When I covered the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, I had no idea what heady days those would seem to be in retrospect. That was the convention where then-first lady Hillary Clinton forever branded women's rights as human rights. The United States was a world leader on the issue. But that was 18 years ago.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union website now reveals that the United States has fallen to 82nd on the list of countries with the highest representation of women in national legislatures. We are behind most of Europe, China, even Kyrgyzstan. It's an embarrassment. Unlike the United States, many countries have elected women as presidents or prime ministers, Germany, Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Liberia among them.
Leap from 1995 to 2013 and our reverse thrust is strong enough to halt a jetliner. A new report by two economics professors at Cornell shows that U.S. women's workforce participation is lagging, too.
Women started diving into the U.S. workforce in record numbers in the late 1960s. By 1990, the United States had the sixth highest female labor participation rate among 22 advanced nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By 2010, our rank had fallen to 17th, according to Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, who just wrote a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research.
It's not that fewer American women were in the workforce in 2010 than in 1990. In fact, our rate rose a little bit. It's just that other country's rates rose exponentially. They overtook us, in other words.
The authors credit "family-friendly" policies such as paid parental leave and part-time work in other OECD countries as a major factor influencing their high rate of growth. They say our lack of federally subsidized day care, paid leave and so on is part of the reason more women were not tempted into the U.S. workplace. If the United States had adopted similar federal laws, which Congress is unlikely to do, they say some 82 percent of American women would have been working in 2010, up from the 75 percent who actually were in the workforce.
That said, the Cornell economists also say that family-friendly policies tend to drive up part-time work by women and the number of women in low-level jobs. Bottom line: U.S. women are more likely than women in other countries to have full-time jobs and to work as managers or professionals. So the news is not all bad.
Still, it's no badge of honor for the status of American women. Combined with our woeful performance in the political arena, it seems as if our best years may be behind us when it comes to leading the world on women's advancement. As if to reinforce that point, 1990 to 2010 was the period in which the religious right made incredible progress, or shall I say regress, turning back hard-won reproductive rights gained by women in the early 1970s. It's a sad story to tell.
Bonnie Erbe is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service (firstname.lastname@example.org).