When we think of poverty in the United States, many of us think of poor children living in inner cities or of families living on the edge in Appalachia. While this is surely where poverty exists, there's a much more prevalent sector of our population that is living in and on the brink of poverty. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you: Women.
Maria Shriver, in partnership with the Center for American Progress, has just released a report detailing the reality of American women's lives. The shocking reality is that one out of three women is a doctor's bill, a late paycheck, or a broken-down car away from economic ruin.
"The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink" reports: In an era when women have solidified their position as half of the U.S. workforce and a whopping two-thirds of the primary or co-breadwinners in American families, the reality is that a third of all American women are living at or near the brink of poverty.
How could this be? How can we live in one of the most powerful countries in the world that celebrates its freedoms and advances for women, yet one in three of us are living at or near the brink of poverty?
Easy answer: The American political, economic, social, religious and cultural systems have not caught up with the reality of women's lives.
"What women need now is a country that supports the reality of women's dual roles as by far the majority of the nation's caregivers and breadwinners," says Maria in the report.
While women make up the majority of breadwinners, they also make up nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers. The vast majority of them receive no paid sick days. Think: No money for groceries when Mama or one of Mama's babies gets sick.
This is all happening at the same time as women are earning most of the college and advanced degrees in this country, and of course are more than half of our nation's voters.
So what's gone wrong? How did we get here? And where do we go from here?
If we look back just 50 years ago, the family constellation and worker constellation in the U.S. was very different. Whether they liked it or not, the majority of women were homemakers who depended on their husbands' income. Since women stayed home with their children, public policies like paid maternity leave, high-quality affordable childcare, paid sick days, family leave, and income equality were not on the table as they are today.
Fast forward to today, and only one-fifth of American families have a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. And not everyone is married or wants to get married. In fact, more than half of the babies born to women ages 30 and younger are born to unmarried mothers, most of them white. As the Shriver Report asserts, "The American family has permanently changed."
But Washington and corporate America have not caught up to this reality, and why is this? Because, and it seems so obvious, the voices of women are so drastically underrepresented at the highest levels where public policy and corporate decisions are being made. So if women are not there at the table to reflect and speak about the reality of a woman's life, why would decisions be made in alignment with and in support of a woman's life?
The voices of men are still telling the American narrative, and I believe, that's the root of our problem. Our American democracy was meant to be a government of the people, by the people and for the people. But with 51 percent of our population shut out from most of the policy conversations that affect their lives, have we ever really lived up to the standards that were put forth for an American democracy? Even with women now occupying a record 20 percent of the seats in the United States Congress, it's still not enough to accurately reflect and give voice to women's lives.
Do women want to serve at the highest levels of public office? Of course they do. Do women want to serve at the highest levels of their companies? Of course they do. Do women want to serve at the highest levels in their religious communities? Of course they do. And they want to do all of this as a woman (i.e. not in a man's way).
I was recently on a conference call with Marianne Williamson, who is a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in California's 33rd district (my district). She spoke about the importance of bringing women's leadership, passion and justice to our political system. "We want to bring into the world not just our feminine bodies, but our feminine values," she said.
The days are over for a woman trying to rise to a leadership position by neutralizing her femininity, her emotional nature, and trying to "act like a man." This does not serve her, her company or institution, or our country.
Women's power comes from within. It is a power that is deeply connected to emotional intelligence, intuitive knowing, and the ability to see the holistic nature of problems and solutions.
This newest Shriver Report focuses the conversation on what working women need to be successful in today's economy -- identifying why women are powerful in some places, and powerless in others, why this matters, and what we can do about it. It details a set of public policies that, if adopted, would boost women's potential as breadwinners, and presents a first-of-its-kind compilation of questions for employers to help them identify and adopt the most effective workplace policies to help their employees prosper.
It includes essays from political leaders, business leaders, religious leaders, journalists, activists, and academics including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Carol Gilligan, Eva Longoria and Sister Joan Chittister.
One of the essays that resonated with me most was by Sister Joan Chittister, co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women. She wrote an important essay titled "Are Women Devalued by Religions?" In it, she talks about how religion has helped define the human community's assumptions about the place and role of women in society. "Religion tells us that women are valuable, of course, but also that women are secondary to men," she says.
I've come to believe that it is the cultural overlay of our patriarchal religions holding us back when it comes to the status and advancement of women. In regard to gender equality, the popular dialogue in the media, in government and in corporate America seems to swirl around economics. But for me, the deeper, more pervasive issue is the subconscious (and in some cases, very conscious) mindset, induced by the patriarchal religions, of the male overlord and the female underclass.
I would like to call forth a more amplified conversation about the role of women in society before the onset of patriarchal religions, when women held the positions of power in business, law, government, medicine, art, culture and religion. This, I believe, will help us shed long-held assumptions and beliefs about women that simply aren't true. Women will still be living in poverty and still be struggling to heard as long as the patriarchal religious mindset is the only one we live by.
"The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink" is available now for FREE. Click here to download your copy. (This free of charge offer ends on Wednesday, January 15th.)
You can also watch "The Shriver Report LIVE" from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST on Wednesday, January 15th. It will be streamed live on ShriverReport.org.
Tabby Biddle is a women's leadership expert, reporting on women's rights and the lives of women and girls. Learn more at tabbybiddle.com.