Visions for Progress: Recognizing Women as Central to the Nation’s Success

Debra Aldridge begins dinner for her and her grandson, Mario, at her home on Chicago's South Side on January 29, 2016.

The rhetoric throughout the 2016 campaign season served as a stark reminder of how much progress women have made and how far they still need to go. From invoking entrenched gender stereotypes to deploying derogatory language about women, the verbal jousting among some candidates often seemed like a step backward into a bygone era rather than a present-day conversation about jobs, inequality, equal opportunity, and shared prosperity. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, a robust conversation has emerged about women—both among women themselves and in the broader public sphere. Women are leading and engaging in renewed activism to draw attention to their diverse experiences and demand concrete changes that respond to the challenges they face.

The policy ideas emerging in the early months of the Trump administration, however, threaten to achieve too little progress and leave too many women behind. While the details remain scant, President Donald Trump has alluded to potential proposals on child care and paid maternity or parental leave as examples of actions he will take to help women and families. If these plans are similar to his campaign proposals, they have critical flaws.

Trump’s paid maternity or parental leave proposal, for example, would likely exclude a large majority of workers who need access to paid family and medical leave,  and his child care proposal would concentrate on offering tax deductions that favor the wealthy. At the same time, he is pushing for massive cuts to programs that provide other critical assistance to families, such as funds for low-income housing, food assistance for the elderly, job training, and health care. These piecemeal measures ignore their potential collective harm on families and fall far short of the comprehensive progress that women need. Moreover, they reveal an incomplete understanding of the different challenges women face and how they connect together, resulting in a vision too narrow to include all women.

This context is important when taking stock of how best to improve the lives of women and their families in the current political environment. The policy choices made today will have an enormous impact on whether women move forward or backward; these choices will depend in part on the vision for women’s progress and the road map used to make that progress a reality.

A vision for women’s progress

Crafting a vision for women’s progress that is broad enough to address the needs of all women requires a deeper understanding of, and a commitment to uphold, the following critical elements of women’s success:

  • Women’s progress must be rooted in equality. Meaningful progress for women must position them to be full and equal participants in every aspect of society. This means ensuring that women’s futures are not constrained by outdated stereotypes and attitudes intended to hold them back. It also means ensuring that women, and their contributions, are equally valued and seen as integral to the nation’s success. Importantly, it requires an unflinching commitment to upholding the basic rights and protections established to achieve women’s equality, such as protections against sex discrimination. These rights and protections must be viewed as nonnegotiable, undebatable, and indisputable rather than as special perks to be doled out or taken away.
  • Women’s progress requires a deep understanding of the diversity of women’s experiences. Women’s progress must include all women: women of color and white women; low-income and middle-class women; married and unmarried women; women who stay at home to care for their families, and women with paid jobs outside the home; women in rural and urban communities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT women; immigrant women; and many others. Women’s experiences are not interchangeable. Understanding different experiences is critical to identifying policy solutions that can respond to different needs. Accordingly, the measures of success used to evaluate women’s progress must be rooted in the reality of their lives. In this way, measures can accurately reflect diverse experiences, challenges, access to opportunities, and health and overall well-being. Anything less precise may lead to an incomplete picture of women’s status, mask the potential harms of different policies, and suggest strategies that will be ineffectual for those most in need.
  • Women’s progress requires solutions that recognize the interconnected nature of the lives they lead. Women do not live in vacuums or silos. Rather, they lead complex lives where many different issues often become intertwined. Thus, their economic stability may depend on their ability to find work; their ability to keep their jobs may depend on the availability of affordable child or elder care; and their ability to be a successful worker may depend on their access to health care. Failure to recognize the many different factors that affect women’s success risks pursuing policies that will be counterproductive or have limited effects.
  • Women’s progress must be rooted in a common commitment to shared success. Solutions that pit different groups of women against each other are not real solutions, nor do they constitute real progress. Thus, Trump policy proposals that would primarily help wealthy families with child care but not lower-income families, or that would provide paid leave to mothers but not to women with other caregiving needs, are short-sighted and insufficient to achieve broad-based progress. Workable solutions must be comprehensive enough to address multiple needs and the different challenges that women face.

Having a clear vision of what women’s progress should look like is an important first step. But to have a practical impact, any vision must be translated into concrete policies that can achieve positive results on the ground. Picking and choosing among different categories of workers to receive critical benefits, as the Trump administration has begun to do, is counterproductive. Indeed, it undermines efforts to move all families forward together.

Implementing a more comprehensive approach

A more comprehensive approach would identify and pursue a full complement of policies to respond to the diverse challenges that women confront on a daily basis. This approach would focus on policies that equally enable women to respond to their own needs and the needs of their families, rather than showing preference to one group of women over another. Moreover, this approach would fully integrate issues confronting women into the broader public policy narrative, instead of confining them to individual issue silos to be addressed separately as afterthoughts. This more comprehensive vision of women’s progress would recognize that women are integral to the overall success of the nation, and the major policy debates under active discussion—such as economic expansion, job growth, modernizing workplaces, and health care—must include proposals that maximize the full participation of both women and men. Issues too often discussed solely as women’s concerns, such as equal pay, paid leave, child care, reproductive health care, the minimum wage, and workplace flexibility, would be understood more broadly as critical questions about strategies to retain workers, create healthy and effective workplaces, and strengthen and grow the economy.

Many of the gains made over the past few years reflect this more comprehensive approach, recognizing that this combination of issues collectively affects women’s progress and the progress of their families. Policies adopted during the Obama administration to expand access to paid sick days, promote more pay transparency and prohibit retaliation against workers who discuss their pay; strengthen tools to investigate pay discrimination; make greater investments in child care; require coverage of women’s preventive health care services; and encourage stronger work-family policies for federal workers together recognized the need for multifaceted solutions for women and their families. At the heart of this work is a vision of women and women’s roles that moves past stereotypes to be more expansive and inclusive, one that recognizes the importance of all women charting their own course and future without being held back by old attitudes. This approach also helps normalize the types of policies that should be part of every workplace, and it sets a baseline of basic standards that every worker should enjoy.

The piecemeal approach of the Trump administration versus a more comprehensive strategy to address the full range of women’s challenges represent two competing visions that may determine the scope and sustainability of women’s progress over the long run. The direction taken matters not only when evaluating future opportunity for success but also when fighting to preserve hard-won gains. As the nation looks ahead, it is critical to pursue to a vision of women’s progress that will actually move all women forward.

Jocelyn Frye is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.