by Leslie Morgan Steiner
This past week I came across the following snippets about gender equity. One appeared in the September 14, 2010 edition of the Washington Post. The other ran in The New York Times on July 9, 1917. Guess which was which.
“Overall, women and girls make up 51 percent of the U.S. population. But women have not conquered every corridor of the ivory tower… women who aspired to become college professors, a common path for those with doctorates, were hindered by the particular demands of faculty life. Studies have found that the tenure clock often collides with the biological clock: The busiest years of the academic career are the years that well-educated women tend to have children.”
“Every new form of appeal which women have with great resourcefulness been forced to use has been condemned by the unthinking and the conservative…And shall we not protest when men not only continue to refuse to give us our liberty but decide the manner in which we shall demand our liberty? We insist that we women would be ashamed to stop trying to win democracy at home – now of all times – when the whole world is dying to possess this precious political freedom. All we ask is simple justice.”
Okay, I guess it’s pretty easy to tell which is which.
The first selection comes from an article by Washington Post staff writer Daniel Vise, who reported that for the first time in history, in 2009 more women received doctoral degrees  than men – an important milestone in the American feminist journey. The number of women at every educational level has been rising for decades, Vise explained. Women now hold a nearly 3-to-2 majority in undergraduate and graduate education. Doctoral study was the last holdout - the only remaining area of higher education that still had an enduring male majority. Not anymore.
The 1917 excerpt comes from a New York Times letter to the editor  written by Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, a leading U.S. suffragist, three years before women were awarded the right to vote. She wrote to explain why women suffragists were picketing the White House (and getting arrested for doing so). The uber-wealthy Mrs. Vanderbilt became an outspoken feminist following the death of her second husband in 1908. After decades focused on entertaining in New York and Newport, building fabulous mansions, and marrying her only daughter to the Duke of Marlborough in exchange for $2 million, she used her family’s wealth and social prominence to advance the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the Political Equity Association and the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, all of which were critical in pressuring male politicians to grant women the national right to vote  in the form of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Three facts amaze me 1) that only 90 years ago, women could not vote; 2) that it’s taken 90 years to achieve some measure of gender equality; and 3) finally, how stubborn the final stages of equality have proved to be. Women continue to earn only 77 cents for every dollar  men earn. There is widespread workplace prejudice against women, particularly moms, with Cornell University research  showing that the more children a woman has, the less an employer is willing to hire her and pay her. And despite women’s dominance in educational arenas and the fact that women make up approximately 50 percent of the labor pool, women make up only 13.5% of executive officer positions, 6.3% of top earner positions, and only 15.2% of board seats, according to Catalyst . In the academic realm, male faculty members earned $87,206 on average and their female counterparts made $70,600 in the 2009-10 academic year, according to the Washington Post.
Profound social change takes time and arbitration. Yet it also takes advocacy and agitation.
“It is all right for women to fight to win man’s freedom,” Alva Vanderbilt Belmont argued in the New York Tribune on April 22, 1913. “It is only when they fight to win woman’s freedom that they are called hysterical, viragoes, criminally insane, etc. Men fight for what they want. There is lots of talk about arbitration, but show me the man who would arbitrate for forty-five years!”
Does this sound familiar? Think of your battles to do well at school, to get a good job or deserved promotion, or to get your partner to help out at home with the kids and housework. Take heart. Women’s hard work and agitation have paid off over the past century, even if the advocacy got us arrested or called names, even if it took longer than it should.
“The amendment,” explained then Vice-President Marshall,” really was submitted [to Congress and the people of the United States] to get rid of these women in order that some business might be transacted.”
In other words, we won.