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Women’s Rights Benefit Us All

Now They Are Under Threat—3 Ways You Can Help

On Monday, October 9th, Professor Claudia Goldin of Harvard University learned she would receive the Nobel Prize in Economics for her seminal research that exposed the causes of deeply rooted wage and labor market inequality between men and women. As the first woman to solely receive the Economics Prize, Goldin’s ground-breaking work also demonstrated the huge impact birth control has had on allowing women to enter the workforce.

Why do I mention this? Because our access to education, our ability to earn a living wage, our decision if and when to bear children, and our experiences in the workplace, to name a few important ingredients of well-being, affect our ability to live well and age well. 

Collage illustration of women's empowerment.
Image designed by ©Valrie on AdobeStock

I know because I have lived the trajectory of women’s rights and benefited from women having many of the same opportunities as men. There have been recent legislation and court decisions that seek to deprive women of their rights and their personal agency, and I must protest this backward slide as bad for everyone.

Positive steps for women.  

Throughout my long life, there have been many expansions of the rights of women that encouraged the changing roles of women in our society. I list a few examples below—some of these you know a lot about, others may come as a surprise, especially how recently they came into fruition.

  • 1963 ~ Equal Pay Act prohibits pay discrimination based on gender.

  • 1964 ~ The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin.

  • 1965-70 ~ Most laws restricting contraception were overturned.

  • 1972 ~ The Title Nine section of the Educational Amendments of 1972 protects women from discrimination in educational programs that receive federal monies.

  • 1973 ~ Supreme Court legalized abortion.

  • 1974 ~ Women can no longer be prohibited from getting credit cards or opening a bank account.

  • 1978 ~ The Pregnancy Discrimination Act makes it illegal to discriminate against pregnant women in the workplace. 

  • 1981 ~ Supreme Court overturned a state law that allowed husbands to unilaterally control property jointly owned with their wives.

  • 1986 ~ Hostile work environments caused by sexual harassment are a form of sex discrimination according to the Supreme Court.

Yet the gender pay gap – the difference between the earnings of men and women – has barely closed in the U. S. in the past two decades. In 2022, American women typically earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, up from 80 cents in 2002. The gap especially widens among women ages 35 to 44.

This is further complicated when we consider, as the Department of Labor states, that " women workers, particularly women of color, experience multiple types of inequality in the labor force, including gender and racial wage gaps, occupational segregation, and a disproportionate burden of costs associated with caregiving."

Findings from the Pew Research Center regarding women's pay relative to men's & age distribution.
Findings from the Pew Research Center

And America remains one of the few countries in the world without any explicit guarantee of gender equality in its constitution; it’s the only OECD member country to lack guaranteed paid family leave. The lack of affordable childcare has reached crisis proportions because 67% of children under age six have both parents in the workforce; some 59% of children under age five attend some kind of childcare outside of their home, according to the Institute of Education Sciences.

I recognize I owe my personal and financial fulfillment to the freedoms women gained in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. They dramatically changed how I saw the role of women—and opened up a world of opportunity for me. I married in 1955 and had no plans beyond motherhood and child-rearing. As I evolved, I broadened my interests and was strongly motivated to go out into the workplace. It’s key to our mental health, regardless of our gender, to have the choice to work, to stay at home, to raise children or not. I’m aware that restrictive societal roles are often the reason women wait until their older years to become the person we’ve always wanted to be.

My evolution timeline

1968. At 34, I was ready for change after nine years of full-time work as a mother and homemaker. My husband supported my decision to find reliable childcare so I could pursue a profession. I was just beginning to notice how limited employment options were for women at that point in time. The Philip Morris Company bought out Virginia Slims, a new brand of cigarettes created exclusively for women, and promoted it with the slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The ad was a whopping success and served to spotlight the changing lives of women. I eased myself back into the workforce with a half-time teaching job. I loved working far more than I had ever imagined.

Virginia Slims ads from their "You've come a long way, baby" campaign.
Virginia Slims ads from their "You've come a long way, baby" campaign.

1969. Woodstock, a concert in August brought fantastic music and a large crowd of 500,000 people together at a farm in upstate New York. The media bombarded us all with stories of this amazing concert, its peaceful culture, the drugs, the rain, and the mud. A week later, I learned that one of my friends had been at Woodstock. Unbelievable! Someone like me had gotten herself to this turning-point cultural event. Actually, I had no interest in going to that concert with the mud and the drugs. But I was jolted into awareness that, I had, perhaps, all sorts of opportunities that I had not recognized. That woman, oddly enough, was a role model for me to get going on living my dreams.

1972. Just a few years later, I was a full-time student at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work, interning at a VA hospital, and preparing for a career. I was also learning about women’s rights, issues of poverty, and social justice. All this while students were protesting the Vietnam War and making new demands for change. I was now seeing myself as a change agent and calling myself a feminist: someone who believes women are equal to men. 

1973-2021. For almost 40 years, I worked happily in several full-time roles. I worked as a psychotherapist, as the director of an Outpatient Department at a community mental health center, as co-founder and managing partner of a diversity firm consulting on issues of the changing workplace as well as an author, penning my fifth book in my eighties. I went back to private practice as a psychotherapist in my seventies and retired at age 87. None of my work life would have been possible without tremendous progress in gaining rights for women; it allowed us to break glass ceilings.

Protest sign reading "the rights of women & girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century."
Image designed by ©Ruth on AdobeStock

2023. But it is not going so well for women today. The tide has turned and the rights of women are being curtailed both here and in countries like Iran and Afghanistan. The overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court in 2022 has been a huge setback. While some women have been imprisoned because of newly enacted restrictions on reproductive healthcare, the restrictions are also expected to increase the rate of maternal deaths. Shockingly, the U.S. already has the highest maternal mortality rates among developed countries, and most of the deaths are preventable.

I am sad and scared, but not paralyzed.  

I do have some thoughts for you, dear readers, on how to respond to this unsettling state of affairs. I urge all my readers, regardless of your gender, to do these three things:

  1. Be informed. Don’t join those who say, “The news is so upsetting I don’t read the paper or watch the news anymore.” You need to know what is happening in terms of women’s rights. Not to be informed is to give up your power to do good.

  2. Speak up. Once you recognize injustice, oppression, and unfairness, you need to speak about it to others – girls, family, and friends. You can be the role model they need to open their eyes and take action. You can spark others to act.

  3. Act. Find a way, no matter how small, to do something yourself to change the realities that you don’t like. Giving even one dollar or writing one postcard for a candidate who supports your values is important. It matters because you are doing something in support of your own values. Research shows you will be far more likely to do more if you get started.

Colorful illustration of protest crowd cheering in solidarity.
Image designed by ©HRTNT Media on AdobeStock

I know that small actions can ripple out and have a surprisingly large effect on a seemingly intractable system. Here are some organizations that I can vouch for that are working for the rights of women in the USA and beyond. Please feel free to recommend others.

I strongly believe that we must all be the change we wish to see in the world. Remember this Chinese proverb: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. 


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