Women’s history month: A call for empowerment

Jennifer Thomas, Associate Professor

March is Women’s History Month. Some question the need for an entire month dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the achievements of women.
After all, Congress just swore in the largest number of female representatives in US history (women compose 18 percent of Congress).  A woman is the CEO of Yahoo.  Augusta National Golf Club just admitted its first female member.
Haven’t women reached equality?  Isn’t the status of women worldwide continually improving?  More importantly, if gender equality remains an issue, what can be done to honor and empower women?
While much headway has been made in the 50 years since Betty Friedan published her groundbreaking, “The Feminine Mystique,” women’s contributions to their jobs, communities and societies continue to be overlooked and undervalued.
Look no further than the recent hype over Danica Patrick racing in the Daytona 500 (she receives more attention for her appearance than for her skill with an automobile; conversely, her male counterparts are not portrayed scantily clad) or Seth McFarlane’s sexist jokes at the recent Academy Awards to see how society continues to undervalue women.
Numerous studies show that when women succeed, their successes are attributed to “luck” instead of hard work.  Women’s contributions are further diminished when we hone in on their appearance and judge them harshly when they do not meet traditional standards for beauty. We are socialized to hold beliefs about the behaviors that are acceptable for males and females.
And these beliefs often interfere with our ability to judge people fairly.  In fact, a recent study from Yale University showed that scientists, when asked to evaluate a potential job applicant, were more likely to hire and felt the applicant was deserving of a higher salary, if they believed the applicant was male instead of female.
What can we do to better recognize women’s skills and contributions?
Celebrate women’s achievements by participating in an activity that honors, acknowledges and empowers women.  Attend this year’s annual Women’s and Gender Studies Conference on March 25 and 26. Volunteer at local non-profit organizations such as Ruth’s Place, a homeless shelter for women or Dress for Success, an organization that provides impoverished women with free business attire so they can take the next step toward a career and economic security. Consider learning more about international organizations that promote efforts to empower women in developing countries.
Gender equality is far from a reality in many parts of the world.  Formal education is the key to women’s empowerment.  Regrettably, 793 million people worldwide are illiterate, two-thirds of whom are women.
Women are prevented from receiving an education for many reasons.  For instance, girls may have to walk miles to collect clean water for their families.
Surprisingly, menstruation, which is usually a minor annoyance for women in the U.S., may dramatically alter a girl’s education in another country.  Because many girls cannot afford sanitary protection, some try to stay in school by using ineffective and dangerous dirty rags in place of pads.  Even with appropriate protection, there is often no access to a bathroom, water or privacy to care for oneself.
Consequently, girls end up missing one week of school per month which translates to 50 days every school year!  Missing this much school makes it impossible to keep on top of school work; thus, girls are often forced to drop out.
While it can be uncomfortable to discuss “taboo” topics such as those surrounding women’s health and bodily functions, no amount of embarrassment should result in girls abandoning their education.  Thankfully, grassroots efforts such as Sustainable Health Enterprises and Huru International have been working to alleviate this problem.
SHE produces and distributes low-cost sanitary products in developing nations.  For just 60 cents, girls can buy a 10 pack of pads.  Huru International gives girls free kits that contain reusable sanitary pads, underwear and soap. More importantly, these items buy girls another week of education and another chance for a brighter future.
Want to help girls in developing companies empower themselves through education?   Learn more about organizations that inexpensively distribute sanitary products at www.sheinnovates.com or www.huruinternational.com.
This March, as you celebrate women’s contributions and accomplishments, consider helping women and girls in the U.S. and abroad by volunteering your time to organizations that serve to empower women.