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Shay Chan Hodges's picture

I was a bit surprised by the lack of coverage for Women’s History Month this year, particularly in the state where I live, since so many women who improved the lives of working families were pivotal to Hawaii's history.

It is essential that we continue to remember these women.

While many people are aware of Congresswoman Patsy Mink’s accomplishments, many are not as familiar with Harriet Bouslog, Hawaii’s first female labor and civil rights attorney, or ILWU social worker Ah Quon McElrath. Yet like Mink, the significance of their achievements extends far beyond the advances they made as women.  Furthermore, their stories demonstrate the far-reaching changes that one individual can achieve, regardless of existing social barriers or the eras in which they lived.

When we think of “history months,” we often focus on “firsts.”  It was enormously significant that Patsy Mink was the first female of color to serve in either house of Congress.  And as one of the principal authors of Title IX, she set the groundwork for significant advances for both women and minorities for generations.  Bouslog and McElrath also fought for working class families, and they both stood up most often for those who could not advocate for themselves.

Not surprisingly, the words “intelligent, courageous, and compassionate,” are often used in describing all three dynamic women.

Mink’s work to end admissions and financial aid discrimination for women in higher education resulted in tripling their access to colleges and universities -- and females now outnumber males in degree completion by four to three.  Forty years later, 70% of mothers work outside the home, and in 40% of households, mothers are primary breadwinners.  The connections between Title IX and women’s advancements in education are certainly key factors in women becoming an essential driving force of the US economy.

Unfortunately, this remarkable progress has not been accompanied by an equivalent advancement in financial and professional rewards.  Even in fields like law where degree attainment has been equal for both genders for the last twenty years, female lawyers earn 87% of what their male counterparts make.  In fact, since Mink first entered Congress fifty years ago, the average pay for women has only increased 17 points relative to men, from 60% of male salaries to the current 77%, with almost no change in the last ten years.

Furthermore, the glass ceiling and other inequitable outcomes cannot be separated from women’s role as primary caregiver.  Studies show that mothers fare even worse in the work world than women without children.  The maternity penalty is imposed in the form of little or no parental leave, inflexible work policies, and a lack of access to reliable, affordable child care.  The consequences of this work culture are lost promotions, career gaps, lower pay, and a forced choice between family and income.

Meanwhile, business leaders and politicians increasingly express concerns about the availability of an educated workforce to support a dynamic economy.  With women making up half the workforce and more than half of the college-educated adults in this country, female participation is crucial.  Leaders clearly should be investing in this highly educated population by supporting their full involvement in the economy through policies that accommodate and strengthen families.

In one of my interviews in my book, Lean On and Lead, Mothering and Work in the 21st Century Economy, a Honolulu lawyer and mother of a young daughter relates:

“I have been very fortunate. I didn’t ask about maternity benefits or part-time work or if any other accommodations might be possible when I first got hired. I was twenty-eight years old and I knew that I wanted to have children in the not-too-distant future, but it wasn’t something that I asked about. I just didn’t really think about child care when I first became a lawyer.

“...It is more acceptable for women to say that they value their family and children more than their career, and that they don’t want to be in the office eighty hours a week, so women do say that. But the culture of most law firms doesn’t allow lawyers who want to advance in their careers to say that. Yet that criterion is not an economic imperative. You’re not necessarily getting more work out of women or men by keeping them in the office for eighty hours.  It’s very much a macho culture that has developed over time and that’s predicated on the idea that someone else is taking care of the home life.

“...The larger question is why is that the only route to partnership? There’s no reason that there shouldn’t be a much more flexible and diverse arrangement for mothers and fathers, and for them to be just as productive and be able to provide high quality legal work.”

On yet another Equal Pay Day and with a Congressional vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act scheduled as well, it is clear that we need leaders who recognize that strong families are essential to a successful economy – and we need them to fight for the women, parents, and workers who will build that economy. Trailblazers like Mink, Bouslog, and McElrath came from diverse gender, ethnic, economic, and social backgrounds – and they demonstrated that meaningful change can take on many guises, from direct actions that affect just one family at a time to structural changes that impact generations.

There are many ways that we can build upon their work, but without a doubt, continuing their fight for justice and equity is one of the best ways to honor and perpetuate their legacy.    

This post is adapted from an Op-Ed that first appeared in the Honolulu Star Advertiser on April 7, 2014.

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