On a crisp Tuesday morning last week, five people stood before a framed tribute to Idaho's first female legislators and informed the media that Idaho ranks among the worst states in the country for women to live, thrive and affect social policy. The information came from The Status of Women in Idaho, a statistical study done by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) in Washington D.C., which is a scientific research organization dedicated to sharing knowledge and motivating dialogue on issues relevant not only to female opportunity, but also to basic equality. The Women's Suffrage movement happened long ago, yet IWPR found that in the areas of employment and earnings, economic and social autonomy, political participation, reproductive rights and health and well being, Idaho received scores of F, D, D, F and B-, respectively, indicating that Idaho women are on average underpaid, overlooked, politically lax, socially restricted and reasonably healthy.
Presenting the findings were Kathy Sewell, executive director of the Idaho Women's Network, Maria Gonzalez Mabutt, a representative of Idaho Latino Vote, Dr. Lisa McClain, Director of Boise State's Gender Studies Program, John Church, a Boise State professor and accredited economist and Judy Cross, a clinical nurse specialist at St. Luke's Regional Medical Center. All took the podium with an air of grim determination, and despite the dark tidings they brought, the collective message was surprisingly positive.
"There is no state in the country where women have adequate policies that represent equal rights--no state," said Sewell. "There is still a lot of work to be done, and now we have data to support our work over the last 16 years."
Sewell referred to the fact that in validating the cause of organizations like the Women's Network and Idaho Latino Vote, the discouraging statistics may actually do some good--that is, if people start paying more attention and caring enough to do something about problems that "don't affect them." This issue of individuals lacking concern for or even awareness of the condition of the societal whole was brought up again and again by Dr. McClain. Presenting Idaho's D grade and an overall rank of 40th in the nation in the category of social and economic autonomy, which includes health insurance, educational access, small business ownership and quality of life, McClain remained committed to the idea that small changes on a small scale add up to progress.
"Why should other people care?" she asked. "Because the consequences are important to all of us in Idaho. They impact peoples' wives, mothers, friends, coworkers and even people you don't know who feel as though they don't have enough access to the system. Education is important, but this is a grassroots problem that goes deeper." McClain explained that one in five "average" Idaho women is uninsured and that the figure degrades to one in three in the low-income bracket. Of those low-income women, three out of ten come from families that live below the poverty line, and the figures crisscross each other and misrepresent reality in that the high employment figures reflect a desperate need for extra income rather than ambition and desire. This in turn explains why most working women in Idaho are not in administrative jobs and also why there is little time to vote, go to college and worry about paying for insurance when basic needs are so hard won. McClain suggested that the simple act of setting an example both privately and publicly makes a big difference. "Talk about issues in public," she said. "If we are silent about them, then we teach the next generation that they don't matter. We have challenges to face, but this is not a women's issue--it's an Idaho issue."
Faced with such dire pronouncements, many citizens and local policy makers have refused to accept the facts, according to Lee Flinn, Programs Director for the Idaho Women's Network.
"There are people walking around thinking there is no such thing as sexism and that racism doesn't exist anymore. Unless it's their personal experience, they don't believe it," Flinn said.
Despite 72 pages of diligent, objective research complied and broken down into tables, graphs and simple language by the IWPR, people like Dwight Johnson of the Idaho Department of Labor still insist that Idaho's rankings are more in "the middle," according to a KBCI Channel 2 news report. In response to what she calls "denial," Flinn emphasized that even if Idaho's stats did fall closer to the average, they would not be nearly good enough. "I hope there will be a lot of change [in the next 10 years], but I'll be the first one to say that if we want to change anything important in the lives of women, people need to get more involved--women and men," she said.
Another especially resonant finding is the fact that of the eight states that make up the Mountain West region (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming), Idaho ranks 7th or 8th in almost every category. Add to that the fact that our neighbors Oregon and Washington are in the top five states for women's rights, and the poor conditions for Idaho women become even more glaring. As Heidi Hartmann, President of the IWPR said in a recent news release, "Nothing proves the power of public policy more than the gaping differences between states. Sometimes you can walk across a state line to go from good to bad ... for example, when you step across the state line from Idaho to Washington or Oregon."
As far as explanations go, it's all conjecture, but much can be attributed to the fact that Americans have the luxury of taking things for granted. Older generations fought tooth and nail for rights we now expect and choose not to exercise. It's as if women feel the battle is over even though true equality is still an uphill climb, especially in Idaho. But there are forces and individuals at work who remain optimistic even in the face of odds that seem more crippling than ever.
"The results are not good," Gonzalez Mabutt said, "but we have so much opportunity."
For more information on the IWPR and The Status of Women in Idaho, visit www.iwpr.org. For volunteer opportunities and Idaho policy information, call the Idaho Women's Network at 344-5738 or visit www.IdahoWomensNetwork.org.