Emory Report

April 6, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 27

Women's silence threatens
equality, Wattleton says

Faye Wattleton wonders why women are turning a blind eye to the erosion of gains they've made in the last 30 years. The keynote speaker for Emory's Women's History Month celebration asked, "We are 52 percent of the population-where are our voices? Why are we electing people who go to Congress and to our state houses and proceed to chip away at the gains we've made?"

Wattleton's March 30 lecture, "The Women's Revolution: Past, Present and Toward the 21st Century," brought a large crowd to Winship Ballroom to hear this former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, noted feminist and "revolutionary woman extraordinaire," as Women's Center Director Ali Crown called her, speak.

Wattleton urged her mostly student audience to challenge other women to take responsibility for changing the current atmostphere. "Will these be times that advance opportunities for women, or will we give in to people who want to diminish our progress or [give in] to complacency?" she asked. "Antipathy combined with ignorance is a volatile cocktail that threatens the gains you enjoy."

Women have made obvious progress in education and business, but it's the "informal, insidious" struggles that threaten their quest for equality now, Wattleton said. Women outnumber men in the pursuit of all postsecondary degrees except PhDs, she said, but the majority of women workers are concentrated in service, clerical and sales positions.

Women still earn only 75 percent of men on average, Wattleton said, and "after two decades of a steady narrowing of the [income] gap, there is evidence that the gap is widening." The dismantling of affirmative action programs have much to do with this, Wattleton said. "The debate most narrowly focuses on racial politics, but women have benefited even more," she said. "We need to figure out how to move from just racial politics to understanding that the field is not level for all."

The day after Wattleton's speech marked the "end of welfare as we know it"-to coin President Bill Clinton's phrase-in the state of Wisconsin. The states are busily dismantling their welfare programs without considering possible consequences, Wattleton said. "We should fix the system, not make the lives of women more difficult or challenging." She cited studies that set out to prove whether women get pregnant to receive-as the state of New Jersey offers-an additional $42 a month in benefits after the birth of an additional child.

Researchers found none of the women they studied who were eligible for the benefits cap got pregnant to receive more income. "Why do we perpetuate this kind of punishment on the shoulders of women, and why do we allow children's lives to be diminished because of politics?" Wattleton asked.

Near the end of her lecture Wattleton moved to the area for which she is best known-reproductive freedom. "We need to [teach our children] more than 'Just Say No,'" she said. "We have to become a society that places sexuality within the context of normal human development." Most of all, Wattleton said, we need to take sex and reproductive issues out of the realm of politics. She told audience members that politicians have added family planning to their efforts to repeal the right to abortion. Three bills on the issue were introduced this year-"one defeated by no more than 10 votes," she said.

"Women have stood by as restriction after restriction was imposed on Roe v. Wade, until it no longer resembles the decision as handed down," Wattleton said, adding, "Wouldn't it be interesting to see what would happen if the decision was in regard to male sexuality and reproductive freedom?" The federal government now refused to pay for abortions for poor women, 24-hour waiting periods have been imposed, and teenagers in some states must get the permission of their parents or the court to obtain an abortion. "But they don't have to get their parents' permission to bring an unwanted child into the world," Wattleton said.

"You can't get stuck in just caring or learning," Wattleton told her audience. "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there," she said, quoting humorist Will Rogers.

Wattleton's speech brought tears to one audience member, who called her a role model and thanked Wattleton for her efforts. "You're all role models," Wattleton responded. "I'm only one."

-Stacey Jones

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