Women’s liberation march from Farragut Square to Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C., August 26, 1970. Image credit: Warren K. Leffler / Wikimedia Commons. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Celebrating the 50th anniversary of American women’s right to vote—and the start of a new crusade for equality —a crowd of more than 10,000 people, mostly women of all ages, occupations and viewpoints, marched down Fifth Avenue to an enthusiastic rally in Bryant Park last night,” Linda Charlton, a rare female New York Times reporter wrote on August 27, 1970.

Charlton, who started her career at Long Island’s Newsday in 1963 and had already won an award, was hired at the Times as a general assignment reporter and night rewrite person, traditionally male jobs, at the paper less than two years earlier. But she was still on the “women’s beat.” Even though a trickle of women were finally being hired at major news outlets, female journalists were probably in that march, and another one like it in Washington D.C. that same day. On March 16, 1970, 66 women who had been systematically excluded from writing and editorial jobs at Newsweek had filed a gender discrimination lawsuit, and on July 19, 1972, less than two years after the Women’s Equality March, women at the New York Times did too.

Because of these lawsuits, over half a century later, women have conquered many employment barriers at major media platforms. In a 2019 report that doesn’t mention this activism at all, the New York Times proudly reported that 51% of their employees were women. Although there has only been one female executive editor (so horribly treated by management that she lasted less than three years), 49% of the leadership positions at the paper were occupied by women in 2019.

Women at Newsweek made less progress. In 2010, 40 years after their own lawsuit, two young female reporters at the magazine noted that “the more we talked to our friends and colleagues, the more we heard the same stories of disillusionment, regardless of profession.” In their own workplace, 49% of the business and editorial side was also female, yet the numbers didn’t tell the whole story:

No one would dare say today that “women don’t write here,” as the Newsweek women were told 40 years ago. But men wrote all but six of Newsweek‘s 49 cover stories last year—and two of those used the headline “The Thinking Man.” In 1970, 25 percent of Newsweek ‘s editorial masthead was female; today that number is 39 percent.

“Better?” Jessica Bennett (now a contributing editor in the Opinion section of the New York Times) and Jesse Ellison (now a freelance writer living in Midcoast, Maine) asked. “Yes. But it’s hardly equality.”

That pretty much sums up how women’s progress in the workplace has stalled. So, now that I have your attention, let’s talk about the reasons.

Federal, state, and local governments do not proactively enforce laws that require equal pay for equal work. When demands for gender equality rely on women filing expensive lawsuits and time-consuming grievances, women, as a class, will always be underpaid. Women of color will be underpaid even more.

As Rakesh Kochhar reports for the Pew Research Center (March 1, 2023), the pay gap is narrowing, but it is far from closed. “In 2022, American women typically earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men,” Kocchar writes. “That was about the same as in 2002, when they earned 80 cents to the dollar. The slow pace at which the gender pay gap has narrowed this century contrasts sharply with the progress in the preceding two decades: In 1982, women earned just 65 cents to each dollar earned by men.”

Fifteen cents over forty years is…pathetic?

Kochhar puts it even more strongly: “progress toward narrowing the pay gap has all but stalled in the 21st century:”

Women generally begin their careers closer to wage parity with men, but they lose ground as they age and progress through their work lives, a pattern that has remained consistent over time. The pay gap persists even though women today are more likely than men to have graduated from college. In fact, the pay gap between college-educated women and men is not any narrower than the one between women and men who do not have a college degree. This points to the dominant role of other factors that still set women back or give men an advantage.

One of these factors is parenthood. Mothers ages 25 to 44 are less likely to be in the labor force than women of the same age who do not have children at home, and they tend to work fewer hours each week when employed.

By contrast, men who are fathers are working more—more than women, and more than childless men, “a phenomenon referred to as the “fatherhood wage premium” that “tends to widen the gender pay gap,” Kochhar explains. Thus, as women edge into their thirties and forties, the pay gap relative to men with similar credentials and experiences, increases—exactly when all workers should be hitting their peak earning years.

Without reproductive rights, women and others who can bear children pay a higher price for sexual pleasure, within and outside marriage, than men do.

Why? I just gave one example above: the single thing that stalls or derails women’s careers and earnings is to have a child. God forbid they should have several children. As the Institute for Women’s Policy Research emphasized in April, 2021, “Access to comprehensive reproductive health care,” including abortion, “is central to gender equity and women’s full participation in the workplace.”

If you want to help me develop a feminist conspiracy theory, we can start right here: restricting the right to control their own fertility and child-bearing is probably the best way to push women as a class out of well-paid jobs of all kinds and into ill-paid part-time or contractor work. And yes, executive suite and professional women suffer, but women on lower economic rungs suffer more. “These measures fall hardest on women that already face systemic obstacles accessing health care and economic opportunities,” the IWPR writes, “including Black women, Hispanic women, low-income women, rural women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and more.”

Without access to affordable, safe, child care, women have less access to work. Period.

In 2019, before the pandemic took women out of the workforce in disproportionate numbers, the Center for American Progress was telling this story. “Today, many families with young children must make a choice between spending a significant portion of their income on child care, finding a cheaper, but potentially lower-quality care option, or leaving the workforce altogether to become a full-time caregiver,” CAP reported. “Whether due to high cost, limited availability, or inconvenient program hours, child care challenges are driving parents out of the workforce at an alarming rate. In fact, in 2016 alone, an estimated 2 million parents made career sacrifices due to problems with child care.”

And guess who most of these “parents” are likely to be? Women! CAP cites a 2013 Pew survey that part of the problem is hidebound social attitudes that stigmatize women for displacing caregiving on paid help. But the research also links reduced labor force participation to access to such support. The “clear connection between access to affordable, quality child care and labor force participation—especially for mothers,” CAP explains. And this crisis is starting to spiral, engulfing more and more women. As Harper’s Bazaar pointed out in early 2022, it became clear that many women were not coming returning to the workforce for lack of good, affordable childcare: “Most childcare workers are not paid enough to pay for their own children’s childcare.” This is affecting every workplace, from nursing homes to investment banks.

Without a social and political commitment to ending male violence, women pay a higher opportunity cost for labor force participation.

Women may technically have equal access to education and work, but they are also disproportionately vulnerable to violence in those spaces. While men are also subject to sexual harassment and violence, according to the National Women’s Law Center, of the almost 7,000 EEOC claims filed in 2016, 82 percent were filed by women.

And you guessed it: Black women, and particularly those working at low-wage jobs, are disproportionately vulnerable to sexual violence and harassment; prior to the pandemic, they filed three times as many EEOC claims as their white peers. The biggest category, or 14% of these claims, was in the hospitality industry.

Think about that the next time someone wants to put a casino in your town because it will “create jobs.”

One occupation working-class women sometimes turn to in an attempt to get an education and improved job skills is the military. There, they have an even better chance of being sexually harassed or raped than they do of being killed in the line of duty. According to a 2021 report by Time’s Up, “In 2018, there were 20,500 reported cases of service members that were sexually assaulted or raped, including 13,000 women. In a briefing obtained by [the] PBS NewsHour, the Army admitted that soldiers are more likely to be raped by someone of their own uniform than to be shot by the enemy.”

At about 1.3 million active service members, the military is the nation’s largest workplace, and the one where those who are sexually assaulted are most likely to suffer retaliation, and thus, least likely to report the crime. According to a report by the RAND Corporation, “A 2018 survey of service members found that more than 20,000 had been sexually assaulted in the past year—6.2 percent of all military women, and 0.7 percent of military men. Tens of thousands more had been subjected to sexual harassment. Most never filed an official report, often because they feared retaliation or doubted their report would be taken seriously.”

There are also 1.3 million people in Dallas: don’t you think someone would be outraged if there were 20,000 reported rapes reported in Dallas, which had 294 reported rapes last year?

There’s more to be said about the barriers to women’s equality, but these issues stand out for me, because every single one was put on the table by radical feminist activists more than a half century ago. As conservatives wail about drag queen story hour and sad little white children who feel bad about themselves if they have to learn anything about Black history beyond one poorly understood phrase spoken by by Martin Luther King, Jr., do me a favor.

Forward this column to your Senators and Congressional Representative and ask them what they plan to do in the coming year for women’s equality.

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). 

An earlier version of this article first appeared on Claire Potter’s Substack, Political Junkie, on March 3, 2023.