What makes a slut? The only rule, it seems, is being female (The Guardian 23/6/14)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a warning more than a word: a reminder to women to adhere to sexual norms or be punished. 

By Jessica Valenti

Sandra Fluke heard it when she talked about insurance coverage for birth control. Sara Brown from Boston told me she was first called it at a pool party in the fifth grade because she was wearing a bikini. Courtney Caldwell in Dallas said she was tagged with it after being sexually assaulted as a freshman in high school.

Many women I asked even said that it was not having sex that inspired a young man to start rumors that they were one.

And this is what is so confounding about the word “slut”: it’s arguably the most ubiquitous slur used against women, and yet it’s nearly impossible to define.

The one thing we do know about “slut” is that it’s the last thing a woman should want to be. Society is so concerned over women and girls’ potential for promiscuity that we create dress codesschool curriculaeven legislation around protecting women’ssupposed purity. Conservative columnists opine that women having sex is tantamount to a “mental health crisis”, and magazine stories wonder if we’re raising a generation of “prosti-tots”.

Leora Tanenbaum, the author of SLUT! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, told me that “a ‘slut’ is a girl or woman who deviates from norms of femininity. The ‘slut’ is not necessarily sexually active – she just doesn’t follow the gender script.”

This nebulous, unquantifiable quality of the slur is what makes it so distressing – there’s no way to disprove something that has no conclusive boundaries to begin with. And because it’s meant to be more of an identity than a label, it’s a term not easily shaken off. “Slut” sticks to a person in a way that “asshole” never will.

So what makes you a slut? It seems the the only hard and fast rule is that you have to be a woman.

Men, of course, are immune – absent, really – from the frenzy of concern. For instance, a new study out of the University of Michigan showed that teen girls who “sext” are called sluts while boys who do the same remain free-from judgement. In another example, the American Medical Association breathlessly released a study in 2006 with the headline “Sex and Intoxication More Common Among Women on Spring Break”, intended to warn women about their “risky” behavior while on break – but there was nothing about the men the majority of these young women would supposedly be having all this drunken sex with.

As always, women are sluts and men are, well, men.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure of being called promiscuous, it may be hard to understand just how profound an impact it can have. Women’s value and morality are closely – though wrongly – tied to their sexuality. So “slut” (or any of its variations) is an accusation with power behind it.

When multiple attackers videotaped themselves brutally raping an unconscious teen girl in California, for example – stopping to take dance breaks and find new objects to penetrate the young woman with – the first trial resulted in a hung jury because the defense argued she was promiscuous. “The things she wanted done were done”, argued one lawyer. Another asked the jury: “Why was her vagina and anus completely shaved? Sex! She’s a sexual person!”

The accusation doesn’t have to be that explicit to have real power. Cherice Moralez –raped by her 49 year-old teacher when she was just 14 – was called “older than her chronological age” by the judge in the trial – a more diplomatic way of saying she had it coming. Her attacker was sentenced to 30 days in jail. Moralez later took her own life.

Multiple girls have taken their own lives of late after being “slut-shamed” – an indication that the slur shows little sign of waning in the damage it does personally.

Tanenbaum, whose forthcoming book is I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet, said that many of the girls she interviewed “had intentionally embraced the ‘slut’ label as a badge of honor to advertise their sexual empowerment.”

But, she added, “they ended up losing control of the label when their peers turned it against them”.

Broader efforts to “reclaim” the word – via marches like SlutWalks, for instance – have largely failed. While the anti-rape protests that spread across the country a few years ago were popular in terms of attendance and media coverage, and I was an early supporter, many women felt the word “slut” was irredeemable – especially women of color, for whom racist stereotypes about their supposed innate promiscuity always presented a unique danger.

The “slut” idea hurts women politically as well. A safe contraceptive and a cancer vaccine were both held up for years because of fears they would make women “slutty”, and anti-choice legislators and activists insist that that abortion providers are in the “business” of promiscuity – and use that accusation as a way to defund critical health care providers like Planned Parenthood.

So, what’s a “slut”, then? It’s any of us, and all of us – especially those of us who step out of line in some way real or imaginary. It has little to do with the number of our sexual partners, or the way we dress or flirt, or if we take birth control or not.

It’s a warning more than a word – a reminder to women that we must adhere to the narrow standards of femininity and sexuality set out for us, or be punished accordingly. And in that way, the real meaning of “slut” is terrifyingly clear.

Link: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/23/slut-female-word-women-being-female?CMP=fb_us

Women’s rights in Vietnam

A while ago The Guardian compiled World Bank and United Nations data and created an interactive snapshot of countries’ legislation in 5 areas of women’s rights: violence, harassment, abortion, property and employment rights, discrimination and equality. Let’s take a look at Vietnam:

We fare quite well in terms of property law, abortion rights and employment rights. Our constitution explicitly recognises gender equality before the law.

women rights 5 vnwomen rights 7 vnwomen rights 4 vnwomen rights 2 vn

women rights 6 vn

However, our legislation does not address domestic violence, sexual/physical/emotional/financial abuse of women and sexual harassment in education, work and public places.

women rights 1 vnwomen rights 3 vn

Does this surprise you?

For me this is alarming given that women constitute 24% of members of our parliament.

Link: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/ng-interactive/2014/feb/04/womens-rights-country-by-country-interactive

Violence Against Women: It’s a Men’s Issue (Huffington Post 29/8/13)

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Mobina Jaffer

I recently watched a TED Talk by Jackson Katz called “Violence Against Women — It’s a Men’s Issue.” Domestic violence and sexual abuse are often called “women’s issues.” In his talk, Jackson Katz, stresses the importance of changing the way we think in order to realize that violence against women is very much a men’s issue. As a result, men play a key role in the solution to violence against women.

“Calling gender violence a women’s issue is part of the problem,” argues Katz. “It gives a lot of men an excuse not to pay attention.” Unfortunately, placing the responsibility on the minority and forgetting about the role of the dominant group is not uncommon. When we say ‘gender’ we think of women, when we say ‘sexual orientation’ we think of gay, lesbian, or bisexual individuals, and when we say ‘race’ we think of people of colour. Katz questions “Why are men, heterosexuals, and Caucasians — the dominant groups in society — exempt from these discussions?”

Violence against women is not solely a women’s issue. Katz recognizes that violence against women can have profound effects on other men and boys as well as society as a whole. Katz explains, “The same system that produces men who abuse women, produces men who abuse other men.” It is clear that this is an issue that both men and women must be engaged in.

Katz is a pioneer of the “bystander approach” to gender violence prevention. With the bystander approach, instead of seeing men as perpetrators and women as victims, or vice versa, the focus is on the bystanders. Essentially, the goal is to have anyone who is not a direct victim or a perpetrator of violence against women to stand up against it. Silence is seen as a form of consent.

When it comes to male culture, Katz stresses that the goal is to get men who are not abusive to challenge men who are. He states, “We need more men who have the courage and the strength to start standing up and saying some of this stuff. And standing with women, not against them and pretending that this is somehow a battle between the sexes and other kinds of nonsense. We live in the world together.”

One excellent example of men speaking out and being leaders in the fight against gender based violence is the White Ribbon Campaign. The campaign is dedicated to the 14 women targeted and killed in the 1989 massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. Today, the White Ribbon Campaign has spread to over 60 countries where men wear white ribbons as a pledge never to commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women.

I have always been an advocate for including men and boys in ensuring women’s rights. The involvement of men is crucial to ending violence against women, yet it is not an easy task. However, adopting Katz’s bystander approach and making ALL voices heard — including those of men — in the fight to end violence against women is a critical place to start. We all must speak out to end violence against women.

Link: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/senator-mobina-jaffer/violence-against-women-_b_3837766.html

Patriarchy and women’s sexuality

Yesterday I talked about my parents’ fear of me losing my virginity before marriage which is actually very valid in patriarchal Vietnam. According to my research, these are the three reasons men often cite for wanting a virgin girlfriend: First, they have not had premarital sex and/or are going to abstain and they expect their girlfriends to do the same. Second, they fear that their girlfriends are more sexually experienced than them. Third, they do not like the idea of “sharing” their girlfriends with other guys.

To be clear, abstinence is a totally respectable choice. In fact, for me, every responsible choice is a respectable one. Having certain expectations of one’s future partner is absolutely reasonable. That said, the society’s zealous scrutiny of women’s virginity and sexual activity makes very little sense in a world of widely available contraception. There are countless stories about slut-shaming, “honour” killing of unmarried girls engaging in sexual acts, and girls having to get their hymen “reconstructed” before consummating their marriage. Gender roles in sexuality are evident in our everyday language. What is often implied about women’s first sexual experience is that they are passive with something to lose while men have something to gain: “she lost her virginity”, “he took her virginity”, “she gave it up to him”, “he popped her cherry”. Ironically men engaging in sexual acts is often deemed “biological” or “boys will be boys”. In other words, men enjoy exoneration for their sexual behaviour even in instances of rape, but women don’t. Such double standard of sexuality prevails even among many men that regard themselves as progressive and open-minded.

I am not upset about my parents’ concern although it does not necessarily mean I will conform. They only want the best for me in a society where the prospects of marriage are bleak for “liberal” girls. In their typically patriarchal views, women need men’s protection through marriage, which I disagree.

A while ago I did a little research on why men are so concerned about controlling women’s sexuality and below is an interesting account by BJ Gallagher, a sociologist, best-selling author, and speaker.

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Women’s Sexuality and Men’s Fear

By BJ Gallagher 

Years ago, Mother Teresa was invited to attend an anti-war rally. She declined, reportedly saying something to the effect that: “Anti-war protestors are some of the most war-like people I’ve ever seen. I have no interest in participating in war. But, if you ever hold a pro-peace rally, let me know.”

I recalled that apocryphal story last week when I received an RFP (Request For Proposals) from a large, nationally-know women’s organization. The entire RFP was a rallying cry for women to get into action to combat the “Republican War on Women.” I cringed and deleted the email.

Is there really a “war on women” going on? Or are we simply experiencing a never-ending barrage of fear mongering and over-the-top rhetoric being blasted from both political parties — as well as from religious institutions, women’s organizations and the media? I think it’s the latter. I don’t believe Republicans are waging a war on women, and neither are men.

Male-bashing doesn’t get us anywhere — we don’t need to be anti-men in order to be pro-women. Republican-bashing doesn’t get us anywhere either — there are millions of good people in the Republican party who simply have genuine differences of opinion about what’s best for the country. Demonizing men — and/or demonizing Republicans — is not helpful in finding solutions to our vexing national problems. Hating the opposite sex and/or hating the other political party only breeds more hate.

I’m with Mother Teresa: I’m not interested in speaking the language of war nor participating in war-like gatherings of women. Why do I feel this way? Let me provide some background:

About fifteen years ago, I visited a fascinating exhibit on the “History of Sex” at a prominent museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. On a business trip to Southeast Asia, I allowed some extra time to take in some of the local culture. The sex exhibit struck me as odd, since my impression of Muslim countries was that sexuality is severely repressed. But perhaps I had been mistaken, since I really didn’t know much about Muslim cultures. This gave me more than one reason to check out “Sex” at the Malaysian museum.

When I arrived, what first caught my attention were groups of young schoolgirls touring the exhibit. Dressed in pastel-colored blouses over long skirts, with matching scarves covering their heads, the girls looked like flocks of lovely little pastel birds flitting from one part of the exhibit to another. Each group was monochromatic — a flock in robin’s egg blue outfits, another flock in flamingo pink, still another in canary yellow — so sweet and pretty, talking quietly among themselves as they took notes. I was struck by the visual anachronism of these young, innocent girls touring a museum exhibit on sex.

The “History of Sex” was a terrific exhibit, with well-researched timelines, archeological artifacts, artistic renderings and scientific writings by archeologists, anthropologists, historians, biologist, physicians, sociologists and psychologists, as well as enriching contributions from the arts. The entire exhibit was very well curated.

And the Malaysian schoolgirls weren’t the only ones who were learning a lot from the “Sex” exhibit. My own “ah-ha” came from a display that explained: “Throughout human history, men have always had a vested interest in controlling women’s sexuality — and they’ve found many different ways to do it.” The museum display pointed to everything from mechanical devices such as metal chastity belts, to modesty clothing like burqas, hijabs and abayas, to laws proscribing what women were allowed to do, be and have. My mind boggled at the myriad ways men have exercised control over women’s sexuality and reproduction throughout the entire course of human history.

Why? Why are sex and procreation so important to men? As a social scientist, I’d surmise that part of the answer can be found in biology: Much as a male lion will kill the cubs of a lioness in order to sire his own cubs with her (thus perpetuating his genes), the human male wants to sire his own children, and he’s worried about unwittingly raising any offspring sired by someone else. His biological imperative is to perpetuate his own genes in the human species, not the genes of another. This instinct is hardwired into the human animal just as it is in the lion … and many other species as well (though not all).

I’d also argue that another part of the answer can be found in sociology and psychology: One of the worst misfortunes that can befall a human male is to be cuckolded by an unfaithful mate. What men want and need most is respect — but a man whose wife or girlfriend has sex with another man is pitied, ridiculed, disrespected and diminished in the eyes of society. Such a threat to his masculinity and self-esteem must be prevented at all costs — making many men hyper-vigilant in protecting their women (and their self-respect) from potential rivals.

(Sidebar: I remember how my father often smiled and said, “It’s always reassuring to the father when the children resemble him,” when people would remark, “Your daughter looks just like her daddy.”)

There are undoubtedly other factors fueling the urgent need men feel to control women’s sexuality. Economics plays a part — as providing for a family is expensive (assuming the women isn’t the primary breadwinner or at least contributing). Relationships and marriage are an investment of money, time and energy. Males are understandably skittish about making such a big commitment if there is any doubt about the wisdom of his investment. Even a hint of unfaithfulness can trigger intense feelings of betrayal and the desire for financial retribution.

The Malaysian museum’s “History of Sex” exhibit reminded me how complex and multi-faceted human sexuality is. We would do well to take a step back from the heated rhetoric of the “war between the sexes” and take a more thoughtful, rational, contextual look at our gender differences. Studying and understanding human sexual behavior from the point of view of ethnobiology, zoology, sociology, history, psychology, economics, anthropology, political science, theology, and the arts as well can help us understand ourselves better. In so doing, we can make progress in finding solutions to our most vexing people problems — including gender and sex problems.

Who knows? Perhaps more thoughtful people will come to realize that no one is “waging war on women.” Perhaps, as the exhbit suggest, men (well, some men) are simply acting out an instinctive biological imperative — reinforced by thousands of years of history and tradition — going to any lengths to control women’s sexuality. The bottom line is: Men feel the need to exert control over women essentially because they’re afraid.

Men and women both have a vested interest in putting a stop to the “gender war” – in America and around the world. Isn’t it time to declare a cease-fire? Isn’t it time we learn to live and work together in peace? Let’s begin by calling a truce in the war of words.

Link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bj-gallagher/womens-sexuality-and-mens_b_1289564.html

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on being a feminist

What does it mean to be a feminist?

Watch this hilarious, heartfelt and absolutely insightful talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a renowned Nigerian novelist.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. She grew up in the university town of Nsukka, Enugu State where she attended primary and secondary schools, and briefly studied Medicine and Pharmacy. She then moved to the US to attend college, graduating summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State University with a major in Communication and a minor in Political Science. She holds a Master degree in Creative Writing from John Hopkins and a Master degree in African Studies from Yale University.

Chimamanda is the author of Half a Yellow Sun which won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction, and Purple Hibiscus which won the 2005 Best First Book Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the 2004 Debut Fiction Fiction Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. She was named one of the 20 most important fiction writers today under 40 years old by the New Yorker. She featured in the April 2012 edition of Time Magazine celebrated as one of 100 Most Influential People in the World.

The feminisation of poverty and the myth of the ‘welfare queen’ (Open Democracy 6/3/12)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The single mother; the woman seeking an abortion; the prostitute; the’ welfare queen’: poor women are made to serve as a timeless moral scapegoat.  These classifications need to be rejected. We should recognise the challenges that women living in poverty face and fight to enhance and increase their inclusion in decision making.

By Kate Donald

The ‘feminisation of poverty’ is now an undeniable reality. Worldwide, women are more likely to be poor, employed in precarious, low-paid labour, and less likely to have access to land, credit and education. Not only do they suffer disproportionately from the effects of poverty itself and the human rights denials that accrue from it, but also from the increasingly heavy-handed way in which poverty is governed across the world.  Being female and poor subjects you to unique forms of stigma and control, as well as forcing you to bear the brunt of supposedly gender-neutral policies.

The gender-specific and demeaning measures of control and containment that are applied to women overwhelmingly focus on their bodies and reproductive capacity. In many countries in the world, including most of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East abortion remains illegal except in very proscribed circumstances. Prohibition does not deter women from seeking abortions, but forces them submit to more unsafe abortions, putting their health, fertility or even life at risk. Planned Parenthood estimate that 19 million women and girls worldwide resort to unsafe abortions every year; 70,000 of them will die as a result, more than 96% of them from the world’s poorest countries (in many of which abortion is illegal).  For example, in Argentina, each year, between 460,000 and 600,000 women have an illegal abortion; abortion complications are the main cause of maternal death, with an estimated 400 deaths each year.  Clearly, it is poor women, without any hope of access to a private doctor or international travel who are most exposed to these risks.  Thus such policies, targeted to control female reproductive capacity (as if men were not involved), promote a selective penalisation of the poorest women.

The regulation of sex work is another way in which poor women are exposed to surveillance, invasion of privacy and criminalisationDetention, raids, deportation, evictions and removal of children are often carried out without a formal warrant, arrest or other due process, as if the mere fact of engaging in sex work waived one’s rights. Even worse, in many countries abuse by police and other state agents including extortion, rape and murder is committed withimpunity. Many laws also severely constrict sex workers’ freedom of movement, through zoning and registration, barring them from living together or assigning their work to isolated areas, rendering them yet more vulnerable to many forms of violence. Criminalisation drives sex workers to distance themselves from authorities and public services, entrenching their poverty and isolation and endangering their health. Thus, many sex workers, the majority of whom are poor women, are unable to access their fundamental rights, such as rights to health, equality, privacy, association, family life, housing and education. Sex workers who experience further forms of discrimination because of their sexuality, race, ethnicity or disability are particularly at risk.  Of course, in the criminalisation of both abortion and sex work, it is almost always a woman who is punished for an action or ‘crime’ that undeniably involved a man.

To be female and poor in itself attracts a unique stigma. The 1980s saw the remarkable rise of the ‘welfare queen’ as popular bogey (wo)man of choice in the USA. This was fuelled by Reagan’s ideological crusade against an ‘excessive’ ‘soft’ welfare system and driven by racist and sexist stereotypes of ‘lazy’ African-American women, often single mothers.  Indeed, the single mother is a recurring motif in the rhetoric surrounding welfare and benefits across the Western world.  The idea that single women ‘churn out’ babies in order to generate more income or obtain free housing is commonplace in the UK and was a core part of the vivid American ‘welfare queen’ stereotype.   Attacks on the integrity of single mothers are common; they are portrayed as less capable parents – despite evidence to the contrary – and are improbably blamed for a host of social ills, including, predictably, the riots that took place in the UK in the summer of 2011. The prevalent stigma borne by poor females in many societies is viscerally illustrated by British newspaper columnist James Delingpole who described several of the “great scourges” of contemporary Britain: “aggressive all-female gangs of embittered, hormonal, drunken teenagers; gym-slip mums who choose to get pregnant as a career option; pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers who’ll drop their knickers in the blink of an eye” (The Times newspaper, April 13, 2006 ). Disturbingly, the stigma of female poverty and single motherhood has become embedded in public policy in many different countries: women are all too often the ‘accidental’ victims of supposedly gender neutral measures, such as budget cuts and welfare reform.

In the UK, the Fawcett Society have shown that women are shouldering 70% of the budget cuts, with the cuts falling especially harshly on single mothers. The Women’s Budget Group has calculated that single mothers will lose 18.5% of their net income due to changes in the tax and welfare system. Rules which take lone parents off income support earlier than previously may create a sharp drop in household income for those women that cannot find work and even force women and their children back into abusive or unhealthy relationships. In other contexts, restrictive welfare provisions deter abused women from leaving abusive relationships by increasing their financial dependency or by making it harder for them to move.  Coupled with cuts to refuges and domestic violence prevention programmes in countries across the globe, there is an increasing likelihood that austerity measures may result in danger to women’s lives. One county in Kansas, USA even briefly ceased prosecution of domestic violence cases, citing budget cuts.

Discriminatory and outdated attitudes are often unashamedly glorified in legislation. ‘Spouse in the house’ policies in parts of Canada that deny women social assistance if they move in with a man, and similar legislation in Australia which restricts parenting payments for co-locating single mothers, perpetuate the discriminatory stereotype that any man cohabiting with a woman must be supporting her financially. The right to privacy is not deemed to apply for welfare claimants. In many jurisdictions, including in Canada, Australia and the US, unannounced home visits by welfare caseworkers is a common strategy to ensure their clients – typically women – are not being supported by another person. In San Diego, California, unannounced home visits precede the issue of benefits, and inspectors may look inside closets, bathroom cabinets and eventrash cans. The UK government has just announced ‘tough’ new sanctions for claimants purporting to be lone parents who are found to be living with someone else.  Benefit fraud is not a practice to be endorsed, but the real issue is whether the perpetrators have genuine economic alternatives, and also the degree to which benefit fraud is pursued and publicised compared to, say tax evasion, which is a far more costly crime.

The shift to conditionality in welfare –  itself revealing of paternalistic quid-pro-quo understandings of welfare as something you have to earn to atone for the personal failing of poverty –  also disproportionately punishes women in poverty.  Schemes that tie welfare payments to a child’s school attendance or enrolment in health programmes  increase the responsibility and work of women (who in most households already assume the principal burden of care and domestic work), remove autonomy and entrench unhelpful gendered roles and stereotypes.  Moreover, such initiatives have not proven to be effective.  Many of these policies have become a core part of welfare regimes and austerity programmes across a number of countries, based on the none-too-subtle view that welfare should be a temporary stop-gap measure until a woman finds a male breadwinner.

The single mother; the woman seeking an abortion; the prostitute; the’ welfare queen’: poor women are made to serve as a timeless moral scapegoat.  These classifications need to be rejected. We should recognise the challenges that women living in poverty face and fight to enhance and increase their inclusion in decision making. A major task in this endeavour is tackling head-on the negative stereotypes of poor women perpetuated in the media and in government policies, and ensuring that the voices of poor women can be heard in public discourse and policy design, both overwhelmingly dominated by wealthy, privileged men.

As Loïc WacquantWendy ChanVijay NagarajDeborah Padfield and others have argued on openDemocracy, the governance of poverty and welfare is becoming more paternalistic in general. To be poor and female is to face double discrimination. We must not allow governments to continue to deny or claim ignorance about the negative effect their policies have on women. This should be understood as an international legal obligation to uphold the universal rights to equality and non-discrimination.  These rights, as well as those to privacy and family life, education, and an adequate standard of living, are severely compromised by these policies.  Governments around the world are constructing social policy according to misrepresentations and stereotypes about poor people and welfare claimants, rather than by reference to the structural inequalities that affect everyone. This must change; gender inequality and economic inequality are two great blights on our societies and must be tackled in tandem.

Link: http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/kate-donald/feminisation-of-poverty-and-myth-of-welfare-queen

The Female Face of Poverty (The Atlantic 8/1/14)

The “can women have it all” debate among female executives, academics, managers – i.e. female high-flyers – seems to have obscured the fact that millions of women around the world have been struggling to escape poverty in the face of the wide wage gaps between men and women. Let’s not forget about them and their struggles. 

By Maria Shriver

Let me state the obvious: I have never lived on the brink. I’ve never been in foreclosure, never applied for food stamps, never had to choose between feeding my children or paying the rent, and never feared I’d lose my paycheck when I had to take time off to care for a sick child or parent. I’m not thrown into crisis mode if I have to pay a parking ticket, or if the rent goes up. If my car breaks down, my life doesn’t descend into chaos.

But the fact is, one in three people in the United States do live with this kind of stress, struggle, and anxiety every day. More than 100 million Americans either live near the brink of poverty or churn in and out of it, and nearly 70 percent of these Americans are women and children.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson envisioned the Great Society and called for a War on Poverty, naming my father, Sargent Shriver, the architect of that endeavor. The program worked: Over the next decade, the poverty rate fell by 43 percent.

In those days, the phrase “poverty in America” came with images of poor children in Appalachian shacks and inner-city alleys. Fifty years later, the lines separating the middle class from the working poor and the working poor from those in absolute poverty have blurred. The new iconic image of the economically insecure American is a working mother dashing around getting ready in the morning, brushing her kid’s hair with one hand and doling out medication to her own aging mother with the other.

For the millions of American women who live this way, the dream of “having it all” has morphed into “just hanging on.” Everywhere they look, every magazine cover and talk show and website tells them women are supposed to be feeling more “empowered” than ever, but they don’t feel empowered. They feel exhausted.

Many of these women feel they are just a single incident—one broken bone, one broken-down car, one missed paycheck—away from the brink. And they’re not crazy to feel that way:

  • Women are nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in the country.
  • More than 70 percent of low-wage workers get no paid sick days at all.
  • Forty percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income.
  • The median earnings of full-time female workers are still just 77 percent of the median earnings of their male counterparts.

For this year’s Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, we polled more than 3,000 adults to determine how Americans feel about the economy, gender, marriage, education, and the future. Here are some highlights from the poll respondents who are low-income women:

  • Seventy-five percent of them wish they had put a higher priority on their education and career, compared to 58 percent of the general population
  • Seventy-three percent wish they had made better financial choices (as did 65 percent of all those we polled)
  • They were less likely to be married (37 percent, compared to 49 percent of all the men and women we polled) …
  • And more likely than men to regret marrying when they did (52 percent, compared to 33 percent of low-income men)
  • Nearly a third of those with children wished they had delayed having kids or had fewer of them

Overwhelmingly they favor changes that will help balance work and family responsibilities. Eighty-seven percent of low-income women—and 96 percent of single moms—identify paid sick leave as something that would be very useful to their lives.

What’s more, the opinion of the general public is on their side: 73 percent of Americans said that in order to raise the incomes of working women and families, the government should ensure that women get equal pay for equal work. And 78 percent said the government should expand access to high-quality, affordable childcare for working families.

The typical American family isn’t what it used to be. Only a fifth of our families have a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. The solutions we need today are also different. We don’t need a new New Deal, because the New Deal was an all-government solution, and that’s not enough anymore. And my father’s War on Poverty isn’t enough anymore either.

Our government programs, business practices, educational system, and media messages don’t take into account a fundamental truth: This nation cannot have sustained economic prosperity and well-being until women’s central role is recognized and women’s economic health is used as a measure to shape policy.

In other words, leave out the women, and you don’t have a full and robust economy. Lead with the women, and you do. It’s that simple, and Americans know it.

Women have enormous power. Politicians knock themselves out wooing us because we’re the majority of voters in this country. Every corporate marketer and advertiser is after us because we make as much as 70 percent of this country’s consumer decisions and more than 80 percent of the healthcare decisions.

With this power, we women can exert real pressure on our government to change course on many of the issues we care about and deliver on what women need now. Isn’t it strange, for instance, that the United States is the only industrialized nation without mandatory paid maternity leave?

And how about those of us who aren’t in jeopardy? Do we pay the women we hire a living wage—not because it’s the law, but because it’s fair? Do we give them flexibility when they need to take time for caregiving? If we run businesses, do we educate our workers about public policies and programs that can help them?

But the truth is that for so long, America’s women have been divided: women who are mothers versus women who are not, women who work at home versus women who work outside the home, those who are married versus those who aren’t, pro-life women versus pro-choice, white women versus women of color, Democrat versus Republican, gay versus straight, and young versus old. It feels like the last issue where women came together was fighting for the right to vote.

It’s time to come together again. By pushing back and putting into practice the solutions we’re proposing in The Shriver Report, we can re-ignite the American Dream—for ourselves, for our daughters and sons, for our mothers and fathers, for our nation. We have the power—not just to launch a new War on Poverty, but a new campaign for equity, for visibility, for fairness, for worth, for care.

Link: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-female-face-of-poverty/282892/