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The State of the Glass

March 11, 2012

In 1990, Anna Quindlen published an article entitled “The Glass Half Empty.” It was about what Anna was given by her daughter on the day she turned two. Over the years, Anna had learned to live with the obstacles of being female in this male-dominated world, accepting them knowing things were better than they had been. She had become content with the glass half full. But now she looked at her little girl and knew that she wanted more for her, thus giving Anna an angry return to a pessimistic view of the state of gender equality, the glass half empty. This may sound quite odd, but it makes perfect sense once you hear her out. The article was written with such power and passion that I began using it as a springboard activity in my writing classes during Women’s History Month each March.

Women’s History Month. It is about this time I begin to hear the groans. “Not that again,” some complain. “Haven’t we put that one to rest yet?” others moan.

Well, it is 2012, and yes, it is that again. And no, it hasn’t been put to rest. Why? Because, as Anna Quindlen so succinctly put it, this is still “a world that, despite all our nonsense about post feminism, continues to offer less respect and less opportunity for women than it does for men.”

I say this knowing that there have indeed been advances by women in many areas, including some, such as the high school graduation rate and bachelor’s degrees earned, in which they have surpassed men. But this must be qualified. There are many more areas where the inequities persist, even in the United States which has claimed to be at the vanguard of the movement for equal treatment.  Much of the world lags even further behind.

One important area is that of elected offices. Here are the telling statistics. Currently 50.9 % of the population of the United States is female, but women only comprise 12% of governors and 17% of the members of Congress. How is this a representative government? Remember, this is in the country supposedly with government of, by, and for the people which did not even allow women the right to vote until 1920 (which, by the way, was after Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, and Czechoslovakia), and then only after a fierce battle to obtain that right. In Arizona, there was a state requirement that officeholders be male until 1988. How’s that for enlightened governance in a democracy? How can issues of great significance to women such as the current health care ones be properly debated and legislated without the direct and proportionate input of women?

Another key area is economics, for in this society, money is power. What is called the gender gap in earning has been calculated for quite a few years. The gap has closed, but the rate has been unsatisfactory in the opinion of many. In 1970, women earned 59 cents for every dollar men earned. Two decades later in the year Anna Quindlen wrote her article, it had risen to 67 cents. The turn of the millennium brought 74 cents, and in 2010 it stood at 77 cents. That is an increase of 18 cents in forty years, or an astounding rate of .45 cents per year. If the increase continues at this rate, it will take until 2063 to be equal.

It is easier to measure the changes in elected offices or economics, though, than it is to measure changes in attitude, and it is those changes that are most critical. It is also the area that seems to be most problematic. There is much evidence that women are still regarded as inferior to men. This is a politically incorrect and unacceptable idea in polite society, but polite society ends at the front door of people’s homes.

The statistics for domestic abuse are one indication of this. In the U.S. a man beats a woman every 12 seconds. Four women a day die as a result of these beatings. Men batter four million women each year. Though keeping statistics on verbal and emotional abuse is impossible, anecdotally there appears to be a tremendous amount of it. This is not something that can be legislated out of existence; it is perpetuated in the actions of one generation of men that serve as models for the next. In Anna Quindlen’s words,  “Just as we fooled ourselves that the end of discriminatory laws would soon lead to racial harmony, so we thought that increased access to education, advancement, and male-only arenas would erase the attitudes that have led some men to treat women like children, fools, and punching bags.”

Sexual harassment in the workplace also attests to these attitudes. Some surveys show that 40% of women say they’ve been sexually harassed at work. A New York Times/CBS News poll reported that 50% of the men surveyed admitted to having sexually harassed a woman at work. Anna Quindlen relates this incident: “… a waitress told me of complaining to the manager of the coffee shop in which she worked about his smutty comments and intimate pats. He replied, ‘You’re a skirt.’ Then he told her that if she didn’t like it, there were plenty of other skirts out there who would take the job — and the abuse. She needed the money and she got the message — there is one standard for people, and there is another standard for skirts….”

The roots of this phenomenon are deep. Institutional discrimination permeates the history of this nation. It was manifest in public policies of this country including the exclusion of women from voting, holding public office, serving on juries, and attaining higher education. In the 14th Amendment of our Constitution, the very foundation of our laws, “citizens” and “voters” are defined as male. In an 1873 Supreme Court case (Bradwell vs. Illinois), the court affirmed that, in order to “preserve family harmony and uphold the law of the Creator,” states could restrict women from practicing any profession. In 1923, the Supreme Court struck down a 1918 minimum wage law for women because if it were in effect, then women would be considered equal to men. The endemic nature of the problem was highlighted in 1963 when a report issued by the President’s Commission on the Status of Women documented discrimination against women “in virtually every area of American life.” It took until 1973 for the U.S. military to integrate females when women-only branches were finally eliminated. It took until 1975 for a court decision to deny states the right to exclude women from serving on juries. It took until 1976 for the military academies to be open to women’s admissions. It took until 1981 for a woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

Societal bias paralleled that which infused the establishment. In 1850 when the first females graduated medical school, they needed a police guard because of threats against them. A Harvard medical professor, Edward Charles, proclaimed in 1873 that both women and their offspring would be harmed by higher education. This belief remained widespread for decades. Comments by public figures from President Grover Cleveland (“Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote. The relative positions to be assumed by man and woman in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence than ours.”) to Pat Buchanan (“Complain as they will about ‘discrimination,’ women are simply not endowed by nature with the same measures of single-minded ambition and the will to succeed in the fiercely competitive world of Western capitalism.”) to the recent reprehensible and demeaning comments by Rush Limbaugh reflect the ingrained philosophy that women are inferior beings.

How shall this ever be rectified? What can be done to break the cycle of the diminishment and stereotyping of females? There are no easy answers, that’s for sure. Change comes slowly in the hearts and minds of men. Much legislation has been enacted towards this end, and educational and business institutions are coming around in their clumsy bureaucratic ways. But in the end it will be up to each of us in this society to play whatever role we can to educate, convince, or persuade those who continue to maintain their Neanderthal attitudes. This struggle won’t be over until the idea of gender equality is a reality embraced by all. I have a feeling that this will not occur any time soon, but the goal is a righteous one, and it is worth paying whatever price in time and effort it takes to achieve it.

Anna’s daughter is now 24. Perhaps when she has a daughter, on her second birthday her gift to her mother will be an optimistic one: the prospect of a glass that is finally full.

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