As we approach International Women's Day, advocates of women's rights have a lot to celebrate. Here and abroad, women are making strides on terrain both old and new.
This March, leaders of the nation's women's organizations concurred that the month dedicated to history made by women needs a name that reflects not just the landmarks of the past, but the ongoing achievements of women as we advance toward equality. This year, we celebrate the third month of the year not as simply "Women's History Month," but "Women Making History Month."
In the history books of tomorrow, 2007 will doubtless be designated a landmark year, beginning with Nancy Pelosi's election in January as first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Harvard University named Drew Gilpin Faust its first woman president in the school's 371-year history, and Frances E. Allen became the first woman to receive the highest award in computing in February. This country's very first public space dedicated to feminist art becomes a reality on March 23, 2007, when the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art opens in the Brooklyn Museum. The Center provides a permanent space for Judy Chicago's legendary work "The Dinner Party," honoring women throughout history.
Across the pond, the Wimbledon Championships -- the oldest Grand Slam event in tennis -- will finally join the United States Open and the Australian Open in granting equal prize money to female and male competitors. In France, women are looking forward to the likely election next month of Ségolène Royal as the nation's first female president next. If elected, she will join Michelle Bachelet of Chile, her nation's first female chief executive, elected last year.
Amid the progress, there are also setbacks. With the re-emergence of the Taliban, women in Afghanistan are back in the burqa, the head-to-ankle garment, and generally purged from public view. And women in Darfur, with fewer resources than men and primary responsibility for children, continue to bear the brunt of the ongoing genocide and rapes.
Here at home, the pay gap between women and men working full time (year-round) in this country remains a stubborn 24 cents on the dollar, and women are still the largest group of elderly poor. There's not much good news on the executive front either. A recent report from Catalyst, an independent research organization, says it will take another 47 years for women to reach parity with men as corporate officers in the Fortune 500. That's more than a full career span in anybody's book.
National women's groups in the U.S. aren't waiting for history to catch up with fairness. They're planning a national Women's Equality Summit March 26-27 in Washington D.C., to honor legislators who have done the most for women, and educate activists from around the country about areas where women are still left behind. Those activists will, in turn, lobby their members of Congress for faster results enacting measures that benefit women and their families. Summit participants will also hear from presidential candidates. It will be interesting to hear how many of them will address the pay gap, cuts in child health funds, the woeful lack of child care in this country, and why the U.S. hasn't ratified the international women's human rights treaty. And, oh yes -- the 900 pound gorilla -- ending the war. Polls show that women in both parties are far more anti-war than men, and we've known for years that nobody can be elected president without women's votes, even if they garner 100 percent of male ballots.
Speaking of gorillas, my favorite recent females-making- history story comes from the animal kingdom. Seems researchers in Senegal have established that chimps can and do fashion spears from sticks and use the tools to hunt small mammals. They say the landmark observation supports the notion that females, who do most of the crafting, are the main innovators and creative problem solvers in primate culture. Could be true in the human realm as well, but we won't know till women are equal to men politically, economically and socially. So let's cheer these small steps for womankind, and hope that future steps will be giant ones.
Burk is Director of the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women's Organizations.