Women's Rights in the USA
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Women's Rights in the USA

Policy Debates and Gender Roles

Dorothy E. McBride, Janine A. Parry

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eBook - ePub

Women's Rights in the USA

Policy Debates and Gender Roles

Dorothy E. McBride, Janine A. Parry

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Women's Rights in the USA is a rigorous examination of the intersection of gender roles and public policy and the implications for feminist activists. The book places full information on state and federal statutes and court decisions in the context of the ebb and flow of debates that have engaged the public since the founding of the Republic. This fifth edition includes updates on all topics and expanded attention to same-sex marriage and lesbian issues, pay equity, conservative trends in courts, and women in elective politics.

This text is a resource for the inquiry into women's rights politics and policies. It is a record of the changes in the major areas affecting gender roles and the status of women: constitutional law, political participation, reproduction, family law, education, work and pay, work and family, sexuality and economic status. It is more than a recital of laws, statutes and court decisions. The chapters focus on the development of the changes in debates over these issues and how the debates produce laws and provide the environment for their administration and interpretation. It also highlights the role, and impact, of feminists in the debates.

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1 Introduction

DOI: 10.4324/9781315735641-1
Public policies and political practice determine the rights of women in the United States. In learning about these rights, we discover what it means legally, politically, and governmentally to be female, rather than male, in American society. The concept of rights implies that the status of women has both legitimacy conferred by government action and value as a public good. With not only gender roles but also public values at stake, women's rights issues provoke controversy.
Consider football. Budgets for college athletics long have been skewed in favor of men's sports, especially football. After Congress passed Title IX in 1972 to prohibit sex discrimination in federally financed educational institutions, the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education demanded that colleges and universities allocate funds equally to male and female athletes. Coaches and college presidents mobilized to protect football from these demands for gender equity. At stake were not only long-held beliefs about the inferiority of women as sports competitors but also a potential redistribution of economic resources. Football fans won Title IX regulations in 1978 they hoped would shield the football culture from any further disturbances.
Twenty-five years later, strengthened enforcement of Title IX meant increased resources were being allocated to women's teams. Even the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), once the major lobby for high-dollar football programs, had begun routinely evaluating athletic programs in terms of gender equity. When a federal court ruled in 1995 that Brown University could not cut women's programs to protect football-heavy budgets for men's teams, colleges and universities began to eliminate men's sports. As some schools dismantled teams like men's swimming and wrestling in response, the coaches, seeking a less strict interpretation of gender equity in athletics, sued the federal government in 2003. Cut football, parried the Women's Sports Foundation, and it will be possible to have both more men's sports teams and greater fairness for women (see Chapter 5 for more discussion of this debate).
Photo 1.1 Kathy Switzer Running the Boston Marathon.
Source: Associated Press.
Note: Although Americans now take for granted the participation of girls and women in athletics, many rejected the idea well into the 20th century. In a now-iconic series of images captured in April 1967 by Associated Press photographer Donald L. Robinson, 20-year-old college student Kathy Switzer (runner #261), battled several layers of sexism to become the first woman to register for, and complete, the Boston Marathon. Her friend and trainer Arnie Duncan is shown in this photograph trying to pull race director Jock Semple off of Switzer after Semple had verbally and physically assaulted Switzer four miles into the race, having learned a woman – registered as “K. V. Switzer” – was running. Seconds later, Swizter's then-boyfriend shoved Semple to the curb. Switzer finished the race in 4 hours, 20 minutes. For a compelling first-person account of the incident, read “The Real Story of Kathrine Switzer's 1967 Boston Marathon” at: http://kathrineswitzer.com/about-kathrine/1967-boston-marathon-the-real-story/.
The conflict remains unresolved. Generally speaking most of the actors in the debate have consented to the gradual pursuit of equity for female athletes while simultaneously protecting most of the smaller men's programs and the heavy commitment to football (and men's basketball). The truce is uneasy, however, as large, established programs struggle to keep, or make, their football programs profitable without sacrificing men's teams or running flagrantly afoul of Title IX, an endeavor made still more difficult in light of recent calls to treat college athletes as salaried campus employees. Calls for greater equalization in student scholarships and coaching salaries bubble up; they are sometimes answered by counter-calls to weaken equity enforcement. In the battle over equality for women, a significant component of collegiate—and national—culture, together with a whole lot of money, hangs in the balance.
Not only is the study of women's rights entangled in such broader conflicts, but the topic requires an appreciation of the enormous diversity represented by the term American women (see Table 1.1). Whatever we learn about the status of women vis-à-vis public policy, it is important to recognize that the meaning of government action varies from woman to woman and from group to group. For some, the ability to realize legal rights is limited by poverty. For others, mainstream social and economic opportunities are out-of-reach due to a legacy of struggles against racism and a history of oppression. Women of various religious, ethnic, and sexual identities often find themselves in conflict with dominant values and beliefs in more than one way.
The politics of women's rights involves debate over what the status of women is, what it should be, and what government actions will achieve it. At any time, the heterogeneous U.S. society harbors an extraordinary variety of beliefs about sex and gender roles. The public debate, thus, is frequently a contest to determine the gender role ideology that will be the basis for policies. Women's Rights in the USA describes the development and changes in the public debate about the roles of women, and men, in several areas: constitutional law, political participation, reproduction, education, family, work and pay, work and family, sexuality, and economic status. This chapter introduces the vocabulary—concepts, terms, phrases—used throughout the book.
Table 1.1 Age Distribution of American Women by Race/Ethnicity 2009
Age White (%) Black or African Americans (%) Hispanic Latino or any race (%) All Females (%) All Males (%)
1–17 22.3 26.8 35 23.4 25.1
18–64 61.7 63.1 58.2 61.9 63.7
65+ 15.9 10.1 6.7 14.6 11.1
Total 123,062,670 20,704,909 23,362,405 155,557,060 151,449,490
Source: Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau (2010). Population estimates: national-characteristics-national sex, age, race, and Hispanic origin U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division. www.census.gov/popest/national/asrh/NC-EST2009-asrh.html. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau. (2010). Population estimates: national-characteristic-national sex and age U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division. www.census.gov/popest/national/asrh/NC-EST2009-sa.html.

The Policy-Making Process

Our big-picture view of women's rights—encompassing political, economic, familial, governmental, and legal aspects—requires an equally big-picture view of policy making. The goal of examining women's rights in the United States is challenging, especially given the diversity of American society and the complexity of its multi-layered policy system. Some studies focus only on the national government or on the actions of Congress or the national courts. Others attempt to describe lawmaking in the states, singly or as a group. Women's rights politics, however, always has involved interaction among all levels and institutions of government. That's because each woman in the United States is part of several overlapping political systems, from local municipalities through state governments to the national government. She is also the product of her broader environment, including her family relationships, her ethnic, religious, and sexual identities, and her educational and economic status, for example. Consequently, her rights are affected by both the policies and practices of a variety of public authorities and by her capacity to use them.
The foci of this book are the policies and public debates affecting women's rights in the United States. The book is organized according to areas of policy activity. For each area of importance to women's lives, such as education, family, or work, there are questions, or issues, about the relation of gender to the subject and what actions—if any— government should take. In the area of education, for example, a long-standing subject of debate has been the purpose of public education for girls in comparison with that for boys. Some people believe schools should recognize that women have different adult roles in the family and at work and should educate accordingly. Others argue there should be no recognition of gender differences in public education policy or practice and, indeed, that schools are important tools for retiring sexist stereotypes, gender bias, and discrimination.
The expression of these different points of view is the policy debate on gender and education. The debate involves an argument over the definition, or meaning, of the issues of education and women's rights. The stakes in these debates are high. Participants seek to gain acceptance of their definitions by government—the legislatures, courts, executives— and by political organizations, interest groups, the media, and political parties. If they can persuade these actors to see the issues the way they do, then specific policy actions—statutes, rules, court decisions—are more likely to encourage schools and universities to treat girls (and boys) either as members of a special (and relatively uniform) group, or as individuals with a host of skills and interests; it all depends on which definition of gender and education prevails.
Policy debates take place in public...

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