Redefining the War on Women

Throughout the election season and as the nation prepares for a new Congress to be sworn into office this January, the discussion of a “war on women” has received considerable attention.  But for all the challenges women face in today’s society, the broad notion of a “war on women” has been narrowly focused on matters relating to women’s reproductive issues.  While issues ranging from contraception to abortion are very significant and affect millions of women, the debate should not be limited to these issues alone.

In the United States, women make up over half of the population, yet they are still treated as a special interest group with limited interests and power.  Matters related to women in the workplace, women living in poverty and women who are victims of domestic violence are not discussed with much regularity and these issues are certainly not included in any reference to a war on women.

Just a few months ago, in a presidential debate, the Republican nominee for President, referenced the “binders full of women” he studied upon his election as Governor, in order to find qualified women in Massachusetts to work in his administration.  While Mitt Romney’s somewhat peculiar choice of words was widely parodied, there’s a larger issue to be examined.  The Governor of Massachusetts, home to some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities, in which women make up the majority of the students, seemed to be under the impression that qualified women that could make meaningful contributions to his administration were a rarity.   Too often it seems as though women appointed to such political positions are hired to appease women as an interest group, not necessarily because it is recognized that a woman could be the most qualified and best person for the job.

The 2010 Census revealed that poverty rates among women have grown at a faster rate than among men.   Approximately 17 million women live in poverty compared to 12.6 million men, and twice as many women over the age of 65 live in poverty.  The numbers are even more dire for minority women, with approximately 25% of Hispanic and African American women finding themselves living below the poverty line.  The fact that there exists a prominent wage gap in the United States, with women only earning approximately 77.5 cents to every dollar that men earn, is a clear instance of gender inequality. With 40% of women acting as the primary breadwinners for their families, closing the gap is not simply a matter of achieving equality for women but is also a broader matter of economic justice, an urgent issue for many women who rely on those wages to meet their basic needs and those of their families.

Finally, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act remains in question, with conservatives refusing to yield on certain aspects of the bill relating to homosexuals, American Indians and illegal immigrants.  The Act provides for a number of services, including legal aid to victims of violence.  Every year more than a thousand women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends.  The Violence Against Women Act has been hailed as one of the most effective pieces of legislation to combat this kind of domestic violence, yet its reauthorization is being stymied by those who seek to advance a narrow political agenda related to homosexuals or illegal immigrants and those who still feel federal legislation that addresses violence in the home overreaches.

It is clear that women face inequality in many aspects of life, even to the extent that it could be argued that there is a war on women.  However, as the debate stands, it has been limited to a discussion of women’s reproductive issues and ignores equally important issues such as women’s opportunities for advancement in the work place, equality in pay so women have the capacity to financially take care of themselves and their families, and ensuring access to educational and legal tools that enhance their ability to overcome circumstances of domestic violence.  It is crucial that these issues begin to evoke the same kind of passion that accompanies discussions related to reproductive issues and become part of a serious national conversation.