Women’s Equality: The Road Behind Us, The Road Ahead

Today is the 90th anniversary of suffrage, and we’ve indeed come a long way, baby. When the suffragists finally got the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, it was after two generations of women had busted their butts to get it done. Movement leader Carrie Chapman Catt told just how hard it was:

[Getting the vote] cost the women of the country fifty-two years of pauseless campaign . . . they were forced to conduct fifty-six campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to urge Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to induce State constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to persuade state party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to urge presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms; and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.

How far have we come? Well, we can now own property, get custody of our kids, get credit in our own names, go to college and enter the professions, not be paid less for the same work as a man does (at least on paper), and not get fired for getting pregnant.

Now there’s more good news from The U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee (JEC), released yesterday. The report, titled “Women and the Economy 2010: 25 Years of Progress But Challenges Remain,” updates us on women’s economic progress.

Citing 2009 figures benchmarked against 1984, the year Geraldine Ferraro shattered the political glass ceiling by becoming the first woman nominated for vice president on a national ticket, the report shows some impressive gains:

  • Women’s share of the labor force has increased to 59.2 percent, up from 53.6 percent, and women make up almost half the workforce (49.8 percent), up from 44 percent.
  • Women have overtaken men in educational attainment, with 87 percent of women having at least four years of high school education, compared to 86 percent of men.
  • Union membership (union women make more) for women is up 11 percent.
  • In the “no surprise” department, families depend more on women’s earnings, with married women’s paychecks making up over a third of total family income, up from 29 percent in 1983. Over a third of employed mothers with kids under 18 are sole breadwinners.

Good news for working women—up to a point. But the report also cautions that the 900-pound-albatross of women’s economic progress—the pay gap—is still with us, big time. In 1984, women made a paltry 68 percent of men’s full-time weekly wage. In 2009, it was a paltry 80 percent. (There was no breakdown for women of color, but other sources remind us that it’s much lower if your skin is not white.)

It’s sure not the worst of times, but we’re not yet to the best of times, either. Let’s take a page from the suffragists—hold those in power responsible. If they won’t vote for pro-woman measures like the Women’s Equality Amendment (first introduced in 1923 right after suffrage), don’t vote for them. It’s that simple, and it’s a payback to those women who got us the most fundamental right so long ago.

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike General Liscense 2.5.


Martha Burk is money editor at Ms.