Second Look

It’s been almost two weeks since the elections. I am sleeping normally for the first time in months.  The money pouring into the campaigns of the some of the most extreme anti-woman, out of touch candidates astounded and scared me.  Could it make a difference? Would those who seem unable to accept the realities of a multicultural society, one where women have made substantial progress toward equality, carry the day?  I was pretty sure the answer would be ‘no’. But ‘pretty sure’ and ‘sure’ can be far apart in the middle of sleepless nights.

Twenty years ago as the elections of 1992 approached, only two women held seats in the Senate. Three additional female Senators were elected that year and 1992 was quickly dubbed ‘the year of the woman’.  Senator Barbara Mikulski responded, “Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus.  We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.”

Her words should echo in our minds now. Yes, Todd ‘legitimate rape’ Akin and Richard  ‘pregnancies from rape are God’s will’ Mourdock were soundly defeated. Yes, there are now 20 women in the Senate, an all-time high. But 20 is 30 seats shy of equal representation. And if anyone thinks the war on women has ended, watch some Fox News. Upholders of the white male patriarchy are out in full force. Woman hating is still  ‘just fine’ and  racism is every bit as woven into the irrational ‘reasoning‘ put forward to ‘explain’ the ‘surprising‘ election losses as it was prior to November 6th.  Among the prominent villains identified are single women, homosexuals and urban voters.

Throughout  this election cycle the kinds of right wing nonsense presented as rational political discourse insulted the majority of Americans. And the majority rejected it.  But the possibilities inherent in the much discussed ‘new electorate‘ are far from guaranteed. The anti-woman, anti-diversity crowd will not give up easily. They remain committed to rolling back change whenever and wherever they can. The past decade offers ample proof of this harsh reality.

The 2012 election has been the year of everyone, everyone that is except white male voters and their wives. A sizable segment of the male conservative electorate is angry.  For many of them women are a convenient target of abuse and contempt. Feminists are ‘bad women’, the major threat to a 1950‘s fantasy world where men were in charge and women were adoring ‘help mates’.  The patriarchy is cracking but it is far from finished.

A few days ago a friend sent a group email asking, “How can we hold–and use–the power of women without the crisis of an election?” For me the answer is clear, if not exactly welcome.  I am tired of this battle. I want to work on new projects, to reflect and write and move at a more leisurely pace. I don’t want to keep getting into unpleasant discussions with people who say ridiculous things. But I can’t, none of us can.

Active engagement in the political process requires a long term commitment in a democracy. The ‘new electorate’ must increase–not step back from–passionate engagement  in politics. Maintaining this new coalition–a coalition that also includes a significant number, if not the majority, of white male voters–and negotiating the differences that exist among the members is crucial as we move forward. We all have a role to play, even without, in the words of my friend, the ‘crisis of an election’.

Whether we run for office or work on the campaigns of those who do—or simply speak up and challenge the misogynist, homophobic, racist ignorance and fantasy some are still peddling, we cannot go back to business as usual. Power and influence are rarely given up, they  must be claimed, fought for and won.   The old cliche, ‘there’s no rest for the weary’ may be hackneyed, but it expresses the reality confronting us. So, deep breaths everyone, there’s momentum to build on and work to be done.


In high school my father, an electrical engineer, tried hard to persuade me to think about studying engineering. It was the late 1950’s and his argument went something like this: “You do well in your science classes; you like them; there are very few women in engineering and the country needs more. It will be a profession where you can stand out. ‘Standing out’ in a field because I was different and doing something women didn’t do, was not especially appealing to my teenage self.

Classroom experiences reinforced my hesitations. Teachers said things like, ‘Well, how did this happen? Susan and Mary received the highest marks on the  physic’s  quiz. You guys better get focused, girls aren’t supposed to outrank you.” Or, “Good work, girls, sure you didn’t have the math book under your desks? Ha, ha, just joking…”  The message was clear; boys do well in science and math; girls don’t.

Many are convinced that these gendered assumptions are the stuff of history.  Decades of work by feminists and  educators has resulted in major progress.  Gender gaps in K-12 math and science achievement tests have narrowed dramatically and enrollment differences in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses at the  high school level have all but disappeared. Some similar enrollment disparities at post secondary institutions have narrowed.

But large, troubling gaps in STEM fields remain. At the graduate level only 22% of students in engineering, 29% in mathematics and computer science, and 37% in physical and earth sciences are women. Among faculty in STEM fields, the percentages of women holding tenure track positions is even smaller.

These discrepancies are often attributed to individual choice.  The list of ‘personal choice’ explanations is long—and loaded with stereotypical assumptions about women: Women don’t want to spend long hours in the lab; women prefer dealing with people not test tubes; science doesn’t fit with family responsibilities.

Not so fast. Research recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported in major news papers reveals continuing bias against female students among both male and female science faculty members.   Researchers at Yale University drew a national sample of professors in STEM fields and asked them to evaluate the qualifications of an undergraduate student applying for a laboratory manager position.  Each faculty member reviewed the same resume, the only difference being  that a female or male name was randomly assigned to the materials.  Male students received higher evaluations from professors of both sexes. Males  were ranked as more competent, more likely to be hired and more worthy of mentoring.

The authors of the study suggest ”that  subtle gender bias is important to address because it could translate into large real-world disadvantages….{and that this bias} is likely unintentional, generated from widespread cultural stereotypes rather than a conscious intention to harm women.”

If scientists trained in careful analysis and attention to detail continue to reflect gender stereotypes in their student evaluations, is it any wonder that women have not achieved parity in STEM fields?  Teachers may not be as blatant or as public in their sexist comments as they were in the classes of my youth, but subtle, insidious biases remain.

Decades of feminist work has laid a strong foundation; but foundations weaken and crumble if neglected.  In today’s world with many feminist accomplishments  under attack, the work of activists focused on increasing the participation of women in STEM fields deserves our full attention. My father’s words still ring true; our country needs more engineers and scientists. A continued focus on women in STEM  benefits not only women, it benefits  the nation.


Today, August 26th, is Women’s Equality Day.  For many not actively engaged in women’s issues, it’s merely another in a long list of little known ‘days’.  But this election year’s escalating anti woman rhetoric is crazy making. I feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into the land of the absurd. When ‘rape’ and ‘legitimate’ can be used in the same breath and women and men of reason are called upon to counter medieval constructs of female biology, I need the lessons of Women’s Equality Day. Maybe others do, too.

Women’s Equality Day originated in 1971. New York Congresswoman  Bella Abzug proposed August 26th be so designated in honor of the 1920 ratification of the Woman’s Suffrage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.   The designation reflected the renewed energy of the ‘second wave’ of the feminist movement. It was an attempt to reclaim lost history.

By the 1960‘s, the struggles preceding the final ratification the 19th amendment had been largely forgotten. If school books mentioned women’s rights at all, a single sentence:  ‘Women were given the vote in 1920‘ usually sufficed. The 70 year battle for women’s suffrage was not considered a significant part of our national history.

Beginning at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and continuing until 1920 when the Tennessee legislature became the 36th state required for a two thirds majority, women battled for a Constitutional  amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. They organized, lobbied, protested and picketed. Their efforts were mocked and ridiculed. Protesters were arrested, jailed and force fed though tubes shoved down their throats. Leaders did not always agree on tactics. But women persisted. Far from being ‘given’ the right to vote, women fought hard to win it.

Some of the rights women worked for and achieved over the years have remained controversial. There are many battles still to be fought and refought. The right to vote and to run for office is not one of these. It stands unquestioned.

But a key result the women and men who fought for suffrage expected, equal representation of women in elected office, remains elusive.   Ninety two years after women won the right to vote, women are barely 17% of the US Congress. This percentage  leaves us tied for 78th place with Turkmenistan in global rankings of national elected representatives.

At the state level it’s not much better. Women hold 23.4% of statewide executive offices and 23.8% of the seats in state legislatures this year.

Although I find it hard to believe given our current national discussions, I realize that some may still ask, “why does it matter?”

Of course, neither women nor men march in lock step, or agree on every issue. Certainly many men support women friendly legislation; and there are women who vote for anti woman initiatives. But studies repeatedly show that women, no matter what political party they represent, tend to sponsor and vote for legislation and programs that support women and families in larger percentages than do their male colleagues.

Women do not “mis-speak” about rape and its consequences. Women will not fall in line with  statements or policies that imply that women are governed by our bodies, rather than our minds.

Todd Akin and his fellow travelers may be the last gasp of a crumbling patriarchy; I for one certainly hope so. Or they may be better described as part of a larger set of global fundamentalist efforts–of various origins–attempting to control women and their bodies. Maybe it’s some of both. But ‘last gaspers‘  and  fundamentalists can be equally dangerous and destructive.  We cannot turn away in disgust. We cannot fool ourselves that lies and pseudo science will fade away.

Our strongest weapon in the battles ahead may be the one our foremothers won for us.  The 20th century began with women winning the right to vote.  The 21st century is the time to fulfill the promise inherent in that victory. More women need to run for office. And  RIGHT NOW we ALL need to canvass, phone bank, donate and vote for candidates who will fight for women’s equality.  It won’t happen any other way.





Introducing our newest blogger: Susan McGee Bailey, Ph.D. Susan served as Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) and as a Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Education at Wellesley College for 25 years. Welcome, Susan! -Girl w/Penners

“House Passes Gutted Version of  Violence Against Women Act”: the headline hits me like one more punch in an already bloody nose. But I am a 40 year veteran of the gender wars. For 25 of those years I directed the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), one of the nation’s largest and most influential gender focused research and action organizations. Despite the disheartening direction of current policy debates and the frequency of misogynist remarks, I have learned not to succumb to the paralysis of discouragement.

In the 1960s “careers” for young college women were in the “‘type, teach or ‘care for’” range.  Without a degree the options were even more restricted. Every summer I earned money for college by working as a waitress. I learned about things we had no name for then:

Dottie arriving in dark glasses that she kept on all day, “They cover the bruises, honey. It’s hard for Jack to be home with the kids. He gets upset with me.”  Linda, a single mom, calling in sick; we all knew it met she had no one to stay with baby Sammy. Both women were supporting their families.

In those days women’s employment options were limited, not by the economy, but by society.  Some of us insisted on a different path. We forced major changes. Female construction workers, TV newscasters, and corporate managers were a rarity five decades ago. Today’s graduates confront a dismal economy, but can take for granted a wide range of career choices.

In fact, choice is assumed not simply in employment and the ability to seek legal protection from gender violence, but in our right to control our own sexuality and reproductive health. At a time when birth control pills were newly invented, domestic violence invisible and abortion a crime, women lacked  control over our bodies in ways sometimes hard for today’s young women and men to grasp.

Suddenly this spring ignorant anti-woman statements, strident voices and proposals on contraception and reproductive health that would turn the clock back a half century again surround us. Some protest that talk of an anti-woman agenda is being promoted simply as a distraction from ‘truly important’ policy issues. Nothing reminds me more of the 1960s than this classic dismissal of women and our concerns.

But there is also widespread outrage, and nuanced rebuttal. The reality that women are individuals who make a range of different choices for themselves is widely proclaimed by tweeters and  bloggers from both left and right.

Ten years ago such analyses came almost exclusively from feminists struggling to be heard.

Not that the ‘war’ over. Each day brings new and outrageous policy proposes that threaten the well being of women and children.  Still, awareness has grown. There is a good chance that key issues related to women’s health, sexuality and employment will remain on the public agenda throughout the election cycle. This is positive. Keeping these concerns in the forefront of public debate where the absurdities can be exposed and countered, is the upside of the demeaning negativity. There is no time for anything but hope and the energy it provides.