White House marks Women's History Month with 50-year progress report

Women's History Month began Tuesday, and the White House released the 'first comprehensive federal report on the status of women' since 1963.

John Galayda/The Connecticut Post/AP/File
Women seen at commencement at Fairfield University, in Fairfield, Conn. A long-term progress report on the status of women was released by the White House, Tuesday, to start off Women's History Month. The report states that while women are more likely to hold a degree than men, pay is still unequal.

Young women in America are more likely than men to have a college degree, and women’s earnings constitute a growing share of household income, but their wages still lag significantly behind those of men with comparable education, according to a report on the status of women released Tuesday by the White House.

The White House released the report, which it called the “first comprehensive federal report on the status of women in almost 50 years,” on the first day of Women’s History Month.

It was 1963 when the Commission on Women, formed by President John F. Kennedy and chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, issued the first such report. That was the same year that “Dr. No,” the first James Bond film, was shown in US theaters, Iranian women got to vote for the first time, and Sheriff Eugene “Bull” Connor unleashed fire hoses and police dogs on African-American demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala.

“The Obama administration has been focused on addressing the challenges faced by women and girls from Day 1 because we know that the success of women and girls is vital to winning the future,” said Valerie Jarrett, chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. “Today’s report not only serves as a look back on American women’s lives, but serves as a guidepost to help us move forward.”

Monthlong focus

Many authors and academics agree with that assessment and say they are delighted the White House intends to cast a weekly spotlight on each of the report’s five main topics throughout the month: (1) people, families, and income; (2) education; (3) employment; (4) health; and (5) crime and violence. But some wish the report would have gone further in laying out more completely what challenges women face in 2011.

“This is a very important study, and the field of women’s studies should be delighted that it has come out,” says Susan Shapiro Barash, professor of gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College and author of “You're Grounded Forever. But First Let's Go Shopping: The Challenges Mothers Face with their Daughters and Ten Timely Solutions.”

In spite of the giant gains women have made in education and the labor force, there are still huge inequities in pay for equal work, she says. “There is still sexism and tokenism in corporate America and this report shows both the progress that has been made and the hurdles that are still ahead.”

Some of the report’s key findings include:

• Women have not only caught up with men in college attendance, but younger women are now more likely than younger men to have a college or a graduate degree. Women are also working more and the number of women and men in the labor force has nearly equalized in recent years. As women’s work has increased, their earnings constitute a growing share of family income.

• Gains in education and labor force involvement have not yet translated into wage and income equity. At all levels of education, women earned about 75 percent of what their male counterparts earned in 2009. In part because of these lower earnings and in part because unmarried and divorced women are the most likely to have responsibility for raising and supporting their children, women are more likely to be in poverty than men. These economic inequities are even more acute for women of color.

• Women live longer than men but are more likely to face certain health-care challenges. One out of seven women age 18 to 64 has no usual source of health care. The share of women in that age range without health insurance has also increased.

• Women are less likely than in the past to be the target of violent crimes, including homicide. But women are victims of certain crimes, such as intimate partner violence and stalking, at higher rates than men.

Where discrepancies remain

Among the key discrepancies that remain between men and women is the number of men and women who head colleges and universities. “Also far fewer women than men have tenured positions,” says Cynthia Good, editor and CEO of LittlePINKbook.com, a website for mothers.

“The report emphasizes the importance of encouraging employers to promote diversity. Many still aren’t even having the conversation,” says Ms. Good. The fact that women are living longer spotlights the importance for women to have careful financial planning and anticipate retirement “since they are living longer,” she says.

Meanwhile, others say that despite the gains mentioned in the report, sexual assault rates remain steady and are still severely underreported. “It is crucial to address the culture of victim-blaming that keeps many women from coming forward and finding the resources they need,” says Brooke Axtelle, an advocate for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

In summary, Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento assesses the report using the language from the famous Virginia Slims ads of the 1960s.

"We have come a long way, baby. We still have a few things to work on. The first is pay equity, and the second is still wanting it all,” she says. “The question is did the feminist movement have an impact or is it abandoned in economics downturns?”

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