12/31/2012 11:29 am ET Updated Mar 02, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Ugly for Women in 2012

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has been empowering women since 1881, when higher education was considered a male pursuit. More than 130 years later, education is open to most (if they can afford it), yet barriers and significant hurdles remain. Here's our rundown of the good, the bad and the downright ugly for women in 2012.

The Good

June 23 marked the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark law that banned sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal funding. The summer Olympics in London was a testament to this law's success, when not only every team across the globe included female athletes, but women's wins dominated international headlines. Of course, Title IX isn't just about sports, as "Title IX at 40: Working to Ensure Gender Equity in Education" pointed out. The report, released by a coalition that AAUW chairs, offered specific recommendations on how the landmark law can better be used to end sexual harassment; close the achievement gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; tackle occupational segregation; and help pregnant students and students with children.

In the world of politics, women also saw a number of victories, including the first female presidential debate moderator in 20 years and questions on women's issues asked at that debate. On election day, more women than men headed to the polls, and they decided the election through an 18-point gender gap in favor of the president. As we head into 2013, the 113th Congress boasts 20 female senators, the most in U.S. history.

In January, the FBI updated the legal definition of rape to reflect the true scope of sexual violence. The more inclusive definition recognizes that men can be raped and that it's the lack of consent, not the presence of force, that constitutes a crime.

Women continue to make advancement in the military. In August, we saw the first female four-star Air Force general become the second female military officer to reach that rank. In addition, the Pentagon recommended that women be allowed to serve at the battalion level, giving women access to more jobs closer to the front lines.

The Bad and the Downright Ugly

While we applaud the cracking of the brass ceiling, we remain concerned about the prevalence of sexual assault in the military. The Invisible War isn't just a movie title; it's an accurate description of the ongoing, tragic problem.

In September, we learned that the pay gap between men and women remained stagnant, with women being paid 77 cents to every dollar paid to their male counterparts. This 23-cent wage gap hasn't budged in a decade. And the problem is even worse for African-American women and Latinas. As AAUW's research shows, the wage gap is a problem that starts at the beginning of a woman's career. Our report Graduating to a Pay Gap found that just one year out of college, women are paid 82 cents for every dollar paid to their male peers. When we controlled for factors that affect pay, like college major and occupation, the pay gap narrowed but did not disappear. Even when they do the same work and major in the same field, women are often paid less than men.

While it's great that a record number of women will be part of the next Congress, it's important to note that we're celebrating a modest number. In fact, even with the Election Day gains this year, women are still significantly underrepresented in Congress -- they comprise only 20 percent of seats in the Senate.

And speaking of Congress, Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) said women have ways of shutting down conception if they are raped, and Sen. Richard Mourdock (R-IN) said pregnancy resulting from rape is a "gift from God." Just this month, Fox News host Dana Perino said that women who are victims of violence should "make better decisions" to avoid attacks. Not only is that downright ugly, it's also extraordinarily harmful.

But what gets me is that we were even having debates like this in the first place. It's 2012, not 1950. And why are we discussing birth control? Nearly all American women have used some form of birth control during their lives. Studies show that women and their families do better when women are able to plan their pregnancies. Unintended pregnancy can lead to economic insecurity for women and their families.

This year, we also saw women's access to reproductive health care threatened. When Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced in February that it was going to strip funding for cancer screenings from Planned Parenthood, women across the country spoke out. In response, AAUW removed the Susan G. Komen Global Race for the Cure as an optional pre-conference activity at our annual National Conference for College Women Student Leaders. Our decision was widely reported and contributed to the support Planned Parenthood received. Fortunately, Komen reversed its course.

In closing, AAUW is looking forward to the new year with excitement. We'll mark the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act. We'll also mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and of the suffrage parade on Washington. Women have come a long way in this country, and AAUW will continue to work toward more victories for women and their families in the coming year and beyond.