By Irasema Garza
In the struggle for gender equality, the legal victories have been historic. Women’s employment and educational rights seemed secure with the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, Title VII in 1964, Title IX in 1972, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978. Then, in 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), for the first time recognizing the scourge of violence against women in our nation and offering the possibility of federal rights and protections.
Yet, nearly 40 years after the passage of Title VII, 30 years after the passage of Title IX, and 15 years after the passage of the VAWA, women continue to work in low paying and largely segregated employment sectors, and to experience gender-based poverty, violence, and discrimination.
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Though women continue to enter the U.S. workforce in unprecedented numbers, the decrease in the wage gap (from approximately 60 percent in 1950 to 74 percent today) remains substantially lower than what advocates had hoped. Women are still more likely to be poor then men, and are poorer than their male counterparts with equal or less education.
Moreover, women’s personal security remains compromised – and inadequately served by the justice system, government safety programs and other key social institutions. Each year, some 1,400 women die due to domestic violence, with conservative estimates holding that between two and four million women are battered by intimates and more than a million women are forcibly raped by current or former partners.
Against this backdrop, today’s daunting economic crisis threatens to exacerbate women’s poverty, unemployment, and rates of violence. A virtual free fall of the economy jeopardizes basic income and employment security for all but the wealthiest Americans, while further exposing vulnerabilities in the gains made by women over nearly half a century.
The election of President Barack Obama offers a singular opportunity to set new goals, reframe old debates and shift the advocacy landscape. As the president often states—we need new, big, bold ideas and different ways of thinking.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, another president dealing with one of the country’s deepest economic crisis and searching for solutions, noted the relationship between freedom and security. He stated that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence” and he called the rights inherent in “economic security” a “Second Bill of Rights.”
The time has come, and the time is now, for a “second bill of rights” for women –for the recognition and enforcement of a set of rights and enabling conditions without which neither freedom nor equality can be fully realized. This “second bill of rights” represents a next frontier in the struggle for equal rights for women. That struggle must begin by focusing our attention and efforts on four critical challenges facing the majority of women today and that stand in the way of achieving economic equality: occupational segregation in low paying jobs; employment discrimination; barriers to access to the social safety net in the face of growing numbers of women raising children alone; and the scourge of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and other crimes of violence against women.
Working women comprise the majority of the nation’s low-wage workers. Female-dominated service-sector jobs (excluding nurses and teachers) earn, on average, approximately $400 per week – almost $200 less than the most common male-dominated jobs. These “non-traditional” jobs – such as construction, building and other skilled trades, law enforcement, firefighting and information technology – offer higher salaries, better benefits and more opportunities for growth. This occupational segregation, when combined with the wage gap within fields, makes it no surprise that women are 40 percent more likely to be poor than men.
Despite decades of progress, many women continue to experience multiple forms of discrimination in the workplace based on their gender.
Although discrimination affects all women, there are particular subgroups of women for whom existing laws have offered little or no protection against practices that limit their safety, security and ability to advance on the job. These groups include victims of domestic violence and/or sexual assault, who may be fired as the result of their abuser harassing them in their workplace or for having to take time off; immigrant women, who must also contend with discrimination based on uncertain immigration status, language barriers and racism; and, women in predominantly male jobs where overt harassment, hostility and disparate treatment of women remains commonplace.
Certain conditions – such as pregnancy and family care responsibilities – also continue to hinder women’s ability to remain or advance in their careers. For some of these women, legal action may not be an option given the gaps that remain in the protection offered by federal laws and inadequacies in state and local protections.
An adequate safety net is vital to American values and to the expectations of Americans. Government assistance for workers who are out of work or unable to do so due to illness, disability or family care responsibilities that prevent holding a job, is a pivotal component of economic security for everyone. For women, however, the safety net is of even greater importance because women are more likely to earn low wages, be single parents, be ineligible for unemployment benefits, to hold jobs that do not provide health care and generally to be poor. Recent statistics reveal that 90 percent of those receiving federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are women. In light of the current economic downturn and record job losses, an adequate safety net is more essential than ever.
Violence against women remains a national epidemic, as well as a persistent threat to women’s ability to achieve both personal and economic security. Nearly one in three American women has been abused by a domestic partner, and one in six women has been sexually abused, the vast majority by someone they know. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranks domestic violence as a serious, preventable health problem affecting more than 32 million Americans, or more than 10 percent of the U.S. population – with rates of almost 30 percent among immigrant women. As we are witnessing today, recession and unemployment exacerbate family violence and place more women at risk.
We must begin a new conversation and a new period of advocacy focused on securing true equality for all women through systemic changes that will ensure our economic and personal security.
Irasema Garza is president of Legal Momentum (NYC, D.C.) the nation’s oldest legal defense and education fund dedicated to advanding the rights of all women and girls.
Also see Listen Up: UN Must Hear Women on Violence by Charlotte Bunch in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
Also see The Terror of Loving and Losing by Cathy Albisa in the Fall 2008 edition of On The Issues Magazine.