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Happy Women's Equality Day: Everything Is Still Bad

Fifty-one years after the establishment of Women's Equality Day, women are still underrepresented in politics, sexual violence is rampant, and the wage gap persists—but things are getting better.

by Linda Yang
Aug 26 2016, 7:09pm

Photo by Jen Grantham via Stocksy

On this day in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was enacted, allowing women to vote in federal elections. Fifty-one years later, Representative Bella Abzug of New York introduced a bill designating August 26 as Women's Equality Day; the date is meant to commemorate the advent of women's suffrage and serve as a symbol of the continued fight for equal rights.

Obviously—and despite the fact that the majority of men may think otherwise—that fight is far from over. The Congress that established Women's Equality Day included just 15 women, or two percent of elected officials at the time. Today, Congress counts 104 women as members, totaling up to about 20 percent.

As in Congress, the gender gap is closing in all aspects of American life—albeit slowly. Forty-five years have passed since we first started celebrating the ongoing struggle for equality; here's where we stand now.

Women's political representation

"The number of women in politics in the United States has stagnated. We haven't been able to reach above 20 percent," says Amanda Clayton, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies gender and politics. In addition, in the current 114th Congress, 33 out of the 104 women are women of color—meaning that that women of color constitute only 6.2 percent of Congress as a whole.

Though the percentage of women in politics has remained fairly (and disappointingly) constant, there are many dimensions to evaluate women's political representation, Clayton explains. Another indicator for political equality is changing attitudes caused by women gaining political power. "There's a lot of research that shows that when women are younger and see female role models in office, they're more likely to run themselves," she notes. This means seeing women like Hillary Clinton winning elections might encourage more women to think about—and enter—public office.

This is true across party lines. "The year after Sarah Palin was chosen as John McCain's Vice President running mate, more Republican woman ran for Congress," says Clayton. "Hopefully it becomes this virtuous cycle whereas more women run, more women succeed."

With Trump's vociferous and vitriolic campaign in full swing, however, some fear that the loud orange man might be contributing to the normalization of sexist attitudes, potentially harming women's equality as a whole.

But Clayton is optimistic. "If anything, I would hope that he would solidify women's resolve," she says.

She cites the 1991 Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Senate hearing, in which Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court despite sexual harassment claims, as an example of sexism catalyzing women's political involvement. "It was an all-male Senate committee that didn't understand what sexual harassment was. It became a national debacle when [Thomas] ended up being appointed to the Supreme Court, and there was this huge public outcry," she explains.

"The effects of it—they called 1992 the Year of the Woman. More women ran and won seats in Congress than ever before, it was this reaction that we needed to change things," says Clayton. Overall, Clayton believes, we're at a watershed moment for women's political representation in America. "Hopefully we can see women stepping up and fixing things."

Reproductive rights

Last year, conservative legislators enacted 57 abortion restrictions across the country; since 2010, at least 288 anti-abortion laws have been passed. Though the Supreme Court overturned the onerous Texas law upon which some of the harshest anti-abortion statutes were based, hundreds of abortion restrictions still remain in effect, according to the Center for American Progress, and politicians are continuously introducing new legislation.

"This year, we have seen a great deal of success, especially after the Supreme Court ruling in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt," says NARAL communications director Kaylie Hanson Long, referring to the decision that struck down the Texas law. But, she cautions, there's still a lot of work to do: While the court's decision reaffirmed a woman's right to abortion care no matter her zip code, "anti-choice legislators at really every level of government are doing whatever they can to try to limit our constitutional right to abortion."

With the presidential election looming, women's access to reproductive health care hangs in the balance. "In this election, the contrast couldn't be clearer," says Hanson Long, noting that Hillary Clinton and other pro-choice candidates "are championing reproductive freedom." For the first time ever, the Democratic party platform has prominently supported the repeal of the Hyde and Helms amendments, two discriminatory policies that have limited women's access to reproductive healthcare.

Conversely, "you see the complete opposite in Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence," Hanson Long says. As she sees it, it's not just Trump's rhetoric that's misogynistic—calling women "fat pigs," "bimbos" and "slobs"—it's also the "policy proposals he has put forth suggesting that a woman should be punished for choosing abortion care."

While Trump has never held public office, his Vice Presidential pick has, and Pence is vehemently anti-abortion. Earlier this year, in his home state, he signed into law a bill that would force women to seek funerary services for aborted fetuses. While the law was put on hold by a federal court, it shows the extreme depths of Pence's anti-abortion beliefs.

"It's so important to put pro-choice leaders in office, from the top all the way to the local level," says Hanson Long. "We need to make sure that state representatives, senators, and the President are people fighting to protect a woman's right to choose and advance reproductive freedom."

Sexual violence

Although constant reports of high-profile sexual assault cases may seem deeply infuriating and discouraging, the fact that these cases are garnering public attention and outrage at all is a good sign, according to sexual violence advocates, and increased media attention is changing the way the public perceives survivors.

"Within the last several years there has been a great deal more attention and understanding paid to domestic and sexual violence," says Sandra Park, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "People are gaining a broader sense of how we as a society deal with these cases."

Earlier this year, BuzzFeed published a statement that a rape victim read to her attacker, a Stanford swimmer named Brock Turner, at his sentencing. Though Turner been found guilty of sexually assaulting the young woman while she was unconscious, he was sentenced to just six months in prison. The case, and subsequent outrage over Turner's light sentence, started a nationwide conversation about sexual assault and the failures of the criminal justice system.

"With Brock Turner, people were shocked about the sentence," says Park—but, as numerous similar cases in the past few months have shown, there's nothing shocking about affluent white men getting away with rape. That, hopefully, will start to change: Park says that "at institutions, including police departments and universities, people have been stepping up and taking responsibility for how we as a society respond to violence."

Of course, "there's a lot more work to be done," she concedes. "Particularly in ending victim blaming and strengthening our institutional responses to violence." Also important: "Preventing violence in the first place."

Wage equality

"Study after study tells us that the wage gap is real and has barely budged in decades," says Gillian Thomas, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women's Rights Project. While the exact numbers might be disputed, many advocates say that women make 77 cents to every dollar a white man makes. For women of color, that discrepancy is even higher: According to a report by policy think tank American Progress, black and Hispanic women make 70 and 61 cents to every dollar a white man makes, respectively.

"[The ACLU's] position is that there are a number of causes of the gender wage gap, Thomas adds. "More importantly, undeniably, there is still discrimination." Whether it is intentional discrimination or implicit bias that leads to the gap, women are being paid less than their male counterparts.

For now, however, the Fairness Act—which was written to close exceptions and loopholes in the 1963 Equal Pay Act—continues to sit idly in Congress; while Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has repeatedly advocated for the passage of the bill, even sponsoring it, Republican Senate members have repeatedly struck it down.

However, there have been positive strides in closing the wage gap in recent years, and several states have enacted equal pay legislation. Massachusetts is the latest, and its law is one of the most progressive: In April, it became the first state in which employers are forbidden from asking job candidates about their salary history during the application process.

Using past salary to set an starting salary is "a very well recognized way of perpetrating wage discrimination," Thomas explains: Though it may not be conscious on employers' part, it creates a system in which men who have benefited from inflated salaries bring that high pay from one job to another, while women who have depressed wages in previous jobs continue to earn less.

Today, "there is momentum as people become fatigued by the wage gap and dispirited by the inability of federal legislation," states Thomas. "The states are really where it's at in terms of creative solutions."