Midwest Voices

June 6, 2014

Cindy Frewen Wuellner: It’s time for a renewed feminism push

Nearly a century after gaining the right to vote, I think both women and men are ready for epic change, a new normal of equal rights.

When I started my business in 1982, women business owners were rare, especially in the technical professions like architecture.

Yet I had a firm belief that we would gain steadily. Eventually women would have equality in the workplace and society.

Women were riding an upward trend. It turns out, we were about to hit a lull.

Three times in the last 100 years, women’s rights have made huge strides. The iconic moments were women’s suffrage, Rosie the Riveter and women’s liberation, which lasted more than 20 years.

In between, a combination of comfort and rejection created plateaus, or worse, setbacks. Lagging interest in the 1980s devolved to backlash in the 1990s.

Twenty years later, women still do not get fair pay or an equal place at the table. We still struggle to balance family and work demands.

Nearly a century after gaining the right to vote, I think both women and men are ready for epic change, a new normal of equal rights. Women are prepared to be both feminists and feminine. From the CEO’s office to the Supreme Court, there is progress.

However, it’s slow. According to The Economist, American women have less clout now than in 2010. In every public arena, women are underrepresented.

Daily news sparks outrage. Nigerian school girls were abducted to stop their education. The editor at The New York Times was fired after she protested unfair pay. A Hollywood actress claims she’s not a feminist “because I love men.”

In fact, many feminists are men. It simply means you believe people deserve equal rights.

Now a misogynist left seven dead in Southern California. In response on Twitter, millions of women shared stories of fear and harassment using the hashtag #yesallwomen. For example, “Calling out sexist jokes makes me worried I’ll burn professional bridges.”

Their experiences expose a nationwide raw nerve. The movement now has two fronts. One is redressing the economic disparities of executives and entrepreneurs to gain access at the highest echelons and equal pay at any level. The other is the fear carried by every woman living in a male-dominated society.

Both center on the right to be heard and to matter. Our deep-seated prejudices only change when we create new narratives at every level and on every front.

Whether working in or out of the home, women need to join hands on fair treatment. We also need most men to join us. We need to identify a new normal of opportunities free of bias and recognize women’s essential contributions.

Signs of hope are emerging from the millennial generation. According to Pew Research, young women place a greater emphasis on high-paying careers than young men do. Kauffman Foundation reports that 44 percent of young women want to start their own companies.

Women’s work represents undercompensated, unused capacity. A lifetime of pay inequity can result in a more than $1 million gender earnings difference. When women earn more, society gains because women plow 90 percent of their earnings back into the family (compared with 30 to 40 percent of men’s earnings). That’s an investment in the future.

Real change begins at home when girls and boys are taught to celebrate each other. Any trap for women constitutes an equal and opposite trap for men. Equal opportunity means more men caregivers and more women presidents.

To reach Cindy Frewen Wuellner of Leawood, an architect and urban futurist, send email to oped@kcstar.com.

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