Saturday is International Women's Day, observed annually for more than 100 years to recognize the achievements and progress of women worldwide. The phenomenal gains by women are worth celebrating, but that there is a need to designate such a day tells us there still is work to be done.
Some may argue that the women's movements of the current generation -- starting with the rise of feminism of the 1960s and '70s and then focusing on women of color in the 1990s -- have taken women on an upward trajectory that is diminishing men's role faster than you can say Erin Brokovich. An Atlantic Monthly article in 2010, "The End of Men," made waves when writer Hannah Rosin declared that for the first time in human history, the idea of man being the dominant sex is changing, pointing to the majority of U.S. jobs being held by women and nearly 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees being earned by women.
Yet, in fact, the role of men hasn't diminished but merely adapted, and even so, other indicators show women still have a long way to go, baby, particularly in politics. The U.S. lags behind 90 developed and developing nations in legislative gender equity, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Without representation, women's interests are more likely to be neglected.
The news isn't all bad, though. After the 2012 election, there was whooping and hollering about the historic gains women made in Congress. The Senate reached 20 women for the first time, and the House rose to 82. Still, our nation's population is 50.8 percent female, yet our lawmaking body has less than 19 percent women. Perhaps it's time to dig out the '70s-era T-shirts that said, "A woman's place is in the house -- and the Senate."
In Illinois the picture is a little better. The state House has 40 women of 118 members and the Senate has 15 of 59, for a 31.1 percent total, up from 27.7 percent in 2009. The nationwide average is 24.2 percent, so that gives Illinois a refreshing break from being near the bottom of yet another state-by-state comparison.
Five female governors are serving in the U.S., and Illinois is one of 24 states that has never had a women at its helm. Of the six candidates running for governor on March 18, all are male, though three of them have female running-mates.
Elected women's voices give rise to issues that might otherwise be ignored, add perspective to policy debates and tend to engage female constituents. A Pew survey in October showed Millennial women (ages 18-32) believe that it's a man's world in the same numbers their older counterparts did. The rising generation needs female role models, and the dearth of women setting policy is detrimental to progress on issues including a stubborn wage gap, women's health, sexual and domestic abuse, and a poverty crisis in which women are more likely to be poor than men.
This will happen only if those in power encourage and support women who want to make a difference through politics. A 2012 report by Arizona University's Women and Politics Institute concluded that women are underrepresented because fewer of them run for office in the first place. Women have become fixtures on our local school, library and municipal boards and are running several suburban towns, including Barrington, Roselle, Streamwood and Mount Prospect. But party leaders should increase their efforts to pave the way for more capable women to seek higher office. Doing so will help ensure that the remarkable gains women have made in recent decades will stay intact.