Support Women 365 Days a Year

From the Director

This year Mother's Day falls on May 10. It has fallen on the second Sunday of May since President Woodrow Wilson declared it a national holiday in 1914. My own mother died several years ago, and I always find myself feeling just a bit cheated when I see cards and gifts acknowledging the occasion. While I can't spend the day visiting my mother, I can spend time thinking about her and the remarkable role model she was.

If I had to choose one word to characterize my mother, it would be "strength." She was strong in every sense of the word. She grew up during the Great Depression. She wanted to attend college, but as a farm girl, there was no way to afford it. She married and had two children before my father was sent overseas during World War II. Two more children were born when he returned home - four children in six years. Finances were always tight, but we seemed to manage. Then in her mid-forties, my mother suddenly went from being a wife to a widow with four children to raise and educate. She worked long hours and, once again, we managed.

There are millions of similar stories out there of women whose lives were shaped by circumstances, by opportunity or lack of opportunity, by responsibility, and by their own strength. They didn't have "five year plans." They didn't "manage by objective." Instead they "lived by objective" with the goal of keeping their children fed and clothed, safe and healthy; by trying to keep a roof over their heads and help their children succeed by obtaining an education or a good job.

These women, my mother included, would probably not use the word "feminist" to describe themselves, yet often, by example alone, they raised a generation of feminist daughters. They taught us to believe in ourselves, taught us that we were strong and capable, that we could make choices - any choices - for our futures. They taught us that girls were equal to boys, and women were equal to men, and that we could achieve equally. The question that remained was whether we could achieve equality.

Fast forward a generation. Have our mothers' beliefs and lessons become reality? We just watched one woman run for president of the United States and another run for vice president. That seems like breathtaking progress. Yet in 2009, women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man in the same position. Gender inequalities in salaries, pensions, health care, and employment opportunities still exist. If you are a woman of color, the discrepancies are even greater. Many women, and by extension their families, face economic insecurity on a daily basis.

Women make up a majority of the U.S. population and clients that social workers serve. Women perform the majority of the world's work but control a disproportionately small share of its resources.

Social workers have a commitment to work to eliminate discrimination of any type, and NASW has been advocating for the Obama administration to focus on women. We began last November, right after the election, by asking for a Cabinet-level Office on Women. In December, we joined with 47 women's groups to continue our advocacy efforts. Some of you wrote to us and voiced your opinion that we were on the wrong track. Some of your letters said, "Such a position would make women second class citizens," or, "There are more important issues for our society to worry about than the status of women." I would argue that many of today's important societal issues could be addressed if we remedied the gender inequities that result in women and children living in poverty with no health insurance, inadequate child care and an uncertain and often bleak future.

We didn't get the Cabinet- level position we requested, but, on March 11, we did get a Council on Women and Girls. It is headed by two powerful women, Valerie Jarrett, Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor, and Tina Tchen, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Public Liaison who will serve as the executive director. I felt fortunate to be at the White House representing social workers when President Obama announced establishing the Council. His remarks during the ceremony were encouraging. He said, "The purpose of this Council is to ensure that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy." He continued, "I want to make clear that issues like equal pay, family leave, child care and others are not just women's issues, they are family issues and economic issues."

What is particularly promising is the fact that initial members of the Council include the Secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Energy, Veterans Affairs, and Education, to name only a few. In addition, the Chair of the National Economic Council and the Chair of the Domestic Policy Council are members.

To start, the Council "will enhance, support and coordinate the efforts of existing programs for women and girls." However, the first year goals are much broader and focus on improving the economic status of women, preventing violence against women, building healthy families, and improving women's health care.

That's the agenda we've been requesting for a long time. It took almost a full century, but we are finally going to do more than spend one day a year honoring the concept of motherhood. Instead, we're actually going to develop policies that support and protect women and girls 365 days a year. That's well worth a national celebration.