Columnist Carrie N. Baker: Progress for women’s rights in 2019

  • In this Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 file photo, Democratic house candidate Sharice Davids prepares to speak to supporters at a victory party in Olathe, Kan. Davids defeated Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder to win the Kansas' 3rd Congressional District seat. AP

Published: 12/26/2019 4:52:50 PM

It’s been a rough year for women’s rights. The Trump administration and many state legislatures have been furiously rolling back hard-won protections, including our reproductive rights, our right to be free from gender-based violence and our right to equal employment opportunities.

Eviscerated are campus sexual assault protections under Title IX, federal funding of contraception, STD testing and cancer screenings for low-income women under Title X and pay data collection and reporting requirements to identify wage inequities based on sex and race. The Violence Against Women Act funding expired in February for the first time since 1994. Nine states banned abortion before most women know they are pregnant.

But here at the end of the year, I would like to focus on some of the positive things that have happened for women in 2019. The Trump administration rollbacks on women’s rights have inspired a political uprising that has resulted in record-breaking numbers of women winning political office both in Congress and in state legislatures.

As a result, women have demanded, and achieved, widespread state-level legal change to shore up and expand women’s rights and passage of groundbreaking legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Positive highlights

In 2019, a record number of women were elected to Congress, increasing from 107 in 2018 to 127 in 2019 and raising the proportion of seats in Congress held by women from 20% to 23.7%. Women of color, in particular, won a record number of seats, rising from 38 in 2018 to 47 in 2019, and including the first two Native American women ever to serve in Congress — Deb Haaland from New Mexico and Sharice Davids from Kansas.

Democrats flipped the House, and with Rep. Nancy Pelosi at the helm, the U.S. House passed many important new laws shoring up women’s rights, including:

■the Violence Against Women Act of 2019 that would restore funding to domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers;

■the Equality Act that would extend civil rights protections to LGBTQ people;

■the Paycheck Fairness Act that would address pay disparities based on sex and race;

■and the Voting Rights Advancement Act to protect and expand voting rights.

Unfortunately, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell is blocking all these important laws in the Senate, so women are turning to the states to protect and expand their rights.

This effort has been buoyed by a record number of women elected to state legislatures in 2019, increasing from 1,879 in 2018 to 2,112 in 2019 and raising the proportion of seats in state legislatures held by women from 25.4% to 28.6%. For the first time in history, a state legislature has reached parity in women's representation — Nevada, with women holding 50.8% of seats.

States make it happen

These new female state legislators led the charge in winning new state laws protecting and expanding women’s rights in many areas, including:

■The Equal Rights Amendment: Democrats won both houses in the Virginia state legislature, which sets the state up to become the 38th and final state necessary to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. And the U.S. House Judiciary Committee voted to lift the arbitrary timeline on the amendment.

■Sexual harassment: 11 states strengthened their sexual harassment laws, including limiting nondisclosure agreements, stopping forced arbitration, expanding what conduct is covered and extending coverage to more employees.

■Child sex abuse: 24 states and the District of Columbia extended or eliminated statutes of limitations that blocked survivors of child sex abuse from suing their perpetrators. Experts expect at least 5,000 new cases against the Catholic Church in New York, New Jersey and California alone, potentially subjecting the church to liability for billions of dollars for harm to child survivors of priest sexual abuse.

■Equal pay: Nine states enacted equal pay legislation, including prohibiting the use of salary history, requiring transparency around salary ranges, protecting employees who discuss their pay and allowing fairer comparisons of work and pay.

■Reproductive rights: 10 states strengthened their abortion laws, including California, which became the first state to pass a law requiring student health centers at public universities to provide medication abortion on campus. In 2019 alone, these states enacted 36 new pro-choice policies, surpassing the 28 policies states enacted in the previous nine years since 2010. In addition, many cities and towns passed resolutions supporting abortion access, including Austin, Texas, which became the first city in the nation to dedicate city funding to support services like transportation and childcare for people seeking abortion care.

■Education: For the first time ever, women are now the majority at medical schools.

Advocates have used the Trump administration’s evisceration of federal civil rights protections to push women’s issues to the forefront of states legislative agendas.

“Progress has been made in a climate of backlash in the U.S.,” says Katherine Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms. magazine. “Without equal decision making power or equal access to resources, women persist in making progress despite entrenched patriarchies.”

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College.


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy