Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Katha Pollitt: The Decade for Women: Forward, Backward, Sideways?

The Haitian Catastrophe is today's topic on Democracy Now; with reports
from the ground, the history at the root of building infrastructure, social
disorganization, deforestation and land instability, and much more. The
program is simply a must listen. You won't get anything like it elsewhere.
As I write, the discussion is on emigration and immigration to the US. -Ed

The Decade for Women: Forward, Backward, Sideways?

By Katha Pollitt
The Nation.: January 7, 2010 (in the January 25, 2010 edition)

Katha Pollitt's new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been
published by Random House.

How have American women fared in what seems to be everyone's least favorite
decade since the Fall of Rome, which at least was fun for the Vandals?
(Well, to be fair, today's investment bankers have plenty to chortle over.)
Herewith some feminist highs and lows of the era that began with the Supreme
Court choosing the president and ended with hope hangovers and tempests in

Government. Sonia Sotomayor joined the Supreme Court. Before that, Hillary
Clinton and Sarah Palin showed how far we've come--and how far we haven't.
Between them they normalized forever the idea of a woman running for
president and withstood a ridiculous amount of sexist garbage, from nasty
cracks (from both sexes) about Clinton's legs, clothes, voice and laugh to
tinfoil-hat accusations that Palin's baby was actually her daughter's.

In 2000 women were 13 percent of the House and Senate; in 2009 they were 17
percent. The right direction, but too slow: if women have to make up about
30 percent of leadership before they can move a feminist agenda, we're
looking at thirty more years of political marginality.

Economics. The earnings of women working full time, year round went from
around 73 cents on the male dollar to 77 cents. Good news--especially
considering that the Bush administration basically dismantled affirmative
action and antidiscrimination enforcement. By mid-2009, women made up 50
percent of the workforce--unfortunately, partly because of male
unemployment. Elite women inched forward, going from 15.6 percent of law
partners to 19.2 percent, and from 24 percent of physicians to 28 percent.
At the same time, women are as concentrated in the same job categories as
ever--secretarial, retail, caregiving, primary education. Parking valets
still make more than daycare teachers, and in every field men still earn
more than women. Conditions for single mothers were deteriorating even
before the recession. The percentage of female-headed households in poverty
went from 28.5 in 2000 to 31.4 in 2008, but because of welfare reform, the
TANF rolls have barely risen. And the mortgage crisis hit black women
hardest of all.

Education. The percentage of undergraduates who are female rose to 57
percent in 2007, provoking calls for "affirmative action" for male
applicants; in 2006, a sheepish New York Times op-ed from the admissions
director of Kenyon College conceded that it was already happening. Women now
earn 62 percent of degrees in biology, up from 59.2, and 49 percent of
biology PhDs, up from 44.8. Take that, Larry Summers! But physics stayed
flat, at 22 percent of female undergrad degrees and 13 percent of PhDs,
while female degrees in math and computer science have declined to 44
percent and 18 percent, respectively. By 2007 only 26.5 percent of tenured
full professors were women. But Women's Studies has been thriving, with
about 1,200 degrees now granted annually. And with the ascension of Drew
Gilpin Faust to the presidency of Harvard, women head three out of the eight

Reproductive Health and Rights. Mifepristone, the abortion pill, was OK'd by
the FDA in 2000 but did not, as some predicted, make abortion a private
matter, because states moved quickly to bring it under the same restrictions
as surgical abortion. Abortion rights continued to be whittled away, with
more and more state restrictions and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's
shockingly patronizing 2007 majority opinion in Gonzales v. Carhart
upholding a "partial birth" abortion ban without an exception for the health
of the mother--an outright violation of Roe--on the grounds that the woman
might regret her decision later.

On the bright side: the South Dakota abortion ban was defeated at the
polls--twice. After a furious struggle, in 2006 the FDA OK'd emergency
contraception, aka Plan B, without a prescription for women 18 and older.
Insurance coverage of contraception went from rare to routine. Young
prochoice activists founded groups like Med Students for Choice. The 2004
March for Women's Lives was one of the largest protest marches in US
history--not that the media noticed. The decade closed on a sour note as
antichoice Democrats united with Republicans to remove abortion coverage
from the healthcare bill.

Family Life. Perhaps thanks to massive doses of abstinence-only sex ed, teen
pregnancy rose in 2007 for the first time in fourteen years. By 2005 the
majority of US women were not living with a husband. Single motherhood,
lesbian motherhood, single motherhood by choice and births to women
cohabiting with a partner all became more common. Gay marriage was legalized
in five states. Despite oceans of wedding porn, women's age at first
marriage rose over the decade from 25.1 to 26. Maybe those marriage-shy
young ladies read the 2008 University of Michigan study showing that after
marriage women with no children do seven more hours of housework; men do one
hour less.

Violence Against Women. Not much to crow about here. Rates of domestic
violence, murder by intimates, rape, sexual abuse or harassment barely
budged, with victims no more likely to get justice. Meanwhile, the number of
women in prison increased from 93,234 to 114,852, mostly because of harsher
drug laws.

Culture and the Media. Women are still drastically underrepresented on op-ed
pages, on Sunday chat-shows, as experts in news stories, and are scanted in
literary prizes, awards and Best of the Year lists, as actresses and
directors and playwrights. It seemed like 20,248 articles and 1,507 books
were published explaining why women's inequality is their own fault.

But Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer mean that two out of the three network
news programs are now anchored by women, Rachel Maddow rules on cable, the
feminist blogosphere exploded with vitality, and five women won Nobel prizes
in 2009.

Not bad, not great. On to the 2010s!

About Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt's writing has appeared in many publications, including The New
Yorker, The London Review of Books, the Washington Post and the New York
Times. Her new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been published
by Random House. Her previous books include Learning to Drive: and Other
Life Stories (Random House), a collection of personal essays. more...

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