Half of American Women Feel Unsafe Because They Are Women

By Jeni Klugman and Elena Ortiz

March 31, 2021

The US ranks 19th out of 167 countries in the world in terms of women’s status and opportunities, according to the Georgetown Institute of Women, Peace and Security. Countries like Norway and Canada score best while Afghanistan and Yemen are at the bottom.

But country averages can conceal large disparities within national borders. Indeed, when Georgetown undertook investigations of all 50 states and Washington DC, we found Massachusetts at the top scored four times higher in terms of women’s status and opportunities than Louisiana at the bottom (figure 1), with large racial disparities in every state. Black women in New Jersey, for example, experience maternal mortality at rates nearly quadruple those for white women.

There is much to do to advance the status of women in the US and the Biden administration—and its new White House Gender Policy Council tasked with advancing gender equality and combatting systemic discrimination— is well positioned to embark on the reforms needed.

Note: Possible index scores range from a low of 0 to a high of 1

Source: GIWPS & PRIO 2019.

There is widespread support for this agenda: four in five adults believe it is important for elected officials to advance gender equality, according to a Georgetown survey in partnership with YouGov and Perry Undem.

Where do we start? We argue that the Biden administration should focus on women’s legal protections, affordable childcare, and sexual and reproductive health.

First, universal legal protections for women are key, including ensuring abusers do not have access to firearms. Only 13 states currently enforce the relinquishment of firearms by domestic violence perpetrators subject to protective orders. Shortfalls in national legislation mean that women are at higher risk of violence: when an abuser has access to a gun, victims are five times more likely to be killed.

Across the country, nearly half of women surveyed said they “feel unsafe because they are a woman” frequently or sometimes in their daily life. Strengthening legal protections for women, including the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), is a critical entry point for increasing security and justice.

The updated VAWA, passed in the House and pending Senate approval, would be a major step forward. For the first time, it would prevent perpetrators of stalking from accessing firearms, grant tribal courts authority to prosecute non-Indigenous perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women, and close the “boyfriend loophole”, a current shortfall in federal law that allows abusers who have not formerly cohabitated with victims to access firearms.

Women also need basic economic rights – including decent pay. President Biden has pledged to increase the federal hourly minimum wage to $15, which would benefit 23 million working women, including 43 percent of single working women and more than one in three women of color. Women are better positioned to leave abusive relationships and fight workplace harassment when they earn a living wage.

Second, access to affordable childcare is critical to ensuring equal opportunities in the workplace – a need that has been amplified by the COVID-19 crisis. Women are leaving the workforce during the pandemic at four times the rate of men, and Black, Latinx, and women of color—disproportionately represented among low-wage workers—have left the workforce at even higher rates due to childcare needs. Even before the pandemic, American mothers were 40 percent more likely than fathers to report that lack of childcare harmed their careers. This has short term repercussions on financial security and child wellbeing and long-term costs for women’s career prospects and retirement earnings.

Countries as varied as Australia and South Korea have shown how government policies can alleviate the burdens of caregiving on women.  President Biden has pledged to support states in subsidizing childcare in order to ensure that it is universally affordable, and to provide access to free, high-quality pre-kindergarten for children ages 3-4 years.

The COVID-19 Relief Bill allocates $39 billion to support affordable childcare through subsidies to childcare centers and low-income parents. While this legislation offers much-needed immediate relief, the administration should work to expand and sustain federal support for childcare in the post-pandemic period in order to facilitate paid work for women and strengthen the long-term prospects for children, especially low-income children of color.

Third, there is a critical need to safeguard access to reproductive healthcare and a woman’s right to choose. Our index reveals huge gaps across states in access to reproductive health services. In Wyoming, fewer than 1 in 20 women live in a county with an abortion provider, compared with 19 in 20 women in states like California.  All state Medicaid programs cover abortion costs in extreme cases— rape, incest, and when the mother’s life is in jeopardy (although South Dakota only covers the last case). While states have the option to cover a broader range of abortions with their own funds, only 16 states currently cover abortions for low-income women insured by Medicaid.

Ensuring access begins with several key reforms in the Democratic Party platform, namely reversing roll-backs to the Affordable Care Act’s coverage of contraception and reversing the changes to patient non-discrimination protections and religious exemptions that the Trump administration introduced.  Targeted grants could be used by the Biden administration to incentivize states to expand funding dedicated to ensuring universal access, especially for low-income women.

Women’s safety, economic opportunities, and access to healthcare interact in important ways, especially for women who are disadvantaged on other fronts.  Because gender inequality in the US is compounded by racial and class-based discrimination, intersectional approaches to reform are needed. The Biden Administration, with the important new Gender Policy Council in place, should undertake the further reforms needed to demonstrate that advancing the status and opportunities for all women and girls in the United States is indeed a top priority.

Dr. Jeni Klugman is Managing Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. Elena Ortiz is a senior at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and a research assistant at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.