Is the 'clock turning back' on American women?

Tim Skillern
Yahoo News
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Hillary Clinton, in an essay that published this week, cautions that opportunities for American women could vanish if the U.S. does not prioritize their economic advancement.

“[F]ighting to give women and girls a fighting chance isn’t just a nice thing to do. It isn’t some luxury that we only get to when we have time on our hands. This is a core imperative for every human being in every society,” Clinton writes in “The Shriver Report: A woman’s nation pushes back from the brink,” a report that features essays compiled by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress.

Clinton warns that American women lag behind other first-world countries in a slew of important attributes, including life span, equal pay and employment opportunities.

“In places throughout America large and small, the clock is turning back,” says Clinton, noting that while women now hold approximately half of U.S. jobs, the country doesn’t crack the top 10 rankings of countries where women thrive economically.

Women earned about 81 percent of males’ median wages in full-time jobs in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual report released in October. That’s an increase from 62 percent in 1979, the first year comparable data was available. The BLS says women who never married earn nearly 96 percent of a man’s wages; married women take home considerably less, at 77 percent.

And while some numbers illustrate an improvement, women in poverty face dire prospects. According to a BLS studies released in 2013:

* Families maintained by working women were much more likely, at 27.2 percent, to live below the federal poverty level than male-headed households, at 15.8 percent. This is true at all education levels and across all races and ethnicities.

* In 2011, the percentage of working-poor women increased, while it fell for men.

* Forty-six percent of women in single-parent households receive government assistance like Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income.

Similar figures give Clinton pause, and stir concern that the country is walking back some advancements in gender equality.

“I’m very proud of my own daughter, and I look at all these young women I’ve been privileged to work with or know through Chelsea, and it’s hard to imagine turning the clock back on them,” Clinton writes. “We have work to do.”

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Kim Jacobs Walker, a 48-year-old entrepreneur and mother of two in Austin, Texas, suggests the clock metaphor isn’t exactly accurate:

“Perhaps a better analogy would be a pendulum, where time moves forward but sentiments swing wildly from one extreme to another until the pendulum at last succumbs to gravity, coming to a stop on middle ground,” Walker wrote in a first-person account for Yahoo News last week about gender equality. “The pendulum swung hard from the extreme conservatism of the '40s and '50s to the insistent demands of women's rights advocates during the '60s and '70s.”

Walker argues that when circumstances swing back — inevitably, for many women — to when they choose to re-enter the workforce, their years of experience in managing households, community groups and other difficult hands-on work should be impressed upon employers:

“For women to achieve true economic equality, we have to start believing that an empathetic heart is worth as much as a strong arm; that it really is difficult to spend the day with a room full of toddlers; and that stay-at-home moms who run PTAs and booster clubs actually do have experience that translates meaningfully to administrative and management jobs when they're ready to re-enter the workforce.”

Her career a priority, Walker says she was determined to smash the “glass ceiling” in the 1980s while working and traveling for a medical software company. She passed on significant career opportunities so she could be more available to her children. A work-life balance emerged.

“I wanted kindergarten Valentine's Day parties more than business trips. I chose bedtime stories over board meetings,” she says. Read more of her story.

Walker is one of several women who provided a glimpse into how some perceive their opportunities in 21st-century America. Yahoo News invited her and others to offer their experiences with gender-equality issues, share what they learned from other women and previous generations, and detail whether they believe women still face obstacles. Below are some excerpts from what they wrote this week.

Shushing women as gender equality loses ground

Chicago resident Isa-Lee Wolf practiced law in the nonprofit sector and in private practice before turning to writing full time. She says she feels gender was a contributing factor in her decision to leave law after seven years, noting: “ It is difficult to quantify, but it always felt as though anything I said merited a 10-point IQ penalty.” Wolf, who is in her 30s, writes:

It is a curious thing when you have to wonder whether your gender has come into play in a situation. In my clearest professional memory, I was in front [of] a judge, arguing a motion with a male opposing counsel. He went on and on, talking over me. I finally managed to start my argument, and the judge held his finger to his lips, looked me straight in the eye, and said, "Shhh."


"Please don't shush me, your honor," I replied, before I had time to think. I'm not sure what else I said, but I was told later that I came awfully close to being held in contempt.

We saw broader and grander shushing during the election cycle, when former presidential candidate Mitt Romney dismissed female participation in government with his infamous "binders full of women" comment. People have suggested revoking women's right to vote. More than once. From a congressional contraception panel without a single woman to the insane idea of shooting women from the inside out to end abortion, we've seen dehumanization of women at a remarkable speed.

If we pretend it isn't happening, if we don't follow the steps suggested by Clinton, and act as through we've gotten where we're going, we'll soon find ourselves back where we started. It's complacency that undoes you every time. With complacency, no one has to shush you and threaten you with contempt to force you to comply. With complacency, you're the one with your finger over your lips.

'I refuse to chase the myth of gender equality'

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Tavia Fuller Armstrong, 41, agrees the clock has turned back for families — and that it’s a good thing. Armstrong, who helps lead a homeschool group composed of about 50 families in Tahlequah, Okla., decided to leave her career in biology to rear her children while her husband earns a living as a mechanical engineer. She writes:

We both made a conscious decision to leave the chase for gender equality behind and turn back the clock a generation or more.

As a mother and a home educator, I am acutely aware of the fact that every moment of the day I am teaching my children. My daughters, 12 and 6, and my 12-year-old son, are always watching and listening. So we talk about gender issues and how they might affect the kids' lives as they grow up.

With regard to families and careers, we talk a lot about choices. My husband and I encourage our kids to study hard and pursue any goals they want. We also counsel them to choose wisely when deciding whom they build a life with, because that decision can make all the difference. Our kids know that all roads are open to them, but some are difficult to travel simultaneously without a lot of support, and sometimes choosing more of one means giving up more of another.

The most important responsibility shared by most of the moms I know is the care and keeping of the family.

Genuine gender inequality in America is history

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As a divorced mother of 4-year-old twins, Susan Durham moved in 1978 from Texas to California to start a new life but encountered sexism, inequality and an unfair playing field. Two years later, she and her mother founded a secretarial services and office-space company, and she later finished her career in teaching and counseling. Now 63 and living in Baraga, Mich., Durham says she witnessed little gender inequality since the mid ‘80s. She writes:

There are inequities — for both genders. How can we distinguish between struggling men and struggling women? People are striving to keep their heads above water. To create another arena of divisiveness — a second wave of "men against women" — is repugnant.

Yes, as Clinton writes, we can invest in "[fighting] to give women and girls a fighting chance …" when we talk about the Malala Yousafzais of this world. But in America, we don't need another fight. Why send the message to young women and girls that they're victims — of circumstances, of men?

My hope is that women of my generation — the pioneers who took action (to become primary insurance policyholders, to ensure time off for family emergencies, to insist on receiving equal pay for equal work) — will mentor the young women and men of today. There are millions of us who know how to get things done by doing, not by lecturing. Let's show them how.

‘We possess too much power to lose ground now’

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When contrasting 1959 — her senior year of high school — and 2014, Gail Cohen sees what she dubs “a radically different place for females.” While some pursued college (but mainly, she notes, for “MRS” degrees), she and others filled hope chests with silverware, linens, spoons and skillets for their perfect husbands. But after five years of marriage, she was divorced with a 4-year-old daughter and infant son in tow. She lived with no child support, but she took night classes while making $10,000 a year as a bank teller. She later earned more degrees, worked in marketing, launched her own business, and yet was still too proud to tell others: “I told you so.” She writes:

Because my professional journey was long and arduous, I was saddened when my daughter and granddaughter walked in my shoes, making me a grandmother at 39 and a great-grandmother at 62. But what I didn't know until years later was that, without meaning to do so, I had set an example for my kids that changed their lives. To this day, they call me their role model.

Both have earned degrees and carved out meaningful careers. My daughter is a social worker investigating elder abuse cases and my granddaughter — who's finishing her master's degree — is in the same profession, but she works with troubled adolescents. I'm proud to be their role model.

We're not unique. Women from all walks of life motivate and mentor younger women these days. Even Hillary writes of the influence her mother had on her career and she delights in knowing that her success helped Chelsea pursue her dreams. Example-setting is rarely mentioned when gender inequality is discussed, but it's the quiet river running beneath women's lives that will keep us from drowning.

I'm now 71 with a mission to remind young women that we possess too much power to lose ground now. Turn back the clock? Not if I have anything to say about it.