The Washington Post ran an article March 16, reporting the results of a March 10-16, 2011 telephone poll. From a random national phone sample of 1,005 adults, the Post/ABC News poll tallied seven in 10 Americans as supporting allowing female soldiers to serve in ground units engaging in close combat. The results are timely given that we are fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while monitoring the conflict in Libya. Simultaneously the Pentagon is reviewing whether women should continue to be barred from combat units, despite
current duties involving engagement with opposing forces in both active war zones.1
Statistically, seventy-three percent of those polled supported women serving in direct combat roles. Of that number 73-percent of the women and 72-percent of the men supported formal combat roles for women. Further defining demographics include 80-percent of self-described Democrats, 62-percent of Republicans, and 73-percent of independents supported allowing women in combat. According to the Pentagon, currently 14.5-percent (203,000 of approximately 1.4 million) active-duty troops, and another 18-percent of the National Guard and reserve forces are women. Approximately 10-percent (25,000) of the active duty forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are women. As of 1994 Pentagon policy bars women from serving below the brigade level with a primary mission of direct ground combat; however, women are allowed to serve in units that might face combat-related action. If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven anything, it’s that war is ever-changing and evolving with no front lines 2
In the Post article, Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez stated, “While women are not assigned to units below brigade level whose primary mission is direct combat on the ground, this doesn’t mean they are not assigned to positions in combat zones that could place them in danger.” The Military Leadership Diversity Commission has recommended the Pentagon terminate current policy banning women from combat, leveling the playing field for “all qualified service members”. Created in 2009 by Congress, the Commission was established to facilitate the equitable inclusion and advancement of women and minorities “to serve in top military leadership positions”. Though having actively served in Iraq and Afghanistan, female soldiers without orders for formal combat assignment have been hindered in their access to medical and mental-health benefits for combat-related injuries.3
Reading the Poll, I was struck by how much has changed yet stayed the same since 1982 when the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) failed ratification, due in part to the likelihood of women serving in combat. In reality a great deal has changed for women since Phyllis Schlafly, president and founder of Eagle Forum/STOP ERA, opposed the Amendment stating, among other things, that it would: force women to serve in combat; legitimize homosexual marriage; and deny women spousal support—by their husbands.4 We won’t mention the threat of unisex bathrooms.
Women have been active in the military since the Revolutionary War when they served on the battlefield as nurses, water bearers, cooks, laundresses and saboteurs. In every military engagement through World War II women have served in capacities ranging from clerks, mechanics, drivers, nurses, test pilots and anti-aircraft artillery trainers—freeing up male soldiers for combat duty. In 1942 the United Stated Army formalized the participation of women in the Armed Forces, establishing the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), which became the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1943. During WWII, more than 150,000 WACs served in the European and Pacific theaters; Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) flew as stateside civil service pilots; and 14,000 Navy nurses serve stateside, on overseas on hospital ships, and as flight nurses. In the Pacific, sixteen Navy nurses were captured and held as POWs—one group for five months before being exchanged, and eleven others for 37 months.5
Also in 1942, the Navy established the Navy Women’s Reserve, i.e., Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), with 80,000+ WAVES working in communications, intelligence, supply, medicine and administration; and the Coast Guard’s Women’s Reserve— known as the SPARs (Semper Paratus – Always Ready) served stateside as storekeepers, clerks, photographers, pharmacist’s mates, cooks, etc. The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve (1943) served stateside as clerks, cooks, mechanics, drivers, etc.6
Established in 1943 by the US Public Health Service, the Cadet Nurse Corps trained approximately 125,000 women for military nursing duty. In 1947, The Army-Navy Nurse Act of 1947 absorbed the Army Nurse Corps and Women’s Medical Specialist Corps into the United States Army, awarding permanent commissioned officer status to Army and Navy nurses. During WWII, more than 400,000 American military servicewomen served domestically and abroad in non-combat assignments. At the end of the War, most women returned to private lives, in the service of home and family.7
Women have gained a great deal of ground since the first female graduates completed their educations at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. The 1976 first co-ed class included 119 women, dwindling to the final 62 female graduates in 1980. The post-Viet Nam all-volunteer service changed the ground rules, exerting pressure on the US services academies to admit women. In the interim, women have fought in three wars, as well as the war on terrorism; flown and continue to fly combat missions; commanded the Space Shuttle; commanded a fighter squadron; been recognized and decorated for valor in combat action; and been promoted to the rank of general. As such, Pentagon policy “allowing” women to fight in wars is a bit of a straw man, it is already being done…8
On March 17, the Nation + World section of the Salt Lake City Tribune reprinted the WP/ABC News Poll article and results with additional comments by Elaine Donnelly, founder and executive director of the Center for Military Readiness. Donnelly maintains that women in combat units amount to unnecessary risk for both female and male soldiers, stating, “Women do not have an equal opportunity to survive or to help fellow soldiers survive. There is no ‘discrimination’ problem that requires extreme measures— such as forcing enlisted women into [direct ground combat] units — just to advance the career prospects of a future female officer who wants to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” Donnelly contends that inserting women into combat roles “shouldn’t be done to achieve diversity goals”. In addition to her opposition to women in combat, Donnelly, who has studied military personnel issues since the 1980s, recently mounted an unsuccessful campaign to prevent the government from ending the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy banning gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military.9
Donnelly’s opposition to Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell mirrors that of Schlafly’s original second objection to ERA—the legitimization of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) lifestyle through marriage. Whether it’s openly gay active-duty soldiers or same-sex marriage—the fact remains that it’s already being done. Numerous gains have been made in obtaining civil rights for the LGBT community, with the battle to legalize same-sex marriage being waged in legislatures at the state level. Ironically, this is the solution prescribed by former Vice President Dick Chaney, who is supportive of his openly gay daughter, Mary. Like it or not, same-sex unions, which draw a variety of responses—support, tolerance, indifferent, ridicule, etc.— exist. Again, as with women serving in combat—the reality is, it’s already being done—with or without social validation.10
It is hard to un-ring a bell, and tying gender equity to a lifestyle choice is a bit of a red herring. It certainly heightens the controversy of the subject matter, but what does it prove?
That brings me back to Schlafly’s third objection to ERA—denial of spousal support. I find this the most interesting, given the dismal probability that the majority of custodial mothers will have trouble collecting reliable child support payments from the fathers of their children. Or, consider the fact that women make less money than their male counterparts making it difficult to adequately support children, not to mention making lower Social Security contributions, a real Catch-22 with our longer lifespan and extended retirement years.
Was the defeat of ERA about combat, same-sex marriage, or equal pay for equal work?
The Equal Rights Amendment
Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged
by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation,
the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.11
Having come of age in the late 70s, I remember the Reagan Era as conservative, even regressive, with regard to social policies—particularly regarding poverty, mental health (and the phenomenon of homelessness) and women. My feminist sensibilities, i.e., the status of women, weren’t the product of radical 60s ideology, but the death of my father in an automobile accident in 1963. My mother was a “female head-of-household” long before it was a norm. High school educated, she raised me and my brother while working as a retail clerk in small town, rural Tennessee. To say that her options were limited is an understatement. The possibility that I might follow a similar path was far more terrifying than any slasher movie double-feature playing at the local drive-in.
The Equal Rights Amendment didn’t magically appear as spear-headed by 1970s “militant” feminists. “Militant” suffragist leader and founder of the National Woman’s Party Alice Paul wrote it in 1923 as the logical and necessary follow-on to the 19th Amendment(1920), which gave women the right to vote. Introduced during every Congressional session between 1923 and 1972—when it was passed, the ERA was then sent to the states for ratification. From 1972 through 1982, ERA was ratified by 35 states, falling short by three of the required 38 votes. Since 1982, it has been reintroduced in every Congress.12
The struggle for women’s equality has closely paralleled the African-American struggle for civil rights. ERA Task Force Chair, Roberta W. Francis, offers this historic account of the Amendment’s progress, “In 1848, at the first Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, who had met as abolitionists working against slavery, convened a two-day meeting of 300 women and men to call for justice for women in a society where they were systematically barred from the rights and privileges of citizens. A Declaration of Sentiments and eleven other resolutions were adopted with ease, but the proposal for woman suffrage was passed only after impassioned speeches by Stanton and former slave Frederick Douglass, who called the vote the right by which all others could be secured. However, the country was far from ready to take the issue of women’s rights seriously, and the call for justice was the object of much ridicule.13
“After the Civil War, Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth fought in vain to have women included in new constitutional amendments giving rights to former slaves. The 14th Amendment defined citizens as ‘all persons born or naturalized in the United States’ and guaranteed equal protection of the laws – but in referring to the electorate, it introduced the word ‘male’ into the Constitution for the first time. The 15th Amendment declared that ‘the right of citizens . . . to vote shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude’ – but women of all races were still denied the ballot.” 14
Finding this unacceptable, in 1872 in Rochester, NY, Susan B. Anthony, cast a ballot in the presidential election, citing her citizenship under the 14th Amendment. Subsequently, she was arrested, tried, convicted, and fined $100, which she refused to pay. The 1875 Supreme Court decision in Minor v. Happersett stated that “while women may be citizens, all citizens were not necessarily voters, and states were not required to allow women to vote”. For the rest of their lives, Anthony and Stanton pursued passage of the Suffrage Amendment on a state-by-state basis, neither living to see women granted the right to vote. The early 1900s saw women enter the workforce (by necessity), begin to campaign for progressive social reform, and eventually win the right to vote on August 26, 1920. The 19th Amendment states, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” 15
In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which amended the Fair Labor Standards Act, into law. The Act denounced sex discrimination as:
- Depressing wages and living standards for employees necessary for their health and efficiency
- Preventing the maximum utilization of the available labor resources
- Causing labor disputes, thereby burdening, affecting, and obstructing commerce
- Burdening commerce and the free flow of goods in commerce; and
- Constituting an unfair method of competition 16
The law provides, in part, that: No employer having employees subject to any provisions of this section [section 206 of title 29 of the United States Code] shall discriminate, within any establishment in which such employees are employed, between employees on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees in such establishment at a rate less than the rate at which he pays wages to employees of the opposite sex in such establishment for equal work on jobs, the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions, except where such payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex…17
The 2007-2008 110th Congress saw the Equal Rights Amendment introduced as S.J. Res. 10 (Sen. Edward Kennedy, MA, lead sponsor) and H.J. Res. 40 (Rep. Carolyn Maloney, NY, lead sponsor) without a ratification deadline in their proposing clauses.18 The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964, stating that the 180-day statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay lawsuit regarding pay discrimination resets with each new discriminatory paycheck.19
In her 2010 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute,20 aired opposition to the Paycheck Fairness Bill—killed November 2010 21, citing that the wage gap between men and women “isn’t necessarily the result of discrimination… there are lots of other reasons men might earn more than women, including differences in education, experience and job tenure.” 22
Another factor affecting earning ability includes marital status… “A recent survey found that young, childless, single urban women earn eight percent more than their male counterparts, mostly because more of them earn college degrees”… as well as “individual choices being made by both male and female workers.” Research has long contributed individual absence from the workforce as a factor— “women are more likely than men to leave the workforce to take care of children or older parents. They also tend to value family-friendly workplace policies more than men, and will often accept lower salaries in exchange for more benefits. In fact, there were so many differences in pay-related choices that the researchers were unable to specify a residual effect due to discrimination.” 23
Sommers acknowledged the bill’s supporters concerns that women’s choices may be perceived as “skewed by sexist stereotypes and social pressures… [which] are interesting and important points, worthy of continued public debate… [She worried that] employers would be held “liable for the ‘lingering effects of past discrimination’ — ‘pay disparities’ that have been ‘spread and perpetuated through commerce’… forcing employers ‘to guard against intentional discrimination’” as well as “police potentially discriminatory assumptions behind market-driven wage disparities that have nothing to do with sexism… [particularly] sexist attitudes [where] society places a higher value on male-centered fields like business than on female-centered fields like social work.” 24
Sommers predicted a “legal nightmare for even the best-intentioned employers… feminist expert testimony when cases go to trial, and… media firestorm.” Rather than contend with high-profile multimillion-dollar lawsuits, well-intentioned employers would settle.25 “The Paycheck Fairness bill would set women against men, empowers trial lawyers and activists, perpetuate falsehoods about the status of women in the workplace and create havoc in a precarious job market. It is 1970s-style gender-war feminism for a society that should be celebrating its success in substantially, if not yet completely, overcoming sex-based workplace discrimination,” she concluded.26
If pay inequity is so innocent, why is Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, requesting that the US Supreme Court “reject the largest class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit in history, brought by female employees [seeking] billions of dollars”? Filed ten years ago the lawsuit alleges that since 1998 Walmart both paid women less and granted them fewer promotions in its 3,400 U.S. stores. As Sommers surmised, the business community is watching, as a positive outcome allowing for a class action has far-reaching implications for working women challenging discrimination. Described as pitting women’s and employees’ rights against business interests, Robin Conrad of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce considers the case to be “the most important class-action case facing the court in over a decade.” Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center, commented that, “The ability of women
to be treated fairly in the workplace hangs in the balance.” 27
Large class-action lawsuits have enabled groups of plaintiffs to sue corporations, yielding huge payouts from the tobacco, oil, and food industries. Corporations prefer that an individual or small plaintiff groups pursue lawsuits as their resources are minimal compared to those of big business. More often than not an individual or small group will give up.
I don’t see equal pay as an impetus for gender or class warfare— stepping into my mother’s shoes, I see it as a way to provide shelter and food for my children, pay my mortgage and medical bills, and plan for some sort of retirement, a “perk” I have “earned”.
Is being paid enough money to take care of my children and myself an unreasonable expectation?
Nobody threatened to deprive my mother of my father’s surviving spouse and dependents social security benefits. That’s what paid my college tuition, as my thrifty mother banked it and planned for my future. We were “lucky”— though growing up without a father is far from ideal. We had extended family, and knew we wouldn’t be hungry or homeless. Not every woman is as “lucky” as my mother… That said, contemporary women have made gains. Bells have rung on the issues of women in combat, same-sex marriage, (comically on) “potty parity”, but not yet on pay equity.
I’m befuddled by what’s so threatening about equal pay for equal work—especially since being a competent employee AND responsible mother is two jobs, not one.
1. The Washington Post <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/federal-eye/post/7-in-10-americans-support-allowing-women-in-ground-combat/2011/03/16/ABqJ6Be_blog.html>
4. The Equal Rights Amendment <http://www.equalrightsamendment.org/era.htm>
5. Army Women’s Foundation. <http://www.awfdn.org>
8. Women in Military Service Memorial. <http://www.womensmemorial.org/Education/timeline.html>
9. Salt Lake City Tribune. < http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/world/51446724-68/women-combat-percent-pentagon.html.csp>
10. Ifill, Gwen. (October 5, 2004) The Cheney-Edwards Vice Presidential Debate transcript Case Western Reserve University. Cleveland, Ohio. Accessed March 22, 2011.
11. The Equal Rights Amendment
16. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. <http://archive.eeoc.gov/epa/anniversary/epa-40.html>
17. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. <http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/equalcompensation.cfm>
18. The Equal Rights Amendment
19. GovTrak.US. <http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=s111-181>
20. The American Enterprise Institute, a non-partisan conservative think tank with the mission “to defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism—limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate”, <http://www.aei.org/docLib/2010-Annual-Report.pdf>
21. United Press International. <http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2010/11/17/Senate-kills-Paycheck-Fairness-Act/UPI-38001290032394/>
22. Sommers, Christina Hoff. “Fair Pay Isn’t Always Equal Pay.” New York Times. The Opinion Pages. 21 Sept 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/22/opinion/22Sommers.html?_r=1>
27. Msnbc.com. Wal-Mart sex-bias suit could be landmark case. 22 Mar 2011. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42216418/ns/business-us_business/>