My turn: Celebrate International Women's Day

Posted: Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Today is International Women's Day, a day to celebrate the economic, social and political achievements of women.

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It is also a day to look forward at the road ahead, as we continue to work toward a world of equality.

International Women's Day was first celebrated in March 1911 as part of the suffrage movement in Germany, Austria and several other European nations. The idea spread in 1913 to Russia, where women observed the day with rallies for peace. From there, International Women's Day has spread over the globe as an occasion to reflect upon the progress made by women worldwide and to call us all to action in the year ahead.

Women in America today have an economic power unheard of a century ago. There are at least 72 million women in the American work force. Women are doctors, lawyers, pilots and business owners. No longer are women restricted to "feminine employment." Passage of Alaska's Equal Rights Act in 1945 and federal laws such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act have made it possible for a woman to pursue any career she chooses. Despite these great strides, women are not equal players in our economy. Of those 72 million workers, less than 60 percent have full-time employment with benefits. A woman makes only 77 percent what a man does for the same work. Even after more than a century of struggling for equality, women's work is still valued less than men's.

With economic progress has come social equality. Where women once were confined to the private spaces of hearth and home, now we have access to all the public arenas of American life. Universities, markets, courts, legislatures, media - all are open to women. This is due in large part to increased access to education. Women are as likely, if not more, to graduate high school. The number of women graduating college today is more than double that of twenty years ago. Access to equal educational opportunities is protected by legislation such as Title IX and programs that promote diversity in schools. Since 2004, however, the Department of Education has decided to relax enforcement of these protections, putting women at greater risk of sexual harassment and discrimination in our schools and universities.

Women in Alaska have had the right to vote since 1913. The 19th Amendment, passed in 1920, gave all American women a voice in politics. Since then, the number of women elected to office has grown steadily. Jeannette Rankin was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916; Hattie Caraway was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1932. Nellie Taylor Ross was the first woman to serve as governor of a U.S. State in 1925. There are eight women serving as state governors. Over 80 years since women won the vote, Nancy Pelosi is the first woman to lead a political party in Congress. These women, and many others, have paved the way for active and effective political involvement by American women.

Yet, American government is not representative of women, though we make up the majority of the U.S. population. In Congress, women hold 14 seats in the Senate and less than 20 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives. In Alaska, women make up 48 percent of the population. In our legislature, the three female senators and eight female representatives represent less than 20 percent of the total seats.

Today is a day to celebrate all that women are, and all that we have accomplished over the past century. But it is also a day to act for change. Women make up more than 50 percent of America's populace. We are the majority. In 1911, we dreamed of equality. This dream has not come true - yet. Together we can build on the work of those who came before us, and create a world of peace, tolerance and equality.

• Kate Burkhart is secretary of the Juneau chapter of the National Organization for Women.

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