By Ruth Gadebusch
With the passage of the Amendment XIX to the U.S. Constitution, women and progressive men celebrated with visions of political power. Alas, it was not to be simple. Almost a century later, women hold only a quarter of the elected political offices.
California was the first state to send two women to the Senate but still no woman governor. Californian Nancy Pelosi, who as Speaker of the House held the highest office ever by a woman in our nation, served only one term as political power shifted. The Valley’s own Roseann Vuich was the first woman to serve in the California Senate, where she rang a bell reminding those addressing “Gentlemen of the Senate” that such a greeting was no longer appropriate.
Ashley Swearingen, preceded by Karen Humphrey, is only Fresno’s second female mayor. For quite some time, there has been no woman on our City Council, although there is an opportunity with Esmeralda Soria in the coming election. The Board of Supervisors is not so promising.
Two leaders in our own time are Great Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and currently Germany’s Angela Merkel. Long before Elizabeth Dole or Hillary Clinton campaigned for the presidential nomination of their respective political parties, Shirley Chisholm, an African-American Congresswoman, campaigned for the Democratic Party’s nomination.
In fact, each of our major political parties has had only one female vice presidential candidate—Geraldine Ferraro,
Democrat, followed several elections later by Republican Sarah Palin. Then too, as with men, there are some candidates and some actually elected whom we would just as soon forget. The goal is not just to have a woman but equal opportunity for qualified ones.
President John Kennedy signed the first equal pay bill, but decades later women still work until mid-April to make what men in comparable positions make by December 31 of the previous year. The CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) remains unratified by Congress. Indeed, Rep. Howard Smith (D–Va.) inserted “sex” into the 1964 Civil Rights Act with the expectation of it scuttling the bill.
Progress toward equal rights comes not just from the political world. Without doubt, it is women’s ability to control reproductive life that has enabled participation in public life, be it business/professional or political.
Margaret Sanger, noting the health deterioration and the poverty produced by constant pregnancy, was the foremost advocate for birth control availability to women. Her charge to women is certainly not to be ignored in today’s political climate: “Though many disputed barricades have been leaped you can never sit back smugly content believing that victory is forever yours. There is always the threat of its being snatched from you. All freedom must be safeguarded and held.”
Two men who must be recognized for opening the doors for birth control availability are Gregory Pincus and Dr. John Rock. World-renowned scientist Pincus discovered that rabbits could be prevented from ovulating, but he needed a physician for testing on humans. Kathleen McCormick, widow of the International Harvester heir, offered the financing to recruit fertility expert Dr. John Rock. Tall and handsome, raised in a happy family, the father of several children and a devout Catholic, a man who had spent his life helping women have babies, Dr. Rock was an unlikely candidate. It was some years after the little white pill was on the market that the Catholic Church forbade it.
The status women have today did not just happen, requiring much more than this column to tell the entire story. Full equality remains beyond grasp, but it is worth the continuing struggle. Women cannot be ignored.
In the words of Ferraro, that erstwhile vice presidential candidate: “Every father is diminished when his daughter is denied a fair chance. Every son is a victim when his mother is denied fair play. But when we lower barriers, open doors and free women to reach wherever their dreams will take them, our talents are multiplied, and our country is stronger.”
Ruth Gadebusch, a community activist, is a veteran, a former member of the Fresno Unified School Board and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and an emeritus member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Civic Education.