Sorry, Ladies

01/04/2011 03:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Another year, another 365 days worth of things to be sorry for.

But it's hard for people to say, "I'm sorry." It's even harder for countries to do it.

And it's harder still when countries have to say they're sorry to women.

But let's step back. And recognize that this past year, a number of countries have been sorry -- or, emphatically not sorry -- for a lot of big things.

A few weeks ago, discussions between Israel and Turkey got bogged down because mediators could not agree on whether Israel should apologize for killing nine Turkish aid workers during a flotilla raid in May.

Skipping over a continent, China and Japan spent much of the fall negotiating the release of a Chinese fishing captain who had been captured by Japanese authorities. At issue after the captain's release: whether or not Japan must ask China for forgiveness.

And just last month, diplomats let out a great a sigh of relief when South Korea abandoned its demand that North Korea apologize for sinking a South Korean naval ship in March.

But it's not just this past year's wrongs that states are atoning for. 2010 was a monumental year for official apologies addressing long-ago, or longstanding cruelties.

In June, British Prime Minister David Cameron nabbed headlines by officially apologizing for the 1972 "Bloody Sunday" shooting of Irish demonstrators.

In October, the US apologized to Guatemala for purposefully infecting some 700 Guatemalans with venereal diseases between 1946-48.

Last month, Russia apologized for the 1940 massacre of 22,000 Polish prisoners in the Katyn Forest.

And last summer, Japan apologized to South Korea for colonialism. Full stop.

And these are just the latest additions to a growing string.

In the last fifteen years or so, we've said sorry to aboriginal groups forced into residential schools (Canada) or split apart from their families (Australia). We've said sorry to countries invaded during war (Japan to South-East Asia, Serbia to Bosnia, Germany to...a lot of states). We've apologized for slavery (US, EU), for Apartheid (South Africa), for Colonialism (Japan), for the Holocaust (Germany), and for collaborating in the Holocaust (France). We've said sorry for revolutions gone awry (Russia), for genocide and for looking away while genocide was taking place (US, Canada). Our apologies are for isolated incidents (wars, murders, genocides) and for long-term, sustained systems of oppression (slavery, racial discrimination, oppressive political regimes). We're sorry to Jews (Germany, Vatican, Switzerland), to migrant children (Australia, Britain), to Aboriginals (Canada, Australia), to political protesters (Britain), to and to homosexuals (Cuba, Germany).

And still, most states have failed to eek out a single 'I'm sorry' for women.

Do governments owe women an apology?

Over the last few years, women's groups have been pushing reticent governments to acknowledge their role in specific acts of cruelty against women.

Japanese women forced to work as prostitutes during WWII ("comfort women") continue their campaign for official recognition. Irish and Swiss women forced into state-run asylums for such spurious offenses as "social dysfunction" or sexual looseness are asking for formal apologies too.

In response, there has been a slow trickle of apologetic statements: dished out for forcible sterilization schemes, archaic women's "re-education" programs, and wartime sexual assaults.

But what I'm talking about is an apology that has nothing to do with rape, sterilization, imprisonment, or torture.

I'm talking about an apology for the decades and centuries that women were simply treated like crap.

It's interesting that while states have offered formal apologies to almost every conceivable group -- for every conceivable wrong -- no state has apologized wholeheartedly to its women, on behalf of its men.

I'm talking about an "I'm sorry" for years of denying women the vote, paying them less, shutting them out of some careers and pushing them into others. For maternity leave policies that held back professional mothers. For 'Mommy-tracking.' For unfair welfare policies and lopsided custody laws that chained women to unhappy marriages.

I'm talking about workplace discrimination, no-pants-allowed dress codes, male-only parliaments and presidencies and social clubs and businesses and universities.

Certainly there are disincentives for any country looking to apologize.

For one, 'I'm sorry' is often followed by demands for cash.

For instance: there are now reparation schemes in place for Holocaust victims, residential school victims, and internment camp prisoners.

But one of the reasons that US states and others have been hesitant to apologize for slavery is that they fear monetary demands from millions of living descendants. And so they're careful about language.

The EU announced in 2001 that it would apologize for slavery only if Africa dropped calls for financial compensation.

In 2007, the state of Virginia passed a resolution expressing "profound regret [for] the involuntary servitude of Africans." And Britain similarly deemed the transatlantic slave trade "profoundly shameful." But neither offered a definitive apology.

"I'm sorry" can be expensive; for whatever reason, "I'm profoundly regretful" is not so costly.

But let's get real. The likelihood of women banding together to demand compensation for centuries of discrimination is slim to none.

States haven't apologized to women, largely, because we aren't asking them to.

Because it's become unfashionable to fight these same old, tired fights. It's become banal to point out wage gaps. It's become positively off-putting to mouth off about glass ceilings.

We make snarky demands for Sarah Palin, or Barack Obama, or Hip Hop or the writers of Sex and the City 2 to say sorry for their alleged affronts to womankind.

But it wasn't even newsworthy when, just this month, a Joint Economic Committee report announced that American women earn 77 cents to the man's dollar... the same as they earned 10 years ago. And that they make up less than 8% of top-earning executive officers. And that they face a 2.5% earnings penalty each time they have a child [fathers see a 2.1% earnings increase!].

People only apologize when there is anger or hurt to soothe. And nobody seems that upset or enraged about any of this.

The question of formal state apologies is complex, and many dismiss such apologies as empty tokens. But the point is that women have a right to demand and to receive those tokens. And the fact that such an apology is not even on the table tells us something.

The holidays might be a good time to reflect on all of this. After all, at 77 cents to the dollar, Holiday shopping will have been disproportionately expensive for women everywhere. That's something to complain about.

Perhaps an apology -- or at least some of that "profound regret" -- would ease the pain.