Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 13, 2010

Don’t wilt those laurels

“The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.” ~ African proverb

Lately I seem to vacillate between being encouraged about the state of affairs in the United States and being discouraged.

When I consider that we elected an African-American president during my lifetime, a prospect that was laughable when I was born, I’m encouraged about the progress that we’ve made in race relations. But when I consider the racist slurs that frequently appear in right-wing protests aimed at our president and his policies; or when I consider that the supposedly moderate Republican governor of Virginia issued a proclamation honoring the treasonous secessionist movement called the Confederacy that didn’t mention slavery; or when I consider that this country incarcerates black males at eight times the rate of white males; I realize that we have a long, long way to go.

When I consider that society is so much more tolerant of gays and lesbians than it was in my youth, and I realize that the rates of acceptance are even higher among younger generations, I’m encouraged about the progress we’ve made. When I consider the shameful, bigoted, homophobic way that Constance McMillen, an 18-year-old lesbian who wanted to take her girlfriend to the prom at Itawamba Agricultural High School in northern Mississippi, was treated by school officials and her peers; or when I consider that in the vast majority of the United States, gays can’t marry or claim Social Security survivor benefits for their partners; or when I consider that the failed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that harms our military is still the law of this land; I realize that we have a long, long way to go.

And then there’s women’s rights — at first blush, it seems like that’s a done deal, with no work remaining. Women were granted the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution. In the ensuing 90 years, women secured access to information about birth control (after overturning a ban that labeled such information as obscene), the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, the Civil Rights Act banned gender-based discrimination in 1964, and individual states began to criminalize marital rape in 1976.

But then I learned that the American Association of University Women has designated April 20 as Equal Pay Day. The AAUW says that Equal Pay Day “signifies that a typical woman must work into Tuesday of a new week to be paid the wages earned by a typical man in the previous week. Over women’s working life, wage disparity costs the average American woman and her family about $500,000 — more for women with professional degrees.”

When you consider that women are now graduating from high school, enrolling in college, and graduating from college at higher rates than men, you might think that women would at least be earning the same amount as men, on average. You’d be wrong. The pay gap not only persists, but the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2005 that it was widening, with women earning 75.5 percent of what men earn on average.

Clearly, much work remains on all of these fronts, and many more.

What’s the lesson here? My best advice for anyone who has a proverbial elephant to eat is to look up periodically to get a long view of progress achieved, but to not allow that to create a premature sense of satisfaction so that the many unconsumed bites that remain are forgotten.

Let’s celebrate the fact that we elected an African-American president, but realize we still must work to stamp out racism and to fix the societal reasons that we incarcerate so many young black men.

Let’s celebrate the fact that our young people are more tolerant of their gay and lesbian peers, colleagues and neighbors than their parents and grandparents, but realize that we still must work to remove the forms of sexual orientation-based discrimination that remain in our society.

Let’s celebrate how far women have come in academia and the work place, but realize that we still must work to ensure that equal pay isn’t just an ignored statute in dusty law books.

We owe it to those who worked so hard to achieve the progress that we enjoy to celebrate their efforts and  accomplishments, but we also owe it to them to work just as hard to finish the job.

“Nothing wilts faster than laurels that have been rested upon.” ~ British poet Percy Bysse Shelley

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