Poverty, Pregnancy, Prison: The Cost of Being Female in America

As I watched an episode of the hit show, Orange is the New Black, a comment was made about a transgendered woman that captured my attention. The comment was, “I don’t know why anyone would give up being a man? It’s like hitting the lottery and giving the ticket back.” After hearing the comment I took a long pause. There was something eerily true about it. Being a man in America seems to come with perks and benefits, while being a woman comes at a cost. Just a glimpse of President Obama’s multi-million dollar, My Brother’s Keeper Initiative that invests solely in young minority males, while excluding young minority females and it’s clear to see how men benefit while women are left to fend for themselves.

As a woman, as I consider the price women already pay in childbirth pains, monthly cycles, and waxing, to say the least, the cost of being a woman should be paid up! But women obviously haven’t paid enough. There is an exorbitant cost associated with being a woman in America. Women are paying the high cost of poverty, restricted reproductive rights, and unfair treatment in an unjust penal system.

In forty-two percent of American families, women are the sole income earners. One in three American women, or 42 million women, to be exact, live in or just at the line of poverty. Two-thirds of all minimum wage earners in America are women who aren’t paid a livable wage that allows them to provide for themselves and their families. Women languish in poverty because there is no workplace protection for women in America that secures them a livable wage, equal pay, or paid leave. Women also languish in poverty because Congress failed to pass the Minimum Wage Fairness Act that would have lifted millions of women from poverty. Poverty is a cost that far too many women are paying in America!

But it’s not just through a lack of financial fairness that women are paying an exorbitant cost in America, but women are paying with restricted freedoms.

As corporations are now seen as people, the rights of corporations are given precedence over the rights of women. The recent decision handed down by the Supreme Court now allows employers to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage for women. Women no longer have the right to make reproductive decisions on their own, their employers now get to a say. Forget the fact that healthcare is not something that is given to women, rather it is a part of the compensation women earn by working. That is of little consequence. Women are now paying twice the cost of healthcare. They are paying the cost for coverage itself, and paying the cost of the denied freedom to choose the type of coverage they deem suitable. Women are having to pay for coverage, but denied the benefit of personal choice to plan pregnancies and to regulate other health related concerns that contraceptives manage.

But it’s not just restricted reproductive rights where women are paying the high cost of freedom, women are also paying this cost in an unjust penal system.

It should be disturbing to hear that women are incarcerated at a higher rate than men. From 1995 to 2009 alone the incarceration rate of women rose 203%. Mass incarceration and the privatization of prisons seem to be the areas in which women become the lottery ticket holders in America. Deals reached between states and private corporations that own prisons have established lock up quotas that demand a 90% occupancy rate. To meet these terms women become a commodity in the penal system. However, women are paying far more than in the sheer numbers of incarceration.

Incarcerated women are subjected to some of the most unfair treatment in prison. Most women are in prison for non-violent drug related or property offenses. However, prisons not only offer female prisoners fewer programs than men, but they don’t offer rehabilitative services that address the trauma that led to incarceration and that helps combat recidivism. Just one example of the lesser services for women is a parenting program offered at 27 men’s prisons and just 2 women’s prisons in the eastern part of the United States. And it’ doesn’t stop with the unfair treatment where women in prison are concerned, but it’s also the inhumane treatment women experience while in prison. Physical and sexual abuse at the hands of staff, forced sterilization, and being shackled during childbirth are just a few of the atrocities women face in prison. An incarcerated woman in America should not be stripped of her dignity and humanity. This is too high a cost to pay.

Women deserve better and are worthy of more!

We should not be satisfied with a country that is content to pull out chairs, open doors, and behave in manner of chivalry towards women, while doors that lead to financial and personal freedoms remain closed. It is my hope that we would build a country where both genders see themselves as lottery winners, and where equality, dignity, and humanity are spread to all regardless of the XY Chromosome make up.

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