Celebrating Women Today Means Acknowledging How Much Work Is Left to Be Done

From stolen reproductive rights to the widening gender pay gap, women in 2022 America are still facing an uphill battle.

Photo of a diverse group of women sitting on an orange sofa, showing support, solidarity, and community
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Every March marks Women's History Month, and with it, the chance to recognize the contributions women have made throughout history, including the changemakers helping to rewrite history right now. This means you'll often find essays and profiles of women doing badass, incredible, inspiring things. From having a record number of women in the U.S. Congress to the U.S. national women's soccer team (finally) achieving equal pay in their sport, it's easy to feel empowered and emboldened when you see what women can accomplish.

But while there has been great progress in recent history, there have also been a dizzying number of setbacks in recent memory, as well. From rollbacks on reproductive rights to inadequate maternity leave which contributes to the gender pay gap, the reality is, yes, there's lots to celebrate, but there's still so much more work to be done.

To understand where we go from here, take a look a snapshot of what it looks like living as a woman in 2022 America.

Reproductive rights are being stolen.

In 1973, the landmark case of Roe v. Wade resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it was a woman's constitutional right to make her own decisions about reproduction — and abortion, in particular — without the government impacting that choice with restrictions.

The magnitude of this decision can't be overstated: It didn't just mean an end to back-alley abortions or other unsafe methods women had turned to in order to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, but it gave women autonomy. No longer would the government, primarily made up of older white men, have any say about what they did with their bodies. Roe v. Wade was a groundbreaking leap in the right direction, but did you know that since then, hundreds of pro-life bills have been introduced every year and, of those, more than 1,300 have actually become laws?

One such law you're likely familiar with is Texas' six-week abortion ban that went into effect six months ago in September 2021. Not only does the problematic law put the freedom of every person with a uterus in Texas at stake, but it puts a bounty on the heads of everyone even tangentially involved in terminating a pregnancy after six weeks. The law (Senate Bill 8) allows anyone, even complete strangers, to sue someone else who was involved in facilitating an abortion. After the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to intervene in the Texas ruling, President Joe Biden released a statement condemning law, the first time the president has used the word "abortion" in a public statement since taking office, according to CNN.

Not to be outdone in restricting a woman's right to choose, just last week Florida passed a law prohibiting abortion after 15 weeks, with zero exceptions for pregnancies that have resulted from incest or rape. Florida lawmakers admitted that the 15-week ban was modeled after the 2018 abortion law in Mississippi — a ban that thankfully never went into effect. That's because House Bill 1510, also known as the Gestational Age Act, passed the same day the only abortion provider in Mississippi, Jackson Women's Health, challenged the law. Ultimately, both the US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the clinic, deeming the law unconstitutional.

All this backward movement comes to a head this upcoming summer when the U.S. Supreme Court justices will hear the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization in which the state of Mississippi is asking that they overturn Roe as well as the ruling of Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Pennsylvania v. Casey.

A woman in the state of Pennsylvania in 1992 needed consent from either a spouse, if they were married, or a parent, if they were a minor (under the age of 18) to get an abortion. This consent was in addition to a mandatory 24-hour waiting period after their initial abortion consultation appointment, in the hopes of dissuading the patient from terminating the pregnancy. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Planned Parenthood, affirming what the Roe decision had established less than 20 years before.

Although that ruling was a success for pro-choice advocates, the alarming reality is that it may not last. Should the Supreme Court side with the state of Mississippi when it hears the case, 26 states are armed to put forth bills to ban abortion immediately, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Take a moment to lift up the women around you, not just by celebrating what they've achieved, but by fighting to ensure they're able to keep climbing.

Equal pay is still a distant reality.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, women made up 50.4 percent of the entire workforce across the majority of industries in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This means women, as of 2019, women accounted for more than half of all workers in the U.S. — a huge increase from meer decades ago, in 1950 when women only made up 33.9 percent of the labor force. The two decades following World War II saw more women joining the workforce for a few reasons: With men off to fight, there were many empty roles to be filled, and equal opportunity was being promoted in the workplace. Plus, the women's rights movement pushed society to be more accepting of women having careers outside the home.

But despite women's immense and swift contributions to the economy, salaries and representation in these higher-paying fields and roles have not risen in parallel.

Research has found that while most women do have jobs (the highest percentage of working women having an average age of 41.9), those jobs tend to be low-paying positions in retail, education, or service industries. Although that doesn't mean there aren't high-paying jobs out there for women or large companies with female leaders, these top-paying jobs are still generally dominated by men. Need proof? A 2021 study found that women make up just 7.3 percent of the Fortune 1000 CEOs. For women of color that number goes down to just one percent.

Not only are women underrepresented in positions of power, but the gender pay gap is still a major problem in the U.S. In 2020, white women made 82.3 percent of men's annual salaries across at least 300 industries — a percentage that has only gone up a measly 1.3 percent since 2005 — and, not surprisingly, that percentage decreases even more for women of color.

Adding insult to injury, the U.S Department of Labor found that the pandemic set women in the workforce back more than 30 years — both in participation and in compensation. Between COVID-related pay cuts and women being expected to take on the duties as the primary caregiver for their families, there was a notable shift. Many women were forced to give up their jobs, having to forgo what money they were making to take on full-time remote school and caregiving, as schools and daycares went virtual. Economists not only predict that the pandemic may result in an even bigger gender pay gap, with the average woman making only 76 cents for every dollar a man brings in, but it will take more than a decade before women will be able to get back to that 82 cents, let alone close the gender pay gap altogether.

Paid maternity leave is a luxury, not a guarantee.

For those women still lucky enough to be in the workforce, if starting a family is a part of your plan, there's the looming issue of maternity leave. Although the U.S. holds spot 8 in the top 15 richest countries in the world, paid maternity leave is still a dream rather than a reality for the majority of employed women in this country. To put that into context, more than 120 nations offer paid maternity leave, including less wealthy countries including Spain and Romania, both of which are required by law to give 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, which is covered by the social security system in each country. But that's just the mandated minimum. Public school teachers and private school teachers in the Basque region of Spain, receive 18 weeks and 17 weeks of paid leave, respectively. Despite the United States' wealth, power, and influence, you cannot find the country on that list of 120 nations.

While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed into law in 1993, allowed women to leave their job for 12 weeks for maternity leave without the risk of losing their job, this is unpaid time off. This lack of financial security puts women in a very difficult position, sometimes leading them to quit entirely or go back to work before they or their child is ready.

Maternity leave, paid or not, wasn't even considered in the U.S. until the 1980s. While the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978 gave women some protection against discrimination due to pregnancy, a miscarriage, or the need for maternity leave, it wasn't until 1984 when the Family Employment Security Act (FESA) suggested a standard of 26 weeks a year of leave for personal reasons, maternity among them. Although FESA was generous in time, yet again, this was still unpaid time. Alas, it never even made it to Congress for a vote. Modifications to similar acts came and went throughout the next decade, but never saw the light of day thanks to proposals being stalled or blocked.

It wouldn't be until President Bill Clinton was in office in 1993 that today's FMLA, with some minor amendments since then, was signed into law.

Clinton's version of the act became the first to recognize the demands that come with having a job and a family life. Although it does guarantee up to 12 weeks of maternity leave and eliminates the fear of one losing their job or health insurance, it still is not guaranteed paid leave.

Although the U.S. has never offered paid maternity leave on a federal level, there have been changes within certain states. In 2017, California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island required some amount of paid family leave. The amount of paid time off varies. For example, in California, paid leave can be received for up to eight weeks and compensation for that time can be anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of the salary you made five to 18 months before your maternity leave. In Rhode Island, on the other hand, paid leave can last up to 34 weeks for mothers and four weeks for fathers. But it's also not so cut and dry, as there are eligibility rules that include the type of birth (vaginal versus cesarean), complications due to the pregnancy, as well as the possibility of postpartum medical issues, including depression, among other factors.

In 2018, New York joined these ranks with the Paid Family Leave Benefits law. As of January 2022, Washington, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia have instituted their own paid family leave programs, and Colorado and Oregon were on the cusp of instating their versions, too.

As a handful of other states consider the possibility of creating legislation that provides paid leave, just last year North Dakota passed a law that you could say was the anthesis to these efforts, quite literally banning all cities and counties in the state from enacting any form of paid family leave. Apparently, simply not having paid family leave wasn't enough; the legislature had to outright ban it. It's become increasingly clear, at least for now, that paid maternity leave, similar to reproductive rights, comes down to geography — where the state you live in makes all the difference.

Reconciling women's history with the present, and looking to future

In 2022, the fight for women's rights is alive and well, and the factors discussed here are merely the tip of the iceberg. This doesn't even take into account the fact that many trans women are fighting for their right to just stay alive, let alone have access to competent, inclusive health care and fair career advancement.

Frankly, the fact that my mother is still fighting for the same rights as I am is proof that this journey is far from over. But as exhausting as the right can be, there's motivation and pride in looking to the leaders — senator Stacey Abrams, vice president Kamala Harris, judge Ketanji Brown Jackson (the first Black woman Supreme Court nominee) — who aren't afraid to demand a seat at the table and prove just how much they and other women have earned it.

So, this Women's History Month, let's take a moment to lift up the women around you, not just by celebrating what they've achieved, but by fighting to ensure they're able to keep climbing.

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