By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series reflecting on the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. Women in the Diocese of Davenport share their thoughts on the achievements made since then and the changes necessary to gain full equality.)
In the past century, women have gained the right to work in a variety of fields and to take out loans and credit cards without a cosigner. The law protects them from sex-based discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities. Women have achieved high-ranking government positions, including Secretary of State and Speaker of the House and have served on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We think we’ve made it,” said Sister Jan Cebula, president of the Sisters of St. Francis of Clinton. “But it is clear there are still a lot of attitudes, systems and policies” that negatively affect women, especially women of color.
Recently, Sister Cebula has been reflecting on the significance of the centennial of the 19th Amendment. The 71-year-old Clinton Franciscan has been reading books and news articles and thinking about her experiences as a longtime social justice advocate.
Certainly, many more opportunities exist today for women in the workforce, she said. “However, when we look within (a specific) occupation, do we see a glass ceiling?” Women must work harder to gain respect than their male counterparts, she believes. “Women’s voices are (still) being drowned out by men.”
The pay gap remains an issue. According to a study published by Third Way, male-dominated fields pay 21 percent higher than female-dominated fields. An Oxford Academic study shows that when women begin to dominate a traditionally male-centric field, the relative salary level within that field begins to drop, even after controlling for education, work experience, skills, race and geography. While women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, they are overrepresented in the low-wage workforce, according to National Women’s Law Center. At every education level, women’s share of the low-wage workforce is larger than that of men’s share.
Current workplace-related policies generally favor households in which the man is the breadwinner and the woman either supplements the income or is a homemaker, Sister Cebula said. She observes that women are more highly affected by cuts in funding for safety net programs. “One example is Title IX for nursing home care. It is part of Medicaid. If Medicaid is slashed, it will disproportionally affect the most vulnerable elderly women.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that women have a longer life expectancy compared to men. “Whatever you are working on and whatever issue you are looking at, you have to ask, ‘what is the impact and effect on women?’”
Women have made progress in achieving leadership positions. However, “decision-making tables” are still disproportionately male, Sister Cebula said. “We need to listen to other women’s voices and hear the concerns they have and the experiences they have, and listen to the people who are most affected by policies or decisions. Then, we can focus on (restructuring) how we go about things.”
She noted that white women are “better off” than women of color and women with disabilities, for whom inequalities are magnified. The 2015 U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics note increased poverty rates and lower median weekly income for Black and Latina women in comparison with white women. “There are disparities when we look at the numbers,” she said. “When we’re working for women’s rights, we need to work for these rights, too.”
Advocating for policies that put women on equal footing with men involves working with women with differing viewpoints on some issues. In her experiences at women’s rallies and as a past member of the Nuns on the Bus social justice advocacy tour, Sister Cebula said it is important to focus on common goals and themes. “We need to improve our ability to form coalitions… An organization may have something else they are working on that we may not totally agree with, but we can agree to work on a specific issue.”
(Look for a reflection from a longtime pro-life advocate in an upcoming edition of The Catholic Messenger.)