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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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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