Seventy Years of Progress for Women’s Equality: A Long Road with More to Do

The debate surrounding the 2020 election caused me to reflect upon all of the rights that women have won in my 73 years. It is strange to be in my eighth decade of life at a time when all of a sudden, so much of our country’s future is in doubt.

We are divided as never before. We struggle with a pandemic which has revealed the weaknesses in our healthcare system and the systemic effects of racism and wealth and income inequality. In an effort to be positive, I reached back to a list I created for my 70th birthday party. It’s a list of all of the rights I now have that I did not have in 1947 when I was born.

It’s easy to get discouraged in such troubling times. But my list demonstrates how much the world has changed for the better for women in the United States since 1947. Women can now:

1. Play on school sports teams that received the same resources as men’s teams. When I was in high school in New York City, the Public School Athletic League prohibited girls from participating in sports teams competing with other schools.

2. Attend most Ivy league colleges. When I went to college, women who had the qualifications for admission to the Ivy League instead attended one of the Seven Sisters colleges for women. I was admitted to Barnard but could not afford the tuition. Unfortunately, the cost of attending college is even more prohibitive today.

3. Receive equal pay in the workplace. Congress passed the first Equal Pay Act in 1963. We are not entirely equal yet, but we have made substantial progress.

4. Be protected from discrimination in the work place. Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The Act bars discrimination on the basis of race and sex, and established the EEOC.

5. Use birth control. In Griswold v. Connecticut, decided in 1965, the Supreme Court ruled that anti-birth control laws violate the constitutional right to privacy.

6. Have a legal abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, holding that women have a constitutional right to an abortion.

7.Take parental leave (unpaid) after the birth of a child. The Family and Medical Leave Act, enacted in 1993, provides for unpaid family leave. But not all employees are eligible. The United States is the only wealthy country in the world which does not provide for paid family leave.

8. Open a credit card account without the approval of her father or her husband. When I applied for a Saks Fifth Avenue credit card in 1974, the form still had a signature line for your father/husband, although that signature was no longer required.

9. Marry someone of the same sex with the same rights, benefits, and obligations as spouses in opposite sex marriage. My wife and I were married in Canada in 2006. At the time we could not be married in the United States. New York recognized same sex marriage in 2011. Our marriage was not recognized by the federal government until 2013, as a result of the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor. In 2015, the Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges, holding that there was a constitutional right to same sex marriage.

This list isn’t comprehensive (and obviously not listed in order of importance). It reflects my history as a white woman from a middle class background. But it is a reminder that despite all of the issues this country currently faces, we have been moving in the right direction, albeit very slowly. Yes, there is much more to do, including the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution. But thanks to the struggle of countless brave Americans, the United States of America is a better, fairer place than it was 70 years ago.

Where there is progress, there is always pushback. Even when things change for the better, some people are always going to want to pull us back to a darker time. Women in the United States today would not like to live in the country as it existed in 1947. We can see on my list a number of rights that are now under attack. Rights are fragile – hard won and easily lost. At the same time, we see how politically energized women of all ages have become since the Presidential election of 2016. Many women are successfully running for public office. Our next Vice-President is a woman of color.

We’re living in troubled times, but we’ve gone through troubled times before and come out better for them. I’m not discouraged by the challenges this country faces – I’m hopeful. I believe this country is poised to address all of the problems that have been highlighted this year. Racism, inadequate health care, climate change, wealth and income inequality, the status of women. The list is long, and passions are high. But I believe that transformative change can be achieved. Hopefully, it will take a lot less time than 70 years.

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