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American women are making history; traditional obstacles slow to change


Women are making history. You can see it in the home, the workplace, the media and, in judging from the worldwide Women’s March in January, definitely in the streets.

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. It’s been a gradual, hard-fought process highlighted recently in Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House. Politics may be the most visible aspect of the American woman’s social influence. Locally, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors can serve as an example of the shifting power base with four of its five seats (Sheila Kuehl, Hilda Solis, Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn) occupied by powerful, influential women with extensive national and statewide experience in setting policy.

The women of LA County

How do all of these accolades and “firsts” apply to the ordinary woman who must balance her time between family, work and maintaining personal wellbeing? A good place to start might be last year’s “State of Women in Los Angeles County” summit hosted by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. They issued a report examining the latest data and trends in education, economics, health and housing among the county’s five million female residents (1.8 million of which are immigrants) and revealed some sobering facts that most women, despite gains in each of these study areas, find it difficult to rise above generations of misogyny, chauvinism and second-class status.

The issues affecting women tend to cut across racial and ethnic lines. LA County is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the nation with a population of 48 percent Latina, 26 percent White, 15 percent Asian American, nine percent African American, and another two percent comprised of a myriad of cultures. Among the challenges faced by women throughout the county was the connection between higher education and financial stability. Because most women in the county are single (60 percent either divorced, separated, widowed or never married) female heads of households—particularly those with less than a high school education—there was a poverty rate of 46 percent, compared to just 10 percent for female college graduates.  Women among the working poor earn less than comparable men with a larger gap at each level of education. More plainly stated, the gap between male and female incomes is $6,000 for those with less than a high school education. There was encouraging news that more girls in all ethnic groups completed A-G courses (high school classes that students are required to successfully complete for eligible admission to the CSU and UC systems).

Increase in working-poor women

Good educational opportunities for girls typically lead to well-paying jobs for women. The county labor force includes about 2.3 million women who own roughly 440,000 businesses with total receipts in excess of $64.8 billion each year. Steady employment, however, finds women lagging behind men at 41 percent of all jobs held compared to 58 percent for males. The disparities in pay result in a significant impact on local women with 26 percent of African American and Latina women, 13 percent of Asian American and 12 percent of White living below the poverty level. Of the working women  in the county—including the working poor—six out of 10 of these persons have children under six years of age. More findings from the study reveal that 20 percent of all women and girls live below the poverty level.

Homelessness has tarnished the halo of  Los Angeles County. More than 13,000 women were counted as homeless in the 2015 county survey, sharply up from 9,348 in 2013. Because many of these homeless women have children, the homeless survey counted about 4,000 kids living on the street or in shelters with their mothers. In longevity, women in the county live about five years longer than men, but there are twice as many women as men 75 years and older who live in poverty  (17 percent of these women 75 years and up live below the poverty level).

Equal pay is primary concern

The biggest issue facing women across the country is equal pay for equal work. The issue has spanned generations. A Gallup poll conducted in 2015 found that nearly four in 10 Americans said equal pay is the top concern for working women. Nationwide, there are almost as many working women as working men, but women face different challenges than men in terms of salary and financial independence. Money surpasses issues such as how women are treated in the workplace, or  balancing parenthood with work, as 39 percent of all persons surveyed—including 41 percent of the women responders—said equal pay was today’s primary women’s issue. Other issues ordinarily associated with women’s rights fell far below the need for equal pay. For instance, only 10 percent of women said access to childcare was important, nine percent said balancing work and home life was a pressing issue, and farther down the list, access to abortion/contraception, found just three percent of women surveyed saying this was a critical issue in their lives.

Because the standard of living for an increasing amount of Americans has fallen steadily over the past decade, poverty among women is an increasing concern. Two years ago, the Shriver Report revealed that 70 million women and their children are living in or are on the brink of poverty. Among the industrialized nation, the United States has the largest number of homeless women and children. The report indicated that many women with less than a college education are having an increasingly difficult time keeping up with the high cost of living. While women earn on average 70 cents for every dollar earned by men (representing full-time jobs occupied by both sexes), women are concentrated in the lowest-paying fields and are not well represented in the higher-paying professions. The department of economics at Harvard University in 2014 took a look at the pay disparity and found that the majority of the pay gap between men and women actually comes from differences within occupations, not between them. The gap reportedly widens in the highest-paying occupations like business, law and medicine.

Women better educated than men

In almost every domestic scenario, the woman is better educated than the man although married couples don’t generally consider one smarter than the other. In parenting, this role reversal has freed more women to pursue a professional career. One of the big reasons why more women have opted for a professional career–and delaying childbirth–is because of increased educational opportunities. In 50 years, women  comprise almost half of the nation’s employees. That’s a considerable jump considering that in 1968 women amounted to just one third of full-time workers. In 2012, the Department of Education reported that women earned 57 percent of the nation’s bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of graduate degrees and 52 percent of doctoral degrees.

All of these advancements in the state of American women cannot be celebrated without a focus on health issues. While women have a longer life expectancy than men (82 years for White women vs. 79 years for White men), that figure doesn’t mean they’re necessarily living healthier lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women are more vulnerable to contracting diseases like HIV, less likely to be screened for heart disease, and generally do not receive the same health evaluations as do men. Depression is sometimes called the “invisible” disease among women because of the stigma attached. The CDC reported that more women are more likely to develop depression and anxiety disorders than men and are more likely to live through an event or experience that gives them PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) such as a violent conflict, a disaster, or incident(s) of domestic violence.

Health issues

Breast cancer is the most lethal form of cancer for women ages 20 to 59 years, while heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure are being diagnosed with increased frequency in women.

For African American women, who make up about 13 percent of America’s female population, access to healthcare was the top issue articulated from a 2014 study conducted by the Center for American Progress. Policies such as the Affordable Care Act and other proposed ideas like paid sick leave were reported to greatly improve the lives of Black women who had private health insurance or are receiving expanded preventative service coverage. One in four African American women are uninsured.

The health issues particularly relevant among Black women were the same as women in other racial and ethnic groups. Hypertension is more prevalent among Black women (46 percent of Black women 20 years and older have hypertension), while breast cancer kills more Black women than any other race (five African American women die each day from breast cancer). African American women represent 65 percent of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses among women, and this community of women is four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes, such as embolism and pregnancy-related hypertension, than any other ethnic or racial group.

Benefits of ‘Title VII, IX’

American women have witnessed steady progress since the passage of the Civil Rights Bill and its resulting byproducts Title VII and Title IX. Women are found in large numbers in post graduate schools, in high-paying professions like medicine, law and finance and, to a lesser extent, in the legislatures and boardrooms. Beginning in 1976, for instance, women were granted admission to West Point and other military academies for the first time, a development that was unthinkable prior to the women’s movement of the early 1970s. Today, there are more than 400,000 women serving in the armed forces.

Domestically, laws have changed women’s rights with regard to abortion, divorce, child custody and support, rape, jury service, appointments as administrators and executors of estates, sentencing for crimes, and admission to places of public accommodations such as once male-only clubs, restaurants and bars. Hillary Clinton was the result of a list of “firsts” among women political leaders, going back to Geraldine Ferraro who in 1984 made history by being the first woman on a national party ticket for vice president. In 1992, Janet Reno became the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general, and in 2002 Nancy Pelosi became the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives. Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981 essentially reserved a place for future female justices on the U.S. Supreme Court which hosts three women now.

The Women’s Rights Movement of the 1970s played a significant role in the lives of women in society. The U.S. Census Bureau revealed data a few years ago indicating an ongoing revolution between men and women that extends from college campuses to the workplace and in neighborhoods across the nation. Today, when one spouse works full-time and the other stays home, it’s the wife who is the sole breadwinner in about one-fourth of American households. These working women reportedly out-earn their male partners 28 percent of the time when both spouses work, up from just 16 percent 25 years ago. This means the wife is “bringing home the bacon” in more than 12 million American families.