Women's Rights and Inequality in America

A few weeks ago, one of my friends -- a very talented businesswoman -- posted this doozy of a Facebook status:

Getting pretty sick of receiving emails from random people, asking if I can check [her boyfriend and co-founder's] schedule or if they can book an appointment with him. (Um, no. I don't keep track of his schedule.) Even worse is when someone learns that I'm the director of a particular initiative that they're interested in, yet still have the audacity to ask me if they can meet with Matt instead. (He's a busy guy. That's why he has three other capable co-founders, including me.)

Apparently, "President" of the organization means "assistant" if you're a woman who happens to date her male co-founder.

(Seriously. It's ridiculous that I even have to post this.)

The responses included comments from a man who is the personal assistant to a (female) vice president of his company who said people often speak to him as if he was her superior, go to him for decisions she's more qualified to answer and that, occasionally, there's the person who assumes they must be dating because (of course) he "pretends she is the boss-lady." There's the woman whose co-worker had to make a sign designating her as "Engineer" because, in meetings, people would assume she was a secretary. Another woman pipes up to say: "Even if I introduce myself as 'doctor,' male (particularly older male) parents of patients still refer to me as the nurse." And, lastly, the single mom whose occasional client would ask, "So who takes care of your kids while you're working?" -- because, she can't possibly be a good mother and work at the same time.

This is the reality in which we still live today. Yet, in conversations of inequality, the issue of women's rights is often glazed over for the inevitably esoteric race discussion. Now, in no way am I saying the issue of race inequality is any less important or poignant. In fact, also within the last month, a bartender had the audacity to tell an Indian friend of mine, "I don't serve your kind," almost immediately after which, an ignorant bar-goer decided to yell racially charged epithets after my girlfriend and I, because of our status as an interracial couple. Yes, both are glaring examples of the inequality - and, often, ignorance of that inequality - that plagues our country. However, in the United States, there is no such widely acknowledged issue being more maliciously attacked than that of women's rights.

For much, if not all, of human history, women have been little more than property -- subjected by men, bought and sold (in the name of "marriage") and viewed as not much more than vessels for procreation. Slavery no doubt has a sordid history but no oppression has been so institutionalized for so long as that of the women of the world.

This shameful history eventually led to action. In July 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. The event, the first of its kind in the West, was organized by local female Quakers and Elizabeth Cady Stanton -- a young Frederick Douglass was also in attendance -- and culminated in the Declaration of Sentiments. The controversial document, authored by Stanton and modeled after the Declaration of Independence, was dubbed the "grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women" and was signed by 100 of the convention's 300. Yet, many viewed the proclamation as being drafted, "at the expense of women's more 'appropriate' duties," and even some other women's rights supporters saw the document's endorsement of women's suffrage to be a major hindrance to the movement.

However, in spite of this skepticism and opposition from Southern white men, ethnic politicians and the liquor industry (who concluded that women would vote "dry"), America's women finally gained suffrage with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Surprisingly though (or, perhaps not), upper class women in New York actually opposed voting rights for women, fearing it would dilute their "behind-the-scenes influence" with their husbands. Influential female author Helen Kendrick Johnson also opposed suffrage, arguing that women's domestic roles were essential in maintaining the American republic.

But, despite these factors, American women won the right to vote. And in 1923, three years after the legislation's passing, Alice Paul drafted and introduced the Equal Rights Amendment for the first time. The amendment sought to give women not only the right to vote but true equality under the law. The bill reads:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

However, though the proposed amendment was introduced every year between 1923 and 1970 it struggled to even reach the floor of the Senate or House for a vote... until 1972. In that year, support for the bill finally united after nationwide strikes by female workers and the measure was passed with an overwhelming majority in both houses of Congress. But in the seven years allotted for ratification after the passage, only 35 states stepped forward, short of the two-thirds number of 38 needed. Since then, there have been numerous attempts to pass the legislation but all have failed. Senator Robert Menendez reintroduced the ERA - as it has been symbolically for years -- to the 113th Congress on March 5, 2013.

Still, even without the passage of the ERA, women's rights continued to make strides forward. The 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade dramatically extended a women's control over decisions about her privacy and health. The establishment of WIC as a permanent program in 1975 allowed struggling single mothers to feed themselves and their children. The 1994 passage of the Violence Against Women Act gave women redress against the perpetrators of domestic violence and other violent crimes. And, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 struck down the 180-day statute of limitations on filing an equal pay lawsuit.

However, in spite of the progress that has been made, we aren't nearly where we need to be. Women are still embattled, facing the prospect of violence, unequal wages and, often, unequal treatment every day. If you need proof of this, look no further than my opening excerpt. We must ask ourselves "why?" Why, even when we know what is wrong, can we not take the steps to remedy injustice? As the saying goes: united we stand, divided we fall. When will enough be enough?