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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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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