by Aisha Huertas Michel, Director of the Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project, Gail Deady, The Secular Society Women’s Rights Legal Fellow, and Kathy Greenier, Reproductive Freedom Project Director.
Three Diverse WomenYesterday marked the end of Women’s History Month, and today marks the start of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Both provide an opportunity to reflect on how women’s inequality disproportionately harms women of color.
Women in the United States are not equal to men. They lack equal pay and the ability to make decisions about their bodies without politicians interfering. Women in the United States also face judgment when they report sexual assaults because of a culture that favors the idea that men are often “tempted” by women into making unwanted sexual advances. And, women must fight harder when they want to start their own businesses and are perceived as the weaker sex when they have to balance work and family. Women have the short end of the stick.
These inequalities are often exacerbated by other factors, like poverty and race. While we examine the issue of equality and how to achieve it for all women, it is important to consider the impact of inequality on women of color, who are also disproportionately poor. As numerous studies and reports have made clear:
  • Women of color are more likely to be sexually assaulted. The problem of sexual assault has generated much attention in Virginia since the recent reports of sexual assault at the University of Virginia. Statistics show that of all rapes reported to police in the 18-24 age group, 20% are students (80% of campus sexual assaults are not reported to police). Sexual assault is also a big problem off campus, and women of color make up a majority of those sexually assaulted. A report released by the Center for Disease Control reflected that in the United States an estimated 32.3% of multiracial women, 27.5% of American Indian/Alaska Native women, 21.2% of non-Hispanic black women, and 13.6% of Hispanic women were raped during their lifetimes, compared to 20.5% of non-Hispanic white women.
  • Women of color are more likely to be incarcerated. According to statistics, 1 in 19 African American women and 1 in 45 Hispanic women will be incarcerated in their lifetime, compared to 1 in 119 Caucasian women. This disparity compounds the impact of collateral consequences on communities of color. Women who have been incarcerated will have difficulty accessing housing and employment, thus harming their ability to reenter society and provide support for their families. For example, under the 1996 Housing Opportunity Program Extension Act, Public Housing Authorities may request criminal conviction information from law enforcement to screen applicants for housing. Also, under the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation ACT, there is a lifetime ban on receiving cash assistance and food stamps for people convicted of a felony drug conviction after August 22, 1996, unless a state has opted out of the Act’s provisions. To date, legislation to opt Virginia out of the ban has failed. Lastly, a criminal record has the potential to result in difficulties finding employment. According to data, only 4 in 10 women are able to find employment in the regular labor market within one year of release.
The road to women’s equality has always been challenging. However, it is important that instead of making generalizations about the issue, we seek to better understand how that inequity is reflected in our society and how different groups of women are affected by it. Only then can we effectively address the problem and ensure that a day comes when all women enjoy true equality.