Here’s some after Thanksgiving food for thought.
This December will mark the 52nd anniversary of the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. It was established by executive order of President John F. Kennedy and chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
This October marked the 50th anniversary of the commission’s only major report (the panel was disbanded in 1963 after its release) known as the Peterson Report for its executive vice chairman, Esther Peterson, who was the main engine behind the commission after Roosevelt died in 1962. Peterson was also Kennedy’s assistant secretary of labor.
Given Kennedy’s well-known womanizing, this commission no doubt will bring some sly smiles. But Kennedy was serious about it and named some high-powered people as members including his brother and chief adviser, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, National Council of Negro Women president Dorothy Height, and Luther Hodges, his secretary of commerce and who had been North Carolina’s governor from 1954 to 1961.
The report entitled “American Women” provided a thoughtful examination of what was happening in the workplace to women and documented widespread discrimination and inequality. The commission endorsed equal pay legislation in its first session in early 1962, according to Harvard lecturer Elizabeth Singer More, and can be credited with helping the Equal Pay Act pass in 1963.
The panel made several other key recommendations. They included paid maternity leave, universal child care and tax deductions for child care for employed mothers. Upon the commission’s request, Kennedy in 1962 ordered federal agencies to end sex discrimination in hiring.
That’s quite a legacy. More pointed out long-term impacts too. The panel’s work laid the groundwork for challenging the constitutionality of sex discrimination even without passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. More writes that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would go on to become a Supreme Court justice, argued successfully in 1971 for the plaintiff that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits arbitrary legal distinctions on the basis of sex. She adds that the commission also led to the establishment of several state women’s commissions that created a network of women’s activists who would become the core of the feminist movement.
It took almost five decades for the federal government to provide another report on the status of American women. The White House Council on Women and Girls, established by President Barack Obama in 2009, issued “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being” in 2011.
The report documented the strides that women have made in the last half century but also took note of the challenges. For instance, the 2011 report showed that the high school graduation rates for women soared from 1970 to 2009 – from 59 percent to 87 percent. The percentage of women 25-34 with a college degree tripled from 1968 to 2008 and was then 57 percent. But women earned fewer degrees than men in the lucrative areas of science and technology. And though women had closed the wage gap with men, a significant disparity still existed.
That wage gap has been daunting. Last year, U.S. women earned 76.5 cents for every dollar that men earned, a figure that has been pretty static over the last 10 years. In 2011, women earned 77 cents for every dollar men made. In 1990, women earned 71.6 cents for every male dollar.
The wage disparity is even more worrisome for women of color. A report this month from the National Women’s Law Center says black women earn only 64 cents and Hispanic women 54 cents for every dollar white men make while white women earn 78 cents. And black women earn only about 83 cents for every dollar paid to a white woman, while Latinas earn 69 cents.
These disparities put all women in a vulnerable position but minority women even more so. As they have become increasingly the main breadwinner in families, they have not gained the financial footing to do so effectively. The law center report said that 31 percent of African-American women and 28 percent of Latinas reported having either a “somewhat difficult” or “very difficult” time buying food for their families in the wake of the Great Recession. Twenty-two percent of white women said so as well.
North Carolina illustrates the struggles women still face. In this state, women have become the main wage earner or equal partner in that regard in nearly four out of 10 families. They comprise the majority of wage earners in the state’s poor and near poor families. And many of these women struggle on their own – only 12 percent of those with children under five who are poor receive any cash assistance.
Given these facts, it was no surprise that many women – and others – were up in arms about legislation approved during the last session of the N.C. General Assembly that made life more difficult for N.C. women and their families. When lawmakers refused to expand Medicaid benefits paid for by the federal government, they essentially cut off 200,000 N.C. women from insurance coverage. When they decided to end the state's Earned Income Tax Credit, only available for low-income working families, 40 percent of families headed by N.C. women felt the impact. Those families live just above the poverty line and without the credit experts say they will drop below that line.
Women have come a long way since the 1960s. But as many struggle to feed their families and make a decent wage, it’s clearly not far enough.
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