It seems like American women have come a long way in their struggle for recognition, equal rights, and status in all of the roles they fill in society. Since Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, we have benefited from Title VII, Title IX, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Violence Against Women Act, the Equal Pay Act—and other federal, state, and local legal protections. Women are plumbers and fire fighters. Women fill the lecture halls of law schools and the operating theaters of medical schools. Women (and men) are given time off to care for children and sick family members under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Sexual harassment—a common bane of women for centuries—is recognized as a horror that women should not have to deal with. Women soccer players and women in Hollywood have the attention of the country as they press for equal opportunities and equal pay. Women can choose to marry or not—and they can choose to have children or not—without the stigma society has placed on them for thousands of years that their only legitimate role was in the home.
When we compare our American selves to where we were 50 years ago, we have accomplished a lot. But, when we compare ourselves to women in other parts of the world, we may not fare as well.
Out of the 193 countries that belong to the United Nations, 187 of them have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This Convention is considered an “international bill of rights for women.” It attempts to end discrimination, establish equality, and fight against violence. Each country that is signatory to the treaty must report every four years on measures that country has taken to comply with the treaty’s obligations. The goal is to ensure equality for women in everything from health care and education to political participation, employment, and marriage. One of the provisions of the treaty that I find most personally satisfying is that it is alone among human rights treaties in affirming the reproductive rights of women and in targeting culture and tradition as “influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations.” As I did research for my book, Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion, I studied the ways in which religion embeds itself in an ethnic or national culture to maintain male dominance, particularly over women. As a result of my studies, I maintain that religion is, in fact, the last cultural barrier to gender equality.
Of the 193 countries that have adopted the treaty, a mere six member states have not ratified it: Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga, and… the United States. To be more precise, the United States, under President James Carter, signed the agreement but the Senate has not yet ratified the treaty. Even the newly created country of South Sudan has recently ratified the agreement.
Needless to say, there is a group of women in the United States who oppose the ratification because they contend it contradicts their religious views regarding abortion and the traditional role of women as mothers.
In the last 50 years, 52 countries have had a woman as head of state, including Sweden and Germany. Other countries with female heads of state include such developing areas as Mongolia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Liberia, and Gabon. San Marino, located on the Italian Peninsula, has the highest number of women who have served—17—including three women who have served twice! I have never been to San Marino, but I just added it to my bucket list.
The fact that the United States is not included in this number may very well change this November with the election of Hillary Clinton. We need to add the United States to the list of enlightened countries that believe women are as equally capable as men of positions on the national and international stages.
Then the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) compared 38 countries identified as having “advanced economies, the U.S. was the only country that does not mandate any paid maternity leave at the federal level. (The U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act grants only 12 weeks of unpaid leave to parents of newborn children or to newly adopted or new foster children. Even that 12 week limit can be reduced to zero time off for a new child in the household if the parent has already used those 12 weeks for personal illness or care of other family members.) The highest ranking for giving time off to new mothers goes to Bulgaria, which mandates between 55-60 weeks of paid leave. The majority of these 38 countries require at least 15 weeks of paid leave. The U.S. is one of nine OECD countries that have no leave policies in place for fathers.
As many of you know, I have long contended that religion often trammels women’s freedom and places her in a thankless role in society. Here is an example: In most countries, as the average GDP per capita rises, the level of religiosity declines—which, in turn, means that women in non-religious environments, are more highly valued and their roles as mothers are more safeguarded. However, out of 18 countries that have the highest average GDP, the US does not follow this trend, and of this group of 18, the U.S, with a high GDP, also has the highest level of religiosity—and accordingly, minimal protections for women as mothers. In fact, the Republican Party in the US, which is often associated with the Christian right, touts “family values” as its mantra, but is the most opposed to granting paid parental leave. How is it “family values” not to grant a new mother the right to care for her newborn without the economic stress of missing work?
Wage equality between men and women in the American workforce is a constant source of conversation during this presidential campaign year. Research studies that show a large gap in annual earnings for between men and women who are full-time wage earners are often challenged because women and men fill different kinds of jobs, that women take long periods of time off work to care for children, or that woman with families do not want the demands and stress of high-earning positions. But study after study has also shown that, regardless of these factors, women, particularly women of color, still earn less than men, even when controlled for those factors that might cause women to earn less. According to a study by the World Economic Form that controlled for those factors that might cause women to earn less, the United States ranks 65th of 142 countries in the report in wage inequality for women.
Not surprisingly, Northern European countries (often derided as “socialist” by political conservatives) have the highest wage equality for women: (1) Iceland. (2), Finland (3) Norway and (4) Sweden. If these countries can overcome wage disparities based upon gender, why can’t we?
The United States is 167th out of 224 countries in terms of infant mortality. “Infant mortality” is defined as the number of deaths of infants less than one year of age out of 1,000 births, with 224th having the lowest level of infant mortality. The US figure is 5.87 infants’ deaths per 1000 births. Monaco has the lowest level at 1.82 deaths per 1000 born. Iceland is 223rd at 2.06. Remember that Iceland led in wage equality? Do you think that might have something to do with the rating? And how about socialized medicine? Covering everyone with insurance just might be a good idea. Norway, Finland, and Sweden are ranked in the best 10 countries for low levels of infant mortality. Other countries that rank better than the U.S. are Macau, Croatia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Not to belabor the point about Republicans, but how can you be pro-family and not provide health care for pregnant women and their newborns? How can you be pro-life and not take action to lower the infant mortality rate?
Yes, let’s make America Great. Let’s improve these statistics for women.
The Faithless Feminist