U.S. News

07.19.14

Whither the Women’s Movement?

Despite massive gains in the 20th century, the women’s movement has reached a stalemate in the 21st. How to move forward?

William Barnett, my paternal grandfather, came to America in 1910, and became a union organizer with the International Cap Makers Union.  Although William was enamored with his newly-found freedoms in America, and angered by the horrendous working conditions of his fellow laborers, my grandmother Lottie was not amused.  With four children living in a tenement on the Lower East Side in two tiny rooms, Lottie knew that the only way they could stay in their adopted country was to earn a paycheck.  And when William was eventually blacklisted due to his union involvement, the situation became desperate. 

Lottie believed, as an Orthodox Jew, that the next thing that happened was divine intervention.  She found two $ 20 dollar bills in the communal washrooms, moved the family to Canada, and advised my grandfather that he was welcome to join only if he intended to stop organizing and get a real job.  Their children became doctors and businesswomen, but all were infused with a sense of justice for the millions who remained in the poverty that their family once knew.

Fast forward to November 2003.  William’s granddaughter, found herself in a similar position.  After leaving the government as a political appointee, I was producing hearty revenues and working 24/7 in an international consulting company.  Out of nowhere, I was one of seven of nine women in my group, and one of the four older people who was dismissed in a maneuver called a reduction in force.   I spent the next few weeks feeling the pain and embarrassment of pure discrimination.  Unlike my enthusiastic but penniless grandfather, I had laws and resources on my side. 

As an attorney, I decided that by filing a lawsuit based on gender and age discrimination, justice would prevail.  Justice did prevail, but it took 10 years to find its way.

All of which led me to realize that although the First and Second Women’s Movements were successful in achieving basic rights in voting, employment, health, and education, we’ve been at a stalemate for decades. There has been a lot of talk about leaning forward and backward.  But as former Secretary Hillary Clinton has pointed out, for all of this progress, women and girls still comprise the majority of the world’s unhealthy, unfed, and unpaid.

To change this paradigm, to move forward, it is critical to look back.

First Women’s Movement: Eighty Years to Get the Vote. 

Many believe that the First Movement started as early as the late 1840s, and culminated in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The movement began with some support before the Civil War, and was resumed after the War when the National Woman’s Rights Committee petitioned Congress to amend the Constitution.  It took another 55 years, and a World War, to achieve the passage of the Amendment for voting equality.

Between 1920 and about 1960, there were some voices for women, but with a Depression, Second World War, the Korean and the Cold Wars, progress was relatively static, with one terrific exception. When women were needed in factories during World War II, the U.S. government and private sector built and funded thousands of childcare centers.  At the peak, in July 1944, about 400,000 children were cared for.

After the War, most women returned home. Some were content to build the American dream through husbands and children.  But some of us only had to observe our mothers to know that many who could have been leaders in major corporations, in politics, in diplomacy or the military, were intensely frustrated.

Second Women’s Movement:  It’s About the Laws.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, women and men came together on campuses, in cities, in courtrooms, and at the highest levels of Government, to create change.  Making good on an election promise to the former First Lady, President John F. Kennedy appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to chair the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. Betty Friedan put the feelings of our mothers to words, publishing The Feminine Mystique.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill.  Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate complaints and impose penalties. Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and others started the National Organization for Women and Ms. Magazine.   And in 1973, when a 26 year-old Sarah Weddington of Texas argued that women have a right to safe and legal abortions, the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, agreed. 

We thought this progress would never end.  And while we have made progress, sadly, in 2014, more than 97 percent of CEOs in the Fortune 500 corporations are male; 74 percent of corporate vice presidents and senior managers are male; and 80 percent of the Senate and 83 percent of representatives in the House are men. 

Jumpstarting the Women’s Movement 3.0:

It is way over time, to re-energize the movement.  Here are a few steps that those with hands on the major levers of power in America, can take, today:  

The President.   Days after his Inaugural, on January 29, 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay law.  Shortly thereafter, the President established the Presidential Council on Women and Girls.  And then, according to Lilly Ledbetter in the Washington Post of January 19, 2014, the President virtually stopped. Little progress has been made on any of the follow-up steps for women in the workplace, and all that has been heard from the Council is radio silence.  In her Washington Post article, Ms. Ledbetter urged the President to strongly advocate for, and the Congress to pass, the Paycheck Fairness Act.  As the President has announced that he would use executive orders to create change on his own, he can look at issues such as paid maternity leave in the Federal government (the U.S. is the only developed nation that has none), voluntary quotas for women on the boards of public corporations, the establishment of federally-licensed and monitored child care centers, and much, much more.  And to multiply the Government’s resources by factors of hundreds, the President can seriously, systematically partner with some of our great corporate leaders to let corporate America provide its great reach, management, innovation, and resources.

The Congress.   Both the First and Second Women’s Movement built their short and long-term gains through laws, laws, and more laws. The Congresses of the 1960s and 1970s attacked the deep-rooted problems that held women back in the workplace, in education, in businesses and women-owned companies, in the family, in sports, and elsewhere.  First and foremost, we need to elect Members who understand that if women received equal pay, the U.S. economy would produce an additional $447.6 billion in income. And because we know that companies with more women on their boards outperform their rivals with a 42 percent higher return in sales, 66 percent higher return on invested capital and 53 percent higher return on equity, the Congress can also explore quota programs for women on publicly listed companies, as are law in many nations of Europe and Scandinavia. 

Corporate America.  Government can only do so much; corporations can multiply change farther and far faster.  The President and the Congress need to work far more extensively with business organizations to construct a set of best practices for the promotion of women.  For example, to build flexible career and promotional tracks which do not conflict with biology.  Just at the time when young people are working their way up in companies, law firms, consulting organizations, universities, it is the biologically undeniable time to start having families if they choose. Organizations need to institute far more programs that will give women a chance to work part time, flex time, telecommute regularly, and still compete for partnerships and management positions.

The state of childcare in this nation goes from inadequate to deplorable, even as compared to the child care centers of the 1940s.  What if U.S. governments, on all levels, and corporate America worked in partnership to organize and well-manage thousands of smart, clean, healthy learning centers throughout the country?  Most probably, corporate productivity would rise, companies and organizations would run more smoothly, and we would bring up future generations of healthy children. 

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brilliantly summed it up beautifully in a few words:“It is past time for women to take their rightful place, side by side with men, in the rooms where the fates of peoples, where their children’s and grandchildren’s fates, are decided.”  

Judith Barnett is a lawyer/ international trade consultant representing global companies in the Middle East.  She is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce, a media expert, adjunct law professor, and long-time activist in the women’s movement.