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Two centuries of progress with more to go

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Suffrage parade, New York City, May 6, 1912

I am currently taking a course in Contemporary Women’s Health as the final requirement to earn my Associates Degree. One of the class discussions concerned inequality between women and men today. We were to answer whether or not we felt that there was any and if it could be changed or if it was a natural part of society. Here is my response…

Unfortunately, inequality among men and women certainly does exist in the United States. Historically, women have held lower paying positions, if they have been permitted to work outside the home at all. Few women are able to advance as high or as rapidly in their field compared to their male co-workers. As with other oppressed groups in our country’s history, this has led to feelings of marginalization, depression, anger, inadequacy, and resentment by the women who are aware of the differences. Many other women are either unaware of the discrepancies or feel that their situation is normal and feel hopeless to ever change it.

Fortunately, there has been some progress in this country. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of African American and disabled activists in the last century and forward-thinking women in the 1800’s, equality is perceived as an important issue throughout American society. Although the Equal Rights Amendment was never passed into law, it is rare to find blatant gender discrimination outside of a few remaining male-dominated areas (the military being one of the largest remaining bastions of “accepted” male ego dominance). In other areas, the lines are blurring. It used to be understood that men were “chefs” and women were merely “cooks”; men were “professors” or “principals”, while women were “teachers”; surgeons were males and nurses were the epitome of feminine grace. Today, such generalizations sound quaint or even bigoted.

While progress has been made, inequality remains; it tends to be subtle, and in some ways even more dangerous. Since blatant acts of inequality and discrimination are rare, it is easy for people to think that the problem is solved. More subtle signs of inequality slip by without notice or comment. Doctors still frequently think of women as being the more fragile or sensitive gender, and may withhold effective treatment for chronic pain because of the perception that it is “all in her head”. Conversely, men often fail to account for strong emotions that women attach to acts that men take for granted. While few men feel terribly embarrassed to remove their shirts in a doctor’s office, many women feel differently. In addition, many medical studies have a bias that assumes that men and women have the same risk factors and physiology and will react to medications in the same way, which may be a deadly mistake. Often medical studies exclude women due to fears concerning pregnancy and hormonal changes.

The United States has made a lot of progress in equality, especially compared to countries outside of Europe and North America, but still there is much to be done before we can say that America is truly a nation of equals.

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