We’re halfway through Women’s History Month 2017, and I find myself thinking about what this annual observation really means.
Certainly, we should celebrate the achievements of our foremothers — those women who dared to challenge societal norms and insist on their full rights as human beings. Who withstood insults, indignities and incarceration to obtain what suffragist Alice Paul called “ordinary equality.”
As is often said, we stand on their shoulders.
But even as we acknowledge the advancements women have made over the centuries this month, women’s accomplishments are remarkable throughout the year, and the issues that matter most to women exist all year long as well. Economic stability and equal pay. Women’s rights and gender equality. Good jobs, education and child care. Ending domestic and sexual violence against women.
For low-income women, especially, the struggle doesn’t start on the 1st of March and end on the 31st. It spans months, years, even decades.
Women comprise nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers — the vast majority of whom get no paid sick days. Many are one crisis away from economic catastrophe. A bout with the flu or a sick child can mean a day’s wages lost, which means a bill paid late or a meal missed.
Living on a razor’s edge is exhausting and stressful in and of itself. Now imagine having to cope with a costly unexpected occurrence — say, a stone bouncing off the road and punching a hole in the car radiator. What might be a pricey inconvenience for one woman could cause another’s fragile financial stability to unravel completely.
At almost every point in their lifetimes, women experience higher rates of poverty than men do. Hardest hit are older women, especially those age 65 and over. On average, they rely on a median income of around $16,000 a year — roughly $11,000 less than men of the same age, according to a congressional analysis of census data.
The very fact that millions of women live this reality every day should be proof enough that there’s much work to be done.
Even after decades of pushing, prodding and protesting — and nearly 10 years after the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was signed into law — most women still earn 20 percent less than men doing the same or equivalent work. According to the National Women’s Law Center, the gap widens when you look at gender and race together, as women of color working full time make from 37 to 46 percent less than white, non-Hispanic men are paid.
This pay gap has damaging long-term effects on financial health. Lower lifetime earnings — combined with the fact that 45 percent of women who are caregivers take substantial time off from working — mean older women receive about $4,500 less annually in Social Security benefits than older men. Older women of color fare even worse.
But the inequity goes well beyond pay.
We still find ourselves in the minority when it comes to corporate leadership, legislative seats, board representation and other markers of power. We are still dismissed as “bossy,” “shrill” and “abrasive” when we assert ourselves, or “emotional” and “irrational” when we express ourselves in the fullness of our humanity. Nearly three decades into the 21st century, Shirley Chisolm’s words still ring true: “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: It's a girl.”
There’s a saying that you can’t pour water from an empty cup. Women of nearly every socioeconomic status understand this adage all too well. Whether as mothers or teachers or low-wage workers or caregivers, women are asked again and again to give when the cup is empty. This exacts a cost not just on them but on our nation as a whole.
So this month, while we salute the women who came before us, let’s also pledge to do more for those who are here right now and the ones who will follow. Let’s dedicate ourselves to rooting out gender bias in every corner of our society and replacing it with justice and equality. Let’s commit to making sure that women have their needs met at every age so they can thrive in their later years.
It’s not until we create a better present — and a better future — for all women that we will truly honor our history.