The Decade for Women: Forward, Backward, Sideways?

The Decade for Women: Forward, Backward, Sideways?

The Decade for Women: Forward, Backward, Sideways?

Feminist highs and lows of the first decade of the 2000s.


Katha Pollitt’s new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been published by Random House.

The Decade for Women: Forward, Backward, Sideways?

How have American women fared in what seems to be everyone’s least favorite decade since the Fall of Rome, which at least was fun for the Vandals? (Well, to be fair, today’s investment bankers have plenty to chortle over.) Herewith some feminist highs and lows of the era that began with the Supreme Court choosing the president and ended with hope hangovers and tempests in teabags.


. Sonia Sotomayor joined the Supreme Court. Before that, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin showed how far we’ve come–and how far we haven’t. Between them they normalized forever the idea of a woman running for president and withstood a ridiculous amount of sexist garbage, from nasty cracks (from both sexes) about Clinton’s legs, clothes, voice and laugh to tinfoil-hat accusations that Palin’s baby was actually her daughter’s.

In 2000 women were 13 percent of the House and Senate; in 2009 they were 17 percent. The right direction, but too slow: if women have to make up about 30 percent of leadership before they can move a feminist agenda, we’re looking at thirty more years of political marginality.


. The earnings of women working full time, year round went from around 73 cents on the male dollar to 77 cents. Good news–especially considering that the Bush administration basically dismantled affirmative action and antidiscrimination enforcement. By mid-2009, women made up 50 percent of the workforce–unfortunately, partly because of male unemployment. Elite women inched forward, going from 15.6 percent of law partners to 19.2 percent, and from 24 percent of physicians to 28 percent. At the same time, women are as concentrated in the same job categories as ever–secretarial, retail, caregiving, primary education. Parking valets still make more than daycare teachers, and in every field men still earn more than women. Conditions for single mothers were deteriorating even before the recession. The percentage of female-headed households in poverty went from 28.5 in 2000 to 31.4 in 2008, but because of welfare reform, the TANF rolls have barely risen. And the mortgage crisis hit black women hardest of all.


. The percentage of undergraduates who are female rose to 57 percent in 2007, provoking calls for “affirmative action” for male applicants; in 2006, a sheepish New York Times op-ed from the admissions director of Kenyon College conceded that it was already happening. Women now earn 62 percent of degrees in biology, up from 59.2, and 49 percent of biology PhDs, up from 44.8. Take that, Larry Summers! But physics stayed flat, at 22 percent of female undergrad degrees and 13 percent of PhDs, while female degrees in math and computer science have declined to 44 percent and 18 percent, respectively. By 2007 only 26.5 percent of tenured full professors were women. But Women’s Studies has been thriving, with about 1,200 degrees now granted annually. And with the ascension of Drew Gilpin Faust to the presidency of Harvard, women head three out of the eight Ivies.

Reproductive Health and Rights

. Mifepristone, the abortion pill, was OK’d by the FDA in 2000 but did not, as some predicted, make abortion a private matter, because states moved quickly to bring it under the same restrictions as surgical abortion. Abortion rights continued to be whittled away, with more and more state restrictions and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s shockingly patronizing 2007 majority opinion in Gonzales v. Carhart upholding a “partial birth” abortion ban without an exception for the health of the mother–an outright violation of Roe–on the grounds that the woman might regret her decision later.

On the bright side: the South Dakota abortion ban was defeated at the polls–twice. After a furious struggle, in 2006 the FDA OK’d emergency contraception, aka Plan B, without a prescription for women 18 and older. Insurance coverage of contraception went from rare to routine. Young prochoice activists founded groups like Med Students for Choice. The 2004 March for Women’s Lives was one of the largest protest marches in US history–not that the media noticed. The decade closed on a sour note as antichoice Democrats united with Republicans to remove abortion coverage from the healthcare bill.

Family Life

. Perhaps thanks to massive doses of abstinence-only sex ed, teen pregnancy rose in 2007 for the first time in fourteen years. By 2005 the majority of US women were not living with a husband. Single motherhood, lesbian motherhood, single motherhood by choice and births to women cohabiting with a partner all became more common. Gay marriage was legalized in five states. Despite oceans of wedding porn, women’s age at first marriage rose over the decade from 25.1 to 26. Maybe those marriage-shy young ladies read the 2008 University of Michigan study showing that after marriage women with no children do seven more hours of housework; men do one hour less.

Violence Against Women

. Not much to crow about here. Rates of domestic violence, murder by intimates, rape, sexual abuse or harassment barely budged, with victims no more likely to get justice. Meanwhile, the number of women in prison increased from 93,234 to 114,852, mostly because of harsher drug laws.

Culture and the Media

. Women are still drastically underrepresented on op-ed pages, on Sunday chat-shows, as experts in news stories, and are scanted in literary prizes, awards and Best of the Year lists, as actresses and directors and playwrights. It seemed like 20,248 articles and 1,507 books were published explaining why women’s inequality is their own fault.

But Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer mean that two out of the three network news programs are now anchored by women, Rachel Maddow rules on cable, the feminist blogosphere exploded with vitality, and five women won Nobel prizes in 2009.

Not bad, not great. On to the 2010s!

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