In 1968, Virginia Slims cigarettes were introduced by Philip Morris and targeted to women. The slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby”, was all about feminism and women’s liberation, acknowledgement that women were allowed more choices, like being able to smoke — but in a ladylike fashion, of course.
The campaign seems laughable now, considering what we know about the health effects of smoking, not to mention that progress for women was more than having our own special cigarette. In the four decades since, women in the United States have made advances in reproductive choices, employment and government. At the time Virginia Slims was introduced, for example, women made up roughly one-third of the workforce. Today, we are half the workforce in the United States. We’ve gone through the glass ceiling and all the way into space.
However, according to a recent study, progress for women in the United States is far from equitable.
The State of Women in America is a state-by-state analysis by the Center for American Progress of how women are faring across the nation. The report examined three key categories deemed critical to women’s overall well being: economics, leadership and health. After ranking the states on multiple indicators, they found that a woman’s progress varies greatly depending on where she lives and her race.
When analyzing economics, they looked at the wage gap between women and men, as well as their poverty rates, paid leave laws and access to early childhood education. All of these are important considering that many women are the primary breadwinner in families and decent wages and family friendly policies directly affect their ability to provide for them. In the state that was ranked as the best overall for women, Maryland, the wage gap is has women earning an average of 85 cents for every dollar a man makes. This is far above the national average of 77 cents.
The wage comparison for men is based on white men, due to the disparity compared to wages for men of color. These racial disparities also exist among women. While the wage gap between white men and women is lower in Maryland than the national average, the earnings for black women is both below the national average and 18 percent lower than white women in the state at 70 cents on the dollar, with Hispanic even lower.
The racial gap is greatest in Vermont, where white women are on par with women in Maryland, but black women earn 47 percent less, making only 40 cents on the dollar. This is the largest wage gap in the nation, even though Vermont is ranked as one of the best (number 3) places for women overall.
The report looked at the state’s health policies, including reproductive rights legislation and Medicare access. Texas is one of the states that refused to implement a healthcare exchange or to expand Medicare under the Affordable Care Act. In 2011, Vermont passed legislation which is putting it on the path to be the first state in the nation to have single payer healthcare. For now, they have set up an exchange in accordance with the ACA.
Is it any wonder that Vermont also has the lowest number of uninsured women (less than 10 percent) and Texas has the highest (25 percent)?
Policy is influenced by those who make the decisions and implement legislation. It’s important that more women are involved in those decisions. The government shutdown hit women the hardest through programs such as WIC and Head Start, not to mention that a large portion of the federal workforce are women. Yet, women only comprise 18 percent of Congress in spite of the fact that women make up more than half the population. The study found that 15 states had no women in one or both of their legislative bodies.
“You’ve come a long way, baby” is still a phrase used when discussing the progress of women. While women have definitely come a long way (including reducing their tobacco use), the progress has been uneven and still requires leadership – from women – to move forward.
To paraphrase a later slogan, we need to find our voice.