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U.S. must fulfill promise of women's equality

This Women's Equality Day, Aug. 26, the U.S. should take steps to live up to its founding principle of equality.

The day marks the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Unfortunately, while women have made great strides toward equality in the last 87 years, the struggle for equal rights is far from over.

In the public sphere, American women hold only 16 percent of the seats in the current Congress. Sweden, by contrast, uses an electoral gender quota system and is among the world leaders, with women holding 47.3 percent of its parliamentary seats, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Globally, 97 countries have some type of electoral gender quota, and we should look to this as an example of how the United States could work toward increasing gender parity in elected office.

In the workplace, women are making some gains in pay, but, overall, they still face a significant wage disparity. Nationally, women who work full time still earn 76.5 cents for every dollar men do, according to 2004 Census data.

What's more, many women continue to face discrimination on the job. In early August, a federal judge in New York granted class-action status to a gender discrimination lawsuit by female employees of Novartis Pharmaceuticals. The suit alleges that the company discriminated against female employees in pay, promotions and evaluations, including when they became pregnant or gave birth.

Similar complaints are increasing. In 1997, there were fewer than 4,000 such complaints. By 2006, they had reached almost 5,000, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Lawmakers should also stop legislating personal morality. To uphold equal rights, they must protect women's access to all forms of birth control, including emergency contraception or Plan B. Even though the Food and Drug Administration last year approved the over-the-counter sale of Plan B to women 18 and over, women have still faced obstacles in obtaining the medication. Only 14 states require hospitals to provide women - including possible rape victims - with information about its availability. Worse, in 2006, 18 states considered legislation allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill birth-control prescriptions or provide Plan B.

As early suffragists recognized, women's right to make decisions regarding their bodies is critical to making advances in all areas of public and private life. States should pass legislation that ensures access to the full spectrum of birth control options approved by the FDA.

In President Bush's 2006 Women's Equality Day proclamation, he stated, "We will continue to build an America where the dignity of every person is respected and where opportunity is within reach for all our citizens." The Bush administration must take steps to live up to this promise.

And Congress can do its part by sending the Women's Equality Amendment - formerly known as the Equal Rights Amendment - to the states for ratification, which would write gender equality in the U.S. Constitution and help end sex discrimination.

Full equality for women in the United States is long overdue.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Jill Hopke is a filmmaker in Madison, Wis. The writer wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Readers may write to the author at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703; e-mail: pmproj@progressive.org; Web site: www.progressive.org. For information on PMP's funding, please visit http://www.progressive.org/pmpabout.html#anchorsupport.

McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.

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