The Modern American Woman: How Far We’ve Come And How Far We’ve Yet To Go

Megan Slaboda

“We ask of our rulers, at this hour, no special favors, no special privileges, no special legislation. We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.”

         ~ Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States by the National Woman Suffrage Association, July 4th 1876

It’s easy to think of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States as something that happened in the distant past, something we’ve moved forward from and grown from. However, women only earned the right to vote 93 years ago.

That means we are less than a century away from living in a time where American women were unable to vote, and it’s been only slightly longer since women earned the right to own property. That means that the female voice has been present in only 42 percent of our nation’s presidential elections. That means that there are still a select group of women out there who were born into a world where they still couldn’t vote. But their mothers, older sisters, grandmothers and aunts were out there fighting that battle, fighting for a change.

But is that fight over? Has gender equality finally been reached?

Women have seen drastic transformations in their way of life throughout the past few decades. A 2011 study by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 66.7 percent of women ages 25 to 64 have at least attended college, and 93.1 percent of women have graduated high school. This is a tremendous improvement since 1970 when only 22.1 percent of women in the same age range had gone to college and 66.4 percent of women were high school graduates. Plus, young women are now actually more likely than young men to have their master’s degree.

A study done in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Commerce shows that in 2007, 7.8 million businesses were privately owned by women, which equates to almost 30 percent of all non-farm firms. Women-run businesses made $1.2 trillion in sales and receipts that year and employed 7.6 million workers. Between 1997 and 2007, female-owned businesses grew by 44 percent – which is double the growth that male-owned businesses saw during that time period. The number of businesses owned by minority women increased faster than those owned by non-minority women.

Yet, women continue to fight some of the same battles they have always faced. The 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics’ study, Women at Work, shows the overall ratio of women’s to men’s earnings in 2010 is 81.2 percent. On the lowest end, female personal financial advisors made only 58.4 percent of their male counterparts’ salaries.

And according to Arlie Hochschild, author of The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home, a “leisure gap” exists on the home front, leading our mothers to feel rundown and overworked. Women work “an extra month of 24-hour days” each year when housework, childcare and food preparation are taken into consideration.

But what do real American women have to say about it? What are the problems and issues that affect them most on a daily basis? Statistics only tell part of the story, but they don’t compare to discussion. Six very different women examine the issues they face individually as well as collectively. Small battles have already been won, but the overall fight for gender equality is still a very real issue affecting our women every day.

Alexis Dow Campbell:

Parenting at Work

Alexis Dow Campbell

 

Alexis Dow Campbell, 32, sure knows how to multitask. It’s a way of life for her, really. She’s the director of creative programming at the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Millersburg, Pa. and a freelance writer for the Patriot News and PennLive. In her spare time, she performs with No Artificial Sweeteners, an all-female volunteer improv troupe that uses their performances to raise money for local organizations. Furthermore, she’s a wife to Susquehanna Township High School teacher Robert Campbell and a mother to Rosie, their 11-month-old daughter.

When Campbell found out that she was pregnant, she was nervous to have a discussion with her boss at the Ned Smith Center, a fear that many women encounter during the beginning stages of pregnancy. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims that, “The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) forbids discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, such as leave and health insurance, and any other term or condition of employment.” However, that only protects women who work for companies that have 15 or more employees. What about those involved with small businesses?

“We’re a really small staff, so there’s a lot required of everybody, especially time wise. But when I told my boss that I was pregnant, he didn’t even bat an eye,” says Campbell. “He had five kids, and his wife took their youngest kids to work, and so it was a non-issue, which was such a huge relief.”

To say that her boss is accommodating is an understatement.

“We have a big communal office, and he actually built a wall in this one corner and built an office for me so that Rosie could come in. I told him from the beginning that I wanted to breastfeed, and it was really important to me, and I would need a place to pump. I was prepared to go wherever, but he was like, ‘Nope! We’ll build you a wall.’ It was unbelievably generous, and it made me feel really valued as an employee.”

Rosie accompanies her mother to work two or three times a week, and Campbell says that her supportive colleagues eagerly await each of her daughter’s visits. During other days of the workweek, little Rosie visits her grandmother, her aunt or a variety of other family members, which helps keep the family’s child-care costs down as day care prices continue to rise. In a 2012 study entitled Parents and the High Cost of Child Care, it was reported that families paid an average of $10,504 per year for infant child care at a child-care center and an average of $8,079 per year in infantile family child care.

“I find it interesting that as a mom – even though my husband and I are really pretty equal partners as far as our relationship goes – subconsciously or even unconsciously, figuring out what we would do with Rosemary when I went back to work ultimately fell back on me,” says Campbell. “It’s sort of how it played out and how it happened. Granted, I also took that on and wanted to figure it out.”

Campbell’s child-care situation is rare, but she’s certainly not alone. Over 180 companies and organizations across America formerly offer opportunities for their employees to parent at work. However, as Rosie becomes more mobile, it becomes harder for Campbell to corral her in the office.  The Campbell family is considering traditional child care once their daughter is 1 year old.

I feel super lucky about my current situation. When she’s with me, it’s obviously hard to get stuff done. My job does require a lot of me. With her being around, not much has changed. I still have to do what I have to do. Sometimes it requires weekends and evenings just because that’s sort of the nature of the job,” says Campbell. “There are some days where I just wish she would go to sleep for a little or sit down. I just need five minutes. And usually in the midst of those moments, I can step back and be like, ‘My child is at work with me.’ On days when she’s not there, I miss her so much. I get home, and we have an hour and then she’s in bed.”

While she by no means considers childbirth and motherhood requirements for being a “full-on woman,” Campbell felt extremely empowered by her birthing experience. It unlocked a new sense of personal appreciation after witnessing the true capabilities of her body.

“I was really educated about what my options were, what the different interventions were and what was evidence-based and what was not,” says Campbell. “So I went in there with a birth plan, and I was able to do it. Some moms aren’t, and that’s not their fault either. It just happens. But I feel really lucky that I was able to do that and bring her into the world peacefully.”

Yuneh Ee:

Dealing With Image Through Transitions

Yuneh Ee

 

Yuneh Ee, 17, certainly has reason to smile. She just graduated high school and is preparing to embark on her next phase in life as a surface textile design student at Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. However, the smile fades as she discusses body image issues that she’s dealt with from an early age.

“I’m an Asian woman, and lots of people make sure to at least mention it. I really wish people didn’t see me as just Korean,” says Ee. “At school they would actually call me like ‘chinky’ and ‘chink-eyes.’ And I’ve told them before, like, ‘Please stop.’ But it’s just not taken seriously.”

A recent study by the American Psychological Association reiterates this issue that is Ee’s reality. “More Asian-American victims of bullying (11.1 percent) said that they were bullied because of their race than did white victims (2.8 percent), African-American victims (7.1 percent) or Latino victims (6.2 percent).”

Beyond the racial statements that often frustrate her, Ee struggles to maintain a positive body image.

“I feel like I look awful sometimes, so my confidence goes really down. It was hard. I struggled with it when I moved here in sixth grade. I really didn’t know anyone. I was a chubby kid, and people said that to me, so I got self-conscious,” says Ee. “I assumed that I looked so bad that people didn’t want to talk to me. It’s such a while ago, but it still bothers me. And it makes me sad because you can’t see it.”

Though many people scapegoat the issue on their media representations of women, Ee feels that her problem is strictly internal. A 2008 study published with the American Psychological Association shows that approximately 50 percent of young women report dissatisfaction with their bodies. “These perceptions develop relatively early, emerging among children as young as age 7 years and appear to exist across diverse levels of body size and race,” the study says.

Building self-assurance is key to banishing negative body perceptions, and that’s just what Ee strives to do. Retraining her mind to think positively is an ongoing battle.

“I know I need to change my way of thinking. I know I’m thinking wrong, but it’s still really hard,” says Ee. “It’s gotten a lot better, though.”

Georgianna Hicks:

A Bout of Body Positivity

Georgianna Hicks

 

When Georgianna Hicks was younger, she’d scour the Internet for pictures of women who shared her curvaceous body type. Yet all she found was a sea of slim and toned figures that she simply couldn’t relate to. There was one ideal available in those online images, but what’s a girl to do if that ideal doesn’t suit her?

“I felt like, ‘Is my body wrong? Is something wrong with me? This doesn’t look like what I feel I’m supposed to look like.’ Granted, if I had looked at the people I knew in my life, there are a number of women built like me, especially in my family. But I didn’t think about that,” admits Hicks.

That’s partially why Hicks, now 25, started her tongue-in-cheek blog How to Die Fat and Happy on Tumblr. She uses it as an outlet to promote body positivity, a movement that encourages people to be proud of their figures instead of breeding negativity and nitpicking every flaw. There’s a push – especially in plus-sized culture – to embrace the word “fat” instead of interpreting it negatively, and Hicks fully supports that idea, insisting that she’s not offended by the word in the least.

How to Die Fat and Happy has become quite the success. One of her posts – a series of images featuring Hicks confidently posed in a tiki-print bikini (which she refers to as a “fatkini”) – has earned over 2,500 notes, meaning that thousands of people have either “liked” the post or reblogged it. Hicks hopes that young girls much like herself will stumble upon her pictures and feel inspired to be assertive and unapologetic in their self-image.

“It occurred to me that all of the things that I was subscribing to or trying to be were not necessarily what I had to be. There’s really no definition of what beauty is or what it means to be a woman or a person even,” says Hicks.

“Just because I’m a plus-sized blogger doesn’t mean I have any animosity towards the traditional ideas of beauty,” she continues. “I think that some people do, and it doesn’t makes any sense. The problem is that one group seems to want to say, ‘Being like us is the best way to be.’ I don’t think that’s true for anyone. Ever.”

Hicks advocates good health and doesn’t feel like the connection between health and size is always clear cut. Hicks was hugely involved with Harrisburg Area Roller Derby for eight months, which included six hours a week of practice spent time going through intense drills and honing her technique. She was skating as hard as she could, which she found to be both difficult and empowering. Besides feeling slightly more toned, Hicks maintained the same size and didn’t really lose much weight.

“It was enlightening because I felt like, for me and for my body, if the weight was a big issue, it would have come off easier,” says Hicks. Unfortunately she was unable to commit to the six or more hours a week necessary to participate in derby bouts, but she still occasionally skates with the team and helps out as an announcer during matches.

Hicks plans on continuing to encourage body positivity through her blog as well as through her ongoing artwork inspired by her perceptions of body image.

“Your body is like a work of art. You get to choose what you want to look like. You might need to work a little harder if you’re choosing to have a six-pack,” says Hicks. “I don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with wanting to explore different sizes, but I just feel like you should love yourself wherever you are in your journey.”

Sarah Newman:

Advocating Equality

Sarah Newman

 

Sarah Newman, 30, is a Pittsburgh native who relocated to Harrisburg in 2009. She works as an advocate, providing a vital connection between federal agencies and the local citizens seeking assistance from them. She spends her free time biking and taking advantage of the local park system. Newman is involved in a feminist book club at the Midtown Scholar and volunteers frequently with the LGBT Center on Third Street in Harrisburg.

As a lesbian, Newman often works with Common Roads, the LGBT Center Youth Group for 14- to 22-year-olds. Most of them are out or in the process of coming out. Newman recognizes a cultural shift towards acceptance and understanding, but that still doesn’t make this an easy process for those involved.

“I don’t think that eliminates the personal struggle. It can be a scary time. It can be lonely. You just kind of feel disconnected, and you do a lot of internal processing,” she says.

Though acceptance of homosexuality is on the rise, only nine states in America allow same-sex marriage and six states recognize civil unions between same-sex couples. Pennsylvania does not allow either, and studies show that the state currently holds a 47 percent approval of same-sex marriage. The Williams Institute, a national think tank associated with the UCLA School of Law, declares that “in the last eight years, every state has increased in its support for marriage for same-sex couples with an average increase of 13.6 percent.”

Newman, who has been with her partner for the past four years, asserts that her relationship deals with many of the same issues that heterosexual couples encounter on a daily basis. They’ve got to balance careers and housework just like everyone else.

A 2005 study found that lesbian and gay couples are “more egalitarian than heterosexual couples” in their relationships, often sharing duties the way Newman and her partner do. The common stereotype that same-sex couples adopt heterosexual husband-wife roles in their home life is heartily rejected by members of the gay and lesbian community.

“We have found a good balance of roles at home, but it’s not defined by our gender; it’s defined by our personalities,” says Newman.

Newman’s outgoing, bubbly personality often leads her to an overflowing calendar of obligations and social events. As someone who enjoys getting involved with her community as much as possible, she often finds herself needing to cut back and say “no,” a struggle to which many women can relate.

But it’s difficult when Newman identifies ongoing problems that need addressed, such as the continual lack of women in leadership roles. Women hold only 18 percent of the seats in Congress, and only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female.

“I’ve heard people say that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, and I feel that’s still actively true. We need to continue to have equal representation in all kinds of leadership,” says Newman. “And the idea in general of a ‘women’s issue’ is ridiculous. Things that affect women affect everyone in society. A pregnant woman is somebody’s wife or somebody’s partner or somebody’s mom.”

Megan Slaboda:

F.I.T. to M.O.M

Megan Slaboda

 

Whenever it’s time to play the “who has met the most famous person?” game, Megan Slaboda usually takes the prize. Since the time she was 17, she has performed in Danielson, the indie rock pop gospel band fronted by her brother Daniel Smith and comprised of her siblings and friends.

“We opened for the Flaming Lips. I’ve met Matt Groening, who created The Simpsons. He’s a huge fan. I’ve met and recorded with Steve Albini who recorded Nirvana and the Breeders. He’s amazing,” says Slaboda, 36.

Danielson Familie has gotten back together, recently playing gigs in New York City and Philadelphia. Slaboda plays the marimba and the glockenspiel and considers music to be a very important part of her life.

However, when she’s not on stage with the band, she’s at home in Harrisburg taking care of her two children, Peter, who is 5, and Maggie, who is 2. Her husband, Jedidiah Slaboda, is the pastor at Second City Church on Verbeke Street in Harrisburg.

“When we moved here for Jed’s job, I was almost rebellious about the ‘pastor’s wife’ thing. I would fight kicking and screaming anybody that asked me to do anything that a typical pastor’s wife would do,” says Megan. “My job is not the church. My job is my kids and my house, and people didn’t always understand that or respect it.”

Moving to Harrisburg almost five years ago was a drastic change from the 10 years she had spent living and working in New York City. Slaboda studied fashion design at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology and worked in the fashion industry following graduation.

“It’s weird because our positions flipped. In New York, I had the job. He was working as well, but it was a lot of my friends, and he met my world. Coming here, he has the dominant position, and I’m more defined by him. Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost my identity to some extent.”

Megan always planned to be a stay-at-home mother after the birth of her kids, striving to be like her mother whom she greatly admires.

“I don’t know how she did it, though. I have two kids, and she had five,” notes Slaboda. “I think I would have run away from home so many times. It is so emotionally draining to be a stay-at-home mom – or just to be a mom. I always kind of idealized this notion of motherhood as something that you just do. But it’s not.”

Stay-at-home moms – and dads – certainly don’t sit around twiddling their thumbs all day. According to recent research by Salary.com, stay-at-home parents work an average of 94 hours a week. When taking in to consideration the time-consuming tasks that mothers are often responsible for – such as cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring and child care – it’s estimated that stay-at-home moms are valued around $113,586 a year.

And this job is certainly taxing.

“I always put more pressure on myself in my day-to-day life. I always feel like I can get more work done than I can. So, on my to-do list, someone told me I should call it a wish list instead of a to-do list just to give myself some more slack,” says Slaboda. “I think it’s because of the pressures I’ve always felt from watching my mom and how much she is able to get done and the energy and drive that she has. I don’t have it. I always thought that I did, but I don’t have it.”

Slaboda feels it’s important for kids to learn on their own. She likes to give her children the freedom to explore the world around them and figure things out for themselves. Of course, basic safety is an issue, but sometimes you’ve got to fall to figure it out.

“There’s a box that you’re forming for your children. And I don’t know how much of that is unavoidable. You can’t help it because of your society and city and choices that you make with what you want your kid to be exposed to. I guess we are all building a box. But I don’t want my box to be so small. I’m trying so hard to find ways to expand it for my children and myself,” says Slaboda.

As Maggie and Peter get older and more self-sufficient, Slaboda yearns to take advantage of some quality time to herself. When she really needs to unwind, she resorts back to her roots.

“Usually the thing that really relaxes me is to sew,” says the former Kenneth Cole and Jones Apparel Group employee. “I don’t need to think when I sew. It doesn’t matter what it is. I’m a machine. I’m so familiar with the way that things structurally work that I can just do it. And it feels really good.”

Martha Wickelhaus:

Widowed Traveler

Martha Wickelhaus

 

“There’s something about being a single 56-year-old woman where sometimes I feel invisible because of my age,” says Martha Wickelhaus as she takes a drag of her cigarette. She sips her ginger ale while lounging in the thick, bountiful grass patch in her back yard. “I don’t want to be any age other than what I am, but you just don’t get noticed. I just want to look nice and feel good about myself.”

Wickelhaus never intended to be single in her mid-50s. “Widowed” is the more exact term to express her situation ever since Dev Hathaway – her loving husband and the father of her three adult-aged children – died on Father’s Day in 2005 at the age of 60.

“I hate being on my own because it wasn’t what I expected or planned. I’m a single parent, so it’s hard knowing I’m not the only one who suffered a loss,” says Wickelkhaus. “I’m very independent, but I also appreciate having a fellow traveler. I lost the person I wanted to be with, which is hard to think about.”

Throughout their more than 20 years of marriage, Hathaway and Wicklehaus – who were both writers and English teachers by trade – enjoyed gardening, riding bikes, going for walks and co-existing while they read or worked on personal writing projects.

“Dev had been the one who graduated first, and so he was the first to get a tenured track job. Some people may say I followed him around the country, but if I had been the first one to graduate and get the job, he would have followed me,” says Wickelhaus.

While juggling the care of their daughter and their twin boys with their busy work lives, Wickelhaus and her husband shared their home duties and child care equally. It was a non-issue for them, something that they did “because it just made sense.” In fact, she admits that Dev may have been “more of a housewife” than she was.

“My mom taught me how to cook because I wanted to know how. I learned to knit and sew and all that kind of stuff because I wanted to,” says Wickelhaus. “There was not a role expectation. I was not raised to be a housewife.”

Before her first marriage, Wickelhaus was pressured by her mother to change her last name, and she complied but compromised by hyphenating it. She was determined to do things differently when she and Dev had their small, intimate wedding ceremony on Thanksgiving Day in 1983 at the University of Alabama Arboretum. She was keeping her maiden name this time, and Dev fully supported that decision.

“I didn’t change my name when I got married, and I still will have people say, ‘Oh, you kept your name. Why did you do that?’” she says. “What is this, 2013? It doesn’t happen often, but still. A lot of people don’t care, but some people, especially women, ask why.”

Wickelhaus has encountered broad strokes of sexism throughout her lifetime, reminiscing on the time she told her mentor that she was getting married and was met with the blunt response, “Oh, I thought you were going to be a poet.” For years, she submitted poetry under the name “M. Wickelhaus” to avoid being labeled as a “woman poet.”

Wickelhaus recognizes improvements in the fight for women’s rights, but she doesn’t believe the battle is over.

I’m very passionate about a woman’s right to choose. And not just where abortion is concerned, but also for the rights of young women to have access to birth control,” she says.

Wickelhaus and her husband started a healthy, open dialogue with their children at a young age, making sure to discuss menstruation and sexuality with both their daughter and their sons. She considers it “just something you do to make the process of growing up easier to navigate.”

“Some people don’t think it should be talked about, because if you talk about it, it will happen. We’re trying to pretend that our young people don’t have sex, and that is simply not true.”

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