As 2011 comes to a close, it seems almost nonsensical to have to mention, let alone devote an article to, gender barriers. While women have made great strides, we still have a long way to go. Given the struggle to maintain our place as a leader in the global economy, why would anyone want to place any kind of barrier in front of women (or men) who could help our country compete in the world marketplace?
This next election will determine not only the presidency but also several critical House and Senate seats. We know that some of the biggest wins and losses of 2011 were on matters that will significantly affect our future, so it is important that we consider them as we examine the candidates, their records, and their promises. There are many issues at stake for women and their families.
A terrible decision: The U.S. Supreme Court's sharply divided decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes prevented the courageous women of Wal-Mart from taking on America's largest private employer as a nationwide class-action group, leaving each employee to file her claim individually or in smaller, reformulated classes. Not only is this a tremendous, and in most cases unaffordable, financial burden on low-wage earners, but such legal fragmentation means that the same issue will come before numerous courts across the country, likely with varying results. However, despite this setback, we remain undeterred. After all, we know that the U.S. Supreme Court can be wrong -- just ask fair pay icon Lilly Ledbetter.
Not just an adult problem: While sexual harassment hurts everyone, girls are disproportionately affected. Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, our groundbreaking research report, found that just 12 percent of the girls surveyed who were sexually harassed reported it. Boys who experienced sexual harassment at school were even less likely to report it -- only five percent did so. This year, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights formally reminded schools, colleges and universities that Title IX prohibits sexual harassment and sexual violence. The department also reminded those institutions that they are responsible for stopping, fixing, and preventing bullying. But we still need Congress to address harassment and bullying to ensure a safe learning environment for all students. Children cannot learn if they do not feel safe.
Still earning cents to their dollars: Congress remains regrettably idle on the Paycheck Fairness Act, legislation that would, among other things, give businesses incentives to pay women fairly. Meanwhile, newspaper headlines misleadingly report that young women are out-earning their male counterparts. What they don't tell you is how narrowly defined those studies are. I invite these writers to tell the average woman one year out of college why she already makes less than men in similar jobs with similar educational backgrounds. This is an economic issue that affects all of us, not only women but also the quality of life and buying power of their families. Congress needs to act responsibly and pass this legislation.
A surprising blow: The Obama administration stunned women's health advocates and abortion opponents alike by blocking the Food and Drug Administration's approval of selling over-the-counter emergency contraception. Along with the rest of the women's rights community, AAUW expected the Obama administration to approve the sale of Plan B contraception -- commonly referred to as the morning-after pill -- without requiring a prescription. Let me be clear: our stance is not pro-abortion; it's pro-choice. A woman cannot be reduced to little more than a walking uterus. This administration's stated commitment to follow science instead of politics when making decisions was clearly not in evidence here, a disheartening development.
Challenges to family planning services: House Republicans tried to eliminate the Title X family planning program
A victory in Mississippi: Voters in the Magnolia State defeated a ballot initiative that would have declared that life begins at fertilization, which supporters saw as a legislative foothold from which to launch a challenge to reproductive rights nationwide. The so-called "personhood" initiative was rejected by more than 55 percent of voters, falling far short of the threshold for enactment. Mississippi voters clearly demonstrated that reproductive rights are valued over extreme policies.
A step in the right direction: The Federal Bureau of Investigation will be updating its definition of rape to include both male and female victims and to include sexual assaults in which drugs or alcohol are used to incapacitate victims. The current federal definition, in place since 1929, is narrower than the one used by many local police departments. The current law's focus on only physical violence leads to the under-counting of thousands of sexual assaults each year. Sexual violence is a pervasive social problem, and we need to integrate greater sensitivity and accuracy into reporting sex crimes.
Sparking important dialogue: Whether you love or hate the name, SlutWalks started important conversations all across the country -- women to society, generation to generation, survivor to survivor. Coined in Canada, this tongue-in-cheek name underscores how labels and stereotypes mask the true harm victims experience. SlutWalk's anti-victimization message has gained momentum in communities around the world.
Out of the driver's seat: The two-decade-old campaign for driving rights for Saudi Arabian women continued this year without a happy resolution. It's difficult to celebrate women's rights when so many women around the world are excluded from full participation in society. Gaining the right to drive would be both a tribute to the tenacious women of Saudi Arabia and a beacon for women everywhere who are still demanding equal rights. A special note: our hearts go out to Middle Eastern women who have been on the front lines of the Arab Spring movement, especially now as Egyptian women are fighting for democracy with their own blood.
And the winners are: This year's Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three women's rights activists -- Africa's first elected female head of state, a Liberian peace activist, and a human rights activist from Yemen.
In addition, U.S. girls swept all three age categories at the Google Science Fair, a far cry from generations past when women were not only excluded from scientific pursuits but told they could not succeed in such fields.
Can you hear us now? Women, yet again, have the power to make a difference in the 2012 election. Efforts such as AAUW's voter education and mobilization campaign, It's My Vote. I Will Be Heard, will engage women across the country to speak out at the polls. Our voices have been and always will be critical to the success of the United States and to the world at large. It only makes sense to organize, mobilize, and make some noise next year. We hope you'll join us in speaking out.
That's our list. What are your biggest moments for women this year?
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