100 Years and Counting: The Continuing Struggle for Gender Equality

On September 10, 1920, less than a month after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, suffragist and women’s rights activist Alice Paul, speaking to other leaders of the National Woman’s Party, said

It is incredible to me that any woman should consider the fight for full equality won. It has just begun. There is hardly a field, economic or political, in which the natural and accustomed policy is not to ignore women.

Paul understood that gaining the franchise was merely a step in addressing unequal treatment of women and so she, with Crystal Eastman, drafted language for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and submitted it to Congress in 1923.

The centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment’s passage and ratification seems an apt occasion to reflect on the long and ongoing struggle to achieve equality for women and to consider how the ideals of those like Alice Paul remain unrealized. In fact, scholars need look no further than their campus environments to see how gender-based inequities persist.

For the past twenty years, female students have surpassed men in higher education participation globally, yet women still lag far behind in many economically lucrative fields and accrue larger debt burdens for their undergraduate educations. Women faculty remain underrepresented at top tier research universities, are more likely to find themselves working in community colleges and less prestigious institutions, and are paid approximately 20% less than their male colleagues.1

Compounding these issues, women faculty also engage in a disproportionate amount of service work,2 reducing available time for research activities and publishing. And, while the scholarly production of academic men does not decrease at all once they become fathers, academic women witness a sharp decline in their productivity as a result of the unequal demands placed on women for caring for young children. Over time, the salary and productivity gaps combine to create a huge cumulative disadvantage for female faculty members.3

In humanities disciplines the pay disparity between men and women PhDs is even worse (27%)4 and some disciplines, such as philosophy, suffer from troublingly low numbers of full-time women faculty.5 Yet, the pursuit of equality should arguably be grounded in humanistic understandings—of social and political structures that have produced inequities, of intersecting dynamics such as race and class that present separate and complicating challenges for women of different backgrounds. These and myriad other humanistic interventions around the construction of gender, the experiences of women, and their contributions to our cultures and histories encourage us to not only recognize and embrace women’s perspectives but to acknowledge and more properly reward their contributions.

For those involved in higher education, this includes a commitment to pursuing measures that produce equitable opportunities throughout the academic landscape, including more rigorous recruitment of women faculty, family-friendly policies such as access to quality childcare, addressing evaluation biases where sexism and racism can affect scores, and implementing strategies that support research activities and professional development.6

For further discussion and resources about the struggle for women’s rights, the Nineteenth Amendment, and the status of equity efforts in higher education, we encourage you to explore the items included here under Voices and Research & Resources.

Notes
  1. The Rise of Women in Higher Education, interview with Gary A. Berg by Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 2/25/20
  2. National survey data from more than 140 institutions found that women spend 31.2 more hours per year in service (controlling for rank, race, discipline) than men. Guarino, Cassandra M., and Victor M. H. Borden. “Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family?” Research in Higher Education 58 (2017): 672–94.
  3. Mason, Mary Ann, Nicholas H. Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden. Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013.
  4. Gender Distribution of Advanced Degrees in the Humanities, Humanities Indicators, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2017.
  5. Name Five Women In Philosophy. Bet You Can’t. Tania Lombrozo, NPR.org, 6/17/13.
  6. “Turning Chutes into Ladders for Women Faculty: A Review and Roadmap for Equity in Academia,” Michelle I Cardel, et. al., Journal of Women’s Health, (2020): 1–13.

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