Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)

The State of the American Woman.

by Meredith O’Brien


During the same week when U.S. women celebrated the 90th anniversary of their right to vote [1], my daughter turned 12. While I looked at her, I wondered, “Where do American women stand as she herself stands on the precipice of her teenage years?”


According to American University’s Women & Politics Institute [2], things aren’t so grand in the political realm. The Institute reported that that American women rank 85th “in percentage of women serving in the national legislature.” Also: “When the 111th Congress convened in January 2009, 83 percent of its members were men. Three-quarters of statewide elected officials and state legislators are men. Men occupy the governor’s mansion in 44 of the 50 states, and they run City Hall in 89 of the 100 largest cities across the country.” Currently, Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics [3] says that women comprise only 16.8 percent of Congressional seats.


These numbers, frankly, depress me. As the mother of a daughter, I want her to look out on the world and see possibility not disheartening statistics showing women still don’t have comparable numbers to their male colleagues, at least not politically or in the world of business, where 14 of the Fortune 500 CEOs [4] are women.


For her birthday, my 12-year-old gal soccer player and resident Mia Hamm fan requested as one of her birthday gifts that we take her to a women’s soccer game because she said – rightly so – that we take the family to mostly men’s sporting events (like college men’s basketball games, Red Sox games, Celtics, etc.). She’s already observed that it’s an infrequent occurrence to see female athletes or sports competitions as highly promoted or profiled in the media and by fans, as male athletes or sports events are. (A recent study found that only a teeny, tiny handful of minutes are devoted to women’s sports [4] on the biggest sports network in the nation, ESPN.)

Meanwhile, she knows all the words to Katy Perry’s “California Gurls [5]” where Perry cheekily extols the virtues of west coast females wearing “Daisy Dukes, bikinis on top, sun-kissed skin so hot we’ll melt your popsicle.” And hardly a day goes by without a mainstream buzz-worthy web site [6] featuring a salacious post about naked or a scantily clad female [7], sometimes even in the “sports” sections, or inviting readers to weigh in on female celebs’ bodies [8]. That’s how many female stars and athletes get media attention, my daughter has noted.


For all this unfortunate news about the status of women, there’s plenty of good to celebrate, especially when I compare where we were when I was 12, way back in the Stone Ages of 1981 [9], the year when the first woman was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. My daughter’s reality, however, is that, to date, four women have been appointed to serve on the nation’s highest court and three are currently presiding, a historic record.


When I was 12, there were only two women serving in the U.S. Senate and less than two dozen in the U.S. House [10], no women had been on a major political party’s national ticket and there’d been no female Secretaries of State representing America to the world. My daughter, by contrast, has, in her lifetime, seen a female governor – who even gave birth to twins while in office – run our state. Twice as many women now hold statewide elected executive positions [11] than when I was a kid and a woman nearly won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, the same year in which the second woman in U.S. history was nominated as a vice presidential candidate. There have also been three female Secretaries of State, there are now 17 female U.S. senators and the House speaker, who sits right behind the president when he makes his State of the Union addresses, is a woman.

Back in 1981 [12] the world wasn’t talking about high profile female politicians [13] like Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin and things like “Mama Grizzlies” or whether the female Secretary of State should swap jobs with the vice president during the next presidential election. Instead, they were obsessed with the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer to Prince Charles. Coming off a year where the collapse of Tiger Woods’ marriage due to his serial cheating was a huge story, my daughter is well aware that marriage, especially ones which garner a lot of media coverage, isn’t all rainbows and royal fairy tales.


But one thing I can’t stop myself from comparing between the two eras is the music and the female pop stars with whom I grew up and the ones my daughter’s following. The raciest music I listened to in 1981 – the year when MTV began airing music videos [14] and CNN was a year old – was Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical [15],” which we all knew wasn’t really about donning leg warmers and doing jazzercise (though she didn’t have whipped cream shooting out of her bra like Perry does in the “California Gurls” video [16]). The lyrics to “Physical” had nothing on the graphic songs I try to keep off my kids’ iPods, nor on the videos and other material I try to make sure they don’t stumble across on TV or the internet.


However when I look back at where we were when I was her age, all in all, I’m pleased. I’m in the middle of reading Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present [16] which catalogues the horrendous treatment of and progress made by women in the past 50 years. Collins came to the conclusion that things have epically changed, writing: “American women have shattered the ancient traditions that deprived them of independence and power and the right to have adventures of their own, and done it so thoroughly that few women under 30 had any real concept that things had ever been different. The feminist movement of the late twentieth century created a new United States in which women ran for president, fought for their country, argued before the Supreme Court, performed heart surgery, directed movies and flew into space.”


For my daughter’s generation of girls, hopefully they’ll take the ball that we moms are passing on to them and run with it as far as their legs can take them.

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