Women's History Treasures of the Past Valued in our Present

It’s about that time again — when women worldwide celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day (March 8), whose beginnings to back 150+ years to a single act of protest in 1857, when New York garment workers protested their miserably low wages and the deplorably unsafe conditions in which they worked. Since then, millions of women worldwide have joined together — asking for decent wages and safer working conditions in their factories and work places; asking for the right to vote, the right to hold office, the right to own property and to accrue and manage their own assets. Yet, the earnings gap remains, and at the highest education levels, it widens rather than narrows as might be expected, if both possess equal degrees or professional certifications. When we discuss equal pay, pay equity or the gender gap in wages, we sometimes lump different aspects together in one issue. There are at least two: one having to do with equal pay for equal work, the other with pay equity — equal pay for work of equal value. The gap exists either way — women earning different (less) wages for the same or similar work and traditional “women’s work” such as nursing or teaching, which is valued less, no matter our lip service to its import and value to humankind’s future. In 1945, a United National Charter became the first international agreement to proclaim gender equality as a fundamental human right. And in 1975, the United Nations declared March 8th as International Women’s Day, a global day of celebration honoring the achievements and progress for women around the world. In January 2007, Avon — a company begun 120 years ago as perhaps the very first micro-lender to women so they could run their own entrepreneurial business and earn their own money — launched an exhaustive research effort that polled over 8,000 women in 16 countries in order to measure what it calls the “Women’s Empowerment Index.” Women were asked to state their satisfaction or dissatisfaction — to say how empowered they believed themselves to be — in 6 areas: health and safety, educational opportunities, work and career, opportunity for economic independence, to participate meaningfully in decisions related to family and related to community or society. Five years ago, that index stood at 64 on a scale of 100. One way of interpreting this is to say, 5 years ago, we believed we were, perhaps, 2/3rds of the way “there.” Another way to look at it is this: for all their hope and optimism, about 2 out of 3 women wished then only to have enough money to live and pay their bills. I cannot imagine that any change in the last few years is statistically significant. So, this year, I pause to consider women’s gains (and losses), to contemplate the journey still ahead of us, to catch my breath before once more letting it go. Phyllis Mayo

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