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Martha Burk's picture

August 26th marks the 93rd anniversary of suffrage, and we’ve indeed come a long way. When the suffragists finally got the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, it was after two generations of women had worked for 72 years to get it done. Movement leader Carrie Chapman Catt told just how hard it was:

[Getting the vote] cost the women of the country fifty-two years of pauseless campaign . . . they were forced to conduct fifty-six campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get State constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms; and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.

How far have we come? Well, we can now own property, get custody of our kids, get credit in our own names, go to college and enter the professions, not get fired for getting pregnant, and at least on paper not be paid less for the same work a man does.

We’ve made a lot of progress, no question. Benchmarked against 1984, the year Geraldine Ferraro shattered the political glass ceiling by becoming the first woman nominated for Vice President on a national ticket, there are some impressive gains:

- The percentage of women in the labor force increased to 58.1%, up from 53.6 percent, and women made up almost half the workforce (47%), up from 44 percent (but down from 2009 due to the recession).

- Women’s educational attainment is at an all-time high, with 57% of all bachelor’s degrees now awarded to females.

Still, we have a ways to go. Women still lag in the higher paying fields like science, math & technology, garnering only a small percentage of those degrees overall.

- In the mixed news department, total union membership is down, but the gap in membership between women and men has narrowed. Since union women make more than non-union women, even a slight uptick makes a difference.

- Families depend more on women’s earnings, with married women’s paychecks making up 47% of family income, up from 29% in 1983. It’s more acceptable for moms to work too. Four in 10 American households with children under age 18 now include a mother who is either the sole or primary earner for her family, according to a Pew Research Center. The bad news is that many of these sole-breadwinner moms are stuck in low wage jobs with little prospect for improvement.

On balance, the trends are positive for working women – up to a point. But the 1000-pound-albatross of women’s economic progress -- the pay gap--is still with us big time. In 1984, women made a paltry 68 percent of men’s full-time weekly wage. In 2013, it is a still-paltry 80 percent.

It’s sure not the worst of times, but we’re not yet to the best of times either. Let’s take a page from the suffragists -- hold those in power responsible. If they won’t vote for pro-woman measures like the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Equal Rights Amendment, don’t vote for them. It’s that simple, and it’s a payback to those women who got us the most fundamental right so long ago.

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