We heard the state of America, here's the state of its women.
Gloria Steinem, publisher of the magazine Ms., holds a mock-up of that publication's January cover while standing in front of the White House, on Dec. 16, 1977. The issue rated President Carter's first year in office from a feminist perspective.(Photo: AP)
The U.S. government once asked women what they wanted. It was 1977, and the eyes of the nation turned to Houston as an estimated 20,000 people — Gloria Steinem and Coretta Scott King, Democrats and Republicans, lesbians and straight women, those who were born in America and some who were not — gathered for the only federally-funded women’s rights conference of its kind in U.S. history.
"We promise to accept nothing less than justice for every woman," Maya Angelou told the exuberant attendees in a poem she composed for the occasion.
The National Women’s Conference called for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would explicitly ban discrimination based on sex. The women asked for affordable childcare, equal pay for equal work and that the federal government fund abortions for women who could not afford the procedure. They stressed the importance of national healthcare. They called for an end to discriminatory rape laws. They demanded the nation stop deporting immigrant mothers of American-born children.
In 2017, the government didn't ask women what they wanted, but hundreds of thousands of them spoke up anyway. They poured into the nation's capital for the Women's March on Washington, flooding the streets to articulate many of the same demands as those women in Houston 40 years ago — and to insist that what rights had been granted remain protected. They called again for the Equal Rights Amendment to be included in the Constitution. They emphasized again the need for "affordable childcare," "equal pay" and "access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control." They said women have a right to live "free of all forms of violence against our bodies" and that "it is our moral duty to keep families together."
While the demands were echoes of 1977, the mood was different in 2017, tinged with trepidation over the election of President Trump, whose treatment of women raised eyebrows before and during the campaign, and led some Republicans to denounce him. Ultimately, enough voters decided they either did not believe the sexual assault accusations against Trump, or they did not care.
More than 9,000 people gather at the Shelby County Courthouse in Memphis as a sister march to the Women's March on Washington on Jan. 21, 2017. (Photo: Jim Weber, The Commercial Appeal, via the USA TODAY Network)
“The power of men to decide what the world is going to look like, what counts and what doesn't, hasn't really been terribly disrupted in a generation,” said feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw.
Women have made undeniable advances — from American boardrooms and courts of law, to universities and sports arenas — but disparities remain, especially in poor or rural areas and in communities of color.
Though feminism seems pervasive — democratized by the Internet and popularized (and commodified) by high-profile women such as Beyoncé and Ivanka Trump — women’s rights remain in flux depending on who's in power. Women's rights are expanding in some states — New York in 2016 enacted 12-weeks of paid family leave — and rolling back in others — Ohio recently banned abortions at 20 weeks, which violates the viability threshold set by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. Ohio's law does not include exceptions for rape or incest.
“There is a lot of work to be done before culture and policy can align toward progress,” said Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, a non-partisan advocacy group.
As Women’s History Month kicks off, here's a look at where a number of women’s issues stand:Health: From gains to wait-and-see
Acknowledging women's roles as primary caregivers, the 1977 conference named national health care as one of its federal priorities. In 2010, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, expanding coverage to millions of women, forbidding the denial of coverage based on gender and guaranteeing access to birth control, maternity care and breastfeeding supplies. The National Partnership for Women & Families called the ACA "the greatest advance for women’s health in a generation." Trump and Republicans in Congress vow to repeal and replace it.Sexual and domestic violence: Still too common
There is more awareness and condemnation of violence against women than ever before, yet statistics still paint a grim picture. One in 3 women have been a victim of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and one in six American women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. The Department of Justice reports that rates are even higher for transgender people and bisexual women.
It is unclear how the Trump administration will enforce existing federal legislation to protect survivors: During her confirmation hearing, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos avoided directly answering whether she will uphold Title IX's federal guidance instructing colleges to combat campus sexual assault, and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not support the most recent authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which he is responsible for enforcing.
"The point of feminism is you shouldn't have to be a man to be treated with equal respect," Crenshaw said. "You shouldn't have to be a man to be able to walk down the street without worrying about being sexually abused."
Anna Lise from New York takes part in the Women's March on Washington. (Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY Network)Paid family leave and childcare: Behind other countries
The United States is an outlier among developed countries when it comes to paid family and medical leave, which allows people time off to care for a newborn, help a sick family member or recover from a serious illness. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but according to the National Partnership for Women & Families fewer than 40% of workers qualify for it. Some employers offer paid family leave, but the group says it covers only 14% workers. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have implemented paid family leave laws and New York and the District of Columbia are in the process of enacting them.
In Trump's first address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, the president said: "My administration wants to work with members in both parties to make childcare accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents have paid family leave, to invest in women's health."
During the presidential campaign, Trump introduced a plan for paid maternity leave, championed by his daughter Ivanka, which proposed the federal government guarantee six weeks of paid maternity to some birth mothers. Democrats said only offering leave for mothers, not fathers, stresses the notion that raising children is women's work. Republicans expressed concern about costs and the burden on businesses.
Some studies, however, suggest leave policies are good for business, because they lead to happier employees and less turnover. Family leave also has significant positive effects on young children's health, fathers' involvement and breastfeeding rates, studies show.
The U.S. also does not offer universal pre-K, though research shows paying for early childhood development leads to lower rates of high school dropouts, criminal activity, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse and other health problems, all of which create a burden on society — and taxpayers.
"When you raise a law-abiding studious child you are producing economic value," Ann Crittenden, author of The Price of Motherhood, said in urging taxpayers to look at the long game.Abortion was legal then and now. But ...
Following the 2010 elections, more anti-abortion politicians seized power in state legislatures, leading to a proliferation of abortion restrictions across the country. State laws like Arkansas' 48-hour waiting period create significant hurdles for rural and poor women, advocates say. There are only three licensed abortion providers in Arkansas, according to the state's department of health. A limited number of clinics means a woman may have to travel long distances to access the procedure, and a waiting period means she incurs two days of transportation and lodging costs compounded by two days of missed wages, as well as two days of possible childcare (according to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly 60% of women obtaining an abortion are already mothers). Planned Parenthood says an in-clinic abortion can cost up to $1,500 in the first trimester.
The president and vice president are against abortion, and advocates of abortion rights view Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, as a threat.
“It's not a settled issue in the U.S.," said Carol Sanger, author of the forthcoming, About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in the 21st Century. With a few more appointments, she said, it is possible Roe v. Wade could be overturned.'Equal pay for equal work'
The wage gap is narrowing, but has barely budged in the last decade, according to the non-profit Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Overall, women earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families, with black women earning 63 cents and Latinas earning 54 cents. Critics argue these figures do not reflect factors such as occupation or experience. One can't, they say, compare the salary of a female teacher to that of a male lawyer. But economists say even when those controls are present, a wage gap persists. Female doctors, for example, are paid about $20,000 less a year than male doctors.
"The majority of the current earnings gap comes from within occupation differences in earnings, rather than from between occupation differences," Claudia Goldin, a Harvard University labor economist, wrote in a 2014 paper.
The Equal Pay Act forbids sex-based wage discrimination, but women's rights advocates say it's poorly enforced.
The wage gap is worse for women with children, who face a steep "mommy tax." Motherhood is tied to a 4% decrease in earnings per child, while fatherhood is tied to a 6% increase, according to a 2014 study by UMass Amherst sociology professor Michelle Budig, and the penalty for mothers is worse for low-income women who can least afford to pay it.
Women are also less likely to ask for high compensation and studies show they are penalized more than men for trying to negotiate.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway noted a time she struggled to define her worth during her career. Years ago, she said was asked her speaking fee for an event that would feature herself and a male speaker. "I froze because I knew no matter what I said in return to the question of 'what is your speaking fee, what are you worth, what is your value to do this,' no matter what I said I was going to undercut myself. I was going to be that self-denying girl who grew up in that house of all women, a giver not a taker ... It's not his fault if I undercut my value," Conway said. What she decided to do was to say: "I'll have what he's having," requesting the same rate as the male speaker.
Critics of equal pay interventions often frame the debate around women's personal choices, while equal pay advocates say it should focus on how the structure of American work does not align with the realities of American life. According to the Pew Research Center, women make up nearly half the workforce, and are breadwinners in 40% of households with children, yet they are more likely than men to make compromises when the needs of children and family members collide with work, which they say negatively impacts their careers.
"There are long-standing beliefs that there are separate worlds and responsibilities for women. Women are different and so they make these choices and some part of this inequality is simply the product of choices women make," Crenshaw said. "You can't blame all of the inequality women face on difference. It's not difference, it's a matter of power — who gets to decide what a worker is, who gets to decide what the implications of reproduction are, in whose vision is a worker basically somebody who has no childcare responsibilities?"Political representation: At this rate, women will reach parity in 100 years
The number of women in politics is increasing — sluggishly. Women are 51% of the population, but make up 19% of Congress and only a quarter of state legislatures. Women are on course to reach parity with men by 2117, according to IWPR. Research shows women have different legislative priorities than men, and are more likely to introduce bills addressing the needs of women and children. Jennifer Lawless, author of Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era, said the chief reason for unequal political participation is that women, perceiving bias, are less likely to run than men. When they do, she said, they are elected at the same rates.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., hosts a news conference about the Paycheck Fairness Act at the U.S. Capitol on May 23, 2012. First elected to national office in 1977, Mikulski is the longest-serving woman in the history of the U.S. Congress. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)
From a voter perspective, the IWPR said more women are turning out to the polls, but many states are passing measures that make it harder to vote, including reducing polling sites and enacting strict voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect vulnerable communities. Fewer polling places mean longer lines, a burden on less advantaged voters who tend to have less flexibility with work and childcare arrangements.
“My right to vote as an upper-class white woman with multiple college degrees is not in jeopardy," said Nancy Young, a political historian at the University of Houston, "but what about a working class African American woman or Hispanic woman?”Women are not a monolith
The 1977 women’s conference formed with bipartisan support, but in the decades since, women's issues have grown increasingly politicized. Marjorie Spruill, author of Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics, said a major factor was the rise of a potent conservative women’s movement, led by activist Phyllis Schlafly, which denounced the feminist agenda and successfully mobilized to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. The conference “made people really line up on extreme sides,” Spruill said. While feminists debated at the Houston Civic Center, conservatives held a dueling Pro-Life, Pro-Family Rally at the city's Astro Arena.
Phyllis Schlafly spearheads a nationwide campaign to stop the Equal Rights Ammendment in Jan. 1977. (Photo: AP)
In 2017, a conservative view of feminism acknowledges gender inequality, to varying degrees, but does not share progressives' ideas to combat it. Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the conservative Independent Women's Forum (Kellyanne Conway has a seat on the board), said addressing inequity is important, but top-down mandates may not be necessary or economical. She said the Republican party must rethink its approach to women's issues to attract new voters, but she rejects the Democratic narrative that she argues turn women into victims and ignores that some disparities are caused by the choices individual men and women make.
"Gender is not the whole story," Schaeffer said.
American women share common struggles, but differ greatly in their experiences, which is why "women's rights" remain so divisive and why its tent is so broad. Karla Holloway, a professor of English and Law at Duke University who focuses on African American cultural studies, said conversations that fixate on the achievements of Hillary Clinton come at the expense of mothers working minimum wage jobs to keep their families above the federal poverty line. As some women become more visible, others disappear.
"Women who are elevated are still vulnerable," she said. "Women who have been erased are drowning."
A mother, left, embraces her daughter during the Women's March on Washington. (Photo: Joshua Lott, AFP/Getty Images)
Alia Dastagir writes about media and culture for USA TODAY. You can follow her on Twitter @alia_e.