Stephanie Coontz: Women have made advances since Nixon named Women's Equality Day in 1973, but it's far from enough
She says progress has been slow on earnings equality, and setbacks on reproductive rights, social and cultural attitudes not encouraging
Editor’s Note: Stephanie Coontz is director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, which is hosted by the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author, most recently, of “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
In 1973, when President Richard Nixon proclaimed August 26 Women’s Equality Day – commemorating the day in 1920 that women won the right to vote – a woman could still be denied housing by a real estate broker or credit by a bank, simply because of her gender.
Employers could fire a woman who became pregnant. Many states had “head and master” laws giving husbands final authority in the family, and in no state was marital rape a crime. As late as 1977, two-thirds of all Americans still believed that men should earn the money and women should take care of the home.
So it was something of an understatement when Nixon noted that “much remains to be done” to attain “full and equal participation of women” in society. Indeed, the events of the last year and a half – from the “Access Hollywood” video in which the man who is now president uses vulgar words about women’s genitals, to challenges to women’s reproductive rights, to the routine, vicious online attacks on women by what sometimes seems to be an army of trolls – suggest that, 44 years later, much still remains to be done.
But a review of the changes in gender relationships since the 1970s suggests good reason for confidence in our ability to move forward, though certainly not for us to become complacent.
Today the blatant discrimination described above, for example, is illegal, and Americans overwhelmingly support, at least in principle, the ideal of gender equality. In one recent survey, 93% of adults said women should have equal rights.
But the very popularity of the ideal of gender equality, combined with the fact that inequalities are now perpetuated in more subtle ways than in the past, has led some people to conclude that there is nothing more to strive for. The same poll above found that fully 20% of respondents believed gender equality has already been achieved and no more work is needed.
This view ignores the minority of Americans who deeply resent the women’s movement, falsely claiming that women’s gains have come at men’s expense. And it overlooks some serious recent setbacks for women.
Still, it’s worth emphasizing the good news
Some of the most dramatic improvements for women have been in personal relationships. Rates of intimate partner violence have fallen steadily since the early 1970s, a decline that has accelerated since the early 1990s. Rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are still too widespread, but women have new options to expose the perpetrators and fight for justice.
Marriages are more equal. In the 1970s, a woman with more years of formal education or higher earnings than her husband faced an increased chance of divorce. Today, the extra divorce risk associated with women’s higher achievements has disappeared.
Fathers have doubled the time they spend interacting with their children, and tripled the routine physical care, such as changing diapers, that many men used to shun. That carries a bonus for both sexes: Couples who share housework and childcare equally now report the highest levels of marital and sexual satisfaction.
More remains to be done
Ivanka Trump has proposed a paid parental leave policy, but it is nowhere near as comprehensive as the work-family policies that are standard in most advanced nations and include flex time, universal health care, and affordable, quality child care. In the absence of such support systems, it’s no accident that American parents report much lower happiness compared with non-parents than in any other of 22 countries recently studied.
Similar limits exist to the very impressive gains American women have made in education and earnings. In 1973, women earned just 57 cents for every dollar earned by men – a gap of 46 cents. By 2015, the gap had fallen to 17 cents – even lower for childless women, who earn 96 cents for every man’s dollar.
Not yet equal
Indeed, women have “caught up” in their earnings largely because of their high rates of college completion, which allow them to pull ahead of less-educated men and women. But they still lag behind men with the same education.
Today, according to sociologist Philip Cohen, the average female with a BA makes much more than a male high school graduate, but 28% less than the average man with a BA.
This reversal is confusing to many men who grew up seeing their low- or middle-earning fathers making more money than almost any woman. As a result, some men blame their economic plight on the increase in gender equality rather than on the real culprit – the acceleration of wage inequality.
Meanwhile, although women on the higher rungs of the pay ladder are doing much better than middle and low wage-earners of both sexes, they actually face a wider gender wage gap in comparison to their male counterparts than in the past. In consequence, some high-powered women focus on the glass ceiling rather than the sinking floor that holds back so many men and women alike.
Racial disparities add more complexities to the gender equality picture. Despite the rise of an affluent African-American and Hispanic middle class, minorities continue to fare worse than their white counterparts, even as white low wage workers also lose ground.
Between 1980 and 2015, white women narrowed the gap in hourly wages with white men by 22 cents, but black and Hispanic women narrowed the gap with white men by only 9 and 5 cents respectively.
And the wage gap between white men and black and Hispanic men didn’t budge at all.
Nixon called it
There’s no question that women’s lives and options are better than when Women’s Equality Day was first proclaimed. But progress has been slow on the earnings equality front, and there have been some recent big setbacks in politics and culture.
In 1964, two former presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, were proud to co-chair a fund-raising committee for Planned Parenthood. Today, the very existence of Planned Parenthood is under attack. And even though two-thirds of voting age adults support wide access to reproductive health care and pregnancy prevention, the Trump administration plans to defund a national teen pregnancy prevention program, returning to abstinence-only sex education.
In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy included a woman’s right to decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Yet over the last six years, states have passed 369 laws aimed at restricting women’s access to abortion.
The new administration has seemed singularly uninterested in recruiting and promoting women, and it recently repealed the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order, scrapping two rules that are essential protections for women workers.
The Fair Pay order required wage transparency, so people can actually see if they are being paid less for the same job than a colleague. The Safe Workplaces order prohibited forced arbitration for sexual-harassment cases, which often protect perpetrators by keeping proceedings out of the public eye.
And our President has used “the bully pulpit” more to encourage than to stop bullying. On top of this comes the surfacing of a newly-invigorated white supremacy movement, which is also a male supremacy movement that claims the “only real duty” of a white woman is to reproduce, while black and Hispanic women should be discouraged from doing so.
The good news here is that this retrograde movement is small and, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, most Americans (64%) realize it poses a threat to the US. Unfortunately, more than a third (34%) believe it does not – representing yet another way in which it is abundantly clear that, as Nixon said, much remains to be done for women’s equality.