Feminism enjoyed renewed popularity in 2014 in part because American women noticed just how far they haven’t come. For the last couple of months, near weekly allegations of rape and sexual abuse have tarnished millionaire comedian Bill Cosby’s image. Although 20 women and counting have come forward, Cosby has not been and likely won’t be charged by prosecutors with sex crimes. His accusers, on the other hand, have been denounced as money-grubbing liars, nuts and whores. CNN’s Don Lemon did his part to discredit Cosby’s accusers by asking one alleged victim, on the air, why she didn’t use her teeth to prevent Cosby from forcing her to perform oral sex.
More abortion-related restrictions were enacted at the state level in the last three years than in the previous decade. Half of U.S. states now severely restrict abortion coverage in the new insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act, and nine prohibit even private insurers from covering most abortions.
In July, Americans learned from the NFL’s pitiful response to former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice’s videotaped attack on his now wife just how little that major American business cares about women as human beings. (The NFL loves women as consumers.) In June the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that barred protesters from aggressively targeting and lying to patients as they enter abortion clinics.
In April and September, Senate Republicans blocked votes on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a more comprehensive version of President Barack Obama’s vastly overpraised Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Fifty years after the Equal Pay Act was signed into law, it is well documented that American women are paid less than men for the same work. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler gave President Obama “two Pinocchios” for claiming in a speech this April that the average woman makes 77 cents for every dollar a man makes — a gap of 23 cents. The president was referring to a Census Bureau statistic comparing women’s earnings to men’s. His critics countered with numbers from the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Pew Research Center, arguing that the gap was smaller, 16 to 19 cents. While quibbling over the exact figure abounds, few deny that a gender-based pay gap still exists.
And in February, Bene’t Holmes, a 25-year-old single mother and Walmart employee who was then four months pregnant, asked her manager to honor a doctor’s recommendation that she be put on light duty. Her request was denied, and the next day she had a miscarriage at work. Thirty-three Senators and 142 Representatives, all Democrats, have signed onto the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which could have helped Holmes — but the bill’s lack of Republican support virtually guarantees it will suffer the same fate as the going-nowhere Paycheck Fairness Act.
This year’s news has been demoralizing for American women. If we want 2015 to be any different, maybe instead of drawing up the same old New Year’s resolutions, we should start by imagining a different America altogether. What would this country look like if we insisted on everything feminists ever demanded or dreamed of?
Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, introduced a bill in 1971 that would have set aside $10 billion (in today’s dollars) worth of federal funds for child care. A weaker version of Chisholm’s bill eventually passed the House and Senate — only to be vetoed by then-President Richard Nixon.
‘If I could choose an amendment to add to the Constitution, it would be the Equal Rights Amendment.’
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court justice
But what if Chisholm’s revolutionary bill, which came so close to becoming law, had gone into effect? What if we empowered women to make choices about their own bodies, to bear children only if and when they want to and to care for those children once they exist? What if we insisted on electing representatives who, like Chisholm, dream big instead of pride themselves on toothless half-measures?
One-quarter of U.S. households are headed by single mothers, and as of 2013, 41.5 percent of single-mother-headed households were living in poverty. Had Nixon enacted Chisholm’s child-care bill, there would be far fewer poor children today. Raising healthy, cared-for children would be a societal endeavor, not a personal problem. It would be possible for every American woman, not just a privileged few, to opt out of being her children’s sole or primary caretaker and focus on her career, as men have always been able to do. It would be possible for thousands of women who dreamed of becoming doctors or engineers or bus drivers or starting businesses or running for office — only to be discouraged by the expectation that they spend their nonworking hours caring for children — to fulfill their professional ambitions. They could pursue long-term goals, such as finishing a college degree rather than be trapped in place by short-term pressures. They could make decisions about career, housing and relationships freely, not out of economic need.
Imagine a country in which women were able to achieve personal financial security with or without a male partner; women who had children also had access to high-quality, low-cost, around-the-clock child care; and employers had to treat women, even pregnant ones, like human beings.
Women might now have equal representation in law firms, state governments and corporations. There might be 50 women in the Senate instead of 20. Women might even be involved in writing laws and setting policies that apply directly to them. At the very least, far fewer of them would be desperate, demoralized or just scraping by.
Equal Rights Amendment
As recently as 2011, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia antagonized liberals by declaring that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. Whether or not you admire Scalia, it’s entirely true that the Constitution does not explicitly guarantee women’s equality. The Equal Rights Amendment, the first version of which was written by the suffragist Alice Paul in 1922, passed the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and was sent to the states for ratification in March 1972, where it immediately gained 22 of the requisite 38 state ratifications. But after 1972, the pace of ratification slowed considerably. In 1977, Indiana became the 35th and, to date, the last state to ratify, leaving the ERA three states short. Ninety-two years after it was written, the ERA remains in limbo.
“If I could choose an amendment to add to the Constitution, it would be the Equal Rights Amendment,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told an audience at the National Press Club in April. “I think we have achieved [a great deal] through legislation, but legislation can be repealed. It can be altered … I would like my granddaughters, when they pick up the Constitution, to see that notion — that women and men are persons of equal stature — I’d like them to see that is a basic principle of our society.”
Nearly a century after women won the right to vote, full legal equality should be a basic principle of American society, not a still distant dream. It’s time for us to fulfill Paul’s vision.
Patriarchy can be over in 2015, if we want it.