On Women's Day, a reality check

Stephanie Coontz says it's not just Rush Limbaugh who is attacking women's rights gains.

Story highlights

  • Stephanie Coontz: On International Women's Day, good to reflect upon women's gains
  • But new stirs on contraception, etc. raise concerns. So does a new study, she says
  • Study: Women's progress has stalled on women in politics, equality in marriage and more
  • Coontz: Recent threats to women's rights, Limbaugh attacks, etc. show gains fragile
When Philip Morris introduced Virginia Slims cigarettes for women back in 1968, their marketing slogan was "You've Come a Long Way, Baby." But by 1968 women had not really come very far. "Help wanted" ads were still segregated by sex, the average employed female college graduate earned less than the average male high school graduate, fewer than 3% of all attorneys were female, most states had "head and master" laws giving the husband the final say in the home, and no state counted marital rape as a crime.
Since then women actually have come a very long way. But this year on International Women's Day, March 8, women are facing new challenges from social conservatives, who seem to believe that women have come too far. Who would have thought that women's hard-won access to family planning would suddenly become a hot button issue in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries?
And while the attacks on contraception are way out of step with mainstream opinion, that's not the only area in which women's gains may be threatened. In fact, according to a report issued this week by the Council on Contemporary Families, the rapid progress toward gender equality that America experienced in the 1980s and early 1990s seems to have stalled.
Stephanie Coontz
Researchers David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman catalog several troubling signs of blocked progress. For example, occupational segregation, which declined sharply from the 1960s through the 1980s, has not changed since 2000. Working-class occupations have actually become more gender-segregated since 1990 and now are back to the same level as 1950.
In 1977, only 34% of Americans thought women were as well suited to politics as men. By 1996, that had climbed to 79%. But in 2010 it was stuck at 78%. There was also slippage in support for egalitarian marital arrangements between 1994 and 2010.
The Council on Contemporary Families researchers do not claim that a counter-revolution is in the works. Mostly the story has been one of a slowdown rather than a reversal of progress. In some areas, in fact, support for women's rights has continued to build. Today, 75% of Americans -- the highest percentage ever -- agree that "a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work." If the politicians will just leave us alone, maybe we gals can negotiate a truce in "the mommy wars."
Still, as the Council on Contemporary Families report warns, "equality is not permanent," and gains can be reversed. Today women are more than half of college students. But few realize that in 1920 they were already almost half, a figure that then fell to 30% in 1950 and was not attained again until 1976. We certainly don't want to risk slippage like that today in access to family planning, a right once considered so mainstream that in 1964 two former presidents -- Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Harry Truman -- proudly served as honorary co-chairs of the now suddenly embattled Planned Parenthood.
So we ignore these new attacks at our peril. It's not just loose cannon Rush Limbaugh, who reviled a female law student as a "slut" for wanting her health insurance to cover contraception. It's also Rick Santorum, opposing contraception on principle because it gives people "a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be."
And Mitt Romney as well, who joins Santorum in opposing Title X, the Nixon-era legislation on which more than 5 million low-income women rely for family planning. Seven states, with three more in the wings, now require any woman considering an abortion to undergo an expensive ultrasound test that, in the case of early pregnancy, involves inserting a probe deep into her vagina.
This may not be the "war on women" that Democrats claim. But it is certainly a dangerous form of brinksmanship in a country with the highest rate of unintended pregnancies in the developed world, and one where 85% of brides -- whatever their religious or political orientation -- are no longer virgins when they marry.
Alongside the contraception issue we see new efforts to penalize women who don't use contraception, or can't get it. In Wisconsin, Republican Sen. Glenn Grothman has introduced a bill declaring that women who give birth outside marriage are contributing to child abuse. He and many social conservative allies also want to repeal the Equal Pay Enforcement Act, cut back on low-income housing assistance and deny other forms of social assistance that would help unwed mothers support their children. After all, as Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich reminded the nation the last time he had access to political power, there are always orphanages.
As usual, in this new round of attacks on women, the first are being directed at the most vulnerable, in the hope that the rest of us won't feel threatened enough to react. But no woman who values the gains we have won over the past 40 years -- and no man who wants his wife or daughter to have such options -- should fail to respond to these threats.