Women, Wages, Work, and Wisdom

Back in April, al.com’s Kelly Poe reported on a story of national interest, as it pertained to our illustrious Heart of Dixie: “Alabama’s pay gap among largest in nation, study finds.” Where, on the national average, women earn 79 cents for every dollar a man earns, in Alabama the female worker is getting just 73 cents. According to the report from the National Partnership for Women & Families, Alabama ranks an unfortunate sixth in the nation in this dubious category, though we don’t have to look far to see the first-place “winner,” our Deep Southern neighbor: Louisiana.

The Deep South’s unsavory history with being shortsighted on women’s issues is well-documented. Alabama didn’t accept the fact of the 19th amendment, which guarantees women the right to vote, until 1953, but that was fairly progressive in Deep Southern terms. The amendment was ratified in August 1920, but South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina were even later than Alabama, accepting it in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mississippi officially got on board in 1984!

Also in April, al.com’s Charles Dean reported on better news in this area: “Women-owned businesses in Alabama and America growing fast.” Reading these articles side by side, I was thinking, Heck, if you’re a woman in Alabama, you might do better to quit being an employee and start your own business. Looking at Dean’s reportage of the facts, female-owned businesses are growing in Alabama at an astounding rate, and despite Alabama’s usual placement near the bottom of national rankings, the state is 15th in the nation in this category— doing pretty well.

However, as with everything, there is a downside.

In May, the Birmingham Business Journal reported on a WalletHub study, which showed that Alabama is the second worst state for working moms:

The site compared statistics across 13 metrics, including child care quality and costs, the gender pay gap, female unemployment rates and parental leave policies, among others. These metrics combined for an overall state score of 35.94 out of 100. Alabama was second only to Nevada, which had an overall average score of 34.63.

Sadly, Alabama is also 49th in the nation in the number of single-mother families living in poverty. (The Business Wire also reported on this aspect of the study.) These numbers tell a story of too many women living in poverty, receiving low pay, and raising children by themselves. That is magnified by the simple fact that 51.6% of Alabama’s 4.85 million people are female. What that means for our state is simple enough: we have tens of thousands of households where a woman is raising is struggling to raise children by herself, all too often with inadequate wages, and our public policy, e.g. refusing to raise the minimum wage, does little to assist them.

When North Carolina’s News-Courier reported on the same study, they shared this very interesting correlation with Deep Southern political leanings:

Overall, women in blue states (those states that predominantly vote or support the Democratic Party) faired better than those in red states (those states that predominantly vote or support the Republican Party).

Interestingly, while the electoral map of the South has been almost solid red since days of Ronald Reagan, other statistical maps of the US also show our region as solid red, like this one from the US Census report “America’s Families and Living Arrangements, 2012”:

Figure 6

Here, the color red indicates not the Republican Party, not the Alabama Crimson Tide, but “Statistically higher” rates of single-parent households.

I share this map and these facts not to degrade single-parent families – I spent my teenage years in a single-mother household, and we struggled, too – but to point out how these disparate facts coalesce:

  • women earning lower wages
  • public policies aligned against working people
  • workplace policies that are unfriendly to working mothers
  • higher rates of households led by single women

Add all that up, and the resulting inequality is obvious. Our culture, economy, and public policy make life more difficult for women, especially for women with children, most especially for single women with children.

Back in April and May, these reports about the earning gap between men and women were the flavor of the moment in the twenty-four-hour news cycle. Yet, even though the news reporters moved on – first to Trump, then to Orlando, now to Dallas – these realities haven’t changed for the women living them. There are thousands of women across the Deep South who are trying to support themselves and children on about $300 a week before taxes, which is what a full-time job at the federal minimum-wage pays. Anyone with children knows that, once that mom pays for childcare so she can actually go to work, she has almost nothing left, even for basic needs: housing, food, utilities, and clothes.

Just as other aspects of Alabama’s culture, created in the early statehood/antebellum days, can still be easily seen – racial apartheid, disdain for the federal government, violence as a response to perceived disrespect – attitudes toward women’s issues have been equally slow to change. As the culture of the Deep South emerged from a colonial/frontier period in the early 1800s, the political and social systems were set up by men to be dominated by men. In the first section of Alabama: History of a Deep South State, historian Leah Rawls Atkins tells us:

Despite the proverbial pedestal, white women in Alabama suffered under some of the same legal restrictions as free blacks and slaves. They, too, had no primary rights of citizenship and could neither vote nor serve on juries. Following the English common law, a married woman’s possessions, including her personal clothes, were owned by her husband. Any real estate a married woman might inherit could be controlled by her husband, and he could sell it without her consent and appropriate the money for his own purposes. The editors of the reformist-free thought publication Free Enquirer, which was based in New York, noted in 1829 that “a married woman belong[ed] to her matrimonial master, as in the case of any other slave.”

Rawls noted also that an early “ladies bill,” proposed in 1828 to remedy those property-rights policies, failed because, as its detractors put it, the bill “questioned the wisdom of altering human and divine laws.” That male-dominated property-ownership system was later reformed in the 1840s, but subsequent legislative acts quickly dialed back the reforms, lessening their effects. In nineteenth-century Alabama, the bottom line was that women were expected to be “pious, modest, compassionate, quiet, and dainty, and by nature self-denying and soft-spoken,” i.e. the Southern belle— demure, pretty, easily controlled, and easily ignored.

But we don’t live in those days anymore. That old way broke down forty or more years ago, when both the divorce rate and teen pregnancies rate skyrocketed, yet public policy and workplace standards haven’t kept up with the changes. In my 2011 book, Children of the Changing South, one of the issues addressed in both the introduction and the memoirs within is how Southerners handled the changes brought by the women’s movement. In my introduction, I referred to Numan V. Bartley’s The New  South, 1945 – 1980, which explains that the gender protections in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the increasing number of women in the workplace changed the South’s traditionally male-dominated fabric.  Later in the anthology, for example, Leslie Haynsworth’s “Women’s Work and Working Women” addresses those subjects directly. Once again, the world changed, but the South wouldn’t change with it.

The traditionally conservative and resistant-to-change Deep South has a long way to go to remedy the inconsistencies between our social, political, and economic systems and the realities on the ground. (That’s true of many areas, not just women’s issues.) Back when we lived in a society where (typically) men worked and women stayed home with children, there was less of a need for something like the Family Medical Leave Act. But now there is a great need for policies within the public and private sectors to match up our way of doing business with our way of life, like expanding Medicaid to help those single-parent families living in poverty. Today, a lot of women in Alabama and across the Deep South work and raise children, and many do both alone, with no help. It’s high time we pass some new “ladies bills” that give them the supports they need.

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