National Organization for Women President Terry O’Neill spoke last night in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the second Progressivism on Tap event in the program’s spring series. She discussed the relationship between progressivism and women’s rights since the 1960s and past successes and ongoing challenges in women’s rights from the wage gap to sexual harassment and abortion rights.
The debate about women’s equality began to change in 1961, O’Neill said, when President John F. Kennedy formed the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and asked Eleanor Roosevelt to serve as the chair. The work of the commission and other progressive women’s groups helped to draw attention to gender-based discrimination in the United States, which led to the Equal Rights Amendment. In O’Neill’s words, NOW was founded during this period to serve as an “NAACP for women,” and its founding documents were modeled on the NAACP’s. NOW’s early agenda focused on sex discrimination in hiring and support of the ERA.
Yet stark gender inequalities still exist today, O’Neill reminded the audience. The American wage gap remains outrageously wide with women earning only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. And even more shocking, African-American women earn only 64 cents and Latina women only 58 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. Women make up 51 percent of the American population, but only 17 percent of Congress and 10 percent of corporate boards, and hold only two out of nine seats on the Supreme Court. When asked if 21st-century women took the gains of the women’s movement for granted, O’Neill responded, “Keep these numbers in your head. It’s like the bumper sticker says: ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.’”
Discrimination in many areas may be more institutionalized and subtle, since gender equality has become more broadly accepted by men and women alike. But O’Neill noted that one serious challenge to women’s rights activism is that many young women see their experiences with sexual discrimination or harassment as isolated, individual events. She suggested that, “young women should always look to the collective first,” since discrimination against an individual is usually evidence of systemic biases. Young women must organize to look for who else is facing similar injustices. O’Neill repeatedly advocated for a “connect-the-dots” philosophy of women’s rights that acknowledges the connections between racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination.
O’Neill also discussed the recently passed health care reform bill. She acknowledged the difficulty of passing the bill, but expressed disappointment that the bill contained substantial anti-abortion language despite the fact that polls reveal broad national support for pro-choice positions. She also called for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prevents the use of federal money for subsidizing abortions.
O’Neill suggested that empowering women can lead to powerful social benefits. She cited evidence from Nicholas Kristoff’s Half the Sky that shows how international aid invested in women’s empowerment has wide-ranging positive effects for health care, education, and equality. When women organize to work for their common benefits, they are much stronger than when they work together. As “the grassroots arm of the women’s movement,” NOW is on the frontlines of such work.