HAIKU, Hawaii (WOMENSENEWS)– Thirty-four years ago, Aug. 26 was designated as Women’s Equality Day to commemorate the 19th Amendment and the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality.
Most of us know that American women secured the federal right to vote on Aug 26, 1920. It is less known that more than 100,000 women across the country protested for gender equality on the 50-year anniversary of women’s suffrage, demanding equal opportunities in employment and education and access to childcare.
Those demands are just as urgent today as they were in 1970.
Female voters have outnumbered males in every presidential race since 1964, but that has neither eliminated the gender pay gap, nor assured equal employment opportunities. Voting alone has yet to resolve vital issues that disproportionately affect women, and in particular mothers, such as paid sick leave, parental leave, flexible workplaces, affordable childcare and college, living wages for caregivers, and a fair minimum wage.
It is clear that in addition to deciding political races, women need to be in them.
Patsy Mink: ‘Ahead of the Majority’
In 2008, director and producer Kimberlee Bassford released "Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority," a documentary about the life and work of the first woman of color to serve in the U.S. Congress.
The Japanese-American Patsy Mink was also one of the principal authors of Title IX, the law responsible for tripling women’s college enrollment and increasing their participation in sports by more than 10-fold over the last 40 years. Her life and work represent both the purpose and the promise of Women’s Equality Day.
"Ahead of the Majority" describes how Mink, born in Paia, Maui, in 1927, grew up among plantation workers surrounded by cane fields and graduated valedictorian. At the University of Nebraska she was assigned to the dorm for international students because "colored people" were not allowed in the main dormitories. Later, in spite of a pre-med focus as an undergraduate, a dozen medical schools rejected Mink because she was a woman. She ultimately applied to the University of Chicago law school and was accepted as part of a "foreign quota" because, as she says in the film, while laughing, "someone in the law school had not read up their American history, and hadn’t realized that Hawaii was annexed in 1898 and that we were all American citizens."
The documentary follows Mink’s entrance into politics in the context of sweeping cultural and political changes taking place in Hawaii, when Asian American males who had fought in World War II organized and ran as Democrats and brought the dominance of Republicans in Hawaii to an abrupt end. Mink was part of that change, running for the Territorial House of Representatives in 1954 and losing, but winning the seat in 1956 to become the first Asian American woman elected to the Hawaii House.
Though the "Democratic Revolution of 1954" resulted in a great many reforms, women’s rights were not on of the agenda, and Mink’s participation was not universally welcomed. She nonetheless accomplished a great deal, including the passage of a Hawaii gender-equity law immediately upon coming into office. But she was often fighting a one-woman battle. Mink did not always enjoy the support of her colleagues or her own political party, and she lost many political contests.
The documentary’s title, "Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority" is based on a quote from Mink, which reflected her willingness to be a lone warrior: "It is easy enough to vote right and be consistently with the majority. But it is more often more important to be ahead of the majority and this means being willing to cut the first furrow in the ground and stand alone for a while if necessary."
The Battle for Sports in Title IX
Patsy Mink was also a wife and mother, and the challenging dual roles of politician and parent came to bear on the passage of Title IX, the landmark law that was ultimately named after her.
In 1975, three years after the passage of Title IX—which requires all schools that receive federal funding to provide equal opportunities and benefits regardless of gender — the battle over equity in sports continued. As legislators prepared to vote on whether to keep sports in the legislation, Mink got a call that her daughter Gwendolyn had been involved in a serious car accident. She immediately left the floor; and the measure lost by one vote. (Gwendolyn recovered and is now a policy scholar.)
The amazing part of this story is that House Speaker Carl Albert, an ally of Mink, scheduled a re-vote because of Mink’s family emergency. This time the regulation to keep sports in Title IX passed by 37 votes.
Mink was able to lean on colleagues so she could be the parent she needed to be while also laying the groundwork for significant advances for women for generations. In addition to its huge impact on women’s sports, Title IX has had a very significant impact on women’s participation in higher education. As a result of Title IX, females currently outnumber males in colleges and universities 4-to-3 and earn 60 percent of undergraduate degrees and 60 percent of all master’s degrees.
The Promise of Suffrage and Title IX
Yet just as the efforts of the Suffragists and the 100,000 strikers in 1970 have not yielded true equality for women, the promise of Title IX has yet to be fully realized. Due to persistent discrimination in hiring, advancement, and compensation–not to mention motherhood penalties–women earn 25 percent less than men over the course of their careers regardless of educational attainment.
In fact, a woman must earn a PhD to match the lifetime earnings of a man with a bachelors’ degree.
And when it comes to higher education itself, though women and men are equally represented in many fields, there are significant gender gaps in some of the highest earning disciplines. In spite of Title IX‘s mandate, the female composition of those studying STEM subjects is less than 20 percent. And the percentage of women obtaining computer science degrees has actually dropped in the last 25 years.
Though the law has been in effect for over 40 years, understanding of its scope has been limited, and overall compliance inadequate.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon noted in an article, "Title IX and Women in Academics" that before Title IX, 1-in-17 girls in school played sports. By 2003 it was 1-in- 2.5. "What Title IX has achieved on the playing field remains undone in the classroom, where the promise of this law was originally directed," Wyden wrote. "Just as America’s schools were sent a clear message that they would lose federal funding unless women were given parity in sports, it’s time for our institutions to understand that there will be consequences if Title IX does not become a guiding principle in hiring, tenure, scholarships, and the provision of lab space and equipment."
Women make up over 48 percent of the full-time faculty at higher education institutions, yet only 28 percent of full professors were female in 2009. And only 23 percent of college presidents are women.
Women in all types of work pay intense penalties for taking time off to give birth and care for their families and that holds true in academia and other high-status fields. Further, in the area of STEM, and science in particular, women cite cultural and gender biases when it comes to resource support and compensation, as well as lack of encouragement and mentorship, and generally unsupportive and sometimes hostile environments.
Federal legislation supporting gender equity and family friendly workplaces continues to be debated in a divided Congress. Fortunately, Title IX‘s provisions are fully enforceable for undergraduate and graduate students and school staff. Besides equity in sports, admissions, and financial aid, Title IX provides protection from sexual harassment, and prohibits discrimination against students who are pregnant, have a child or are married.
In "Ahead of the Majority," the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii reflects on Mink’s life and work, emphasizing that, "You must have, in any movement, people who are insistent and demanding."
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