On International Women’s Day and throughout Women’s History Month, it’s worth considering and reflecting on the triumph and tragedy of our current state of affairs. As we celebrate the many achievements of women who have broken through to lead and succeed in extraordinary ways, we should also reflect on how far we are from gender parity and commit to doing what it takes to become a more gender equal nation.
There are many successes worth celebrating this year. Top among them is the ascension of America’s first woman vice president ― a historic and powerful representation of how far women have come 100 years after we first won the right to vote. Also in the win category is the record number of women CEOs in the Fortune 500, now more than 8 percent, including more women of color than ever before. And in science, women have been instrumental in developing Covid-19 vaccines and helped NASA land a rover on Mars. And in the sports world, women are breaking new ground as coaches and leaders, including Kim Ng being named the new general manager of the Miami Marlins to Katie Sowers becoming the first female coach to make it to the Super Bowl in 2020 and more.
Despite all the success, however, we are still far from achieving true equity. As much as women are succeeding, they are struggling.
Even before the pandemic there were serious issues facing women. Women were already disproportionately in poverty, more likely to toil in low wage jobs and struggling through an ongoing childcare crisis that was pushing them out of the workforce.
The 2019 Global Gender Gap report ranked the United States 53rd in the world for gender equity (behind Bangladesh, South Africa and Mexico among others). Now, in 2021 the picture is even bleaker. As the Covid-19 crisis drags on, women across American economic and social strata are being crushed and pushed to the brink
How is it possible that the U.S. is behind so many other nations in achieving equity?
For generations, the concerns of American women have been ignored in the public policy and priority making arenas. Beginning in the 1970s, as the feminist movement surged and women began entering the labor force in larger and larger numbers, there were mass calls for investment in social and policy infrastructure to support them, which were never completely heeded.
At the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, women called for a federal response to the multitude of issues women faced, principally among them passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, federal childcare investments, addressing gender-based violence and workplace harassment, healthcare equity and a cabinet level secretary for gender equity. Because the agenda also included calls for abortion access and LGBTQ rights, everything associated with these initiatives was attacked, undermined and swept aside by the increasingly powerful Christian right, culminating in the election of Ronald Regan in 1980 and the defeat of the ERA in 1982. During that same period, much of Europe was passing sweeping progressive legislation to support women’s equality and establishing the social structures to enable women to work and thrive.
There’s also the decades-long fight over paid family leave. The U.S. remains the only industrialized nation not to guarantee paid family leave. Under President Clinton, the passage of the Family Medical Leave Act in 1993 inched forward by offering protected job leave but no guarantee of pay. The result, for more than 30 years, paid leave for the birth of a child or to care for a sick family member has been a privilege of the rich. Only 19 percent of Americans have paid leave associated with their job. Asking women to choose between going to work within days of giving birth and feeding their family is inhumane. In the pandemic, emergency paid family leave was passed for the first time on a national level as part of the last pandemic relief bill and then it promptly expired at year end. If the new $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package passes, it will reinstate national paid leave. Finally. Every previous administration and Congress had a chance to do this and failed.
So how do we force women’s issues to be more central to our national priorities and make progress to being a more gender equal nation? The answer is through political power. Women have been the majority of the electorate since 1980 and have outvoted men in every election since but between elections. But they have been less likely to rally around critical issues or to use collective action to force elected officials to take their concerns seriously.
The last four years were a wakeup call for many –evidenced by the mass turnout at the Women’s March in 2017, the surge of female political activism since, the election of new record numbers of women in public office of course, the victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in 2020. Now it’s time to ensure the issues and concerns holding women back remain a high priority for those in power.
The Biden administration has made equity a center piece of their policy making, establishing a new Gender Policy Council and using executive orders to compel the whole of Government to prioritize equity in everything. And he absolutely deserves credit for putting more women in his cabinet and in leadership roles than any previous administration. It’s a start.
On International Women’s Day and every day, we must work to create a society where the contributions, struggles, experiences and lives of women are valued. It’s time to start responding in real and urgent ways to the needs of 51 percent. We cannot afford another 30 years of inching along. It’s years past the time for action.
Lauren Leader is co-founder and CEO of All In Together, a non-partisan, not-for-profit women’s civic education organization. All views expressed here are solely her own. She tweets at @LaurenLeaderAIT