Monday, October 27, 2014

10th Anniversary of the Women’s Advocacy and Outreach Center at Community College of Philadelphia

I was very happy to be invited to give the keynote address at the 10th anniversary of the Women’s Advocacy and Outreach Center at Community College of Philadelphia. I was one of the faculty involved in the establishment of the Center, served on the Advisory Board until I retired, and over the years participated in many collaborative programs with Claudia Curry, the Director of the Women’s Center. The highpoint of my professional life was the development of the Introduction to Women’s Studies Course and then the Women’s Studies/Gender Studies degree and certificate programs.

CCP is to be congratulated for continuing to support the Women’s Center; many community colleges facing hard times closed their Women’s Centers. Unfortunately, the college no longer has a Women’s Studies degree or certificate program. I’m so glad the termination of those programs happened several years after I retired. It would have been too painful if it happened on my watch.

My keynote speech gave me an opportunity to argue for bringing back the certificate program. I can understand terminating the degree program due to low enrollment, but the Women’s Studies /Gender Studies certificate program is potentially very valuable for students. It can be combined with a degree program as an add-on credential and could be especially valuable for students in degree programs such as Justice, Behavioral Health/Social Services, Education. One example: many social service agencies and educational institutions are beginning to take seriously the needs of transgendered persons; students in human services would benefit from gaining an understanding of LGBT issues. I hope at some point, the College brings back the certificate program. This was not the subject Claudia Curry asked me to address, but I couldn’t resist.

Claudia asked me to talk about how women’s issues have changed in the past 10 years. Ten years isn’t a long time and if I were dealing with the ten-year period from 1994-2004 I would have had a hard time. But something did happen in the period 2004-2014 which had a real impact on women and families and caused many of us to rethink how we understand women’s issues.

Of course, I’m taking about what we call the “great recession.” Our economy has supposedly recovered but we all know that many people have been left out of that recovery and we are dealing with growing income inequality. Of course inequality is not just a women’s issue, but women are much more likely to be single parents. Stagnant wages and limited job opportunities are a real problem for many women and families.

The extraordinary successes of the feminist movement have not been shared equally. Women with economic/educational advantages have made enormous progress. Of course, there is still a glass ceiling, but as Hillary Clinton famously said, “there are now 18,000,000 cracks in the glass ceiling.” Despite the backlash against feminism in the Reagan/Bush years, the feminist gains that have benefited middle class and affluent women—-protections against discrimination in the workplace, affirmative action--have remained largely intact. The cultural change has been so pervasive that many affluent white men have been willing to make room for their daughters (think Dick and Liz Cheney), often the same men who have fought against economic policies which would provide opportunities and a robust safety net for the majority of women.

Anyone who has taken a Women’s Studies course knows that the buzzword of the last 20+ years has been intersectionality—that is exploration of the interconnections between race, gender, class, sexuality. Up until recently, class has gotten less attention than race/gender /sexuality. Economic realities have forced us to pay much greater attention to economic inequality.

Many of the issues we have been struggling with for years are still with us, but the burden falls most heavily on low-income women:
Low-income women are more likely to be victims of sexual harassment than professional women. A recent NYT article reported that 90% (!) of female waitstaff experienced sexual harassment.
Violence against women affects women from all social classes, but affluent women at least have the economic resources to leave an abusive partner and are far more likely to be treated with respect by the police than low-income women if they decide to press charges against their abusers.
Women still have a constitutional right to safe legal abortion, but in many states low-income women cannot choose to exercise that right. PA is a state that does not provide for Medicaid funding for abortion. What good is a right to control your own body if you don’t have financial means to exercise that right?
In the 1970’s the pro-choice movement did address the issue of equal access, but in the Reagan/Bush years began to retreat from the commitment to reproductive justice for all women. The pro-choice movement is finally once again seriously addressing the access issue. There is an organization, All Above All, formed by young women, many of whom are young women of color, to ensure that all woman have access to the full range of reproductive health care services. The group organized a national bus tour with a stop in Philadelphia on September 9. It was a truly inspirational event.

Yes, Medicaid funding for abortion in PA is not politically possible right now. However, we have seen rapid changes in public attitudes regarding issues also thought politically impossible—-e.g., marriage equality, decriminalization of marijuana. When feminists draw up a women’s health agenda, “women” must include all women, and "health care" must include the full range of women’s health care, including access to abortion.

Clearly, the major change in women’s issues the in the past ten years is the extent which income inequality limits women’s choices. Also, feminism is now a global movement. Global feminism of course preceded 2004, but has become increasingly powerful in the past decade. The global feminist movement is the real story of the 21st century. Feminists the world over are dealing with rising income inequality--a problem with global dimensions.

So what do we do about it? This is a huge problem, a long time in the making, and there's no one solution, but a revitalized labor movement and increased participation in electoral politics are critically important if we are to seriously tackle this income inequality.

A revitalized feminist-led labor movement is essential to addressing the needs of women trapped in low-wage jobs, the women who have not been the major beneficiaries of the feminist movement. In the United States feminism is gaining strength in the labor movement. Women are moving into union leadership positions and, in a sure sign they are approaching critical mass, are competing with each other for leadership positions. In 2010, two women, Mary Kay Henry and Anna Burger, were the contenders for the presidency of one of the country’s largest labor unions, Service Employees International Union (SEIU). This is not your father’s labor movement. SEIU represents the fastest growing sector of the labor movement, and its members are increasingly women, particularly women of color. The rise of women in the labor movement may have as much--possibly far more--significance for the lives of most American women than the gains women have made in business, politics, and the professions.

And finally if we want a more equal distribution of income more people have to vote. Pollsters consider single women an important demographic; unfortunately, single women (particularly young single women) tend to vote only in presidential years. The mid-term elections—-such as the one we’re having on Nov. 4—-determine who controls governorships and state legislatures as well as control of Congress. Decisions made at the state level have a dramatic impact on lives of women and families, particularly low-income women. To take one example, State legislatures decide whether to expand Medicaid and whether Medicaid in their state covers abortion.

Also, state legislatures regulate elections in their state and Pennsylvania is one of the most difficult states in the country to cast a vote, with voter registration closing 30 days prior to the election, no early voting,and a cumbersome procedure for casting an absentee ballot. Fortunately, we got rid of voter ID.

We need to make voting easier if we are to get more people to participate. When I was teaching at the College in 2008, a group of women in my Women’s Studies class who worked at the same hospital had an elaborate scheme to cover each other at work so they could vote for President Obama. They lived in one neighborhood, worked in another neighborhood and took CCP classes in a third neighborhood. So getting to work, school, picking up their children from school and finding time to vote was a real challenge. They were willing to do this to vote for President Obama, but I doubt if they would make these heroic efforts in the mid-terms.

We must make voting easier to enable working people to participate and to elect officials committed to addressing widening income inequality, the major issue affecting women and families at this point in our history.

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