Last year was a banner year for women. A record number of female athletes competed in the Olympics. The women of the U.S. Olympic Team dominated their male counterparts in the gold medal count. A world-renowned authority on IQ tests found that women’s IQ scores have risen more quickly than men’s over the past century. Women were pivotal in the re-election of President Obama, and there is now a record 100 women in Congress.
These facts all seem to demonstrate that women are well on their way to breaking through the glass ceiling. Before we know it, the Senate floor may become a sea of the multi-colored suits of female senators, interspersed with the navy and black hues of the men’s suits.
Despite these superficial indicators of gender equality, underlying inequities persist.
One significant anachronism that lingers in today’s age of apparently increasing gender equality is in reproductive health legislation. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 42 states and the District of Columbia enacted 122 provisions on reproductive health and rights in 2012, a third of which were restrictive of abortion—the second-highest number of abortion restrictions in a single year after 2011. Regardless of your feelings on the morality or constitutionality of these provisions, the fact remains that they were passed by predominantly male state legislatures—76 percent of state legislators are male. I seriously doubt that any one of those men has ever discovered he has accidentally gotten pregnant. As such, it seems strange for these men to dictate how women manage their reproductive lives.
Very few proposed bills deal with men’s reproductive health, and those that do are met with incredulity. They are accused of “mocking” pro-life bills. Even MSNBC asked State Sen. Nina Turner of Ohio whether she was serious about her bill, which mandated that a man see a sex therapist, get a cardiac stress test and get an affidavit from his sexual partner affirming his impotency before he could get a prescription for erectile dysfunction drugs. If the fundamental aim of pro-life legislation really is to guide women in the right direction, toward the purportedly more moral and healthier choice to forego an abortion, then why shouldn’t men be guided in a similar direction? If Nina Turner’s bill regulating the private medical decisions of men seems ridiculous, then so should legislation regulating women’s reproductive health. At the very least, decisions about abortion, family planning and women’s health should be made by women.
A second anachronism is the failure of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Ever since former Sen. Joe Biden introduced the bill in 1994, it has had broad bipartisan support and has passed without much trouble. The VAWA’s purpose of strengthening protections against domestic and sexual abuse, as well as providing services for victims of such abuse, seems pretty universally acceptable to me. Who doesn’t sympathize with rape and domestic abuse victims? Who doesn’t believe that their attackers should be prosecuted? The international outrage at the gang rape of a woman on a bus in India this December demonstrates the universality of this aversion.
But VAWA expired in October 2011 because conservative legislators didn’t agree with the proposed added protections. The revised bill aimed to expand outreach to Indian tribes and rural areas, increase free legal assistance for victims, include stalking in the definition of violence against women, and train civil and criminal court employees to work with families with a history of such abuses. More contentious for Republicans were the provisions providing battered illegal immigrants with temporary visas and those including same-sex couples in domestic violence programs.
I’ll admit that these last two provisions were a little sneaky—immigration and same-sex relationships are obviously contentious issues for Republican lawmakers. Nevertheless, renewing VAWA would not pave the path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants. Battered individuals would only be allowed to claim temporary visas. Moreover, rape during wartime is even considered a crime against humanity by the international community, and immigration status hardly deprives one of the basic rights to security of person. In the same vein, I don’t see how Republicans’ position on same-sex marriage should affect the ability of same-sex couples to access programs for domestic violence. Domestic violence occurs regardless of marital status. Further, while a conservative lawmaker may be hesitant to recognize a same-sex couple, that doesn’t negate the right of the individuals in the relationship to enjoy the same security that heterosexual individuals do.
Thus, a sea of smiling women in colorful suits may have stood on the steps of the Capitol last week for a photo-op, but the anachronistic persistence of pro-life bills passed by overwhelmingly male state legislatures and the 113th Congress’ failure to pass VAWA indicate that the glass ceiling still holds firm. So-called “women’s issues” either land on the backburner or suffer from control by lawmakers who are physically incapable of becoming acquainted with the implications of the restrictions they pass.
We’re definitely moving in the right direction, but superficial progress should not blind us to underlying persistent inequalities. The glass ceiling is only superficially shattered.
Joline Doedens is a first-year law student. Her column usually runs every other Monday. You can follow Joline on Twitter @jydoedens.