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Feminism is not a feel-good issue

To advance women’€™s rights, we need legislative reform — with teeth

April 29, 2014 3:30AM ET

The United States has entered an age of complacency when it comes to women’s representation in public life.

Just look at the numbers. Women in 2004 held 25.7 percent of statewide executive elective offices and hold 22.6 percent of those offices today — a 3.1 point decline from 10 years ago. Women held 13.8 percent of U.S. congressional seats in 2004. Today they hold 18.5 percent — not much of a gain for an entire decade. In the corporate world, after decades of women’s leadership programs, virtually nothing has changed in the last five years. Women held only 16.9 percent of board seats and 14.6 percent of executive officer positions in 2013 — no significant change from the year prior. In 2012 and 2013, one-tenth of Fortune 500 companies had no women on their boards, and more than 25 percent of Fortune 500 companies had no female executive officers. Women of color held only 3.2 percent of Fortune 500 board seats in 2013, down from 3.3 percent in 2012.

“But wait,” you might be thinking. “Isn’t this the era of women’s rapid rise to cultural dominance and the end of men”?

That’s one willfully obtuse way of looking at it. In fact, the reverse is true: Women made great strides 40 to 50 years ago, at least in terms of public perception, if not actual power. Back then a commitment to large-scale social change was seen as admirable and pragmatic rather than delusional and naive: Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first major-party black candidate for president of the United States, introduced a bill in 1971 that would have set aside $10 billion worth of federal funds for child care. Had it gone into effect, it would have made it possible for all American women — not just a privileged few — to opt out of being their children’s sole or primary caretakers, as men have always been able to do. Thousands more women who wanted to become lawyers or doctors or hold public office could have. A weaker version of Chisholm’s bill, sponsored by a man, eventually passed the House and Senate — only to be vetoed by then-President Richard Nixon.

Imagine what this country would be like today if the kind of wide-ranging, transformative legislation, from the Equal Rights Amendment to universal child care, that Chisholm and others like her fought for in the 1960s and ’70s had come to pass. American women would have the same rights and privileges as men. We wouldn’t be begging for table scraps from powerful men; we’d have seats at the table.

Lack of representation

It’s not surprising that women are still paid less than men for the same work, given their lack of representation in the executive suite. Gender parity in compensation simply isn’t a top priority for the men who run 95.4 percent of Fortune 1000 companies in the United States — not because they’re all unrepentant sexists but because there’s no real financial incentive, like pressure from shareholders, to make it one.

Government initiatives have gone onlyso far. When John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law in 1963, women were earning an average of 59 cents on the dollar compared with men. Today they earn 81 cents on the dollar compared with men while holding nearly half of all jobs in the United States and bearing significant responsibility for their families’ incomes. The pay gap is considerably wider for black women and Latinas. The Equal Pay Act helped, but the most persistent underlying causes of the pay gap were never addressed. Many employers still bar workers from discussing compensation, so women don’t know when they’re being underpaid. Pay disparities are impossible to address legislatively when they’re the result of women’s being underestimated because of unconscious bias.

Much has been written of late about how the pay gap isn’t as bad as feminists claim it is — or doesn’t exist at all. I wonder how many op-eds would be devoted to debunking the “myth” of the pay gap if women’s views were taken as seriously as men’s: A 2013 survey found that out of 143 opinion columnists writing in major media outlets, only 38 were women, and women made up just 15 percent of attendees at the influential 2014 World Economic Forum — down from 17 percent the previous year. 

Regardless of whether the predominantly male punditocracy admits it, much of the gender pay gap is due to outright discrimination, particularly in the private sector. (The rest is due to women’s “choices” — that is, the deeply rooted cultural assumption that women will and should structure their work lives around providing free child and elder care.) In 2012 the largest private employer in the United States, Walmart, faced Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges from 2,000 women in 48 states that the company systematically underpaid and underpromoted them. A major class action based on similar allegations was dismissed by the Supreme Court in 2011 on technical grounds.

Antonin Scalia declared in 2011 that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. And the sad thing is that technically, he’s right.

Why has women’s progress stalled, despite the fact that women have been enrolling in college in greater numbers than men since the early 1980s? Part of the problem is that so many persist in clinging to the delusional notion that women have won — when in fact there hasn’t been a decisive nationwide legal victory for American women, aside from suffrage, that hasn’t subsequently been rolled back or reversed. Women today need what they’ve always needed: equal pay, equal opportunities to advance, equal parenting and help at home. But most of the proposed remedies were either rejected decades ago or enacted in weakened forms and neglected.

Thirty-six years after the Pregnancy Discrimination Act went into effect, women are still forced out of jobs for being pregnant. Forty years after feminists first suggested it, Americans do not have universal federally subsidized child care. Forty-one years after Roe v. Wade, 87 percent of U.S. counties have no identifiable abortion provider. A half-century after the Equal Pay Act was signed into law, women’s wages have not caught up with men’s. And 92 years after it was written, the Equal Rights Amendment is still stuck in limbo.

Recent legislation falls short too. Barack Obama’s vastly overpraised Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act merely buys women more time to file a lawsuit — if they're “lucky” enough to find out that they’re being discriminated against in the first place. This April, Senate Republicans again blocked a vote on the far more substantive Paycheck Fairness Act, which would, among other things, require employers to make wage data public and show that pay disparities between men and women in comparable jobs are not due to sex.

American women remain second-class citizens under the law. The 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, the basis for the paltry legal protections American women do enjoy, does not explicitly forbid sex discrimination. The best solution would be to pass the ERA, which was effectively murdered by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly over 30 years ago. Women never got the ERA. Women never got universal child care. Women never got free abortions on demand — and now we’re going backward on access to abortion. All women got were a handful of toothless half-measures parceled out grudgingly over the last half-century — and a lot of tired rhetoric about how far we’ve come. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia declared in 2011 that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. And the sad thing is that, technically, he’s right.

Wages for housework

Contrary to the popular and enduring myth that feminists are hostile to stay-at-home mothers, it was feminists who advocated in the 1960s and ’70s for government subsidies for housework, meal preparation, child care and elder care — all the jobs most women do for free whether or not they also work outside the home. The value of this labor is, in one sense, incalculable. How many great men have been supported by female caretakers? In another sense, it’s easy to calculate. We know the going rate for housekeepers, cleaning staff, chauffeurs, nannies and home health care workers. (Hint: It’s low, because most of these jobs are performed by women.)

Ever resistant to effective legislation, America has pioneered an alternative remedy for centuries of systematic discrimination against women: self-help. Amanda Hess’ terrific Slate piece about the recent spate of books purporting to teach wealthy, successful women how to maximize their success does an excellent job of explaining what’s wrong with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” approach. The authors of these books touch on broader structural problems, but their basic message is, “Get confident, stupid.” Women have been leaning in — at school, at home and at work — for decades, and it’s getting us nowhere. We can’t correct embedded inequities merely by adjusting our attitudes — and we shouldn’t have to.

The problem isn’t — as we’ve heard ad nauseam — that feminism failed or that it makes women angry and sad. The problem is that our society failed to enact a meaningful feminist agenda. And if we don’t recapture a sense of urgency about these issues, American women will remain second-class citizens for decades to come.

Women won’t achieve equality until we ratify the long-overdue ERA, enact substantive pay equity and anti-sexual-violence legislation and regulate the private sector more stringently — for example, by requiring gender quotas on corporate boards, which have been successful in many European countries and dismissed out of hand by entrenched corporate interests in the United States. A profound shift in men’s attitudes and behavior, especially when it comes to housework and child care, is also imperative. But legislative and structural reforms can help pave the way. Woman cannot thrive on self-help books or male charity alone; we need universal child care and paid family leave. And we can’t afford to wait any longer.

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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