States Vary Widely in Key Areas of Sex Parity

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Heidi Hartmann, IWPR president

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–American women’s status varies from state to state, but in none of them have women achieved equality with men, according to the most recent report on the status of women in the United States.

Issued every two years by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington-based think tank, the report documents women’s progress in five areas: political participation, reproductive rights, employment and earnings, economic autonomy and health and well-being. At a packed press conference at the National Press Club Wednesday, the institute’s president, Heidi Hartmann, presented the most recent national findings, as well as the results of in-depth studies of nine states, a regular feature of the report.

“American women are on a slow and uneven road to equality,” said Hartmann. “Some states are stuck in a rut, while a few are building superhighways.” She was joined on the dais by an A-list of women’s leaders, including Eleanor Smeal, founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation; Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, and U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Hartmann explained that the institute tracks 30 indicators of women’s status, which are folded into composite grades in each of the five areas.

Indicators range from percentage of employed women in managerial or professional occupations to percentage of women with health insurance; from required parental consent for abortions to insurance coverage for contraceptives to suicide mortality. Taken in total, the indicators present a textured and detailed picture of women’s lives in the United States today.

“Not many states will be proud to bring these report cards home. Most states got C’s. Nobody got straight F’s, but even the two best states, Connecticut and Vermont, earned A-minus grades. A-minus was not defined beyond meaning good but not perfect.

Connecticut and Vermont ranked in the top 10 of four of the five categories. Hawaii ranks third, followed by Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Alaska.

Map of top-graded states

Mississippi earned the dubious distinction as the worst state for women, with grades in the five main categories ranging from C-minus to F. It was joined in that cluster by Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Florida and Pennsylvania.

Map of lowest-graded states

Church Hurts Pennsylvania Ranking on Reproductive Health

Pennsylvania, the only northeastern state to rank so low, is influenced very strongly by a well-connected Catholic archdiocese in three major cities–Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Erie–according to Smeal. She observed that the state’s ranking was undermined by strong religious restrictions on reproductive health care services and clearly reflected in the state legislature.

A correlation between women’s economic and political status is highlighted. In states such as New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, California and Washington where political participation is high, there is a correspondingly high comparative earnings index, said Amy Caiazza, the institute’s director of the study.

“In addition, in many of the states with better policies for women, women’s economic and political status are better,” she observed.

Measuring four indicators of political status–voter registration, voter turnout, representation in elected offices and women’s institutional resources (such as women’s commissions)–the survey index gave states in the Northeast and West the highest rankings. Many of these states also won top honors for overall status, including Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Colorado, Vermont and Connecticut. States in the Southeast scored lowest in political status indicators–coinciding with some of the worst overall records for women.

For example, Mississippi, which ranked at the bottom of the overall composite, received a grade of D-minus for overall political participation, ranking 48th among states in numbers of women elected to office. Pennsylvania, also one of the low overall scorers, earned a grade of F in overall women’s political participation–only 56.8 percent of women voted in both the 1992 and the 1996 elections.

Despite gains in women’s political participation and increases in the numbers of women elected to office, politicians in general do not place women’s issues at the forefront of their political agendas, Caiazza said.

“Despite (Vice President Al) Gore’s convention speech, the Democrats’ campaign did not emphasize pay equity, child care, employment policies or a host of other issues women care about–Neither did (Tex. Gov. George W.) Bush or the Republican campaign,” she said.

“Women also must demand that policy makers address their needs,” she said.

Rep. Norton, of the District of Columbia, added that with so many issues of importance to women, it can be difficult to identify key areas. “Women must organize and focus their concentration–there are so many issues, but to get something done, we have to narrow the focus.” Even when efforts are focused, success is far from assured. “Take the Million Mom March, for instance: A million moms and all that publicity, and we still do not have any gun control legislation,” Norton said.

More States Need to Require Coverage for Family Planning

The right to make personal reproductive health choices varies widely from state to state, and progress has been made toward securing these rights in some states, Smeal said.

“We went from having just one state that required contraceptive health insurance coverage to 11 states. This shows both progress and the need for federal policies to require this coverage,” Smeal added. The inequities and differences from state to state should drive home the need to continue to defend reproductive rights so that more women are not denied them, she said.

“In 16 states, the governors and both houses of the legislature are anti-choice,” Smeal said. No state received a solid A on the reproductive rights composite index. Three states were graded A-minus: Hawaii, Maryland and Vermont. Ten states earned F’s: Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

In other measures of women’s health, such as rates of breast cancer and heart disease, the highest grade was earned by Hawaii, an A-minus. New York and Kentucky received F’s. Overall, the report showed that women’s health, excluding reproductive health, remains best in the Mountain states and the upper Midwest.

In the economic equality index, the survey demonstrated that while women have made progress in narrowing the wage gap, much work remains. “Nowhere in the United States do women get equal pay with men,” Hartmann said. On average, women today receive 74 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

Women’s Wages Must Rise at Faster Pace to Keep Up

The report showed that the size of the earnings gap varies from state to state, but it also reflects an overall rise in women’s wages compared to a decrease in men’s earnings. However, if the economic boom continues, the panelists warned, men’s earnings will be on the rise once again, meaning that women’s wages must increase at a faster pace to keep up. Wages in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest proved highest. By contrast, wages ranked at the bottom of the scale in West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Wyoming and Mississippi.

Women who are union members fare better on a wage and benefits index, according to Chavez-Thompson, noting that six million women belong to unions. “We have lots of data to show that union representation strongly correlates with higher wages for women,” she said.

Female union members earn 84 cents for every dollar earned by men, Chavez-Thompson said. In other measures of economic success, such as rate of small business ownership and percentage of women living above poverty, the South again scored the lowest, while women in the Northeast and the West fared the best.

Topping the list of states with the highest percentage of women with four or more years of college was the District of Columbia, which also earned top honors for the highest percent of businesses that are women-owned. By contrast, the district ranked 50th in the percentage of women living above poverty. Smeal pointed out that because the district was solely an urban location, it would be more likely to see higher levels of poverty, contrasted with higher earning levels, than states that include both urban and non-urban areas.

30 Indicators of Well-Being–Mental Health to Voter Turnout

The survey used the following 30 indicators in its ranking categories:

Political Participation

  • Women in elected office
  • Percent of women registered to vote, 1992 and 1996
  • Percent of women who voted, 1992 and 1996
  • Number of institutional resources (special commissions, agencies) available to women

Employment and Earnings

  • Median annual earnings full-time, year round for employed women
  • Earnings ratio between full-time, year-round employed men and women
  • Percent of women in the labor force
  • Percent of employed women in managerial or professional occupations

Economic Autonomy

  • Percent of women with health insurance
  • Percent of women with four or more years of college
  • Percent of businesses that are women-owned
  • Percent of women living above poverty

Reproductive Rights and Abortion Access

  • Parental consent for minors’ abortions
  • Waiting period
  • Public funding
  • Percent of women living in counties with abortion providers
  • Contraceptive insurance coverage
  • Pro-choice government
  • Infertility treatment
  • Second-parent adoption
  • Mandatory medically accurate sexuality education

Health and Well-Being

  • Heart disease mortality
  • Lung cancer mortality
  • Breast cancer mortality
  • Incidence of diabetes
  • Incidence of chlamydia
  • Incidence of AIDS
  • Poor mental health
  • Suicide mortality
  • Restricted activities

In-depth surveys were made of Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Tennessee. Since the surveys began, the institute has issued 33 state reports; another nine will be issued in 2002 and the last nine in 2004. These were not discussed on Wednesday.

Ann Moline is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C., and specializing in business and economic issues, as well as areas of concern to women. Her work has been published in Health, Moment, Washington Woman, Washington Business Journal, among others.


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