By Julianne Malveaux – March is Women’s History Month, and the White House Council on Women and Girls, led by Valerie Jarrett, commemorated it by releasing a report on the status of women. According to the report, we’ve come a long way sisters, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Despite the fact that we out-enroll men in college, we under-earn them in the workplace. There are so many phenomenal women accomplishing amazing things, and at the same time there are so many women whose economic attainment is constrained by gender.
We in the African American community must be concerned with the social construction of gender and the ways that patriarchy shapes the futures of our young people, both young women and young men. The face of African American leadership, mostly all male, sends a signal to young women. It suggests that women’s voices don’t matter, that we have to scrap our way to the table. It denigrates the enormity of African American women’s accomplishments.
From this perspective, I am grateful that Roslyn Brock is the Chairman of the Board of the NAACP. The sister exhibited her leadership chops when she gave her Chairman’s award at the NAACP Image Awards to Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin and lifted up a stalwart medical leader who has, against all odds, given of herself. That’s women’s history!
Dr. Regina Benjamin stands on the shoulders of other outstanding African American surgeon generals, including Dr. David Satcher, Dr. Jocelyn Elders, and others. She has the opportunity to deal with the crushing effects of health disparities, and she has the experience to illuminate the many inequalities that shape our health care system. Both race and gender shape the way that health care services are delivered, and we look forward to the ways that Dr. Benjamin will share that with the nation.
Anna Julia Cooper said, “When and where I enter, the interests of my race and my gender come with me.” She was asserting the many ways that African American women make a transformative difference in the development of educational, social, and public policy. When and where I enter, I represent, our sister said nearly a century ago. Today, the same is true. Yet, for many this women’s history month is not about us, not about women of African descent. But, it can be our month, if we assert it.
We must claim this month, not simply as a statement of history, but also as an opportunity to remind the nation and the world that gender equity is a human imperative. In other words, we don’t just want pay equity for women, but we want pay equity for families and for a nation. When women aren’t well paid, families aren’t well cared for. When women are kicked to the curb economically, children suffer and we experience generational reverberations. Fair treatment of women is an investment in the growth, development, and success of our nation.
While women’s leadership is not as rare as it was a generation ago, it is still fairly scarce. Women represent less than one percent of the Fortune 500 leaders, are nearly absent in the civil rights leadership, and are fewer than 20 percent of our elected national leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Indeed, with elected leadership, our numbers are dropping. We must celebrate this scarce leadership, and more importantly commit to find new leaders, young women who have been nurtured and encouraged to step up and step out into leadership.
In these harsh economic times, it makes sense to pay attention to the macroeconomic beat down that the African American community has experienced, which often fully manifests itself with the marginalization of African American men in the labor market. Concomitantly, the status of African American women cannot be ignored. We lead too many African American families, are responsible for too many of our children, and are paid too inequitably to be able to manage. Gender equity is not a women’s imperative, it is a community imperative. During this Women’s History Month, and moving forward, our community must commit to our women as a way of committing to our future.
Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her most recent book, “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History,” is available at www.lastwordprod.com