The YWCA Knoxville advocates for women from all walks of life and follows cultural trends and legislation that impact our clients and community. You can keep up with some of the issues we care about by subscribing to our blog.

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Are we there yet?

Guest Blogger: Alexandra Brewer

The changing political and social status of women in the US could be likened to a very long car ride. We began the journey at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton made the first public pronouncement for women’s suffrage, declaring “that all men and women are created equal.” Supporters faced frequent impediments because they challenged the traditional 19th-century belief that a woman’s proper role was limited to the home and family. Despite these obstacles, women manifested their grievances into a highly organized social movement that spanned for a generation and ultimately won women the vote.

After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, women continued to organize and collectively challenge aspects of US law and society that they perceived to be unjust or oppressive. Their efforts resulted in victories such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, or religion; the formation of the National Organization for Women; Title IX of the Education Amendments, which prevents discrimination on the basis of sex for educational programs  receiving federal funding; and the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, which extended a right to privacy under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

Women have made huge inroads in strengthening their political status and autonomy, but the journey, far from complete, hit several bumps in the road in the last year. The Senate failed to secure the 60 votes needed to advance the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have strengthened protections of both the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. Despite the passage of these bills, women continue to earn 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. The Paycheck Fairness Act would require employers to demonstrate that pay discrepancies for the same work are not related to gender; give women more time to sue their employers for pay inequity; prevent companies from retaliating against women who share salary information; and train women on how to negotiate a fair salary. The bill promoted the financial security of women and families, especially in households where women are the primary, or only, breadwinners.

Congress may also vote to limit or withdraw assistance to victims of domestic violence. The Senate recently reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, adding protections for minority victims. The Act was reauthorized amid little controversy in 2000 and 2005 with bipartisan support in both chambers; however, the House of Representatives recently passed a considerably diluted version that would partially dismantle and downgrade resources for the Office on Violence Against Women, impose costly paperwork on agencies, roll back existing provisions that protect minorities, and remove the requirement that victims be notified of housing rights before eviction. Congress must now reconcile the two competing versions. If the House’s bill prevails, it will be a giant step backward for women’s rights.

In addition to these legislative setbacks, women have struggled simply to be heard on issues regarding their own health. Lisa Brown, the state representative for Bloomfield, Michigan, was barred from the state house of representatives after she uttered the word “vagina” during a debate over an anti-abortion bill. Jim Stamas, the floor majority leader, claimed that her usage violated house decorum, and she was silenced for the rest of the debate. During a Congressional hearing in Washington, DC, women were prevented from taking part in panel discussions concerning reproductive health. The panel at the hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reforms concerning the contraceptive coverage rule was entirely composed of men. Senator Patty Murray said that seeing the all-male panel “was like stepping into a time machine and going back fifty years.”

This image reflects a more fundamental problem: the lack of female representation in politics. Although women constitute 51% of the US population, they make up only 17% of Congress, making the US 91st in women’s elected representation worldwide. The political atmosphere continues to thwart women’s political ambition. A report from American University’s Women & Politics Institute found that the gender gap in political ambition is virtually the same now as it was a decade ago because women are more likely to perceive the political environment as hostile towards women and to believe that they are less qualified to run for office than their male counterparts.

Women must collectively overcome their fear and trepidation in order to achieve political equity. In the past, fearless leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, and later Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem stepped forward to improve the status of women despite personal costs. Women need such bold leaders now more than ever to protect progress and make new inroads. Voting is the easiest way to make a difference by supporting politicians who advocate for our rights. We must organize and participate in the political process. Even though the journey is far from over and there are times when we have made a wrong turn at Albuquerque, we are well on our way. As Senator Barbara Mikulski exclaimed on the floor of the Senate, “Put on your lipstick! Square your shoulders! Suit up, and let’s fight for this new American revolution where women are paid equal pay for equal work and let’s end wage discrimination in this century once and for all.” It’s about time….

Alexandra Brewer is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is a research assistant at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and holds a Master’s degree in comparative politics from American University. Her research focuses on collective action, social change, and public policy. 

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Title IX: Where are we after 40 years?

June 23, 2012, marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education activities. Title IX revolutionized athletic programs for girls and women, and with the recent retirement of legendary University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt, it seems fitting for the YWCA Knoxville to recognize this significant anniversary in women’s sports, equal rights, and US history.

To ensure equal opportunity, Title IX requires institutions to pass a three-prong test that covers participation, athletic and financial assistance, and treatment. Critics say Title IX punishes men’s athletics by requiring quotas and forcing institutions to cut men’s teams, but the National Women’s Law Center does a good job of debunking these myths, even pointing out that men’s opportunities have increased.

According to the NCAA, there were 151,918 men and 15,182 women in college sports in 1966-1967, a few years before the passage of Title IX, and 252,946 men and 191,131 women in 2010-2011. That’s a 67% increase in male athletes and a 117% increase in female athletes. Yes, women’s college enrollment increased substantially over the years, but athletic opportunities would not have corresponded if not for Title IX.

For nine consecutive years, athletic opportunities for both men and women and the number of college athletes themselves have increased. In 2010-2011, more women’s teams than men’s teams were dropped, although more women’s teams were also added, making the net gain nearly even—112 men’s and 113 women’s teams.

A National Coalition for Women and Girls report commemorating Title IX’s 40th anniversary indicates that hurdles still exist for female athletes, especially women and girls of color, and the law must be better enforced. We still have work to do, but a 25% difference in the number of male versus female college athletes is a major improvement over the 90% difference four decades prior.

ESPN calls Pat Summitt the face of the Title IX generation. Most of us are familiar with the story by now: Summitt’s salary was $8,900 in 1974; she washed the team’s uniforms and drove the team van. Over the years, both Summitt’s hard work and Title IX allowed the Lady Vols to flourish and legitimized women’s basketball. As with many social changes, success required a combination of strong leadership and legislative change.

The importance of Title IX is not simply how many girls are playing sports, however; it’s what they get out of those opportunities. Studies highlighted by the New York Times reveal that girls’ participation in sports leads to increases in women’s education and employment rates and decreases in women’s obesity rates. Girls who play sports are less likely to experience teen pregnancy and depression and more likely to experience academic success, high self-esteem, and positive body image.

And we can’t let boys have all the fun while we watch from the sidelines.

–Written by Sara Baker, Director of Women’s Advocacy and Written Communications

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VAWA: Where the Senate’s right and the House is dead wrong

Introduced by then Senator Joe Biden in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act is a tremendous piece of legislation that strengthens penalties, requires states to enforce protection orders from other jurisdictions, makes it more difficult for abusers to threaten immigrant victims with deportation, promotes coordinated community response, and funds programs that save lives.

VAWA funds directly support the work of YWCA victim advocates. But it’s not just about funding. VAWA transformed the way communities approach domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. At the YWCA, we see firsthand the benefits of this legislation every single day.

Preventing violence against women has long been a nonpartisan issue, but recently VAWA’s reauthorization has become controversial. After much debate, the Senate recently passed S. 1925, which adds provisions for underserved communities. The House is set to vote on HR 4970, a version of VAWA that strips these protections, which are fundamental to women’s autonomy, family harmony, and community safety.

Immigrant needs: All victims face barriers to safety, but for immigrants, the task is nearly insurmountable. Without advocates to guide and support them, they cannot overcome barriers of language, culture, isolation, and lack of income, childcare, transportation, and knowledge of their rights. Abusers use all of this against them, telling victims they will be deported and lose their children. Legal protections and funding for culturally specific programming help to counteract these problems. While some may not support undocumented immigrants receiving services, all victims of crime are entitled to services in this country. Violence in the community is violence in the community no matter the circumstances. Children in violent family situations frequently grow up to be perpetrators and victims, and the children of immigrants are often US citizens.

Immigrant provisions: VAWA has always included protections for immigrants, such as U visas, which give victims who cooperate with law enforcement temporary legal status. S. 1925 recaptures unused U visas (due to a backlog in 2006-2011) and makes them available for the new VAWA term. HR 4970 undercuts the visa program, discouraging victims from working with law enforcement and allowing batterers to perpetuate abuse by threatening deportation. It also strips confidentiality protections for immigrant victims. All victims deserve confidentiality; otherwise, they will be deterred from reporting.

LGBT needs: LGBT individuals experience approximately the same rates of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking as everyone else, yet they rarely receive effective services because protocols are typically designed for heterosexual couples and providers tend to lack cultural competency. LGBT victims are sometimes arrested because of assumptions about which party is the aggressor. Often, they are denied services. In one study, 25% of LGBT victims were denied shelter due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

LGBT provisions: S. 1925 prohibits law enforcement and service providers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and allows federal funding to go toward programs helping LGBT victims. HR 4970 strips those provisions, allowing discrimination to go unchecked and leaving barriers to prevention and intervention intact. It’s a matter of equal access.

Tribal needs: Native American women face the highest rates of violence in the country. Non-Natives comprise 40% of reservation populations and commit 80% of violent crimes against Native people, yet they are not subject to Tribal prosecution. While the rest of us can go through our local jurisdictions, the Department of Justice has jurisdiction over felony crimes against Native Americans, which means that victims must travel hundreds of miles to access federal, or sometimes state, courts prioritizing homicide and terrorism. Consequently, federal and state governments rarely prosecute domestic violence and sexual assault crimes. Without an effective response, non-Natives can more or less attack women in Indian Country with impunity.

Tribal provisions: S. 1925 gives tribes limited jurisdiction on crimes of domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking by non-Native offenders. This holds offenders accountable and increases safety on reservations. HR 4970 contains no Tribal provisions, leaving Native women subject to continued assault and allowing rapists and abusers to go unpunished, leaving us all vulnerable.

VAWA’s legacy cannot be underestimated. Since its initial passage in 1994, domestic-violence reporting has increased by 51% for women and 37% for men and the number of DV-related homicides has decreased by 34% for women and 57% for men. By 2000, VAWA had saved taxpayers $14.8 billion. Like all cultural problems, the dynamics of gender-based violence fluctuate, and VAWA must respond to those changes if it is to remain effective.

We encourage you to contact your Congressperson today and share your thoughts on this vital issue.

–Written by Sara Baker, YWCA Director of Women’s Advocacy and Written Communications

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Another day, another sex scandal

There are too many to name—the long list of powerful men who chronically cheat, secretly father children with women other than their wives, sexually harass employees and colleagues, hire prostitutes (including minors and victims of trafficking), and sexually assault women. Not all men have these problems, of course, and not all powerful men, either. But why do some treat women this way? And what happens when women have power?

I’ve been talking to people about this subject lately and received a variety of responses. (Note: These were just casual conversations, not a study.) One person said it’s all about ego and nothing to do with sexism. A few think women are doing the same things but simply aren’t getting caught. I’m figuring those folks were talking more about cheating than prostitution and rape, and, yes, there are still far more men in power than women, so that accounts for at least some of the imbalance, but if loads of women really are behaving as badly, why aren’t they getting caught too?

Most respondents think that powerful men and powerful women behave quite differently—for the most part. I tend to agree, but not because I think there is necessarily a biological cause for this difference. Rather, I think men and women experience power differently because of the ways we are socialized and because we have yet to achieve full equality across the board.

In general, women still have to work harder to get to the top, and once they get there, their positions are often less tenable. I suspect they are less likely to take that power for granted. Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in The New York Times, “Women have different reasons for running [for office], are more reluctant to do so and, because there are so few of them in politics, are acutely aware of the scrutiny they draw—all of which seems to lead to differences in the way they handle their jobs once elected.”

Women are judged more harshly for their sexual proclivities, so they have more to lose. (If you think double standards like this don’t exist anymore, then welcome to Feminism 101.) As author Erica Jong says, “Women know they won’t be protected and that they’ll be exposed. And it has to do with how much power men have in society and how little women have.”

We can’t talk about power without talking about ego. Dutch psychologist Joris Lammers, who has studied the relationship between power and confidence, says, “Power leads to this disinhibited sense that you can get what you want and should take risks to get it.” As at least one person I spoke with mentioned, narcissism definitely plays a role. But can we blame it all on that and take sexism out of the equation? I’m not so sure. What does it mean when someone spends much of their public life fighting for human rights but treats women like objects in private? Is this not a reflection of institutionalized sexism?

Perhaps we spend too much time worrying about the personal lives of politicians and others in the public eye, but when their personal lives reveal behaviors that demean women—and I’m not talking about simple cheating (men and women cheat in almost equal numbers) but the deplorable actions listed above—I don’t want them making decisions about our economy, our laws, our lives. I’m sure many of these men would maintain that they are not sexist, that they believe in equal opportunity and even actively support it, but when their private actions are fundamentally sexist, I would argue that they are too.

We live in a society that not only tolerates but still promotes a “boys will be boys” attitude. Men in power are often expected to treat women this way. Many powerful men are invited to cheat, introduced to prostitution rings, encouraged to exploit women. This has been the case for thousands of years. It’s insulting to men and demeaning to women. But the fact that we now talk about it openly means it’s changing, however slowly.

What can you do to help it along? Men, pledge to treat women with respect. Recognize that what may be fueling your ego may also be devaluing women. Women, keep fighting for power and don’t let it go to your head.

If you’re a woman in a position of power, we would love to hear your thoughts.

–Sara Baker, YWCA Director of Women’s Advocacy and Written Communications

Sara Baker holds an MA in English with Writing Concentration from the University of Tennessee and a BA in English and Religion from Maryville College. Her lifelong commitment to women’s issues includes volunteer work with the Alliance for International Women’s Rights, American Association of University Women, National Conference on Community and Justice, National Network of Presbyterian College Women, University of Tennessee Women’s Coordinating Council, University of Swansea Club W, and Maryville College Sisters in Spirit. Sara has studied African American women’s literature, women’s roles in world religions, and the status of women in North Indian culture. Through her work at the YWCA, she researches women’s rights, violence against women, women and poverty, and girl empowerment.

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