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July 01, 2010


by Penny Wakefield

This issue of Human Rights magazine is devoted to women’s rights. Forty years after the women’s rights movement and a decade into the twenty-first century, why is this topic still contemporary?

In the United States, significant progress has been made since the 1970s, when women faced barriers to equality in schools, in the workplace, in the professions, in politics, and even in their own homes. It is easy to forget that a generation or more ago, girls played only half-court basketball and could not have imagined a WNBA career; that even major newspapers had separate “male” and “female” job listings; that women could not open credit accounts in their own names—and often had to take their husbands’ names upon marriage; and that “domestic violence” was considered just that: a private matter within the home.

So, it also may seem easy to conclude that women today face nothing like the blatant and pervasive discrimination endured by past generations of women and girls in all spheres of life solely because of their sex.

And yet, as this magazine noted only two years ago in its issue addressing president-elect Obama on key civil and human rights matters (Human Rights, Vol. 35, No. 4, fall 2008), women and girls still suffer disproportionately in many ways as a result of discrimination. Because of lower pay, they are more likely than men to be poor, with little prospect of ever becoming economically secure in their later lives. Because of lack of access to health care, they are more likely to deal with untreated pain or illness. Because of institutional resistance to education and training innovations, they are more likely to be channeled into stereotypical (i.e., lower paying) occupations.

Most fundamentally, as Marcia Greenberger noted in What Women Need, “Women lack the broad-based fabric of protections against sex discrimination that they sorely need and that many other groups facing discrimination have had for many decades. Rights that women do have, moreover, have been threatened by recent court decisions that have narrowed rights and limited hard-won legal protections.”

In late 2008, many believed optimistically that the Obama years would lead to greater equality sooner rather than later. With the first female Speaker of the House continuing in her leadership role, with more women in the Congress and in other key government positions, and with a female secretary of state (our third in less than twenty years) appointed and confirmed by a seemingly friendly Senate, some even said that we were entering the new decade of the woman. Lifting those expectations was the fact that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, ensuring greater opportunities for relief in cases involving sex discrimination in the workplace, became the first piece of legislation passed by the 111th Congress and signed into law by the new president. The administration also reinvigorated the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor and created a White House Council on Women and Girls. More progress—or so it seemed.

In retrospect, however, we might ask why, ninety years after its founding, we still need a Women’s Bureau. And why now, more than ever, do we need a council within the White House?

These offices unfortunately were deemed necessary to both draw attention to and help coordinate responses to much unfinished business in the fight against sex discrimination. Even a quick look at women’s current circumstances in key areas suggests that women’s advancement to date is a fragile accomplishment and that women’s status may even regress in the years ahead.

The Ledbetter legislation, after all, only restores to the status quo the rule struck down in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, 550 U.S. 618 (2007), for determining the time period for filing sex discrimination grievances in Title VII employment cases. Every day, women still face the likelihood that they are struggling against a wage gap that has not narrowed significantly for decades. Recent comprehensive research shows that women remain at a disadvantage of more than 20 percent versus male workers with the same or comparable jobs, experience, and work situations (AAUW, Behind the Pay Gap, April 23, 2007). In fact, women just a year out of college earn 5 percent less than their male counterparts; after ten years, the discrepancy grows to 12 percent.

Yet, despite proponents’ early hopes and best efforts over the last two years, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would reduce compensation inequities by requiring more effective enforcement of the Equal Pay Act of 1965, died in the final days of the 111th Congress. The House had approved the measure in early 2009, but the Senate never brought it up during the regular session, and it failed on a procedural vote without consideration on the merits during the post-election “lame duck” session that ended in December.

In education, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has helped expand the playing court in athletics over several decades, but lack of review and enforcement could undermine those past gains. In the academic realm, girls’ enrollment in math, science, and engineering courses in high schools and universities remains stubbornly stagnant across the country. In law and medical schools, female students often outnumber and outperform male students, yet the numbers of female partners in law firms and female surgeons in major hospitals remain relatively flat.

In health care, being a woman may no longer be a “preexisting condition” under the new federal health care law, but women’s reproductive health rights increasingly are at risk because of more restrictive laws adopted in many state legislatures and proposed in Congress. We may have three female U.S. Supreme Court justices now, but opponents of Roe v. Wade see the Roberts Court as its best opportunity in a generation to deny a constitutional right to abortion.

Domestic violence, although no longer a taboo topic in most communities, continues at a frightening pace. Although the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), first enacted in 1994, has helped communities combat, investigate, and prosecute cases of domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking, the Supreme Court struck down its civil rights remedies in United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000). Up for reauthorization in 2011, VAWA is likely to face opposition on additional constitutional grounds in the new Congress.

On the international front, the last several decades have brought improvements to many women’s lives, along with gains in health, education, and legal autonomy, thanks in part to international pressures and treaty obligations. But for many more millions of women, life remains a continuous condition of fear, repression, and deprivation in a world of poverty, powerlessness, and violence. In 2008, the UN National Security Council officially recognized rape and other sexual violence as a crime of war, but persecution of the crime in Sudan and other war-ravaged places around the globe remains elusive. In July 2010, the United Nations set up an independent Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (“UN Women”) to create a more cohesive and effective UN response to women’s needs worldwide.

The United States has applauded and supported these initiatives and others for women worldwide. However, it is one of only seven UN member states not to have adopted the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) as an important signal that it supports the fair and equal treatment of women here and around the globe.

These are intertwined concerns. In the current recession, women have become the majority in the U.S. workforce and the sole or primary income earners supporting many millions of American families. In many other parts of the world, women and mothers long have borne that burden. It is well documented that improvements in women’s education, health care and employment conditions, and personal autonomy lead to economic improvements for all; likewise, discrimination against women often blocks the way to such advancements.

In this issue, contemporary leaders in the fight for women’s rights provide their informed perspectives on women’s progress since the 1970s in education, health, employment, domestic violence, and other areas that are key to defining the status of women today in the United States, as well as their status vis-à-vis women in the rest of the world. For these authors—all women—the review is personal. For everyone, we hope, their reflections are enlightening.

This issue’s “Human Rights Hero” column honors U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who began her career as a groundbreaking litigator against gender discrimination, for her continuous efforts to protect and advance women’s rights. At a women’s conference in California in October 2010, Justice Ginsburg was asked what the “right number” of women on the court would be. “Nine!” she reportedly said. “There were nine men there for a long time, so why not nine women?”

Why not, indeed.


Penny Wakefield

Penny Wakefield, a civil and human rights lawyer in the Washington, D.C., area who focuses on women’s rights and international human rights concerns, chairs the Individual Rights and Responsibilities Section’s International Human Rights Committee and serves on the Executive Board of the ABA Center for Human Rights. She also is a member of the Human Rights editorial board.