Women’s Well-Being Varies Dramatically by State

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Heidi Hartmann

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–A woman’s address makes a big difference in her life economically, socially and even medically. Yet no matter where a woman lives, whether it’s Hawaii or Maine, she still has yet to achieve equality with her male neighbors, according to a new survey.

The Status of Women in the States 2002 report, released here Tuesday by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, paints a dim picture for women in troubled pockets of the country, particularly in the South, where women continue to earn significantly less than men and less than women in the Northeast and West Coast. Also in the South, women face major hurdles in obtaining adequate health care and relatively few women are hold positions in government.

The report ranked states based on five areas: women’s participation in politics, employment and earnings, social and economic autonomy, health care and reproductive rights.

Massachusetts, which failed to make the top of the list when the survey was last conducted in 2000, is now ranked No. 1 for women alongside Minnesota and Vermont. The report attributes its improvement to the rise of then-Lt. Gov. Jane Swift, who became governor in April 2001, and also for the state’s increase in reproductive rights, including requiring insurance companies to cover infertility treatments and contraception and allowing same-sex couples to adopt their partner’s children. Massachusetts also does not enforce a waiting period for abortions, though the state does mandate parental consent for minors’ abortions.

Hawaii earned high marks for having the best reproductive freedoms for women, and was dubbed “the valedictorian of reproductive rights” by the institute’s director of research, Barbara Gault. Washington state ranked high for having the most women involved in key government offices–including two U.S. senators–and the District of Columbia proved to be the best place in the country for a woman to earn a living.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for Women in Many States

The author of the report summed up the complex data this way: “Even if a woman went to college in Massachusetts, opened her own business in California, got pregnant in Hawaii, earned her living in Washington, D.C., and ran for office in Washington state, she would still not have equality with men,” said report Amy Caiazza, study director for Status of Women in the States and the institute’s Working Group on Social Indicators. “In the 21st century, in the United States of America, a woman needs to live in at least four states and the District simultaneously, just to reach a level of near equality in this country.”

Women continue to struggle, with the report finding several examples of two steps forward, one step back. Between 1995 and 1999, the number of women living in poverty fell in 42 states from 13.7 percent to 12 percent nationwide, though there is now concern among women’s advocates that those figures have crawled back upward since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when many service and low-paying jobs, often filled by women, disappeared eradicated and the economic slow-down deepened.

The Milken Institute, an economic think tank, issued a report earlier this year showing more than a quarter million jobs had been lost since during the last quarter of 2001, many of them in retail, food service, travel, and tourism, including casino jobs. According to the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, women make up 62 percent of the service industries’ workforce, such as hotel cleaners and waitresses, and about half of all jobs in retail. But the Milken report says the economy is proving more resilient than expected and the economic forecast for 2003 looks brighter than it did in 2002.

Other forward motion for women’s reproductive freedom, according the Women’s Policy Research’s report, includes the fact that 19 states adopted laws requiring insurance coverage for prescription contraception. Also during that time period, 20 states introduced legislation to expand unemployment insurance coverage to cover parental leave, though none of these bills has passed. With the advent of antiretroviral drugs, AIDS cases have declined among women coast to coast, from 9.4 cases per 100,000 to 8.7, though the disease continued to ravage certain populations, particularly African American women and other minorities between 1996 and 2000.

Women in Southern States Have Fewer Benefits

Mississippi, since 1998, continues to be ranked by institute researchers as the worst state for women. Other states in the South–Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Tennessee–also fell to the bottom of the list. The South continues to do poorly for women, the report asserted, with fewer women in government, higher rates of women in poverty, lower health-care status, and less earned per dollar compared with men.

Heidi Hartmann, the institute’s founder and president, said there are only nine states where the average female worker makes $30,000 or more each year, while there is just one state in which the average men earns less than that. “I think that’s a pretty shocking fact,” Hartmann said.

While the South took a beating in this report, the institute did acknowledge states taking steps to assure better lives for their female residents. Louisiana, the report authors noted, has 20 percent of its women living in poverty, yet has worked to broaden its definitions of domestic abuse and has made it possible for women to seek a mammogram without a doctor’s written permission.

Indiana, Florida and Pennsylvania were also ranked as some of the worst states for women. Indiana fell into that category for the first time primarily because the number of women in its legislature dropped by half from 2000 to 2002.

Welfare, Sexually Transmitted Diseases Also Problems for Women

Women’s economic well-being has also been influenced by the implementation of the 1996 federal welfare laws. Nine states have instituted so-called family caps denying benefits to children conceived or born while a mother is on welfare.

The report found that cases of Chlamydia, a difficult to detect sexually transmitted disease that can cause infertility, grew nationwide from 336 to 404 cases per 100,000 women between 1997 and 2000. According to the report, rates are highest in the District of Columbia, which had 1,009 cases per 100,000 women, compared to Vermont, which had the lowest rate at 143 cases per 100,000 women. There were 763 cases per 100,000 people in Mississippi, which has the second-worst chlamydia rate in the country.

The authors said the report indicates states’ weaknesses and strengths and can serve as a guide to states to show where they have their work cut out for them. But women’s advocates were still disappointed that at the dawn of the 21st century, there was still such a long way to go.

“I’d like to think all our states provide a decent environment for American women,” Gault said. “But the reality is that many do not. Our search for the one state that could earn the Ms. America title came up short. Those who think feminism is dead, or should be, need to take a closer look at the data.”

Katrina Woznicki is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

Institute for Women’s Policy Research:
http://www.iwpr.org

National Women’s Law Center:
http://www.nwlc.org

Milken Institute:
http://www.milkeninstitute.org


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