Editor’s note: These are excerpts from Arvonne Fraser’s remarks as prepared for delivery last Wednesday at a Humphrey School forum, “Unfinished Business: The Continuing Work of Arvonne Skelton Fraser.” She was the keynote speaker at an event conducted in conjunction with her 90th birthday, which was Sept. 1.
The 20th-century women’s movement, in which I was deeply involved, concentrated on eliminating discrimination against women in education, employment and the law. We opened doors in institutions and programs that had been designed and operated for men only. We showed what ordinary women can do by understanding, claiming and using their power.
But there’s much more to be done. As with any revolution, what follows is the hard part — changing the culture.
Sharing power is not easy. The disempowered do not give up easily and those who are afraid of change resist it. So, using our power — our voices, our minds and our votes — is necessary to institutionalize change.
I put voices first because changing public opinion means essentially talking, writing and acting like equal partners with men. What is often unacknowledged is that with rights go responsibilities, especially in democratic societies. Simply talking about problems and their solution — and not just women’s problems — with your friends, co-workers and neighbors is how public opinion is made and changed.
Above all, voting in every election is exercising power. When 35 percent of unmarried American women aren’t registered to vote, that spells danger. Not voting is giving away power, letting others decide for you. The somewhat good news is that 65 percent of female eligible voters voted in the last national election compared to only 61 percent of males. But only 60-some-percent voting is disgraceful. Turnout in local elections is worse.
Sexual harassment, violence against women and workplace fairness are three major issues that are on the women’s movement’s unfinished agenda. I’d add two more.
One is the economic security of women at every stage of life and the whole question of retirement. At age 90, I’m deeply grateful for Social Security. But my interest in this legislation came much earlier, when I learned that Social Security is everybody’s good friend. It’s not just a retirement program. It’s insurance, our nation’s major life and disability insurance program with the premiums paid as part of a paycheck. About one in four households receive Social Security benefits and one in three are not senior citizens. About 1 million beneficiaries are children — the dependents of dead, disabled and even some retired workers.
Sold politically as a retirement program at a time when men were the primary breadwinners and most people died much younger than we do now, Social Security is misunderstood. It’s under attack by those who are ardent supporters of the private sector.
Women especially ought to resist those attacks. They typically earn less than men, often take time out from the paid labor force to give birth or care for children, and tend to live longer than men. Preserving and protecting Social Security must be a priority for women. Education about all elements of Social Security — including its universality — is necessary.
The other big item I’d add is advocacy for the idea that work in the home, traditionally consigned to women, has economic value, and should be treated as such.
Unpaid labor’s contribution to the economy has been overlooked. The very term “workplace” tends to signify that the bearing and raising of children, the care and maintenance of home and housing, and the provision of food at home are not work. Society’s disregard for the value of this work puts all women and responsible parents at economic risk.
A primary responsibility of any group or country if it wants to endure is to produce, recruit and train its next generation of citizens and workers. A biological fact is that only women are the bearers of children. As a nation, we tend to expect those who choose to have children not only to finance their care and upbringing, but also to send those children to school well-behaved, well-fed and school-ready. We blame mothers but rarely fathers if they don’t — or can’t — do it well.
Why do companies expect that the next generation of workers — employees — will be produced by those who choose to become parents, as a gift to employers? To add insult to injury, parenthood is often seen as an impediment to success at what is called the workplace. Add that housecleaners tend to be paid more than child care workers; school hours have little relationship to business hours, and maternity and other family leaves in this country are unpaid. That’s disrespect and disregard bordering on hostility toward some of the most important work done in any society. That must change.
The work that remains in the 21st century is enough to engage all of us — men and women — if we believe in democracy.
Good luck. I’m really old, but I still have a voice and a vote. So do you.
Arvonne Fraser is senior fellow emerita at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, a former director of the Office of Women in Development at USAID, and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.