), and “protected the moral rights” of pharmacists while denying the same rights to women.
Women, apparently, are also too dim to understand or use contraception appropriately. The religious flavor in the Bush administration’s health budgets, which give more and more funds for “abstinence” education rather than scientifically developed family planning, sex education and contraception, highlights the control that the fundamentalist right has on this administration.
Consider the campaign by religious fundamentalists and right-wing lawmakers to restrict access to contraception. It is clearly presumes that women are not full human beings with the right to control all aspects of their lives, including their reproduction.
Death by a thousand cuts
We need to speak of the death by a thousand cuts suffered by women’s rights in everything from attacks on Title IX of the Civil Rights Act (which was responsible for a cultural revolution by opening the doors of athletics to millions of girls, thereby developing role models for girls and women in the persons of athletes such as Mia Hamm and Cheryl Miller), to destruction of affirmative action, to cuts in funding for social programs that primarily served women and families, for example, WIC and SCHIP.
The struggle for universal health care is also a women’s equality issue. Working women have less access to health care benefits for themselves and their children than do working men.
We have witnessed, too, how critical medications have been only tested on men, leaving women at risk of serious injury or death because of differences in metabolism and hormones.
We have seen drive-by mastectomies forced on unwilling cancer victims. We have witnessed the closure of labor and delivery services in inner city and rural areas, endangering the lives of both women and their babies, because such services are not lucrative enough for profit-hungry hospitals.
The fact that infant and maternal mortality in the U.S. is well above other industrialized nations is a national shame; that the infant and maternal mortality in this country’s communities of color is so high is a crime.
Equal Pay Day was observed on April 25. Equal Pay Day reminds us that the 60 million working women in this country are suffering economically because equal pay is still not a reality.
Women have made some gains in corporate board memberships: they are now an underwhelming 13.6 percent, up from 9.5 percent in 1995. And, no doubt because women get tired of fighting the “men and good ol’ boys first” mentality at most companies, new business start-ups by women are at an all-time high.
But these successes for a relatively few women pale in comparison to the outrageous pay inequity that exists for a majority of their sisters in the everyday workforce. The National Committee on Pay Equity reminds us that even though the Equal Pay Act was passed more than 40 years ago, women working full time, year round, still make only 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes.
It’s even worse if your skin happens to be black or brown. Black women get 71 cents and Latinas only 59 cents for every dollar a man makes. Asian Pacific women on aggregate earn 86 cents.
The average 23-cent gap adds up over a work life to a very unequal bank account, with the gap totaling more than $300,000 for the average woman’s career. This can mean the difference between owning or renting a home, sending your kids to college or to work at Wal-Mart, and having a decent retirement or living under a bridge in old age. Nationwide, working families lose $200 billion in income annually because of the pay gap.
Right-wingers continue to claim there really is no pay gap. They say the shortfall is due to “choices” women make.
Do women just naturally like the jobs with lower pay or less risk? Tell that to the women cleaning toilets or caring for patients in hospitals every day. And those who refuse to believe there’s a pay gap ignore reality: In every field, from law and medicine to teaching or clerking at department stores, the women make less for doing exactly the same work as the men.
It’s discrimination, not motherhood
Another argument is that motherhood — not sex discrimination — is the real culprit. If that’s so, we all need to take a hard look at why the workplace punishes women for being mothers, but fatherhood carries no economic risk at all. But shortchanging women means shortchanging men and children as well.
Women workers are more likely to have part-time jobs, and more likely to work for minimum wage with no pension or health benefits.
The Fair Pay Act, a bill to level the paying field, has been a perennial on Capitol Hill since 1996. The FPA would outlaw discrimination in pay for jobs that are equal in skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions, even if the actual work is dissimilar. Perhaps more important, the bill would require employers to release summary statistics on what they pay women and men, so workers would know where they stood in the workforce.
We must also look at why too many states provide no protection for working mothers in hiring and pay. It is legal in many states to pay working mothers less than other women doing the same work.
Equal pay committees, particularly in areas that have chapters of the Coalition of Labor Women or the National Organization for Women, organize events to call attention to pay inequity and fight to close the gap.
These and other women’s rights organizations are also focusing on the congressional elections this November. Women’s organizations, including NOW, are focused on changing the balance of forces in the national political picture away from the Republican far right.
Women of all classes, races and nationalities have a big stake in this November’s elections. From judicial appointments to ending war, women have a material stake in shifting Congress.
In this midterm election year, we can expect a big surge in women’s participation in the struggle to turn our country around.
Carolyn Trowbridge is a peace and health activist and heads up the Communist Party’s Women’s Equality Commission.
Operation Save America is targeting the Jackson, Miss., Women’s Health Organization, the last remaining clinic in the state to offer the option of pregnancy termination, to make Mississippi “the first ‘abortion-free’ state in America.” Above, Kim Gandy, president of NOW, speaks at a July 15 rally for abortion rights in Jackson. Gandy said Mississippi is a battleground for preserving women’s reproductive rights. If the state’s only abortion clinic is closed, Gandy said, “it’s going to have a devastating impact on the women who live here and don’t have other options that they can exercise.” The pro-choice rally was evacuated when police received a bomb threat.