[JFP Classic] Mississippi: A Sad State for Women? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

[JFP Classic] Mississippi: A Sad State for Women?

"Chicks rule!"

Sure, it may feel that way for at least one weekend in March in Jackson. But after the parade, "chicks rule" is still not exactly the state of affairs in the Magnolia State—not by a long shot. Just look at the line-up of our Washington representatives. The local political columnists in the daily newspaper. The anti-abortion crosses on the Capitol lawn. The confused looks when we get loud and pushy. We can scream all we want about women's rights, and pay equity, and reproductive freedom, and how great and strong women are here in Mississippi, but the truth stings mightily: Mississippi is not even the 50th worst place in the United States for women. We're No. 51, behind the other 49 states and the District of Columbia.

That abysmal news came courtesy of a report by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), released in December. This state is close to or dead last in many vital indicators for women. Our state's women ranked 49th in employment and earnings, 49th in economic autonomy, 49th in health and well-being, and 51st in reproductive rights. We're unhealthy, fat and disease prone. We get too many divorces. We have the smallest percentage of women in public service. Men kill more women here than in any other state.

We Jacksonians have three choices here. We can roll our eyes and say, "Them damned outside agitators are just lying to us again." Or: "What do you expect: We're last in everything." Or, we can start making Mississippi a better state for women to live in.

You can probably imagine what our vote is: to take a hard look at where our weaknesses are, and then begin a determined, stubborn, defiant effort to fix them.

We start by asking two questions: How did it get so bad for women here, and what can we do about it? We suggest a five-step plan of sorts to help our state learn how to treat women right: knowledge, power, perspective, perception and support.

KNOWLEDGE: WHAT IS OR MAY BE KNOWN
More women are becoming doctors, lawyers and executives. The state's business schools are filled with women. In 1998 women accounted for 58 percent of enrollees in Mississippi colleges. It sure looks like we're getting smarter and better educated.

On the other hand, the state still has an alarming rate of teen-age pregnancies (the Mississippi Family Council states that in 1995 one out of every five African American 15- to 19-year-old girls had a baby and one out of every 18 white 15- to 19-year-olds had a baby) and high school drop-outs (50 in every 1,000). According to Mississippi Health Statistics, in 1999, there were 9,675 teenage births, with about 60 percent of those to African Americans. The report said 80 percent of these births occurred outside wedlock. Wedding announcements of tender 17-and 18-year-olds fill columns in newspapers around the state. Some young women are still more interested in a M.R.S. degree than a real career—and the choice to marry young before getting a real degree often ends not only in divorce, but also in a dead-end job. Mississippi ranks 17th nationally in divorce rates, leaving many unprepared women to fend for themselves.

Jeanne Luckett, a statewide maternal and child-care advocate, says knowledge leads to understanding and awareness. Having knowledge gives women the basis to form responsible decisions. "Women are decision makers in every aspect of life," she says, although some women are forced into that position, through divorce, being widowed or teenage pregnancy. "Women can't present themselves and expect to be respected if they're not well grounded," she says. What many women seem to lack most is the sense of self-worth and self-esteem, and they are often unaware of their need for education.

Women in Mississippi have to take the responsibility for their own education, not only in the classroom but in the world at large. Mindy Boggs, the state president of American Association of University Women, says, "It's important to let your voice be heard." It is imperative that they "begin to take an active interest in the world around them," to know what is at stake, she says.

The first step toward achieving equality is knowledge of the issues. More women should attend city council and other community meetings, read (and question) the newspaper, surf the Internet, take some adult-ed courses or college classes (scholarships and grants are available), speak to role models in the community and, above all, teach their daughters of the struggle their ancestors went through to achieve the basic freedoms women enjoy now.

Knowledge comes in many forms: in schools, in civic organizations, in books, in talking with friends over coffee. Women cannot be afraid to ask hard questions, even if some of those questions can make men, and sometimes women, uncomfortable.

POWER: ABILITY TO DO OR ACT

Women in Mississippi rank 42nd in political participation and 48th in women elected to public office since we elected Amy Tuck (then a Democrat) in 1998. Although we rank high in voter registration of women, Mississippi women don't actually turn out at the polls except for "important" elections (i.e. gubernatorial, presidential). Of course, those elections are often less important than city or district-level races when it comes to the day-to-day management of issues that affect women.

Our state has certainly enjoyed more diverse representation in recent decades, but until women are equally represented, there will not true equality, or adequate consideration of, er, "soft" women's issues such as education, daycare and reproductive rights.

That is, in order to look out for our best interests, we need to be there standing guard and participating in the process. Otherwise, decisions are made with more of a locker-room mentality that lacks a feminine perspective. "If the policy's going to be affecting everyone, then we need representation by a variety of voices," Boggs says.

State Sen. Gloria Williamson (D-Philadelphia) says that women who do achieve political power still have to "work twice as hard as the men," to get there and then still must often face the "good ol' boy" mentality. She says that women's repressed history has kept one gender behind the other in the state; tradition runs deep here and that often works against greater independence and ambition for the state's female population. "Women, in the South especially, are told not to go into men's fields," she said.

Arguably, the only way to change this is to work from the inside out. Women in Mississippi need to run for office. Interestingly, the Institute for Women's Policy Research found that women's rate of representation is very close to their proportion of candidacies for office. You can read that to say that the more women run, the more they win.

PERSPECTIVE: A BROAD VIEW

Mississippi ranks first in the nation in rates of domestic violence and 51st in reproductive rights based on access to abortion facilities, laws that govern abortion and healthcare-provided contraception. These are two important barriers between women and true freedom.
In a time when fear of violence by a stranger is gripping many Jacksonians and Americans at large, the real danger more often lurks closer to home. Domestic violence crosses all economic, racial and class boundaries. It is a national problem that affects men, women and children. Of the 4 million assaults and 500,000 rapes a year reported by the FBI, 75 percent of these acts were committed by someone known to the victim.

Physical, sexual and psychological abuse of women and girls takes many forms and has a negative effect on every female in every culture. "People have the wrong idea about what domestic violence is," says Mazie Smith of the Mississippi State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (MSCADV).
Michelle Carroll, the executive director of the Coalition, agrees. "Domestic violence is the root of all [society's] problems." Carroll says that domestic violence can lead to other abuses. "If you could cut down on domestic violence you could alleviate much of the drug and alcohol abuse," she said.
The rate of men killing women in Mississippi is higher here than in any other state. A few bills have passed such as last year's H.B. 134, which expanded domestic violence laws to cover dating relationships, and H.B. 872, which lengthened the protective orders in abuse cases from one to three years. And more are being presented, such as H.B. 977, which would make the violation of a protective order a misdemeanor. Yet, the problem is not completely legislative. In a program instituted by the Coalition, called Respect, classes are being taught to fifth and sixth graders to ingrain the quality of both self-respect and respect for others, to help prevent violence later in life.

Like domestic violence, the freedom to decide if and when to have a child is vital to a woman's personal perspective, to her ability to believe she can make wise and safe choices for herself and her family. "Equity for women cannot be achieved unless we have reproductive choice," Boggs said.
That means the choice of when, if, and how often to have sex and whether or not to reproduce. Choice encompasses contraception, adoption, infertility treatments, sex education and access to abortion clinics.

Mississippi has no law requiring health insurers to cover contraception or infertility treatments. Mississippi has enacted laws that make terminating a pregnancy more difficult and often times more expensive, especially for women driving to Jackson to get a safe and legal abortion. We are one of 22 states requiring a waiting period, sometimes as long as 72 hours, and there is no public funding for abortions under any circumstances other than those required by the federal Medicaid law: rape, incest, or life endangerment to the woman.

PERCEPTION: AWARENESS

Sally and Robert work equally as hard and equally as long. Robert mows the lawn; Sally plants flowers. When they are paid, Robert receives $1, Sally gets three quarters.
Congress passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, which guaranteed equal pay for equal (read: identical), not comparable, jobs—women's advocates say this is not enough. Women's median income nationally is $26,900 compared to $37,339 for men. In Mississippi the median income for women is an astounding $21,554, whereas for men it is $30,549, according to the U.S. Census of 2000. Women receive less money for comparable jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, for instance, operations managers in Mississippi make $58,480 a year compared to child, family and school social workers, predominantly women, who make $28,130. Working women still receive 74 cents for every $1 earned by a man—a difference of about $121 a week.

"This means that women have significantly less to spend on groceries, rent and childcare," the report states. "Given this differential, the average woman will lose more than $523,000 to unequal pay during her lifetime." And it gets worse. The wage gap is even larger for women of color. The U.S. Census states that non-white American women earn 67 cents for every dollar all men earn and 79 cents for every dollar earned by a Caucasian woman.

Gender-based pay inequity affects the economy as well. Nationally, inequitable pay costs the average family about $4,000 a year. Earning as much as comparable male jobs would increase women's annual average pay in Mississippi by $4,690. If single mothers were paid equally, their incomes would increase by 17 percent and those living under the poverty line would be reduced more than half. Increasing pay for women would reduce the need for public assistance.

Mississippi women rank 49th on the IWPR social and economic autonomy index. In 1995 one in every five women in Mississippi lived in poverty. The U.S. Census of 2000 showed that 40 percent of Mississippians under the poverty line are single mothers. Women in Mississippi are 50 percent more likely than men to live below the poverty level.

SUPPORT: THE MEANS TO SUSTAIN

Today, the question of whether women should work is moot. Women have to work, especially mothers of children whose fathers have fled, never showed up in the first place after conception, or don't bother to mail a child-support payment.

When mothers work, someone has to look after their children. "Childcare costs are a significant barrier to employment for many women," stated the Institute. There are problems finding affordable, quality, conveniently located facilities. Thus, poor women are told they must work (often by the same party-line interests who, ironically, preach that better-to-do women should stay home with their children), but they can't afford to leave their children under someone else's care. The burden has been felt more strongly since welfare reform of 1996. The new restrictions and expectations placed on families by the welfare-reform project, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), expect people receiving welfare to work more hours, but don't lower the cost of childcare or provide means to pay for it.

Dr. Alferteen Harrison, director of the Margaret Walker Alexander Research Center at Jackson State University, says, "In order to make families self-sufficient, we must provide accessible child care."
In 1999, 55 percent of women with children under age 1 were working. Compared with the 31 percent that worked in 1976, it is evident that mothers of newborns are returning to the work force at higher rates. According to a state profile by Assessing the New Federalism ("An Urban Institute Program to Assess Changing Social Policies"), 64 percent of mothers with children here under the age of 13 are currently employed. And, working families who pay for care spend almost one out of every eleven dollars earned on childcare.

Childcare is expensive, and rightfully so. "It costs more in Mississippi to send a child to day care than it does to send them to college," says Carol Burnette, executive director of Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative. A single parent who works full-time at minimum wage with two children in a care facility will pay 70 percent of her wages at Mississippi's average rate.

Mississippi is not using the maximum federal funds available for childcare because there has to be a state dollar for every $3 given under the Child Card and Development Fund (CCDF) federal block grant initiative. Currently, only 12 percent of children eligible for childcare subsidies are receiving help because of this lack of state funding. Burnette says there are "thousands of children on waiting lists" for childcare voucher certificates. Without certificates, parents quit work or resort to less expensive child care, which often jeopardizes the child's well being, she adds.

There is also no state-funded early childhood initiative, only federal: Early Head Start, Head Start, TANF and CCDF. The Mississippi Commission on the Status of Women report says thousands of children are on the waiting list for childcare certificates.

This lack of affordable childcare has far-reaching effects. Harrison said that "childcare is the most effective way for reducing risks for children." She also said that children in quality care do better academically and are less likely to fall behind in school. Research also indicates that quality early-childhood experiences benefit all children, and especially those of poor and low-income families.
Anne Friday, a full-time waitress in Jackson, is a single mother of four. She leaves her children with her mother while she works. When would she do if her mother were unavailable? "I would have to cut my hours in half. Childcare is too expensive. I couldn't afford to work."

Thus, a classic women's catch-22: Without support of the community and government, many women cannot afford to work. And they can't afford not to.

CHANGE: TO MAKE DIFFERENT

Put frankly, Mississippi has a long way to go before "chicks rule." But, there's nowhere to go but up. In order to make Mississippi a better environment for women, the most important step is education, both in a formal sense—classes, books and degrees—and a less formal gathering of the minds around coffee and discussion of the issues at meetings and sessions of local government. That education and discussion will lead to a female perspective in the political process. Women voting women into power can help to add to the greater understanding of the issues that face women and the policies we need to help women get a leg up. Those already educated or in power should take responsibility for mentoring other women, and we Jacksonians should do more to help other women around the state.

By changing who we vote for and what we ask them to talk about—and then holding them accountable—we can change the political debate. Then we can improve how women and women's issues are perceived. And we can alter our state's perspective on what policies offer the most hope and help for women regardless of their socio-economic level, marital status or ambition. That, ultimately, will lead to a change in our support systems and how we do business with—and as—Mississippi women.

Then, we can say we've come a long way, baby.

Previous Comments

ID
76727
Comment

Great article, please keep them coming! Mississippi has historically been a male-dominated society, and this chauvinism has been nutured by many of our religious, educational and political institutions. Some of our more backward organizations have been more than nuturers of this chauvinism, they have been downright aggressive in their agenda (and I am referring to those organizations who had as their greatest mission the repression of racial minorities). Those two mindsets (repression of racial minorities and suppression of women) seem to be nearly inseparable in the minds of those in less progressive groups in our state. It's about time that Mississppi became what it can be, not mired in what it has been. Maybe the women of this state need to drag the whole kit and kaboodle right into the new millenium, and let the regressives kick and scream to their heart's content, as long as we move them.

Author
C.W. Roberson
Date
2003-03-17T14:16:10-06:00
ID
76728
Comment

Thanks for printing articles like this one. I wish the popular news media would investigate and report women's issues in Mississippi. I am not from Mississippi but from a far more progressive state in the nation. I am so disappointed in the realities of healthcare, rights and lack of support systems for women here. Although many supporters of women's rights suggest, as do I, that more Mississippi female citizens get involved in the political scene, I wonder if they would be just as bad as their anit-female, male-conservative counterparts? The state of Mississippi needs a complete overhaul of it's political and educational system without the influence of religion. You can start small to accomplish change, but Mississippi and its people don't seem to want to try. Mississippi has a culture of its own where it prides itself on keeping old traditions and values. Any suggestion of change is a threat to the "southern way". But preservation of "tradition" is killing women's pride, spirits and rights in MS. Perhaps there will come a day when those with uteri and vaginas will be in decision making positions, proposing laws and legislation for the benefit of all women in Mississippi, but it won't happen soon enough.

Author
MAK
Date
2003-03-19T10:37:22-06:00
ID
76729
Comment

I AM A SINGLE MOTHER OF 3 KIDS , CHILDCARE IS OUTRAGES , IS THERE ANY GRANTS OR ASSISTANCE THAT YOU KNOW OF THAT MIGHT HELP ME? IN TROUBLE LAURA

Author
LAURA DAVIS
Date
2003-11-19T17:46:24-06:00
ID
76730
Comment

Laura, where do you live, and what kind of assistance do you have now?

Author
ladd
Date
2003-11-19T18:01:15-06:00
ID
76731
Comment

First, about the teen pregnancy, getting married too young, etc. ---- To me, I think itís not just a matter of education (although thereís still plenty of need for that), but also one of being able to resist peer pressure. Many of the faults you mentioned, particularly the teenage ones, are associated with trying to be ìone of the girlsî. As I said in previous posts, I find Mississippi and similar such areas to have a pretty conformist culture ñ particularly small towns. You can try to educate young girls to stop doing (or do) this and that all you want ñ but if their peer group doesnít think what you are saying is the cool thing to do, then we wonít really get anywhere. Therefore, it seems a more effective route is to attack the causes of peer pressure in the first place, which ultimately is the devaluation of the individual for who she is (and HE, for that matter). Until we teach our children how to unchain their self-esteem from what their peers think of them, then Mississippi will make little headway against teen pregnancy, drugs (though not specifically mentioned) and the whole plethora of social problems. The kids themselves are definitely smart enough to handle their problems better than they are doing now ñ they just have to have the courage to be different. Adult Women -- Iím staying the hell away from abortion, since I have NO intention of starting a cyber-riot over that matter, at least in this post (for now, itís enough to say that my opinions are my own). Other than that, I tend to think ìwomenís rightsî in terms of careers, equal pay, etc. Iíd think determining how fair the TOTALITY of the compensation package (salaries, benefits, other goodies) is a bit difficult, given that pay is a matter of education, qualifications, EXPERIENCE, seniority, and such -- not to mention salary & benefits negotiation skills!!! Therefore, Iíd like to see a study of this detail before I can really comment fully about this. I canít be certain, but I would think that straight salaries are more or less equal for those who live paycheck to paycheck at the same job at the same place of employment at the same experience level at the same skill level etc etc etc. , given that itís easier to prove compensation discrimination in this case than with higher level employment. Employment opportunities ñ In my La. Delta town, the President (maybe Branch Manager, they just got bought out a few years ago) of one of the local banks is female. Also, just last week La. elected a female governor. Despite the presence of New Orleans and Acadiana (i.e. Cajun country west of Baton Rouge) much of La. has the same culture as Miss. This doesnít mean La. has eliminated the glass ceiling of course. However it does show that Southern women can enter higher levels of employment. Therefore I donít think that the situation is quite as bleak as you make it out to be, at least where employment opportunities for females are concerned (unless Miss is more different from La than I imagine it to be).

Author
Philip
Date
2003-11-19T19:39:02-06:00
ID
76732
Comment

Re Religion: Though not specifically related to women, this will give you some background into my experience growing up. In some ways I can't speak too much about this despite growing up in "The South's South" (The Delta). Lake Providence, LA (an hour NW of Vicksburg) seemed to buck the "Bible Belt" stereotype in many ways. At the private academy I went to, in all my 10 1/2 years I attended or knew people from that school, I've seen only ONE instance of where a student brought up religion and only TWO teachers who got caught up in fundamentalist religion (and this was a husbund-wife team at that). That's not to say we were the religious vaccum that, say, New England is. It's just that talking about religious beliefs openly simply wasn't part of the culture of my town. Some of the most popular people at my school didn't even attend church at all (except at Christmas and Easter). Church attendance was pretty high, but for people my age (presently in their 30s) church was pretty much a social affair to catch up on the weekend happenings more than anything else.

Author
Philip
Date
2003-11-19T19:54:57-06:00
ID
76733
Comment

Ah, Philip, I love your naivete on how women are treated and compensated in the workforce. For real, the wage gap exists, even taking into account the things you mention. And sexism exists in the workplace. Granted, most places its not so overt, but it's still there. Over the summer, I was at a volunteer committee meeting, and we were planning an event. We need brochures and such. The guy running the meeting said "in my experience, ladies are much better at this kind of thing" (meaning brochure design). And he looked right at me, as if I, with my XX chromosome, had some innate sense of design (which I don't). I just laughed and said, "well, I'm not one of them", and the other woman at the table stepped up to run that part of the project. I really felt like slugging him for his idiocy. Graphic design is a *profession* which has many men involved in it, as well as women, and to assume that I would be a good choice for that project based on my gender. It pissed me off. I mean, at least it wasn't 'get me some coffee', but, well, arrgg. Not to mention the fact that at my company our web designer is a guy, our multimedia designer guy is a guy, and the advertising team is mostly guys. Guess we should fire them all, and get us some 'ladies' to make it better. And, it's not that women aren't good negotiaters. There was a book out last year by a woman who had worked on Wall Street, as one of the first women allowed in the brokerage firms. She quit after reaching VP, I think. Anyway, she described things like the men offering her a sandwich with a *dead bird* in it. And this was in the last 10 to 15 years. I need to go find that book. She also had tons of data on how much less the women were being paid than the men, especially at the higher levels, even though they could demonstrate equal or better value to their firms. And then there's that look of surprise I get from so many men when I have something intelligent to say about politics or religion or the economy or business. It's irritatingly familiar.

Author
Kate
Date
2003-11-19T20:38:08-06:00
ID
76734
Comment

Ah, Philip, I love your naivete on how women are treated and compensated in the workforce. For real, the wage gap exists, even taking into account the things you mention. And sexism exists in the workplace. Granted, most places its not so overt, but it's still there. Over the summer, I was at a volunteer committee meeting, and we were planning an event. We need brochures and such. The guy running the meeting said "in my experience, ladies are much better at this kind of thing" (meaning brochure design). And he looked right at me, as if I, with my XX chromosome, had some innate sense of design (which I don't). I just laughed and said, "well, I'm not one of them", and the other woman at the table stepped up to run that part of the project. I really felt like slugging him for his idiocy. Graphic design is a *profession* which has many men involved in it, as well as women, and to assume that I would be a good choice for that project based on my gender. It pissed me off. I mean, at least it wasn't 'get me some coffee', but, well, arrgg. Not to mention the fact that at my company our web designer is a guy, our multimedia designer guy is a guy, and the advertising team is mostly guys. Guess we should fire them all, and get us some 'ladies' to make it better. And, it's not that women aren't good negotiaters. There was a book out last year by a woman who had worked on Wall Street, as one of the first women allowed in the brokerage firms. She quit after reaching VP, I think. Anyway, she described things like the men offering her a sandwich with a *dead bird* in it. And this was in the last 10 to 15 years. I need to go find that book. She also had tons of data on how much less the women were being paid than the men, especially at the higher levels, even though they could demonstrate equal or better value to their firms. And then there's that look of surprise I get from so many men when I have something intelligent to say about politics or religion or the economy or business. It's irritatingly familiar.

Author
Kate
Date
2003-11-19T20:38:35-06:00
ID
76735
Comment

sorry for the damn double post, folks. The server horked, and I hit refresh one too many times.

Author
Kate
Date
2003-11-19T20:41:30-06:00
ID
76736
Comment

Re equal pay for equal work with regard to gender, it isn't equitable. Philip, there are stats on this, but I'd have to dig them up. Try googling for "equal pay for equal work." There are tons of studies that show that equal pay for equal work when weighted for education and experience is an ideal not a reality. Also, I don't think New England is a religious vacuum--quite the opposite. It's just that it's not the be all and end all of people's lives in New England. Many people in the South seem to believe that "religious" and "fundamentalist" are synonymous, and that ifyou don't believe in their fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity then you're not really religious. And re abortion, if women don't have control over what happens to their bodies then there really is very little else to talk about. What more basic right is there? Why should I care about how much money I make if I don't have control over what happens to my own body?

Author
Nia
Date
2003-11-19T20:42:44-06:00
ID
76737
Comment

Kate, I never said sexism in pay didn't exist. Only a naive person would say that. I said nothing about whether I believe any solid proof exists (I said nothing about it at all). I suppose I should have explicitly said this but my point was not to swallow conventional wisdom without solid proof, and even if there is solid evidence of sexism in compensation (as there is in this case) we still need to know what extent and degree it does exist. Otherwise we will either do too little or too much to "solve" the problem, and end up with a non-solution that will prolong the struggle. Nia: "Many people in the South seem to believe that "religious" and "fundamentalist" are synonymous" Philip: It's not just Southerners, nia. I've run across a lot of skeptics who confuse the two as well. Not that all skeptics do.

Author
Philip
Date
2003-11-19T21:54:44-06:00
ID
76738
Comment

I didn't say that ONLY Southerners believe that. We were talking about in this happening in the South so what others believe isn't necessarily relevant.

Author
Nia
Date
2003-11-19T22:05:53-06:00

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