Capital Region 4 Women's Conference Keynote Address
Friday, March 9, 2001; 7:30 pm
The Sheraton, Saratoga Springs, NY
It is a great pleasure for me to be with all of you tonight.
As you just heard, I am president of the Fashion Institute of Technology. Before I took this position, I had a few other executive-type titles, such as vice chancellor and deputy mayor.
Yet it was in another role I once held, many years ago, a role whose title does not sound quite so fancy or influential, that I had genuine clout: I was a union grievance hearing officer at CUNY.
In that role, I had the power to make a real difference in individual peoples lives—one by one. That experience proved both satisfying and instructive.
I came to realize, as I went along, that having the power to make someone's life better and being able to bring about some measure of progress, large or small, is what makes work worthwhile.
I suspect that everyone here tonight shares that sentiment. All of you are active, hard-working members of the civil service employees association. I am sure that like the thousands of union members that I have had the privilege of working with over the years, you show up at your offices with a strong conviction about the value of work, about your ability to make a contribution, about the importance of justice and equity, and about your desire to make a difference. I am sure you would not be here tonight away from your families and ready to dedicate a weekend to self-improvement, to honing new skills, to work—if you did not believe this as well.
My experience with union workers is not unique in any way. Clarence Darrow, one of this country's greatest attorneys and a well-known defender of the oppressed, once said: "With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education—for the developing of character in man, than any other association of men."
A fine sentiment, even if the gender language leaves something to be desired. However, Clarence Darrow lived and practiced in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a creature of his time, and for most of his time, women could not even vote.
How gratifying, then, for me to be here, at the start of the 21st century, speaking to you, a group of union women, union leaders. How fitting, too, that we gather at the start of women's history month.
Indeed, it seems that we have been marking women's history month for a very long time, now, but in fact it has not even been 25 years. Historians and biographers ignored us because, it was said, we led such private lives—we were too far from the centers of power to be of much interest.
Oh, there were some exceptions—like Joan of Arc and Madame Curie—but the rest of us were dull, unaccomplished, unworthy.
However, in 1978, a small California commission on the status of women went out on a limb and declared the first women's history week, a week designed to shed some light on a topic that was virtually unstudied until that time.
The idea caught on, and before long, we were celebrating national women's history week, and as of 1987, national women's history month. Nine years ago, we even had the year of the woman.
I suggest that we take a cosmic view, and declare the 21st century the women's history millennium. That way, we would have time to tell the whole story.
Not that everyone really wants to hear it. Some people still seem to think it was a subject dreamed up by a pack of so-called bra burners—do you remember them?—so we ladies could pretend we had actually been the architects of human history, not just the caterers.
Everyone knows women were always around somewhere, otherwise there would not have been anyone to give birth to all those men who did the important things that constitute "real" history. Well, you and I know that women's history is real history, and we women have done more than rock the cradle.
That has been just one part of our inherent role in binding our society and its people. As former congresswoman Pat Schroeder famously said when asked how she could be a mother and a politician at the same time: "I have a uterus and a brain, and they both work."
So if women's names are mostly a footnote in the history books, we know it is not because women lack the ability or the desire to shape our world and better it. Too often, women's lives have been constrained by what a male dominated society says we must or must not be.
The opportunities given or denied, the words that spark or quench a young girls spirit, have always made our roles clear in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It would be nice to think we did not need a women's history month.
It would be nice if women, who make up more than half of the human race, had had an equal and valued place in the pantheon of history.
There have always been women undaunted by the obstacles in their path, who thought deeply and fought hard, and accomplished great things. Indeed, American history is full of them, anonymous though they may be. When the french political writer and social critic Alexis de Tocqueville made his celebrated tour of this country in the 1830s, he observed that much of what made America great was owed to the quote "superiority of its women." I think, too, of the biblical Esther, for today, by coincidence, it is Purim, the Jewish festival that celebrates her heroism. You may recall that it was Esther, the Jewish wife of a Persian king, whose shrewd and courageous intervention in court politics that saved her people from destruction.
We, as women, owe it to generations past and future to discover and celebrate our heroes. We must tell our story to set the record straight, to recognize the bold and brilliant women whose achievements have been overlooked, and most important, to continue to give women and girls everywhere role models, a sense of their own worth and the confidence to pursue their dreams and their goals.
Have you heard this song before?
That is because, even as women of more enlightened times, as women of the 21st century, our glass today is both half full and half empty. During women's history month especially we can celebrate the half-full; but we must also reflect hard on the half-empty. In so doing, we can come to understand why we must continue to struggle, continue to remain active, continue to strive for leadership roles in whatever realm we exist.
Let me concentrate first on the good news, our strengths, our gains, on the glass of gender equality that is now half-full:
- Women are almost half of the us workforce today, and in new york state, 53 percent of women are in the labor force.
- Women-owned businesses are leading economic growth throughout the country, and starting twice as fast as other businesses. In new york state, 36 percent of businesses today are owned by women.
- In the past 35 years, more than 70 million jobs have been added in this country; an impressive 43 million of them went to women.
- In the same time period, women's jobs doubled in almost every industry; and in government, every two jobs added for men brought another five for women.
- In state legislatures, over 22 percent of today's representatives are women, a five-fold increase from 1969.
- Today, women are the majority of college graduates and graduate school students. this
is an encouraging picture, exactly the sort we should applaud. however, that gender
glass is also half-empty. Disparities still exist and they are stark. For instance:
the wage gap remains. In general, full-time women workers earn 74 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Union women fare somewhat better, making 84 percent of what union men make.
The average college-educated 25 year old woman, who retires at age 65, will earn over half-a-million dollars less over a lifetime of work than the equivalent man.
Women are 66 percent of the worlds poor and illiterate.
In this country, 10 percent of white women are poor...at 30 percent, the figure is even worse for women of color. Moreover, a quarter of our children are growing up in poverty despite the economic growth of the past decade.
In the corporate world, women hold only about five percent of senior-level, senior management executive positions. This is a figure that has not budged in ten years.
In congress, women representatives are at record highs, but what does that mean? We have only 13.5 percent of the seats in the house and 13 percent in the senate.
Even in academia, where some might expect more enlightened behavior patterns, we find
that women with PhDs have not begun to reach parity with men. Last month, the presidents
of nine of the nations top universities finally conceded that serious barriers still
existed for women professors, in the sciences in particular. As a result of what they
called "unintentional institutional discrimination."
These are just a few of the headlines, both good and bad: a simplified, selective, and mostly statistical snapshot of our socio-economic culture.
However, the fallout from these statistics filters not only into our institutions and workplaces, but also into our human relationships and profoundly affects our day-to-day lives. Progress means change; change is challenge. How many of us do not feel the friction?
One of the more discouraging trends we have seen in recent years is the tendency of some people, women as well as men, to say: hush, quiet down, you women have made your point, you have made your mark. Look! There are women—plural, women—on the supreme court. Women CEOs. women's basketball teams. There are more women graduating college than men. You—Joyce Brown—are president of a college that never before had a women president (much less an African-American president). What more can you possibly want?
We want more. We know our gains are not secure, are not institutionalized, are not complete. We know that we, or our sisters, are one paycheck from poverty or one affirmative action change from unemployment.
Last fall, in a national poll of American women conducted by the center for policy alternatives and lifetime television, a very complex picture of our priorities and values as women emerged.
It was particularly interesting, since the poll is part of a research project that has been tracking women in national election years since 1992.
Now the poll was conducted in September, before we began to hear serious rumblings of economic slowdowns. even then, women were showing ambivalence about their progress. While two-thirds said they have control over their lives in general, only 40 percent felt they had control over their economic lives.
An overwhelming majority—88 percent—said that equal pay and benefits were their top priority. Yet as important as the money was to them, over 70 percent said they would prefer a job with more flexibility and benefits to a job with higher wages. We know why.
As this survey also showed, over the past decade we women have urgently and consistently placed the high-wire balancing act of family and work as the top concern in our lives. We worry about making ends meet while having enough time to do everything we need to do and still care for and spend time with our families.
Is it surprising, then, that the women in this poll said they want flexibility in their jobs, that they want portable retirement benefits and affordable health care that is not dependent on their jobs?
I believe that none of these persistent, vexing, and life-determining issues will be resolved without women in positions to pressure for them. I grant you there are good and well- meaning men in leadership positions who are prepared to partner with us or to push alone for solutions for these issues also. However...To date, these so-called "women's issues" still sit, still fester, still vex. I suspect it will take women as the engine and many of us before these issues move forward in a meaningful way.
Indeed, according to one respected study on the influence of women in institutions, it takes a critical mass of women—25 to 30 percent—to bring about any changes in those institutions or organizations.
Earlier, I mentioned former congresswoman Pat Schroeder. Let me tell you a little bit about her. When she arrived in Washington, in 1972, she was the first mother of small children ever to serve in congress and would come to the house floor with diapers in a handbag.
She became an outspoken advocate for women and served twelve terms—during which she sponsored such legislation as the child abuse prevention act, the military family act, the violence against women act and the family and medical leave act. Under her leadership, model day-care centers were built in the military with pay equity for the people who ran them. (What a concept!)
Early on she figured out that to push for the kind of things she cared about—protecting children and women— she had to get onto the committees that women had never served on before, such as defense. She knew that this was where the money was, and money meant clout. It was a subtle piece of strategy which ultimately proved very effective.
Right now, there is a debate going on among women legislators throughout the land who wonder whether they will be taken seriously if they stick to the so-called "women's issues." some fear that women's issues will taint them...And others want to work on primary school education only. Many, however, agree with one congresswoman who recently said, "I have found that if we do not stand up for families and for women...Nobody will."
I believe that she is right. It is not enough for us to reach positions of power or influence. We need to be willing to use them in our own interests. Queen Esther, Pat Schroeder, you and I, could all just as easily be window dressing, tokens to be trotted out for photo ops. However, I suspect you know this because you are all already CSEA leaders, and you would not be here if you did not want to use your influence to effect change.
Now, it is still the case that when women succeed professionally, whether in the public or private sector, they succeed first and foremost because they over-achieve: we try harder.
In congress, women legislators have to know about everything: tax codes, the military, trade, foreign policy and women's and children's issues. Men do not. For women, it is an "added thing" an added value, an extra dimension, and it is expected.
In business, it is the same thing. According to a recent survey on women CEOs, almost 80 percent said that the main reason they succeeded was because they consistently exceeded expectations.
Even in matters of tone, it takes women willing to lead, willing to set the precedent.
Just the other day, the Washington Post ran a story about high-ranking women in today's white house who are turning the standard 24/7 work ethic there on its head. Karen Hughes, who is President Bush's counselor, leaves the office nightly at 7 and once a week at 5:30 to be with her adolescent son. Other senior women are following suit and there is, at least for now, a family-friendly environment that invites more civilized working hours. Even a few men are catching on.
Now, other administrations have also had family- friendly policies. However, they were rarely acted upon. I grant you, the Bush administration is young, and this may not last. Still, whatever comes of this remarkable experiment in balanced living, let us note that it started with Karen Hughes, a woman, and a woman in a leadership position.
Clearly, we need more of this, and we need more women in positions everywhere to make it happen. Yet when asked why women aren't more active in promoting their own interests on the political level, Kathy Rodgers, who is president of the now legal defense and educational fund, said simply, "they're too busy."
That is true, and that is also our paradox.
It reminds me of the terrific line from the playwright Sherwood Anderson: " I go about looking at horses and cattle. They eat grass... Make love... Work when they have to... Bear their young. I am sick with envy of them."
Don't you wish all our lives were so simple?
The fact is, however, that they are not.
We are all living intense, busy, pressured lives. We all have our obligations at the office, our obligations at home, and of course, our sense of obligation beyond. As I observed at the start, we are all here tonight in Saratoga Springs precisely because we recognize the importance of the obligations that stretch beyond ourselves.
From shop steward to college president, we are all leaders in one or another capacity. However, I believe that none of us reached our positions without having met some resistance along the way; without having had to bounce back from disappointments, from people who "just said no" at some point along the line. We have all sacrificed and learned self- discipline. We have arrived here as leaders because of a strength of character that we have built over a lifetime.
Like you, it was my good fortune to learn early in my career that I could, through my work, help to make a difference in some lives.
I happened to be blessed with a supportive family and friends. I was also blessed to be surrounded by strong women since childhood—anonymous women, to be sure, women not known in the hallways of power. Indeed, it was their faith in me as a young girl that gave strength to me as a woman.
I emerged with a deep and abiding faith that I could make a difference and was obliged to do so. I also emerged with a deep and abiding trust in the bond I share with all women.
There is a wonderful Ethiopian proverb: if you wait long enough, even an egg will walk.
I believe that if we women do, indeed, work together, if we honor the trust that together we can make a difference, we will not need to wait for that egg to walk.
It has been my privilege to be with you tonight. Thank you.