There’s a lot to be said about living in the Southern United States. We’ve got Bojangles, hush puppies, sweet tea, and we get to say “bless your heart” without irony. But all the comfort food in the world can’t make up for the fact that the South has a legacy of inequality that promises to persevere well into the next generation.
A recent report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that by most measures, women in the south face more socioeconomic challenges than those in the rest of the country. Southern women are not represented in the government, nor do they have anything approaching equal pay. Latinas in the south are the lowest paid group in the entire United States.
The report did show a small bit of good news: Among southern states, North Carolina is one of the highest-performing states in the Southeast in terms of equal rights for women. In NC, women have more equal earnings and more reproductive rights than in many other southern states. This is less a statement about NC’s progressive politics than one about how backwards the south actually is.
In the last decade NC has passed laws that:
- Make abortion less accessible
- Make health insurance not reachable for lower income women
- Take away food benefits for needy unemployed workers
- Create challenges for poor people at the voting booth
And yet we still rank third among the 14 southern states that IWPR studied. But they didn’t grade on a curve. NC got an overall C- based on political participation, family balance, health, and earnings. The lowest-ranking state, Alabama, earned a D-.
Despite making up more than half of the population, women in North Carolina are not equally represented in government. The Institute calculated how long it would take to achieve political parity, given the current rate of growth. It estimates it will be 2076 when women hold office at the same rate men do. Although this sounds alarming– my 8-year-old will be retirement age!– it looks way worse in West Virginia, where it will be 2249 before women have equality in the executive branch.
North Carolina is actually in the top half of states in the country for income equality. Women who are employed full time make 87.5% of what their male counterparts earn, and 40% of full time employed women work in managerial positions. Single mothers, women of color, and women with illness or disability fare much worse. The Institute estimates NC’s Gross Domestic Product would increase by 12 billion if women achieved income equality here.
The first step towards equality is action at the neighborhood level. Talk to a friend about how inequality plays out in your community and state. Make appointments with your elected officials, and write letters about what matters to you. Let the businesses you frequent know that you are watching, and that you will choose to spend money at places that take care of their female employees the same way they do males.
And finally, vote, vote, vote. Vote in municipal elections, for statewide offices, and in national elections. North Carolina’s primary is soon, but it’s not the only game in town. Be sure to pay attention to school board elections, county commissioners, and judge races. It is only by starting at the bottom that we can affect change on a widespread level.