The July 4th weekend is over, and I am still reflecting on where women are in the political and cultural landscape of America. Abigail Adams didn’t get to sign the Declaration of Independence, Betsy Ross sewed the flag, and how many people even know who Deborah Samson Gannett was?
In late June, I attended a panel discussion hosted by the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. The topic was “the status of women in society, and the policies needed to close the gender gap.” DMI defines itself as “a progressive policy institute dedicated to challenging the tired orthodoxies of both the right and the left.” Five women joined Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney to examine issues she has written about in her new book, Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Why Women’s Lives Aren’t Getting Any Easier – and How We can Make Real Progress for Ourselves and Our Daughters. A press release asked, “Women’s equality…why not now?” It gave statistics showing that in 2007, women were paid 77 cents for every dollar that men were paid. I was ready to hear about if women’s status with men in American society is equivalent, or just a myth.
Speaker of the New York City Council, Christine Quinn, delivered an opening statement crediting Maloney with shifting the power paradigm. Maloney got right into it by asking, “What would Congress look like if it were only 16% men?” Pointing out, “We live in a country where we still can’t pass the Equal Rights Amendment,” she highlighted that during eight years of George Bush there had been a “constant eroding of women’s rights.”
Moderator Andrea Batista, Executive Director of DMI, introduced former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder. With Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency still fresh in the collective consciousness, there was a particular irony in having present the woman who had thrown her hat into the ring for the oval office in 1988. Although Schroeder had ranked third in a Time magazine poll, for numerous reasons — including lack of funds — she ultimately withdrew. A Harvard Law School graduate who remained undefeated for 24 years, Schroeder described how in 1984 there were parts of the country where women were not elected to anything. “I was like this great traveling novelty act,” she related. “How can you be a Congresswoman and a mother?” people would inquire. Her standard line was, “I have a brain and a uterus, and they both work.” She was the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee. Schroeder told the story about how Ron Dellums, the first African America member, was appointed at around the same time she was. The chairman said, “That girl and that black are each worth about half. I’ll give them one chair.” Schroeder touched on the primary race and how “with Hillary it became a kill-the-witch thing.” She emphasized that people had to come forward to fight sexism and lamented, “We have not moved that far.”
Diana Salas, Associate Director of the Women of Color Policy Network, pointed to the fact that “women of color experience racism and sexism differently,” and referenced her work to end the invisibility of women of color. “My issue is immigration,” she said. “We need to hold candidates accountable, beyond the sound bites.” She acknowledged the “huge gap between women of color and white women.” Suggesting the need for a human rights commission, Salas said, “We can’t just be meeting in silos. A group of older white men should not be making decisions for all of us.”
Executive Vice-President of the National Organization for Women, Olga Vives, said, “We will not be equal without economic parity.” She spoke about Wal-Mart, the largest employer in the United States. “Why does Wal-Mart have lower prices?” she asked. (Paying women less than men is a good place to start.) “Our activism has not kept up to speed.” With a strong delivery, Vives stated, “We don’t want a McCain presidency. We need to sit down with Obama, and gain a place at his table.”
“Women have to push harder,” said Lisa Witter, COO of Fenton Communications. “I would love for Obama to give a seminal speech on women.” A co-founder of SheSource and the co-author of The She Spot: Why Women are the Market for Changing the World and How to Reach Them, she took a pro-active stance. “We have the opportunity to make ourselves more visible.” Underscoring the possibility for women to drive change, she articulated the concept of “the next frontier for women.”
Schlesinger directed the group’s attention to parsing if “focusing on choice” has been limiting. Vives identified that “abortion is neither safe nor equal for a lot of women.” Salas advocated reframing the issue by constructing a dialogue on it “through a reproductive justice network.” The topic of the 17 girls in Gloucester, Massachusetts — who allegedly made a “pregnancy pact” — came up. “What is that about?” asked Schroeder. “What has happened in the culture? I am totally perplexed.”
Maloney stood firm in her belief that economic support for women was tantamount. “The strongest indicator for being poor in old age is being a Mom” (known as the Mom Bomb). Witter said, “Society doesn’t support mothers.” Maloney wondered why in a nation where “family values” are touted, the United States ranked 168th in the world on paid family leave. In terms of representation, she insisted, “We need to have more women in the pipeline. Women’s issues are swept under the rug. Where is the discussion? We have great power, but we’re not using it. Let’s get some of these issues passed into law!”
Maloney was present at the Hillary Clinton rally in New Hampshire when a man held up a sign that said, “Iron my shirt.” Going forward, women – who make up more than half of the electorate – would do well to heed Maloney’s advice on self-empowerment. “If we don’t stand up and do it ourselves, it’s not going to happen.”