It has come to my attention that we are now in Women’s History Month. Oh, GOOD! This month, children shall learn about women. If you are counting, last month they learned about Black people. Across the nation, we will take opportunities to celebrate the accomplishments of women. To ask ourselves “How have women made history? How have women been important?”
And frankly, I’m a bit upset about it. I’m a bit upset that I went to the Library of Congress website, navigated to the Women’s History Month page, and was greeted with a slideshow featuring a grand total of 10 different women in American history. TEN. And one of them, by the way, was “archetype of Rosie the Riveter”. So nine women, and one symbolic representation of women. I’m not questioning that the folks down at the Library of Congress are aware that there have been more than a handful of great women in the history of our nation. But highlighting the same handful of “historical” women every once in a while (let’s say for one month out of each year) really does not do much of a service to recognizing the real, genuine experiences of women in our country.
The theme of Women’s History Month is “Women’s Education–Women’s Empowerment”. Which, of course, the Library of Congress dutifully introduces by pointing out that women have recently surpassed men in rates of college attendance, but you know, things weren’t always this way. Wait one second, it sort of seems like we are saying “Oh look isn’t it great, women are MORE educated now, so we don’t really have to worry about this anymore! It’s been FIXED. But we can look back, for old times’ sake”. This makes me cringe for a multitude of reasons.
Let’s talk about education, for starters. As of this year, women are enrolled at higher percentages than men in higher education at every level. For the record, the population of the U.S. is about 51.5% women, 48.5% men. The percentage of women who have earned at least a Bachelor’s degree is slightly higher than men–36.9% compared to 34.7%. But when you look to higher levels of education, things look a little bit different. Slightly less women (9%) than men (9.5%) have master’s degrees. But only .8% of women age 18 and over have a doctoral degree, compared to 1.5% of men. Comparatively, that means that of all people holding doctoral degrees in the U.S., 63.3% are men and only 36.7% are women (U.S. Census Bureau data, 2010). This speaks volumes for higher education, where women are significantly underrepresented in many disciplines. Virginia Valian explores this topic in depth if you want to look into it, but the reality is that women do not have equality in this area.
While we are on the topic of empowerment, let us turn to business and the Forbes Fortune 500 list. In 2011, the number of women on the list reached a record-high 18. That’s right, 18 out of 500 of the CEOs were women. That’s 3.6%. This record-breaking 3.6% made CNNMoney declare that “It has been a banner year for women in business” (see the article here). Are you kidding me? Why are our expectations so deliriously low? 51.5% of the PEOPLE in this country are women. Only 3.6% of the most powerful CEOs are women. One commenter on that article noted that when 250 of the Fortune 500 are women, it will be a banner day. I agree. Or perhaps when 258 of them are women, because that would reflect our population.
When you turn to the governance of our great nation, things aren’t looking too great for women, either. 16.8% of Congress is women (down 2 seats from the previous year). There are only 6 female state Governors. Out of 16 administrators in the President’s Cabinet, four are women (CNNMoney probably thinks that this is a real banner year for women in government at a whopping 25%). 3 out of the 9 Supreme Court Justices are women. And again, if you are keeping track, 0% of U.S. Presidents in the history of our nation have been women.
So here’s the truth: the “gender gap” has NOT been closed, as the Library of Congress might have you believe because more women are enrolled in higher education. For goodness sake, there are more of us to begin with. The institutions and systems of power in this country are still unquestionably controlled by men. So don’t show me a slideshow with black and white pictures of 10 women. Don’t pretend like things are fixed, that girls and women in America have all of the opportunities we could imagine, because things are not fixed, and we don’t. And the only direction pretending is going to take us is backwards.
I’m a confident, self-assured, ambitious young woman. I plan to have a PhD by the time I’m 40 and I will proudly join the ranks of the .8% of women in America who do. I have spent my entire life being called a perfectionist, bossy, controlling, cocky, overly opinionated, intimidating, and a bitch. The boys in grade school and middle school didn’t like me because I was taller than them, got better grades, and spoke my mind. In college and high school, my female friends would often confess to me that they found me “intimidating” or “too strong” until they got to know me and decided that I was a great friend and role model. I’m incredibly grateful to my parents for raising me and my sister to be women who know that we can do whatever we want, who told us as children that we were great, that we were not just beautiful but strong, independent, intelligent, and impressive.
I do not think that I am the norm. I do not pretend that I am a shining symbol of the experience of all women in the U.S. Which is why I have no intention of celebrating Women’s History Month by pointing to the women who have been exceptions and saying “Look what she did, wasn’t she great?”. I intend to celebrate EVERY month, and every day, by looking at women and girls, and pointing to THEM, and saying “Look at you. You ARE great.” So yes, we do need to educate and empower women. But if we say that’s what we are going to do, let’s also educate ourselves and everyone else about how things actually are. Let’s stop pretending. And let’s start doing something a little bit better than looking at grainy old pictures. Let’s look at the living, breathing, 51.5% of the United States who are, who will be, and who can be great.