It’s time for the rebirth of a National Woman’s Party. Before the 2016 campaign, the idea would have seemed quaint. But we now see that the chances for continuing progress for women are dimming substantially.
Yes, women have made historic gains over the past century. But much of the legal progress was the result not only of the women’s movement but of a quirky accident of history. When Congress was debating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Rep. Howard W. "Judge" Smith (D-Va.) came upon a scheme he hoped would make a joke of the law and take it down to defeat. He added language to the bill that would outlaw discrimination not only on the basis of race but also sex. His ploy failed; the bill passed. Much of the legislation that benefited women in the following years was based on Smith's gamble. How he must be turning over in his grave!
Unfortunately, the major initiative for full justice, the Equal Rights Amendment, didn’t get ratified in the 1970s. President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, but the gender gap in wages has budged just barely since then. And the movement of women into high-level jobs in the ‘80s has slowed down. Women now occupy more college seats than men, but it’s the opposite picture in the workplace. The higher women go, the harder it gets. As of 2017, just 32 female CEOs ran Fortune 500 companies.
The WAGE (Women Are Getting Even) Project, a national group that helps women close the gender gap in pay, illustrates the salary difference in a stark way. “Tina and Ted graduated from the same university, with the same degree. They work the same number of hours, in the same type of job. And yet, as they start their first jobs, Ted is making $4,000 more than Tina.” Over a lifetime of work, a woman with a bachelor's degree will earn a third less (some $700,000) than a man with the same degree, the group found.
Many people thought 2016 would be the year when the first American female president took office. And yet the winning candidate ran on misogyny. The Trump administration has attacked women's reproductive rights and insurance coverage for contraception, pregnancy and childbirth. Among the opposition, meanwhile, some are calling for the Democratic Party to give up on the Obama coalition of blacks, Latinos and women and focus instead on the angry white men.
We see women's issues sinking to the bottom of the national agenda. Even with women making up 47% of the workforce and 73.7% of eligible voters, there seems to be little chance that the U.S. will catch up to the rest of the industrialized world.
•163 nations around the world guarantee paid sick leave; the U.S. does not.
•164 nations guarantee paid annual leave; the U.S. does not.
•177 nations guarantee paid leave for new mothers; the U.S. does not.
•74 nations guarantee paid leave for new fathers; the U.S. does not
•48 nations guarantee paid time off to care for children's health; the U.S. does not.
Perhaps we have pushed the present two-party system to its limits. The Republicans seem hopelessly fractured while the Democrats seem angry and demoralized. There is no “sane center” anymore.
In contrast, the women's march after the election was energized and full of purpose, drawing many men as well as women to oppose Trump policies. Could a woman's party capitalize on and add power to that energy and excitement?
A National Woman's Party did exist in the United States, founded by suffragist Alice Paul in 1916. But it faded away after women were given the vote.
Third parties historically do not do well in presidential elections in American politics. Perhaps this party could be focused not on gaining the presidency but electing state officers, governors, representatives and senators who can meet the NWP’s goals of getting for American women all those things that other nations take for granted. The party could throw its support to the Democrat or Republican presidential candidate most in line with its views.
Electing women candidates would probably help the most. It took two female Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to lead the way on deep-sixing the disastrous GOP healthcare legislation. Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri teamed to change the way the military handled sexual assault. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has been a vocal supporter of Planned Parenthood and abortion rights.
Once its primary goals were achieved, the National Woman’s Party could fold its tent. Or maybe not. Maybe it would be a great success, achieving for all Americans basic rights that so many other people around the world have had for ages.
Maybe no one — male or female — would want it to go away.
Caryl Rivers, professor of journalism at Boston University, and Rosalind C. Barnett, senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, are the authors of “The New Soft War on Women.”
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