Remember the Ladies
Photo: Chris Schmidt
A by-product of the Second Wave of feminism was establishing women’s history—what some of us called “herstory”—as a discipline that needed to be studied. What were women’s roles in the United States and the world? In order to know what we could accomplish in the future, we needed to uncover the role models from our past. We’d all grown up hearing about the Founding Fathers, but what about the Founding Mothers? We needed women’s work to be recognized, and if men were not going to do it, we would have to do it ourselves.
In 1981, Congress passed a resolution establishing National Women’s History Week. It was in March, to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8. In 1987, Congress expanded the week to a month. For the past 22 years, Congress has issued a resolution for Women’s History Month.
The president also issues an annual proclamation about Women’s History Month. Last year’s proclamation by George W. Bush stated, “Women’s History Month provides our country the privilege of honoring the countless contributions that American women have made throughout our history.” Not very inspired.
Despite the token month in their honor, women have a long history of being ignored by their government. Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, the second president of the United States, was a tireless advocate for women’s rights. In a series of letters to her husband during the American Revolution and his tenure as president, she wrote compellingly of the need for the government to recognize the importance of women in the evolving nation.
Her frustration with the second-class status of women in the fledgling democracy led her to write, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
If only women had taken her words to the streets, as she warned they would, women might not be languishing in the second-class status—or stasis—they are in today. There was no women’s rebellion 200 years ago. And while it can be argued that women have achieved significant advances since then, they have yet to achieve full equality in the United States.
It took women 174 years after Adams wrote those words to get the right to vote. And it wasn’t until 2008, more than 200 years later, that a woman ran for president on the ticket of a major party and came close to receiving the nomination.
Although Adams understood that women had a struggle ahead of them, in the revolutionary atmosphere of 18th-century America she may have hoped that women would forge ahead the way the men had.
But women have had a difficult time achieving any real power in American government. Instead of becoming president, Clinton was appointed Secretary of State—only the third woman to be appointed to that post.
Womens’ ability to break through the glass ceiling of American government has been limited. There have been only 35 women in the Senate since its establishment in 1789. Out of 1,897 Americans who have served in the Senate, less than 2 percent have been female.
Today, only 16 of the 100 senators currently serving are women, yet that is still more than ever before. Twelve of the women who have served were appointed, six of whom were appointed to succeed their
Equality continues to elude women in the government and because of the government.
Today, the “gender gap in earnings”—as it is called in the U.S. Census Report—is 25 percent. For every dollar a man makes, a woman gets 76.5 cents. For every $100 dollars for a man, a woman makes only $76.50; for every $10,000, only $7,650, and so on.
This gap is stunning, and is made more so by the fact that the Equal Pay Act,devised to eradicate wage discrimination, was passed in 1963.
In 2005, then-Senator Clinton introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act in the Senate and Rep. Rosa DeLauro introduced the same legislation in the House. The PFA was written to amend the
gender gap in women’s pay that had yet to be addressed. The Act was reintroduced by Clinton and DeLauro in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
According to the PFA, the average income for a male over the age of 15 in 2006 (the last year data was available) was $48,768. For women over the age of 15 in the same year, the average income was only $31,402.
The House finally passed the PFA last July, but it was held back in the Senate. Those voting against the Act argued it would unfairly penalize employers who would be forced to pay women comparably to men—something they were supposed to have been doing since 1963.
After the House voted on the Act, DeLauro wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed piece, “This wage disparity between men and women costs women anywhere from $400,000 to $2 million over a lifetime.”
It took women in Congress to bring the PFA to the floor. Unfortunately, the government—still a male bastion—is no more responsive to women’s rights now than it was 200 years ago when Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, “Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”
President Obama committed himself to women’s issues during the election campaign and frequently referenced the achievements of Clinton, his closest Democratic rival, and commended her as a role model for his own daughters as well as for other young women.
But two centuries after Adams called for equality for women, we have yet to achieve it. Clinton echoed Adams’ exhortations when she asserted, “There cannot be true democracy unless women’s voices are heard. There cannot be true democracy unless women are given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own lives. There cannot be true democracy unless all citizens are able to participate fully in the lives of their country.”
This Women’s History Month, with a new president and a new administration, it is time once again to make our voices heard.