Ladies first, you say? Here’s what that looks like

As I walked into the hotel lobby, a smiling man opened the door with a flourish and said “ladies first, beautiful.”

On another morning, absorbed in my thoughts, I might have barely noticed this somewhat dated attempt at courtesy, but on this particular day, I was on my way to hear my boss address more than 300 domestic violence advocates.  Ladies first? Really? The irony was overwhelming.

{mosads}The phrase “ladies first” has its origins in the view that women are fragile and delicate, needing special protections.  This is one reason that women are among the first to be evacuated in dangerous situations. We all remember the Titanic directive of “women and children first.”  Society practices these arbitrary rituals that ultimately do nothing to elevate or equalize a woman’s positioning and value in our society.  If anything, it perpetuates the perception of women as powerless and weak. 

Then I started to think: What if we reclaimed the phrase? What would “ladies first” look like if it meant putting women’s issues first–making them the cornerstone of our national policy agenda? There’s certainly good reason to do this. Today, women make up a majority of the U.S. population , are two-thirds of the breadwinners or co-breadwinners of American families; hold 60 percent of U.S. bachelor’s degree; make up 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, and  control 80 percent in annual consumer spending in the United States.  And yet, even though women are first or the majority in critical aspects of the well-being of our society, policies continue to put women as second class citizens.  

What would a real “ladies first” world look like?

For one thing, we would assure that women are free from violence, in and outside of their homes. Just minutes after my “ladies first” exchange, I listened as a speaker at my conference rattled off a string of horrifying statistics, including the fact that more than 1 in 3 women have experienced rape, physical violence , and/or stalking by an intimate partner.  What woman is first in those relationships?

We’d also respect the fact that a woman should have autonomy over her body. We are far from that place. Last year 16 states enacted 27 anti-choice measures—banning insurance coverage, limiting access, and enacting longer mandatory delay requirements are policies that prevent women from making a personal choice about their body. 

So if a woman can’t come first in her relationships or in decision-making regarding her body than maybe things are better in the workplace?

Nope. Even though  women hold almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs and are the majority breadwinners in their household, American women continue to lag behind men when it comes to representation, leadership and wages.  Women make 77 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts; they hold only 4.6 percent of executive office positions in corporations and represent less than 20 percent of elected officials at the federal level.

Clearly we have a long way to go before ladies come first in any real way. So how can we get there? For starters, more men need to speak out against gender inequality brought on by social constructs and norms that perpetuate the perceived differences among genders.  Men must step up by saying that the lives of their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters deserve the equal opportunity that they have the privilege to experience every day.  And this has to be done in the home, school, courtrooms, and boardrooms.  Men must advocate for equality and respect and not be afraid of the transference of power, knowledge and money. 

Happily, we heard some signs of this during the recent State of the Union address when the president proposed policies relating to affordable high-quality childcare, guaranteed paid sick leave or paid maternity leave; equal pay for women; and raising the minimum wage, all policies that are steps towards leveling the playing field between genders.  If the current Congress, which is 80% men, wants to make the phrase “ladies first” mean something, they will move quickly to pass these and other policies that recognize the central role of women in our nation’s life. This is in everyone’s interest. It’s not just about putting women first, it’s about putting our country first by assuring that all citizens are treated fairly and have a chance to contribute to and share in a safer and more prosperous future. It’s about opening doors—not just the door to my conference hotel but the far more critical doors to opportunities and equal rights. 

Collins-Puri is director of Programs for the Women’s Foundation of California and a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.


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