It’s now five years since the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed into law. Named in honor of the woman who sued her employer over being paid significantly less than her male counterparts, the law represents a major milestone in the fight for women’s equality in the workplace. So, of course, does the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which entitles employees to job-protected leave for “specified family and medical reasons,” including childbirth and caring for an ailing family member – a service performed most often by women.
While great progress has indeed been made, women still struggle for equal treatment in many areas of modern life. And as we at AARP Foundation know well, older women in particular bear an inordinate share of the burdens of hunger, inadequate housing, insufficient income and social isolation.
March is Women’s History Month, so it’s a fitting time to take a look at how AARP Foundation programs are serving older women and, not surprisingly, how women take a lead role in helping all of those older Americans struggling to meet their basic needs.
I came to AARP Foundation after serving for 18 years as president of Wells College in upstate New York. During my tenure there, I could always turn to a source of extraordinary inspiration about a 20-mile drive away – the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, in Seneca Falls. Commemorating the indelible courage, moral vision, and civic spirit of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and many others at the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention, this site reminds us of how far our country has come in fulfilling the promise of equal opportunity.
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Today, I serve as president of a foundation whose parent organization, AARP, was established by an equally remarkable and forward-looking individual, Ethel Percy Andrus, whose watchword was service. As I reflect on the meaning of Women’s History Month, I think not only of our founder and of those 19th century pioneers of freedom but also of the daily struggles of so many vulnerable older women in America. Reaching out to them, connecting them to opportunity, helping them meet basic needs, we carry forward the shining spirit of both Seneca Falls and Ojai, California, where Ethel Percy Andrus began helping retired teachers, the vast majority of whom were women.
A few statistics reveal how vital our work at AARP Foundation is for women. It’s a fact of life that women outlive men, so it should come as no surprise that more women than men live in retirement facilities and nursing homes and that they therefore make up the majority of those suffering from social isolation. In fact, when we launched a pilot program more than a year ago to address social isolation, nearly 75 percent of those who took part were women. And in our Connecting to Community program, which provides low-income 50+ adults with training in the use of tablets and other Internet-based devices to stay socially connected, one class of 15 students included 14 women.
In our Impact areas of Hunger and Housing, women also represent the majority of those served. For example, in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), supported by the Foundation, 80 percent of those receiving benefits are women and children. And many of the clients of our Housing Solutions Center, which offers free HUD-certified counseling on foreclosure prevention, are surviving spouses, the vast majority of whom are – you guessed it – women.
Our Finances 50+ workshops, which help low-income older adults learn how to manage their money better, are a particular boon for older women. And our Back to Work 50+ program, which connects older job candidates to specific in-demand jobs in their communities, has served more than 2,000 job seekers in the last year, 64 percent of whom are women. This year, through a new collaboration with the American Association of Community Colleges and with generous support from the Walmart Foundation, Back to Work 50+ will focus specifically on the needs of low-income, older adult women.
So we all take great pride in the fact that our efforts at AARP Foundation on so many fronts are improving the lives of older women. But there is also a double meaning to the title of this column, A History of Helping Women. There is a lesson for all of us, men and women alike, in the history of women in this country. It is a history of service, a history of caregiving, a history of sacrificing the needs of self for the needs of others. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let us keep that proud history of service in mind.