A nationwide protest in support of women's rights on Women's Equality Day on August 26, 2012 in Hollywood, California© AFP 2013/ Joe Klamar
WASHINGTON, February 6 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) Roughly half a century after American women began burning their bras and demanding their rights on a wide range of social fronts, the women’s liberation movement that helped position the United States as a world leader of women’s equality still has a long way to go, say those leading the charge in the 21st century.
“When it comes to women’s issues, I don’t think we’re a leader in the world at all,” said Angela Hattery, associate director of Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University, in an interview with RIA Novosti.
“Western Europe is way ahead of where we are,” she said, adding, “We are still not there yet.”
But there was a day when the US was there. Women fought for and won the right to vote in the United States in 1920.
In 1963 President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, designed to end wage discrimination.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Act was passed in 1972, around the time journalist and feminist Gloria Steinem became recognized as a national leader of the women’s movement.
And several recent events have highlighted the strength of women and the advances of women’s rights in America:
• The January 21 inauguration of US President Barack Obama, who won overwhelming support from women voters and is seen as a champion of women’s causes.
• The 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that gave women in America the legal right to abortions.
• The announcement on January 24 that the US military would allow women to serve in combat roles.
Despite those recent events, there are still key areas of discrimination and inequality, say women’s rights supporters, including workplace barriers, unequal wages, high levels of poverty and violence, and challenges to reproductive rights.
More women graduate from high school and college and get advanced degrees than men, but women still earn substantially less on the job, according to data from the US Census Bureau.
The most recent figures show women in 2011 earned an average of $37,100 while men earned an average of $48,200, and data from the US Department of Labor shows women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes.
Even when the data compares women and men of the same age, with the same educational backgrounds, in the same kinds of jobs, “Women still start their careers with salaries that are five percent under where the men are,” said Sarah Jane Glynn, a policy analyst at American Progress, a Washington-based educational institute and an expert on women’s employment and labor issues, in an interview with RIA Novosti.
Ten years after starting their careers, factoring out the women who took time off to have a child, the gap grows to 12 percent, she said.
“We can’t prove it’s based on discrimination but anecdotally that certainly is something that we take a look at,” Glynn added.
Women in the United States are 29 percent more likely to live in poverty than men, and single mothers are 68 percent more likely to live in poverty than single fathers, according to the National Council for Research on Women (NCRW).
One woman in four will experience severe abuse by a partner in the United States, and one in five will be raped, according to figures from Human Rights Watch (HRW).
They are grim figures that have become part of a divisive political issue.
The “war on women” was a popular mantra during the 2012 election cycle, used by Democrats to describe the conservative Republican platform they said amounted to restrictions on women’s rights.
There’s no more a war on women than there is a war on caterpillars, said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in a pre-election interview with Bloomberg TV.
“The fact of the matter is, it’s a fiction,” Priebus said.
Women voted overwhelmingly for Obama, and advocacy groups see hope in his Inauguration Day message.
“We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own,” Obama said.
Meeting that goal will mean reversing a trend that HRW researcher Meghan Rhoad finds troubling.
“There is a disturbing sign of a move to cut away at established rights for women, so in some of the same areas that we’ve seen strides in the past, we’ve seen some recent backsliding,” she told RIA Novosti.
Rhoad points to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), first passed in 1994, which provides enhanced legal penalties for rapists, funding for rape exams, a domestic violence hotline, and dedicates trained law enforcement professionals to investigate and prosecute domestic violence and sex crimes.
There has been a 51 percent drop in incidents of domestic violence since then, according to NCRW.
But VAWA also provides funding which has to be reauthorized by Congress periodically, and that effort stalled in 2012 over questions about protections for gays, Native American Indians and illegal immigrants.
The provisions which were last approved in 2005 remain in effect, and an updated version is scheduled for a vote in the US Senate this week, but its fate is uncertain.
“The idea that it would become mired in partisan fighting was quite a surprise,” Rhoad said.
She also points to new limits on reproductive rights 40 years after Roe v. Wade.
“In 2011 and 2012 we saw a record number of state laws passed restricting abortion access, so whether it’s through longer waiting periods, onerous restrictions on abortion facilities, it’s constantly under attack,” Rhoad said.
Statistics show the US has also fallen behind other developed nations in terms of women in leadership positions, national subsidized child care and paid family leave for new parents, key areas that impact a woman’s ability to support herself financially.
Despite the perception that the US is at the forefront of women’s rights around the world, there is an American mindset rooted in the “Leave it to Beaver” era of the 1950’s when most women stayed home to cook and clean, and households were financed by fathers, that disproportionately hurts women today, Glynn said.
“We have this idea, this cultural narrative, that men are breadwinners, men need to be the providers, so there is evidence on some level that this influences the decisions in terms of pay scale and benefits,” she added.
“There’s this sense that this liberation of women that centers around going to work and reproductive rights has caused all of these problems like drug use, juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, all of these things are caused by women going to work and not doing what they’re supposed to do,” said Hattery.
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