The Struggle for Women’s Equality in the U.S. Today

I believe there is no better way to view and assess the struggle for women’s equality in the US today than through the prism of the presidential election campaign.

The Hillary Clinton Factor

The hotly contested Democratic primary contest between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama reverberated with echoes of the 19th century conflict between some leaders of the women’s equality movement and the abolitionists, especially in the period after the Civil War and the struggle to win the vote for the newly-freed African Americans. It is very informative to look back at that debate.

Some women’s leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton pitted the fight for women’s suffrage against the fight for African American suffrage, seeing the cause of women as strictly man vs. woman. They concluded that the fight for African American equality was completed, that women were now due their rights, and that women should never “labor to second man’s endeavors and exalt his sex above her own.”

The great African American abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, and others argued that the right to vote for ex-slaves was a strategic priority for completing the unfinished task of eliminating slavery. He said, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”

Douglass appealed for unity between advocates of voting rights for Black people and for women. He envisioned passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving African Americans the right to vote, as the “culmination of one-half of our demands,” and the basis for accelerating “the further amendment guaranteeing the same sacred rights without limitation to sex.”

But Stanton and some other women argued that Black men should not receive voting rights unless and until white women also received those rights at the same time.

As a nationwide mass battle unfolded to pass the 15th Amendment, suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony declared, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” And Stanton made derogatory references to African Americans and the enfranchisement of “ignorant foreigners the moment they touch our shores.”

Angela Davis, in her 1981 book Women, Race and Class wrote that the issue of tactics in the struggle around the 15th Amendment is still being debated. “But,” she wrote, “one thing seems clear: [these women’s] defense of their own interests as white middle-class women … exposed the tenuous and superficial nature of their relationship to the postwar campaign for Black equality.”

Granted, they felt they had as powerful a case for suffrage as Black men,” Davis wrote, but “they revealed how defenseless they remained – even after years of involvement in progressive causes – to the pernicious ideological influence of racism.” These women’s leaders, wrote Davis, saw the vote for women as “an end in itself.” In some cases they even accepted the support of white supremacists.

Some women’s leaders of the time also thought narrowly in regard to the emerging labor movement. For some, Davis wrote, “‘woman’ was the ultimate test – if the cause of woman could be furthered, it was not wrong for women to function as scabs [strikebreakers] when male workers in their trade were on strike.” Susan B. Anthony was excluded from the 1869 convention of the National Labor Union because she had urged women printers to work as scabs.

These women’s leaders, with all their outstanding contributions, were limited by the fact, as Davis wrote, that they “did not suspect that the enslavement of Black people in the South, the economic exploitation of Northern workers and the social oppression of women might be systemically related.”

But deeper insight was shown by other women. A notable example was abolitionist Angelina Grimke. In an 1863 speech, “Address to the Soldiers of Our Second Revolution,” (referring to the American Civil War then raging) to a meeting of abolitionists and women’s rights activists, Grimke pointed to the essential connection between the fight against slavery and the fight for democracy, including “free suffrage” and the class struggle: “This war,” she said, “is not, as the South falsely pretends, a war of races, nor of sections, nor of political parties, but a war of Principles; a war upon the working-classes, whether white or black; a war against Man, the world over. In this war, the black man was the first victim; the workingman of whatever color the next; and now all who contend for the rights of labor, for free speech, free schools, free suffrage, and a free government, securing to all life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are driven to do battle in defense of these or to fall with them, victims of the same violence that for two centuries has held the black man a prisoner of war.”

So, how did all of this play out this year in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? Their programs were similar in many ways. But Obama’s campaign, for many, embodied the aspiration for multiracial unity, for cross-generational, grassroots-oriented progressive politics. Clinton was not connected to the grassroots progressive movement.

In the US racism has played a pre-eminent role in dividing the working class, and Obama’s campaign challenged this tool of the ruling class in a new, unifying way. Yet Clinton appealed to women looking to end the “glass ceiling” in US political life.

During the campaign, Clinton was the target of vicious sexism from the right, as she has been from the beginning of her public career. But in her quest for the nomination Clinton wound up acceding to racist appeals and reactionary forces.

Note that in America today, only 16 of our 100 senators are women, and only 8 of our 50 governors are women. At the same time, the numbers are even worse for African American representation — Obama is the only Black senator (and only the third in 130 years), and there are currently only two Black governors out of 50.

Women were faced with a difficult conundrum. While many women strongly backed and voted for Clinton, women also voted in droves for Obama. Younger women, but not only younger women, were particularly enthused by his campaign. They saw in it the main strategic way to advance their interests not only as women but as people.

After the primaries concluded, there were some attempts to exploit this division, clearly promoted by the ultra-right. But Obama’s support from women soared, particularly after the Republicans’ selection of Sarah Palin as their vice presidential nominee.

The Palin Factor

A Time magazine poll released Oct. 1 found McCain was losing female voters faster than Sarah Palin initially attracted them after the Republican Convention. Ultimately, Obama won women voters by 14 points.

The poll showed white women favored Obama by 3 points; in 2004, George W. Bush won white women by 11 points. By contrast, in this poll white men overall supported McCain by an 11 point margin. Other polls have found a similar pattern.

Why did women reject Sarah Palin? Palin was presented with much hoopla as supposedly representing the empowered working mother. New York Times columnist Judith Warner commented sarcastically on the Republican Party’s “dogged allegiance to up-by-your-bootstraps individualism — an individualism exemplified by Palin, the frontierswoman who somehow has managed to ‘balance’ five children and her political career with no need for support.”

Yet Palin opposed every economic and social measure that would enable working and middle class women to participate equally in the workforce and society and make their lives better. So her empowerment is a mystery. As Warner noted, women wondered: What does she do with her kids? Who takes care of them? It’s an insult to women who really have to grapple with these issues.

The head of the National Organization for Women, Kim Gandy, wrote pointedly, “For me, this election has never been about getting one woman into office. It’s about opening doors and opportunities for all women. … And make no mistake, the McCain-Palin ticket will leave millions of women behind.”

Palin, like McCain, vowed to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion. In fact, she opposes abortion even in the case of rape or incest.

She and McCain both opposed an equal pay bill stalled by the Republicans in Congress — the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

And Palin was there to sell John McCain.

In Oregon, the head of Planned Parenthood, the family planning advocacy organization, called McCain “among the most extreme members of Congress who voted against common sense measures on family planning, sex education and access to basic health care.” For instance:

• McCain voted against requiring health care plans to cover birth control (3/22/03) • He voted against comprehensive, medically accurate sex education (7/25/06). • He voted against international family planning funding (3/14/96). • He voted against funding to prevent teen and unintended pregnancies (3/17/05). • He voted against public education for emergency contraception (3/17/05). • He voted against restoring Medicaid funding that could be used for family planning for low-income women (3/17/05). • He voted twice against reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

Women live longer than men, and rely heavily on Social Security. Palin-McCain’s privatization plan would have wiped out that safety net. The list goes on.

The new age guru Deepak Chopra writes, “Gov. Palin is a woman and a reactionary at the same time. She can add mom to apple pie on her resume, while blithely reversing 40 years of feminist progress.”

Palin’s effort to grab the image of typical “working mom” trivialized the reality of how hard it is to be a working mother and women’s serious pressing needs for support – for laws, programs and funding to enable women to be fully equal in our society.

An eight-year Assault on Women

Obama's victory comes on the heels of a vicious eight-year assault on women (accelerating what started 30 years ago with Reagan), and a mounting economic crisis that has now burst wide open.

Health and Reproductive Rights

The Republican right has waged a campaign for the past 30 years to roll back women’s reproductive rights in the area of abortion and contraception and has fought against sex education. This war drastically escalated with the arrival of the Bush administration.

As it is, health insurance is often sexist. My 27-year-old daughter’s health insurance prescription plan covers Viagra but not birth control pills. Many plans do not cover abortion, and many providers do not provide this medical procedure.

But hysteria over abortion was used as a “wedge issue” to round up votes for George W. Bush in the last two presidential elections. Hysteria over sex education and efforts to bar access to contraception have been ratcheted up under his administration. Currently the BUSH administration is trying to push through a regulation allowing pharmacists not to fill birth control prescriptions if it goes against their “conscience.”

Economic Victims

In July, the New York Times proclaimed in a headline, “Women Are Now Equal as Victims of Poor Economy.”

“Across the country, women in their prime earning years, struggling with an unfriendly economy, are retreating from the work force, either permanently or for long stretches,” the story read.

“They had piled into jobs in growing numbers since the 1960s. But that stopped happening this decade, and as the nearly seven-year-old recovery gives way to hard times, the retreat is likely to accelerate. Indeed, for the first time since the women’s movement came to life, an economic recovery has come and gone, and the percentage of women at work has fallen, not risen, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.”

When economists started noticing this trend a few years ago, many suggested that it was because women just decided to stay home — the so-called “motherhood movement.” But now, a different explanation is turning up in government data and research: “After moving into virtually every occupation, women are being afflicted on a large scale” by the economic downturn, layoffs, outsourcing, stagnant wages, or the discouraging prospect of an outright pay cut. And so many are dropping out.

All of this is having a profound impact on the status of women, and their families.

A congressional study cites the potentially disastrous consequences for families, as working women have in recent years brought home anywhere from a third to half, or more, of family income.

While men are rarely thought of as dropping out to run the household, that is often the assumption when women pull out. “A woman gets laid off and she stays home for six months with her kids,” a 48-year-old laid off woman worker told the Times. “She doesn’t admit that she is staying home because she could not get another acceptable job.”

The biggest retreat has been in manufacturing, where more than one million women have disappeared from payrolls since 2001, the Times reports.

For women in the key 25-to-54 age group, the median pay – the point where half make more and half less – has fallen, and pay inequity continues to be a major problem for American women.

A British study reported in April that women in the United Kingdom earn on average 16 percent less than men. Bad as this is, it is less than the 23 percent pay gap between women and men in the United States – on average, US women earn 77 cents for every dollar the average man earns.

According to the AFL-CIO:

* If married women were paid the same as comparable men, their family incomes would rise by nearly six percent, and their families' poverty rates would fall by more than half.

* If single working mothers earned as much as comparable men, their family incomes would increase by nearly 17 percent, and their poverty rates would be cut in half.

* If single women earned as much as comparable men, their incomes would rise by 13.4 percent, and their poverty rates would be drastically reduced from 6.3 percent to 1 percent.

New government data shows women are poorer than men, in all racial and ethnic groups. They are paid less, segregated in lower-paying occupations, spend more time on unpaid caregiving of family members, and are more likely to work part-time. They are more likely to bear the costs of child-raising, bear the brunt of the economic costs of pregnancy, and are economically affected by domestic and sexual violence.

So, it’s not surprising that women, more so than men, rejected the far-right politics of Sarah Palin, and that women constitute a major potential progressive force in our country.

The Labor-led All-people’s Coalition

The struggle for women’s equality has two aspects: it is a democratic struggle and an economic one. Both are playing a critical role in the all-people’s coalition that is surging forward today, as evidenced in the current elections.

The democratic struggle includes the fight for women’s rights to control their own bodies, their health, and their family planning choices; the right to access birth control, sex education and abortion; the right to marry whom they please or not; the right to equity on the job, at school, and in political life; the right to live free of sexual exploitation in a culture free of toxic sexism. These struggles cut across class lines, but they have an essential, progressive dynamic. They are helping power the labor-led progressive coalition.

In the 1970s, the “women’s movement” in our country was seen and saw itself as something apart from other movements. Today it is clearer than ever that women’s interests are intertwined with the wider issues of democracy and economic justice, and the evidence is that more and more women are seeing it that way. Obviously, economic issues are coming to the fore, and the economics of women’s inequality is propelling women to play a progressive role.

American women today, I would say, are more in agreement than ever with Angelina Grimke’s words of 1863:

“Now all who contend for the rights of labor, for free speech, free schools, free suffrage, and a free government, securing to all life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are driven to do battle in defense of these or to fall with them.”