Whither the Women's Movement?

HERE'S the good news: The Supreme Court's recent decision on abortion seems to have galvanized the long-fallow women's movement. Here's the bad news: Some activists are hell-bent on engaging in a media tug of war. National Organization of Women President Molly Yard, takes the first tug, proposing the creation of a national women's political party. Kate Michelman, the National Abortion Rights Action League executive director, yanks back, calling NOW's move self-defeating. Ms. Michelman claims such a party would divert scarce resources and winnow down support for the abortion rights movement.

Wait a minute, guys! You are missing the point. For the first time in more than a decade, the attention of the female public is focused on a woman's issue. Instead of in-fighting about one topic, activists should be seizing the opportunity to set a broader agenda and build the movement back into the social powerhouse it once was.

This is not to minimize the importance of the abortion issue. It has touched the life of almost every, if not every, woman in America. Each of us has a friend, a neighbor, or a relative who has faced the dilemma of bearing an unwanted child, or having an abortion. But abortion has reduced the women's movement, or what's left of it, to single-issue politics.

Meanwhile, there is a much larger change rumbling through the lives of American women (and men). And there's no organized political machine driving society to attend to the problems brought on by this demographic revolution.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that 74 percent of all women between the ages of 25 and 54 work outside the home. Economist Susan Shank says three-quarters of those women are working full time. That is three times as many women working full time as there were 20 years ago.

More mothers of young children are working full time than during any other peacetime period in United States history. BLS figures show that 56 percent of mothers with children aged six or under are working. This demographic revolution is changing the way American children are being raised. It is altering the way corporations do business. And it is remolding family lifestyle. Yet there is no effective lobby group representing the interests of the people whose lives are being altered, and in many cases damaged, by these changes. That's where the women's movement should come in, but does not.

Take the problem of pay equity. The dreary statistic, which we all tire of hearing, is that women make 65 cents for every dollar earned by a man. In 1955, the comparable figure was 64 cents. Progress is excruciatingly slow. Why? Perhaps American women are satisfied with their lot. More likely, though, is that activists are honing in on the abortion issue and don't see pay equity as worthy of much attention.

That's not the case in Canada. Ontario recently passed a law which requires all employers, including the government, to match pay for jobs historically held by women with the pay of jobs of comparable skill which are usually filled by men. Employers have to compare jobs on the basis of skill, effort, working conditions, and responsibility. They are required by law to complete these surveys by next January. And they must phase in salary adjustments within five years.

Government figures show that half of all women who entered the work force within the last 10 years are single heads of households. When mothers earn less money, their children are worse off. It's no surprise that children are the most impoverished age group. If a revived women's movement would target the pay equity issue, women and children would be better served.

Another devastating problem created by the working woman's revolution is the paucity of quality, affordable day care. According to the Children's Defense Fund the scarcity has reached crisis proportions. And it's not just working parents who suffer. Congressional aides say billions of dollars in worker productivity is lost each year when parents miss work because their day care providers, or their children, get sick.

Congress is working on a federal day care bill. But as generous as Sen. Christopher Dodd's $2.5 billion Act for Better Child Care bill is, it won't provide day care for every family that needs it. Rep. Pat Schroeder, the primary House sponsor of this plan, says she's not convinced Congress will produce a child care bill this year. She has been trying to get Congress to pass a child care bill for 17 years.

If a more vigilant women's movement pursued day care as a top-of-the-agenda item, that bill and others like it might be a fait accompli by now. Cut the in-fighting, friends, and get down to the business of solving the problems of the working majority of the '90s!

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