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Women's Day USA
Today, March 8, marks International Women’s Day. Readers of this blog, I suspect, almost automatically think of somewhere outside the United States—but it’s worth considering why International Women’s Day is relevant right here in our own country.
2013 is the anniversary of Betty Freidan’s celebrated manifesto The Feminine Mystique, turning 50 this year. 1963 was still a time when a book could create a seismic (and reverberating) shock in American culture. Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which set off the U.S. environmental movement, The Feminine Mystique had a similar effect in launching the “second wave” women’s movement of the 1960s. The first was the battle for women’s suffrage, which was the issue 100 years ago.
Indeed, women have come a long way since the release of The Feminine Mystique, but probably no one is under any illusion that equality of the sexes has been reached. Sexism and racism are often spoken in one breath to convey that equality remains a work in progress. Consider the workplace. Women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man—much less if the woman belongs to a minority group. African American women earn about a dime less than white women, and Hispanic women another dime less than African American women.
The poorest women in the workforce still face some of the worst discrimination—and a lot of it is legal! For example, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers—mostly servers in restaurants—is $2.13 per hour. The tipped wage has been frozen at $2.13 for 21 years. More than two-thirds of tipped workers are women. Here’s a surprise: they experience poverty at almost three times the rate of the workforce as a whole.
In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama called for raising the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. The current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is almost impossible to live on, but at least it reflects small increases in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Raising the minimum wage to $9.00 would help many workers, although a full-time minimum-wage worker with two children would still be living in poverty. (She would earn $18,720 a year, with the 2013 poverty threshold for a family of three set at $19,530). But raising the minimum wage would not help tipped workers, because they are in a “special category” exempt from minimum wage legislation.
Over the last 50 years, women have opened some doors that were closed before. There are more women who serve in Congress, run companies, lead universities, and head up nonprofits. Some are earning less than equally successful men, but at least at these salary levels, the gap is more galling than frightening. At the bottom of the labor market, however, earning 23 percent less than a male peer is the difference between being able to feed your kids for the whole month and going without food for the last week. That’s just one of the important reasons to consider how International Women’s Day applies to the United States rather than only to developing countries.
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