Liberal Education

Gender Equity: Who Needs It?

After forty-one years in print, On Campus with Women, the periodical publication of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Program on the Status and Education of Women (PSEW), has come to the end of its run. Over the summer, I have been preparing copies of all the issues published during my tenure as director of the PSEW (1991–2012) for shipment to the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University, where they will be archived alongside the issues from 1971 to 1990, which were sent by my predecessor, Bunny Sandler. In addition to On Campus with Women, I have also been gathering materials from the many projects conducted under the aegis of the PSEW while I was directing it. This accumulation of twenty-one years of work will probably fit into a box no bigger than the one into which I put my Christmas ornaments before I stash them each year under the eaves in my attic.

Does this mean gender equity is at the end of its run? Have we completed our work? Who really needs gender equity anymore, anyway?

While the PSEW archives to which my box will be added represent more than four decades of work on gender equity, I want to argue—using a refrain from President Obama’s second inaugural address—that “our journey is not complete.” We are still in the midst of a long historical and global struggle to ensure that women and girls across colors and nations have full equality, agency, and opportunity. As the president rightly said, it may be self-evident that all people are created equal, but that equality must be secured by people working together to make it a reality. To make it so, he reminded us, “We must act.”

OCWW and AAC&U’s Ongoing Coverage of Gender Issues

Founded in 1971 and sponsored by AAC&U’s Program on the Status and Education of Women, On Campus with Women (OCWW) was originally designed to cover important issues related to women in higher education. Since 2002, it has been an online journal focusing on women’s leadership, the campus climate, curricula and pedagogy, and new research and data on women. In 2013, as part of a broader strategic planning process, AAC&U adopted an infusion approach to the coverage of gender equity topics, initiatives, and research in its three print and online journals. Accordingly, publication of OCWW as a separate online periodical ended, and its editor, Kathryn Peltier Campbell, assumed added responsibilities for coordinating coverage of gender issues across all AAC&U publications. AAC&U also expanded the size and frequency of publication of Diversity and Democracy, which periodically includes coverage of gender issues. Longtime readers of Liberal Education may recall that, from 1987 to 1993, OCWW was incorporated into Liberal Education as a distinct section of the journal.

Three cautionary notes

What is our role—as faculty members, administrators, student affairs professionals, students, presidents, and leaders of nonprofit organizations—in continuing to advance gender equity? To my own reflections on this challenge, I bring the perspective I have gained over a lifetime of commitment—as a graduate student who wrote a women’s studies dissertation before the field had fully come into its own; as a young professor at an institution that had first admitted women the year before I was hired; as a feminist scholar who taught her first women’s studies course in 1973; as the working mother who struggled without a guidebook to perform both roles with integrity and love; and as executive director of the National Women’s Studies Association who came to the Association of American Colleges in 1991 to pick up Bunny Sandler’s mantle. Here, then, are three cautionary notes from a seasoned feminist.

1. Skeptics and opponents—or people who are merely uninformed—are quick to proclaim prematurely the end of political movements for social change and social justice. Feminism has been declared passé, dead, and of no interest to younger generations perhaps once every seven years of my professional life. Newspaper headlines, magazine articles, and other media periodically proclaim that the feminist movement has run its course, that we live in a postfeminist age, that young people don’t identify with the women’s movement. But as Gloria Steinem (2012) recently observed, more young women agree with feminist values and aspirations today than during the first wave of women’s liberation. Certainly recent voting patterns continue to reflect a significant gender gap on issues and on candidates. In a recent poll, just under 50 percent of independents identified themselves as feminists (Baker 2012, 31–2).

2. Half measures toward equity are just that: half measures; they do not ensure full equality. Many of us take heart that, following the November 2012 elections, we can now count nine states that have passed some form of marriage equality laws and that if one serves in the military and is gay, he or she can now openly say so without being “dishonorably” discharged. But until the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was declared unconstitutional in a Supreme Court ruling on June 26, 2013, people in those state-recognized same-sex marriages were unable to secure hundreds of federal benefits—including tax, estate, and pension benefits—available to other married couples. Even the defeat of the democracy-limiting DOMA could not prevent a heart-wrenching story like the one in the New York Times about a military veteran who, after returning from her year’s tour of duty in Afghanistan, was experiencing strains in her marriage as a consequence of her deployment. When she showed up for a military retreat intended to help soldiers and their spouses cope with such strains—having cleared ahead of time her intention to participate—the chaplain greeted her with the news that she and her partner would not be permitted to participate because their presence made others feel uncomfortable (Swarns 2013). She could fight in a foxhole in war next to a comrade, but she could not sit in a circle back home. And this news came to her from a chaplain who is paid with our tax dollars and whose charge is to help veterans.

If we look at women’s progress in higher education, we can see that we are a quarter of the way there, or perhaps halfway there, or maybe in some instances three-quarters of the way there. The percentage of women presidents has jumped from 3 percent when the PSEW was founded to 26 percent today, but it still has not reached 50 percent. The percentage of women faculty has increased significantly, but it, too, has not reached 50 percent. Nor are women advancing through the ranks at the same rate as their male peers. With the help of Title IX and many lawsuits, women athletes are playing all kinds of sports at the highest levels, though often without the full privileges accorded to male athletes. And every year, opponents of Title IX seek to undermine the legislation.

3. Be vigilant, continue to organize, always keep counting, and never assume that because you have won a victory that it will last. Ida B. Wells, the courageous journalist, civil rights leader, champion of the anti-lynching movement, and stirring organizer in the Negro Women’s Club movement, said that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” She knew full well that the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery did not lead anywhere close to full racial equality. The brief history of Reconstruction soon gave way, through state-sponsored violence and Jim Crow laws, to the recreation of white supremacy in the South that lasted another hundred years after Appomattox. The North and West and Midwest were complicit in this arrangement throughout that period. Be vigilant. Organize.

Similarly, Roe vs. Wade seemed on the face of it to protect permanently a woman’s right to decide whether to bear a child or not. The reasonableness of that assumption seemed to be confirmed on January 22, 2013, by a Gallup poll that found that significantly more Americans (53 percent) want the landmark decision kept in place than want it to be overturned (29 percent) (Saad 2013). But today, access to abortion and reproductive counseling has been severely limited—and, in some states, all but cut off. In the early part of 2012, some 944 provisions related to reproductive rights were put forth in state legislatures. Not all of these passed, but one that aroused the wrath of many—a requirement that a woman undergo a vaginal probe before she can opt for an abortion—was nonetheless reaffirmed in Virginia. Be vigilant. Organize.

One of the most depressing setbacks I have lived long enough to have the displeasure of witnessing is the recreation of the powerful and limiting scripts for girls and boys that reveal themselves through the omnipresence of pink and princesses for girls and superheroes for boys. Toys today, as they were in the 1960s and early 1970s, are utterly color coded right down to the stands for T-ball. I had thought that my generation had tamped this down when our children were born in the 1970s. For a while, it had seemed that we had ushered in a period of gender-neutral or gender-inclusive toys—an accomplishment so vividly captured by Marlo Thomas’s famous “Free to Be You and Me” book and record. But gender neutrality evaporated quickly. Kids today are encouraged to segregate and limit themselves at an early age.

Issues on the horizon

What are the big issues on the horizon for women and girls in the twenty-first century? In Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn point to the need to consider this question in a fully global context. “In the nineteenth century,” they observe, “the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world” (2009, xvii). Let’s take a look, then, at gender equity and just who needs it in relation to four big conundrums most countries are facing.

1. Economic inequality. In the United States, women now graduate from high school and college at a higher rate than men, which represents a sea change since I was in college. A million more women than men graduate from college each year (Hayes 2012). But the troubling news is that this educational advantage has not led to a closing of the economic gap between women and men. As a group, women in the United States earn seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man earns. African American women earn sixty-two cents, and Latina women earn fifty-four cents. A Latina would need to work for two weeks in order to make what a man makes in one week. In the United States, two-thirds of those who are paid the minimum wage are women (Baker 2012, 27). A woman working full time at the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour earns $15,080 annually, which puts her at or below the federal poverty level. Among the thirty-four “peer countries” of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States has the highest rate of poverty (17 percent) and one of the lowest levels of social expenditure (Hardisty 2012, 2).

Economic inequality is one of the greatest threats to political stability. In the United States, 39 percent of the wealth is concentrated among 1 percent of households (Frank 2013). The global picture mirrors this figure, with the added destabilizing statistic that 50 percent of the world’s adult population owns barely 1 percent of global wealth” (Randerson 2006). As United Nations humanitarian relief coordinator Jan Egeland put it, “a few billionaires are richer than the poorest two billion people” (quoted in National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement 2012, 20).

2. Educational inequality. Worldwide, approximately 17 percent of adults, or 796 million people, cannot read or write; almost two-thirds of these adults are women (Education for All Global Monitoring Report Team 2011, 1). Only 30 percent of the world’s girls are enrolled in secondary school, and 35 million girls have no access to education at all (Day of the Girl 2012). Less than 1 percent of the money spent on deadly weapons would be enough to educate all the children in the world.

In the United States, one in three boys and one in four girls do not finish high school in four years. The percentages are even higher for underrepresented racial minorities. For example, the numbers climb to 37 percent for Hispanic girls, 40 percent of African Americans, and 50 percent for Native American and Alaska Native girls (National Women’s Law Center 2007, 6). The long-term economic consequences wreak havoc both on the students who drop out and on the society that will pay the economic and social consequences of not doing everything possible to graduate young people from high school. The poorer the young person, the less likely it is that he or she will go to college, and disturbingly the rich-poor attendance gap between Baby Boomer and Millennial generations grew from 39 percentage points to 51 percentage points (Weissmann 2013). Of every one hundred Latinos who go to elementary school, only forty-seven will graduate from high school; of those forty-seven, twenty-six will go to college, and eight will graduate (Gutiérrez 2011, xvi). What does this profile of the fastest growing racial minority group in the United States portend for our nation’s future?

3. Violence against women. Speaking at a luncheon marking the fortieth anniversary of Ms. magazine, Gloria Steinem (2012) cited a chilling statistic. She said that the number of women killed in the United States by husbands or boyfriends since 9/11 exceeds the number of people killed in the Twin Towers, the number of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and the number of soldiers killed in Iraq—combined. We know there are women and girls in other countries who are stoned for adultery under Sharia law, axed by their brothers in “honor” killings in Afghanistan, shot for wanting to go to school in Pakistan, and gang raped under the most brutal conditions in India. Yet in our own country, the Republicans in Congress attempted to prevent the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act.

4. Political inequality. There was appropriate celebration in November 2012, when so many women candidates won their Congressional races. We now have twenty women serving in the US Senate. I can remember when having two women senators was groundbreaking, and a ladies room had to be installed on the Senate side of the US Capitol. We also saw seventy-eight women elected to the US House of Representatives in November. These are truly victories worth celebrating. But even with these magnificent victories, women remain underrepresented in both houses of Congress and in all fifty state legislatures. For every woman speaking or voting in the US Senate, five men have the power to quell her influence. The proportion is only slightly lower in the House. Compared with 189 other countries, the United States ranks an embarrassing seventy-seven in the number of women in national parliaments (Inter-Parliamentary Union. 2013).

What can we do as educators?

Given all these pressing issues—and these represent a mere handful—what can you and I do, sitting where we sit, at the heart of educational institutions?

1. Be sure women and girls get an education. There has been progress in this area, both globally and in the United States, but not enough. Education has an amazing influence on so many other factors, as social scientists have demonstrated through convincing scholarship. Educating women and girls can improve harvests, lead to better nutrition, reduce the size of families, improve the health of families, influence family decisions, contribute to the overall economic advance of countries, reduce violence, and decrease unwanted pregnancies. The list goes on and on. Nobelist Amartya Sen (2004) says these empirical studies underscore the “crucial role of basic education for all—and of women’s education, in particular—in facilitating radical social and economic changes that are so badly needed in our problem-ridden world.” He goes on to stress a very important point: “The reach of people’s democratic voice can be much steadier, firmer, and more extensive when political opportunities are supplemented by social empowerment through education.”

What are you doing, or what might you do, at your institution to raise this issue to a higher level, to introduce this issue to students, to initiate a program, locally or globally, that might contribute to expanding educational access to women and girls?

2. Ensure that every student, whether male or female, graduates from college with the ability to use gender as a category of analysis, as a lens through which to interpret the world. This is not a skill just for women or for students who take women’s studies courses, but for everyone. This is the most lasting legacy of the contemporary women’s movement. In the best of contemporary feminist theory, the concept of gender has been developed to enable an inclusive analysis of multiple differences among women. An analysis of gender is not divorced from an analysis of race or class or sexuality or other particularities of identity and culture.

Where in your institutions are those concepts being taught? Have you done an inventory? Have you asked your faculty? Have you reviewed your curriculum? Have you examined the student affairs programming or the training of resident hall advisors and teaching assistants? As educators, we should openly advocate for the understanding of gender analysis as an essential building block for almost all other areas of knowledge and for critical thinking.

As a category of analysis, gender also provides a means of examining several key issues affecting higher education today. For example, how does the high cost of college affect women overall as well as different groups of women at your institution? Who has access to online courses? Do women who are at home with children have the uninterrupted time at their computers that such courses require—if they even have a computer? What do your institution’s statistics, broken down by gender and race and socioeconomic status, reveal about which students are faring well in online courses? In terms of completion rates, which groups of women are being left behind? Which groups are succeeding? Why? How can the identification of factors influencing the success of these students contribute to the success of other women and men? Why are contingent faculty disproportionately women?

3. Work together as women on campuses—across domains and levels, across identity and political differences—to address issues of common concern. When my colleagues at the Association of American Colleges and Universities and I are invited to lead workshops for women on campuses around the country, we are often surprised to discover that the women who participate are coming together in the same room for the first time. The consequences of the prevailing isolation of women on campuses become clear as the workshops progress and participants begin slowly to share their experiences across different departments and divisions. We routinely hear stories of humiliation and self-doubt, even from those in the highest positions on a campus.

How many of you reading this article have some formal network for women or groups of women on your campuses? How many have informal networks? Is there any one gathering of all the groups for any reason? If you have no organized groups or networks at your institution, you could consider creating one with a specific focus on, say, the slow advancement of women across all faculty ranks, but especially from associate to full professor; the underrepresentation of women—students and faculty members—in physics, chemistry, and engineering; the declining number of women in computer science; or the stubborn pay gaps between men and women who are doing the same work. The issues need not center on women. A campus group might focus on the inadequate number of faculty of color and the chilly climate that results in a “revolving door” for these faculty members; the rampant inequalities in pay, recognition, and respect between full-time and part-time faculty and between faculty, administrators, clerical workers, and facilities personnel; or the challenge of developing and sustaining campus-community partnerships.

4. Create educational opportunities for all students, male and female, to cultivate the democratic knowledge, skills, values, and practice in collective action they need to shape the world they live in. Just as higher education has the potential to transform women’s lives, so too does civic education carry great potential for democratic cultures. And that brings us almost full circle, back to President Obama’s evocation of the principle of equality embedded in the Declaration of Independence. We need to teach students how to analyze systems and identify structures that produce inequalities.

A final challenge

While bundling the products of my few decades as director of the PSEW into a box, it occurred to me that it is critically important to have such boxes. After all, they represent how so many were a democratic force for historical and intellectual change. It is equally important to have a higher education infrastructure that can archive these materials and a curriculum that can send students off to consult them as part of research projects. The PSEW archives contain a wealth of articles and monographs that represent women’s voices, opinions, research, concerns, strategies for change, innovative programs, and organized efforts to influence the world. They tell our collective story.

With this in mind, I conclude with a final challenge. I will tape that archival PSEW box shut with a smile of satisfaction and pride, if you who are reading this article will, in turn, commit to create even more materials that will one day take their rightful place in an archival box alongside mine. Begin to make that history today. Use your power and location within higher education to change the world so it is fairer for women and girls, for men and boys, and for the planet. I will count on you to write, invent, organize, act, envision, take risks, collaborate, teach, learn, laugh, play, and protest. That way I can be sure that although this moment marks the end of the run of On Campus with Women, it does not mark the end of the struggle for gender equity. As the slogan for the Wellesley Centers for Women, puts it, “A world that is good for women is good for everyone.” Let’s act to make it so.


Baker, B. 2012. “Women’s Lives in the Balance.” Ms. 22 (3): 26–33.

Education for All Global Monitoring Report Team. 2011. The Hidden Crisis: Armed Conflict and Education. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

Day of the Girl. 2012. “Girls Denied Education Worldwide.” Day of the Girl.

Frank, R. 2013. “Richest 1 Percent Own 39 Percent of the World’s Wealth.” Huffington Post, May 13.

Gutiérrez, R. A. 2011. “The Promise of Our Democracy.” Foreword to The Drama of Diversity and Democracy: Higher Education and American Commitments, by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, xiii–xxi. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hardisty, J. 2012. “Women’s Lives and U.S. Public Policy—Where We are Now.” Research and Action Report 34 (1): 2–5.

Hayes, D. 2012. “Report: Despite Outpacing Men in Educational Attainment, Women’s Pay Still Lagging.” Diverse, October 12.

Inter-Parliamentary Union. 2013. “Women in National Parliaments.” Inter-Parliamentary Union. Situation as of July 1.

Kristof, N. D., and S. WuDunn. 2009. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Knopf.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

National Women’s Law Center. 2007. When Girls Don’t Graduate We All Fail. Washington, DC: National Women’s Law Center.

Randerson, J. 2006. “World’s Richest 1% Own 40% of All Wealth.” Guardian, December 6.

Saad, L. 2013. “Majority of Americans Still Support Roe v. Wade Decision.” Gallup, January 23.

Sen, A. 2004. “What is the Point of Women’s Education?” Keynote address to the Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges Joint Conference on Unfinished Agenda of Women’s Education Worldwide, South Hadley, MA, June 2.

Steinem, G. 2012. Address to the Ms. Magazine Fortieth Anniversary Luncheon, Washington, DC, October 11.

Swarns, R. L. 2013. “Military Rules Leave Gay Spouses Out in Cold.” New York Times, January 19.

Weissmann, J. 2013. “The Miserable Odds of a Poor Student Graduating from College.” The Atlantic, March 21.

Caryn McTighe Musil is senior scholar and director of civic learning and democracy initiatives at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. This article was adapted from the author’s address to the women’s networking breakfast at the association’s 2013 annual meeting.

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