The Shriver Report – Top 18 Issues Challenging Women Today

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Top 18 Issues Challenging Women Today
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I joined the EEOC as the first woman attorney in its Office of the General Counsel on October 4, 1965, three months after it commenced operations, and I remained there for eight years. During my early months at the Commission, Betty Friedan, author of the groundbreaking 1963 book,The Feminine Mystique, who was doing research for her next book, came to the Office of the General Counsel. She asked me what was happening at the EEOC vis-à-vis women. I told her, with tears in my eyes, of my frustration with the lack of progress in implementing the prohibitions against sex discrimination in Title VII and suggested that what this country needed was an organization to fight for women like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) fought for its constituents.

At two meetings in June and October 1966, two men and forty-seven women, of whom I was privileged to be one, met in Washington, D.C. and founded an organization called NOW (National Organization for Women) to bring women into the mainstream of American life. At the time of my latest research on the founders in July 2012, nine of us founders survived. NOW and the developments that preceded and followed its founding revolutionized this country and are well on their way to revolutionizing the rest of the world.

Our society has undergone massive change. Women are now found in large numbers in professional schools and in the professions, and, to a much lesser extent, in executive suites and legislatures. They work at a host of technical and blue-collar jobs previously closed to them.

In 1976, women were admitted to West Point and other military academies, a development that was unthinkable before the women’s movement. The percent of women in the military has increased considerably. There are now more than 400,000 women serving in the armed forces.

There are now more than nine hundred women’s/gender/feminist studies programs, departments, and research centers around the world.

The effects of Title VII have spilled over to every area of our society. Laws have changed women’s rights with regard to abortion, divorce, child custody and support, rape, jury service, appointments as administrators and executors of estates, sentencing for crimes, and admission to places of public accommodations, such as clubs, restaurants, and bars. Our spoken language has changed, and much work has been done on the development of gender-neutral written language in laws, textbooks, religious texts, and publications of all sorts.

Women are now being included in clinical research studies, and we are learning that women and men react differently to different medications; that there are gender differences in the vulnerability to disease; and that, even where diseases strike both genders, they often follow different trajectories.

Women have increased their political activity although there is still a long way to go to achieve parity with males. In 1984, Geraldine Farraro made history by being the first woman on a national party ticket for vice president; in 1992, Janet Reno became the first woman attorney general in our history, and in 2002, Nancy Pelosi became the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives. Women in both the House and Senate have moved up to positions of power and leadership and as heads of key committees and subcommittees.

The late Eli Ginzberg, former chairman of the National Commission for Manpower Policy, said that the increase in the number and proportion of women who work was the single most outstanding phenomenon of the twentieth century.

Many people think that women in this country have achieved all their goals—but that is very far from the truth. Major issues face us, some of which are:

Some of the major issues in the U.S. are:

1. Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness.

These are interrelated, of course. Seventy million women and the children who depend on them are living in or on the brink of poverty in America. Among industrialized nations, the U.S. has the largest number of homeless women and children.

2. The Continuing Gender Wage Gap.

Women are the primary or co-breadwinner in six out of ten American families, which makes the economic imperative of addressing the wage gap between men and women vital.

We frequently hear that women earn on average seventy-seven cents for every dollar earned by men, and that is true when one considers the full-time wages of all working women vs. the full-time wages of all working men. But it is more complicated than that. Some point to the fact that women are disproportionately concentrated in the lowest-paying fields and are not well represented in higher-paying fields.

On the other hand, in an article published on April 23, 2014, on, Claire Cain Miller, a New York Times reporter, discusses the findings of Dr. Claudia Goldin, a Harvard University labor economist and leading scholar on women and the economy, that a majority of the pay gap between men and women actually comes from differences within occupations, not between them. This gap widens in the highest-paying occupations like business, law, and medicine.

Dr. Goldin points out that employers most value long hours and work at particular hours. She argues that if employers instead instituted workplace flexibility in terms of hours and locations, the gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether.

Whatever the reasons, the gender pay gap continues and is an issue that must be dealt with. To ameliorate this gap, President Obama on April 8, 2014—Equal Pay Day—signed two executive orders: one prohibits federal contractors from retaliating against employees for sharing salary information with co-workers. The other directs the Labor Department to adopt regulations requiring federal contractors to report salary data to the agency, including gender and race breakdowns, that can be used to better target government enforcement.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would apply the changes ordered by the President for federal contractors to the entire American work force as well as make some important updates to the Equal Pay Act. Unfortunately, in early April 2014, Senate Republicans blocked consideration of this bill.

3. Violence Against Women.

Our most recent data shows that women and girls nationwide experienced about 270,000 rapes or sexual assaults annually.

One in five college women has been sexually assaulted while in college. In almost all cases, the institutional response has been inadequate. On January 22, 2014, President Obama established a White House Task Force to protect students from sexual assaults.

We have an increasing crisis with regard to sexual assaults in the military. In 2011, about 26,000 men and women in the military were sexually assaulted, up from 19,000 in 2010.

Domestic violence is another aspect of this issue. One in three female homicide victims is killed by an intimate partner. Twenty-four percent of adult women have been physically assaulted by a partner at some time in their lives.

Elder abuse, another part of this subject, is a growing problem. Elder mistreatment is defined as intentional actions that cause harm or create a serious risk of harm to a vulnerable elder by a caregiver or other person who stands in a trust relationship to the elder. It is estimated that one to two million people age sixty-five and above are injured, exploited, or otherwise mistreated. The abuse includes placing elders under guardianship or conservatorship against their wills. Female elders are abused at a higher rate than males. Current federal resources devoted to this problem are minimal.

4. Continuing Efforts to Whittle Down Roe v. Wade and Women’s Reproductive Rights.

A three-year surge in anti-abortion measures in more than half the states has shut down some clinics, is threatening others, and is making it far more difficult in many regions to obtain a procedure. In 2013 alone, twenty-two states adopted seventy different restrictions. One expert said, “Increasingly, access to abortion depends on where you live.”

5. Inadequate Maternal and Infant Health Care.

The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed nations and ranks 50th among the nations of the world with regard to maternal deaths.

In January 2014, the Population Institute released its 2013 report card on reproductive health and rights in the U.S., giving this nation an overall grade of C- for the second year in a row. Sadly, the growing number of U.S. women dying from pregnancy-related causes has failed to catch the public’s attention.

We need to promote breast feeing and the greater use of midwives, cut back on inducing labor, and stop performing unnecessary Cesareans.

A problem in this area is that it is impossible to get accurate statistics about maternal mortality because recordkeeping with regard to maternal mortality differs from state to state and country to country.

6. The Absence of Laws Mandating Paid Sick and Parental Leave.

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave, and only 11 percent of private-sector American employees have access to such leave.

7. Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnant Women.

We need a federal law requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations to the needs of pregnant women such as they are required to make for employees with mental or physical disabilities and in connection with the religious beliefs or practices of their employees. To change this situation, a number of states and New York City have passed passed Pregnant Workers Fairness Acts. But a federal version has been repeatedly introduced, only to go nowhere.

8. The Lack of Affordable and Competent Child Care.

An April 2013 article in the New Republic titled “The Hell of Child Care” tells the story. Jonathan Cohn, the writer, found that American day care performs “abysmally.” He pointed out that the overall quality of day care is uneven, barely monitored, and at the lower end “Dickensian.” Cohn found that the reason for this is that we haven’t yet come to terms with the shift of women from the home to the workplace. “The lack of quality, affordable day care is arguably the most significant barrier to full equality for women in the workplace,” wrote Cohn.

A report in the fall of 2013 by Child Care Aware America found that the annual cost of day care for an infant exceeds the average cost of in-state tuition and fees at public colleges in thirty-one states.

9. The Treatment of Women in Prison.

In federal correctional facilities, 70 percent of the guards are male and correctional officials have subjected female inmates to rape, other sexual assaults, sexual extortion, and groping during body searches.

In addition, women in prison have been denied essential medical resources and treatment, especially during times of pregnancy and in connection with chronic or degenerative diseases.

10. Human Trafficking/Sex Slavery.

Trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery. Sex trafficking is the exploitation of women and children, within national or across international borders, for the purpose of forced sex work. Adult women make up the largest group of sex trafficking victims, followed by female children. Although reliable statistics are unavailable, it is estimated that human trafficking is a $32 billion annual industry worldwide.

The U.S. State Department issues an annual report on trafficking globally. In its report for 2013, it stated that the U.S. was a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children—both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals—who are subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, involuntary servitude, and sex trafficking.

11. The Severe Continued Under-Representation of Women in Political Life.

Women constitute only 20 percent of our Senate and only 18 percent of our House of Representatives—this, in a country where women are the majority of the population. The dearth of women who hold elective office is also evident at state and local levels when one looks at legislatures, governors, mayors, and on down the line.

12. Discrimination in Academia. The higher in terms of faculty rank, salary, prestige, and status—the fewer are the women.

For example, recent statistics show that only 26 percent of college presidents are women despite the fact that more than 57 percent of the college and university student population is female.

13. Under-Representation in the Justice System: As Prosecutors, Judges, and Police Officers.

14. Inadequate Representation Among Those Who Run Our Top Corporations and Serve on Corporate Boards.

In 2013, Catalyst released a report that found that women held less than 15 percent of senior positions among Fortune 500 companies, a number that hadn’t changed significantly over the previous four years. Board of Directors’ seats remained flat for women, too, with female directors comprising less than 17 percent of Fortune 500 board members.

15. Inadequate Representation and Unequal Pay for Actors, Writers, Directors, and Producers in the Entertainment Industry.

16. Keeping Women in High-Tech Fields.

A report released in early 2014 revealed that U.S. women working in science, engineering, and technology were 45 percent more likely than their male peers to leave the industry within a year—and the reason was gender bias.

17. Lack of Health Insurance.

In spite of the Affordable Health Care Act, it is projected that roughly thirty million non-elderly Americans, many of them women and girls, will still be uninsured.

18. ERA and CEDAW.

The US has still not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment to our Constitution or the CEDAW Treaty, the international bill of rights for women. The U.S. is the only industrialized country that has not ratified CEDAW.

So, while women have come a long way in the last fifty years—they still have a very long way to go.

In thinking about the progress we’ve achieved and the problems that still remain, I can’t say it any better than an old African American slave preacher whom Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in a 1959 speech on race relations:

Lord, we ain’t what we want to be.
We ain’t what we ought to be.
We ain’t what we gonna be.
But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.

©2014 Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Sonia Pressman Fuentes was born in Berlin, Germany, of Polish Jewish parents, with whom she fled to the U.S. to escape the Holocaust. In the U.S., she became a cofounder of NOW (National Organization for Women) and the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Currently, she is a community and feminist activist, writer, and public speaker who lives in Sarasota, FL.
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