Civil Rights

International Women’s Day — American women behind, as usual

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The United States has the world’s oldest feminist movement, yet American women are behind their sisters elsewhere.

In politics, 59 countries have had female presidents or prime ministers in the past century. The United States hasn’t had one. Females hold 20 percent of seats in the American congress. In Europe, they hold 30 percent, in Scandinavia, 40 percent.

{mosads}In economics, only 10 percent of U.S. mutual fund managers are female. Elsewhere, females hold 20 percent of those jobs. In America, 19 percent of the wealthiest women were self-made. In Asia, 50 percent created their own fortunes.


Nowhere have females achieved political and economic equality with men, but they are doing better in many other countries.

This lag is not new, but it’s worth pondering on the March 8 celebration of International Women’s Day.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony launched the world’s first campaign for women’s rights in 1848. Their boldest demand was the vote. All three were dead by the time suffrage passed seventy-one years later.

Other countries had moved ahead. Ideas that germinated in America flourished elsewhere. Christabel Pankhurst, a founder of the militant movement in England, felt so sad upon meeting the aged Susan B. Anthony in 1902 that she told her mother Emmeline, “It is unendurable to think of another generation of women wasting their lives begging.”

Suffragists around the world organized to meet the challenge. Twenty countries approved the vote for women before the United States, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, and Sweden.

President Woodrow Wilson found himself publicly embarrassed before other world leaders, to whose ranks he aspired in 1918. “Are we alone to refuse to learn the lesson?” the president pleaded with the U.S. Senate just before his journey to the Versailles Peace Conference. If the nation hoped “to lead the world to democracy,” it must grant women full citizenship or “resign the leadership of liberal minds to others.”

Yet consistent with its schizophrenia, America continued to open unprecedented opportunities for women. At the same time that the U.S. was resisting the vote, it became first to put females in military uniform.

One hundred years ago this month, three weeks before the U.S. entered World War I, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels inducted women as fully-recognized, equally-paid service members. No nation had ever done this.

The British army started an auxiliary unit immediately thereafter — though females were forbidden to salute and their reduced pay was calculated on the premise that four women accomplished the work of three men.

American women joined the army, too, though their experience exemplifies the checkered career of feminism. When General John Pershing arrived in France as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, he quickly discovered that an industrialized war could not be fought without female expertise.

The recently invented telephone had become the principal tool of generalship. A command to fire was given by phone, and each call was connected manually. Masters of the fast-paced switchboard, women held the wires of the war in their hands.

Pershing recruited 223, all at risk of submarine attack, some under aerial bombardment. He awarded their 25-year-old leader, Grace Banker, the Distinguished Service Medal.

Most Signal Corps operators returned home after the majority of men. To their surprise, they found that the Army never considered them “real” military. Female sailors who served stateside received full veterans’ benefits. Women soldiers were stripped of them.

Progress seemed undone. Army veterans of both World Wars fought until 1979 for the simple right to a flag on their coffins. Helped by the second wave of feminism, they finally won the same benefits as men from the U.S. Congress.

Until 2016.

Last year, the U.S. Army denied burial rights at Arlington National Cemetery to female pilots of World War Two. Not because the resting place was out of space, but because women had never been true soldiers. It took a second act of Congress to restore their rights once again.

Historians don’t know why the campaign for gender equality has been such a Sisyphean task in America but sometimes the stone rolls backwards particularly fast.

As Michelle Obama commented upon learning of Donald Trump’s private boast that he could sexually assault women with impunity, “It reminds us of stories we heard from our mothers and grandmothers about how . . . even though they worked so hard, jumped over every hurdle to prove themselves, it was never enough.”

World leadership may not be as attractive as it once seemed to Woodrow Wilson, but if America wishes to provide it, both women and men must work harder to ensure that our system — not just our ideas — are worth emulating.

Elizabeth Cobbs is the Melbern Glasscock Professor of American History at Texas A&M and a Research Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is the author of The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers, due April 6 from Harvard University Press.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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