As the 49th National Association of Commissions for Women (NACW) Annual Conference, we must remind ourselves of the imperative and unique role that Women’s Commissions have played – and continue to play – across the country. For over fifty years, these commissions have been tasked with gaining an understanding of the issues affecting women and girls, reporting this information effectively to government officials and legislators, and developing a legislative and advocacy agenda informed by the lived experiences of all women and girls within their region.
Their beginnings in the United States can be traced to President John F. Kennedy when he established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) in 1961 and named Eleanor Roosevelt its chair. When the PCSW issued the American Women report in 1963, they called for the creation of state level commissions on the status of women to carry on the work. The Regional Administrators of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau and other national women’s organizations played a critical role in the establishment and growth of these commissions. By 1967, every state, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia had established a commission on the status of women. Hundreds of other women’s commissions operated at the regional, county, and municipal level.
In the early-2000s, the number of active commissions began to decline. State level Women’s Commissions dropped to thirty-six and other commissions decreased from a high of 230 to a currently unknown number. Throughout the nation, commissions were being shuttered or subsumed by other departments in order to consolidate resources and dilute their effectiveness. Many commissions lived solely on paper as governments failed to fund, seat, or staff them. Many considered these commissions no longer necessary because of a misguided belief that women had achieved a satisfactory level of equality.
However, statistics continue to reflect systemic gender inequality within leadership. As of 2018, women held only 25.3% of the Seats of Corporate Boards (2020 Women on Boards), 23.4% of Seats in the United States House of Representatives, and made up only 4.8% of Fortune 500 company CEOs (PEW). As of 2019, only 18% of the nation’s Governors are women (PEW). The proportion of women of color who serve in these positions is significantly less.
There is still much progress to be made in order to promote and protect women’s access to leadership roles and decision-making bodies. Despite the growing number of women serving in the 116th Congress and running for office, those tasked with making policy decisions at the state and federal level often have had little direct interaction with issues women in their communities find imperative, and therefore limited knowledge of their experiences and struggles. Today, that indifference has led to a renewed surge towards gender equity and intersectionality that brought the #MeToo, the #TimesUp, the #HimforHer, and the Equal Means Equal movements as well as other national and worldwide efforts led by women to improve the conditions of women and girls.
These efforts have also created an urgency to re-establish Women’s Commissions across the country to focus on many of the issues that were long-ignored or inadequately addressed. Community leaders at the local, county, regional, and state levels are realizing the importance of an entity that is an invaluable liaison between women and girls and their representatives. Women’s Commissions are structured to inform policymakers of the status of and issues faced by women and girls within their communities, based on thorough research, public hearings, forums, and alliances with community organizations.
Because Women’s Commissions are created and appointed by municipal, county, or state government officials, they are an institutional body with the authority and ability to advocate for legislation that will address the issues facing women and girls and promote full gender equality and equity. They advocate for policies that will promote women’s leadership, access to healthcare, childcare, family support, and that will combat violence against women. They are charged with representing and advocating for all women in their region, especially the most vulnerable, who may be unable to advocate on their own behalf. In a system in which the voices of women and girls are too often silenced, it is important that there exists an institutional body dedicated to supporting and advocating for them.
Women’s Commissions are among a limited number of institutional bodies who are specifically tasked with engaging in gender analysis, a tool which allows leaders to gain an understanding of how social, economic, and political issues uniquely affect women and girls. Gender analysis creates informed, conscientious policy that reflects the diverse and intersectional experiences of women and girls and is the first step in the process of gender mainstreaming, which involves the careful assessment of the differing implications of policy and legislation for individuals of different genders. Their work inherently normalizes gender perspectives among both the legislature and the general population.
In their work, Women’s Commissions directly communicate with both the legislature and community members/organizations. They are uniquely positioned to ensure that community-based organizations and their staffs, who interact with women and girls in their communities daily and who are well versed in their needs and struggles, can play a role in the policy-making process. Women’s Commissions are necessary to continue to advocate for policies that empower women in all areas of life.
Next year, in 2020, the nation will continue to focus attention on women’s progress and take stock of what has been left unaccomplished. Communities throughout the country will commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women Bureau will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its creation and its efforts to formulate standards and policies that promote the welfare of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, increase their efficiency, and advance their opportunities for profitable employment (Women’s Bureau).
Finally, NACW will celebrate 50 years of gathering board and staff members of Women’s Commissions throughout the country to connect, discuss emerging trends and best practices, and create strong bonds of mutual support. Not only will it be a time to renew commitment to sustain, strengthen and advocate for Women’s Commissions, it will also be an opportunity to promote equality and justice for all women and girls so that they are represented and empowered in their communities.
Kristin Svyantek Garvey
National Association of Commissions for Women