Honoring Women's History

Willa Powell Photo


Commissioner Willa Powell
Rochester Board of Education 

Honoring Women’s History


Although the historic struggle for women’s rights was born out of the abolitionist movement, equity for women is often considered as separate and distinct from civil rights issues.  Unlike many social and political movements, the women’s rights struggle can be traced to a particular pivotal moment in time:  when the women delegates to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 were denied admission.  Despite the fact that these women had been selected by abolitionist groups in the U.S. to represent them, a majority of the male delegates refused to allow them to participate in the Convention.  Instead, the women delegates were relegated to listening to the proceedings behind a curtain.  The women could not help but notice that while they had been committed to fighting for freedom for those who were enslaved, they themselves were not free.  A number of the women delegates, including Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, resolved to hold their own convention regarding women’s rights in the U.S., thereby launching the movement to “emancipate women”.


Today, with so many women in the workforce, succeeding in a wide range of endeavors, and attaining higher levels of education than ever before, it is tempting to think that the battle for women’s rights is no longer necessary or relevant.  It’s not only the gains that women have made in recent history that lends credence to this perception, but also the fact that the women’s equality involves the most private and intimate aspects of life and their struggle therefore is less visible than for other groups.  Women’s rights are inextricably associated with choices about reproduction and the availability of birth control, which affect women’s life choices; family caregiving and the affordability of child and elder care; equity in pay and employment opportunities.


Despite the great strides made by women over the last 40 years, recent data reflect the continued struggles that women face today:


  • In 2014, women overall earned 79% as much as men in the United States. (U.S. Census Bureau)

  • A woman in the same job and the same level of education earns significantly less than her male counterpart, and the wage gap increases with higher levels of education.  In other words, as a woman’s level of education advances, she earns a smaller and smaller percentage of the amount provided to a man at the same educational level. (Education At A Glance: 2013 Report by the Organization of Economically Developed Countries)

  • Pay in occupations considered traditionally “female” (e.g. health, social services, education) is significantly less than for traditionally “male” occupations (e.g. science, math, technology).  Girls and women are also discouraged from pursuing careers in more lucrative, male-dominated professions, primarily through long-held stereotypes that women are fundamentally less capable in math or science.

  • Over her working life, a woman will earn an average of $435K less than a man due to pay inequities.  This means that women have to work an additional 11 years to match the same amount of earnings as men.  (National Women’s Law Center)

  • Since women are the primary family caregivers and this work is not recognized as having economic value (i.e. paid), women’s lifetime earnings are further reduced.

  • The combined effect of these policies is that the poverty rate is much higher for women than for men at every stage of life.  (National Women’s Law Center)


Clearly, much more work remains to be done to realize equal status for women, not only in terms of economic equity but also in terms of attitudes about women’s contributions.  Awareness of women’s history not only honors the accomplishments of great leaders, but provides a context for understanding current circumstances and points the way forward.


In honoring young women for their academic scholarship, leadership and community service as part of Women’s History Month, it seems especially fitting to consider how we support their education, aspirations, and prospects for the future.