Women’s Political Participation and Representation in the Washington Region

This month, on August 26th, we will celebrate Women’s Equality Day, designated as such by Congress in 1971 to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote.  As we approach the day to celebrate this milestone in women’s history, we see there is both much to celebrate, and much work to be done around women and civic and political engagement.

First, the good news: women are making it out the polls in record numbers. Today, women are actively voting, running for office and creatively using their individual and collective power to bring about social and community change. The Census Bureau reports that since 1996, the number of citizens who have reported voting has increased in every presidential election. As in the country as a whole, in our region women are the majority of voters, and both register and vote at a slightly higher number and proportion than men, particularly in the District of Columbia.

 Chart Voting by sex in Nov 2012

Source: The Women’s Foundation compilation of data from the Bureau of the Census, 2012

In the November 2012 election, slightly under three-quarters of DC women voted (71 percent) in comparison with 64 percent of men. This was more than ten percentage points higher than the national voting rates for women (59 percent) and  about ten percentage points higher for men (54 percent) in that election. Voting in Maryland and Virginia had lower rates than DC, closer to the national average; still, women’s civic participation was higher than men’s.

The same pattern holds for voter registration: Seventy-seven percent of DC women were registered to vote in 2012, in comparison with 72 percent of men, which was also higher than the national rates of 67 percent of women and 63 percent of men. In Virginia, 71 percent of women registered to vote compared to 66 percent in Maryland.

Now for the challenging news: While women may make up the majority of voters, there is a significant under-representation of women in political office. Today, women’s representation at the state and national levels falls short of the 51 percent needed to reflect their proportion in the population. For example, women only make up 18.5 percent of the US Congress: they hold just 99 of 535 full-voting Congressional seats, which is up from 90 in 2010.

The District of Columbia has one non-voting Congressional seat, which has been held by Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton for twelve terms. In Maryland, women hold two of the 10 Congressional seats: Senator Barbara Mikulski and Representative Donna Edwards. Thirty percent of the state legislature is made up of women and Maryland ranks 9th among states for the proportion of women in the state legislature.

Virginia holds 13 Congressional seats, none of which are currently filled by women.

The proportion of women in Virginia’s  state legislature decreased from 19 percent in 2010 to 17 percent in 2014. Virginia ranks 40th among states for the proportion of women in the state legislature. The governors of both Maryland and Virginia are men, and neither state has ever elected a woman governor.

Equal political representation for women at the national, state and local levels is critical as it increases the likelihood that laws and policies will reflect the needs and interests of women and their families. Last year, we hosted a brown bag lunch with Rebecca Sive, author of Every Day is Election Day: A Woman’s Guide to Winning Any Office, from the PTA to the White House, to discuss this important topic. We encourage you to read highlights from the conversation and tweet your thoughts using #UseThe19th.

In the 43 years since Women’s Equality Day was designated, we have made impressive strides in the number of women who turn up at the polls to make their voices heard; however, women still are not sufficiently represented in political office – a place where, more than just having a voice, they have a platform and the power to make critical change for women, their families and the communities in which they live.  We may be celebrating Women’s Equality Day this month, but equality in political office still remains far too aspirational. What can you do to raise your voice and be heard?

 

Rainmakers Giving Circle – Five Grants Awarded

Girls-on-the-runThis year, I have had the privilege of co-chairing the Rainmakers Giving Circle.  The Circle was organized under the auspices of The Women’s Foundation and provides grants to organizations that improve the lives of under-resourced girls and young women in the DC region.  I’m pleased to report that we are now 34 women strong and celebrating our 11th year of grantmaking.

The Rainmakers Giving Circle received over 100 proposals for funding this year.  We worked in teams to review and evaluate the proposals, ultimately selecting 11 organizations to receive site visits.   One of the most gratifying aspects of our work is spending time on site with the organizations’ staff and the young women they serve, asking tough questions and seeing their work in action.

After the site visit teams have a chance to confer, the Circle then gathers as a whole to hear reports on the site visits – always a spirited discussion – and then renders its decision by a vote.

I’m delighted to report that in this cycle we will be making grants to the following organizations:

  • Court-Appointed Special Advocate/Prince George’s County ($15,000)
  • FAIR Girls ($15,000)
  • Girls on the Run (Northern VA)  ($14,050)
  • Liberty’s Promise ($12,000)
  • Transitional Housing Corporation ($15,000)

Our funding decisions are always challenging, as we receive proposals from more organizations doing outstanding work than we are able to fund.  This year’s grantees distinguished themselves by having highly dedicated and talented staff, by developing creative and practical approaches in their programming, and by working through a strong “gender lens.”

This year we made one major change in our grant-making model:  We decided to move from an annual to a bi-annual grantmaking cycle. (In other words, we’ll be giving the grantees listed above the same amount of funding in the second year of a two-year grant cycle, provided that the grantees can demonstrate satisfactory progress in their program work at the end of the first year of funding.)  As we gathered the Circle for a post-mortem last year, a clear consensus emerged that we should move toward a “partnership” model in which we would work with our grantees in two-year cycles.

Over the years, several of us have been inspired to develop relationships directly with grantees by performing on-site volunteer work, fundraising, or serving as board members.   We want to learn more and do more.  We believe that increasing our investment in our grantees will give Circle members an opportunity to strengthen our relationships and to make an even greater impact in the community.

I joined the Rainmakers many years ago because I wanted to meet other women who shared my interests and to conduct my charitable giving in a more meaningful, hands-on way.  It is such a pleasure to work with this committed group of change-makers.  It has been a great opportunity to gain experience in collaborative grantmaking and to engage in the community, knowing that I’m helping to empower more young women through this shared effort than I could on my own.

 

 

 

In Her Words: Transportation Barriers

Katrice Brooks is a student at our Grantee Partner SOME’s Center for Employment Training (CET). Below, Katrice writes about her struggles with transportation and how her long, expensive commute affects her life and prospects for the future.

People opt to use public transportation for a variety of reasons: some to save on the cost of fuel and car maintenance, others to get back the time that they were losing driving.  Despite the benefits of driving enjoyed by few, some have no choice in the matter.

As a single mother and full time student, when I think of public transportation one word comes to mind: bittersweet. I am required to get up before the sun has risen every day of the week to take my daughter to daycare and to be at school before 8:30am.  My daughter, Lauren, is 20 months old, and because it is usually  so early in the morning, I have to carry her in one arm with my school books in the other because she is usually still asleep.  Traffic jams are very common during rush hours, meaning even more time on the bus, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and less time spent where I really want to be. I spend most Katrice-Quote-july-enewsof my time on public transportation, catching the eight buses a day I need to make it to where I need to be on time.  In this modern society, this is what I have to do to access my education, jobs, events and social network.

This commute affects the opportunities I would like to take advantages of to provide a better life for my daughter and me.  I am currently without a car, and the required fare needed to ride public transportation interferes with my family’s health, housing, medical bills, even food.  I am not willing to limit my daughter’s education quality due to transportation restrictions or be forced to change my preferred job options because of difficulty accessing affordable transportation choices. I cannot begin to mention the drop in my social activities caused by inadequate transportation. I’ve become isolated and miss normal social interactions. My daughter, Lauren’s, face is the reason I smile.  Every moment my daughter rises and opens her eyes, I want to be there for her.  With challenges like daycare, long daily commutes, feeding and preparing Lauren for bed, she’s too tired to do anything else, so I sing her favorite songs and off she goes to sleep preparing her little body for the next day ahead. Then I begin the load of work that has to be done before returning to class the next day.

I have decided to make a change in our lives.  With all the time we spend on public transportation, I don’t want to have to worry myself with a pick-pocket, or an irate and noisy commuter. Imagine how wearisome it can be when someone beside you is drunk, and you have to keep an eye on them the entire commute, all the while praying that they won’t harm your baby girl.   The SOME Center for Employment Training has been extremely helpful by providing me transportation assistance in the form of a smart trip card, but with the kind of commute I have on a daily basis it is nowhere near the amount I need to make ends meet.   Public transportation is an importation part of my life, but I am writing this essay to speak about the problems with public transportation, not only for myself, but also for other single mothers and passengers.

Transportation: Vital for Women’s Economic Security

Safe, efficient and affordable transportation is vital for women’s economic security. It ensures self-sufficiency by enabling timely access to employment and essential services –like grocery stores, child care centers and medical care –and allowing women to complete training and education programs.

Finding affordable housing for a working family, particularly in our region, increasingly requires long commutes and high transportation costs. With the dispersion of jobs, services and other opportunities, it is not surprising that workers are spending more and more time commuting than ever before. Low-income housing, in underserved urban neighborhoods as well as in suburban areas, is located far from employment centers or disconnected from public transportation routes, preventing workers from getting to their destinations conveniently, efficiently and on time. In addition, urban revitalization projects in the capital region have brought an influx of affluent newcomers, usually displacing low-income residents to poorer neighborhoods that are further away and that lack public transportation infrastructure; not only making commutes longer, but also requiring more transfers and circuitous routing.

Many of the women participating in programs run by our Grantee Partners have reported that lack of reliable transportation is one of the most pervasive barriers to remaining employed or completing job training. A number of research studies underscore this experience. Findings suggest that the longer the commute, the less likely someone is to be employed, and they agree that lack of access to transportation is a major obstacle for workforce development.

Time spent commuting deserves attention from policymakers and grantmakers. Given the reasonable bandwidth of most people, long and complicated commutes are particularly expensive for those who have them, and can affect a program’s intake rates. Long commutes take away personal time that can’t be spent working, on education, running errands, or simply enjoying time with family or taking care of children. In 2012, women’s average commute time in the Washington Region was 32 minutes. In the same year, more than a quarter of female workers (27 percent) had commutes of 40 minutes each way and about 3 out of  100 female workers had “extreme commutes” of at least 90 minutes per trip, according to the American Community Survey.

Transportation July e-news(10)

Commuting costs

In addition to consuming time, commuting is also expensive in terms of dollars and cents. Transportation costs rose faster than income during the 2000s, increasing the burden these costs placed on already stretched budgets. For the working poor – those earning less than twice the federal poverty measure–these costs consume a larger portion of their earnings.  In the Washington metropolitan area the cost-burden of commuting for this population is among the highest in the country, greater than the national median, and working poor households spend nearly three times more than other households, in relative terms. According to national data, transportation is the second largest expense for households: jointly with housing it accounts for more than one-half of all household spending.

What we are doing

Long and costly commutes discourage employment, leave workers with little to no time to spend with their families or to master the very skills needed for employment, and also leave them with fewer resources to accumulate savings and assets. Considering access to transportation is fundamental when The Women’s Foundation invests in programs working to improve the economic security of low-income women. We support efforts to link workforce development programs with transportation stipends, to ensure commuting to classes and meetings does not place an additional burden on or become a disincentive to women that would benefit from participating in our Grantee Partners’ programs. SOME, Year Up, and Goodwill are some of the many Grantee Partners providing some sort of transportation assistance as part of their education and training programs. This kind of assistance has proven to be a valuable approach in bridging the gap to meet low-income women’s needs, however, much more needs to be done to ensure transportation is not only accessible and affordable, but also safe and efficient. Considering transportation is crucial when developing policy recommendations and designing programs to lift women out of poverty so women can truly draw on and benefit from those initiatives.

What We Can Learn from Employers at The White House Summit on Working Families

The recent White House Summit on Working Families brought national attention to issues facing working families across our country. In the next installment in our series on the Summit, we’re distilling a few key messages from employers who participated in the Summit conversations. What would they tell other employers? What mattered in their decisions to adopt flexible workplace policies? How could companies meaningfully adapt to the 21st century workforce?

  • Tone at the top.  Mark Weinberger, Global Chairman and CEO of EY (the newly re-branded Ernst & Young) shared a personal story. For him, the decision to become Global Chairman and CEO last year was a family one.  When he was offered the position, he asked his family’s opinions and, while being clear about the time and travel responsibilities, made the commitment to still put family first. For his very first speech as Global Chairman, Mark was traveling to China. He prepared, and practiced, and prepared some more. From his account, the speech went well, but no one in the audience remembers it. What they remember instead is that –when asked if he’d be attending the dinner at the Great Wall later that day – he said no. No because his daughter had her driver’s test later that day, and he had promised her he’d be there. After that answer, he received hundreds of positive emails from his staff. Mark realized that he would have passed on his new position if he couldn’t have had the flexibility to prioritize family, and his talent would do the same.
  • Tone at the middle.  Bob Moritz, U.S. Chairman and Senior Partner of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, expanded on the need to balance priorities and specifically how we must adapt to the newest generation in our workforce: Millennials. Interestingly, he noted that – when polled on their views – both Millennials and Boomers had similar responses, valuing workplace flexibility (about 7 in 10 Millennials, and 6 in 10 Boomers). The difference, however, was how far those workers would act on their value of flexibility. Unlike Boomers, Millennials are willing to leave a company if they don’t get the flexibility that they’re seeking. For Bob, he knew PWC needed to adjust their policies, but he also knew this meant setting – or re-setting the “tone at the middle.” The company policies could change, but he needed his middle-aged management teams to see the value in these changes, and manage their Millennial employees accordingly. That has made all the difference in implementation.
  • Transparency and shared ownership work.  Dane Atkinson, CEO of SumAll, spoke during a discussion on worker compensation – clearly critical to the economic security of a worker and their family. As a serial entrepreneur, Dane had recently tried something new with his latest company: sharing a list of all salaries with employees. This move was not without its challenges but, as he explained, is a practice that attracts higher levels of talent to his company. Talent is attracted to talent, and a company that they know will value and support them.Kim Jordan, CEO of New Belgium Brewing Company, took another approach: shared ownership. For the craft beer company, that ownership is both literal (employee ownership was phased in and, as of December 2012, the company is 100% employee-owned) and a part of the fabric of their operating culture. They practice “high involvement culture” that includes open book management, inclusive annual strategic planning and a belief “that the collective is stronger than the individual and that informed coworkers will make responsible decisions.” If you read the company’s core values, you’ll see much of the typical aspirations – innovation, continuous improvement, customer value – but also some of the atypical – such as stating a value for “balancing the myriad needs of the company, our coworkers and their families.”

Wouldn’t you like to work for employers that have this vision, and provide these flexible policies?  Or if you do already, wouldn’t you like for others to also benefit from this flexibility? These were just a handful of the forward-thinking employers who shared their stories at last week’s Summit, showing that policies that benefit working families can also benefit corporate bottom lines.

The World Cup and 42 Years of Title IX

Women's World Cup Soccer TeamThe World Cup is on.

For my family and I, that means a month of watching soccer together and cheering for our teams.  Once again, sports bring us together!  I started to follow soccer as a child with my grandmother who was an avid fan and now I share this with my two daughters.  Both are athletes and have benefited tremendously from their participation in sports.  They have celebrated victories with their teammates, powered through defeats, attended countless trainings and are developing into confident and strong young women.  I can observe first hand the positive impact that playing sports has on girls.  Each time I attend an awards ceremony, I am amazed at the number of girls who are not only recognized for their athletic performances but also for their academic achievements.  As a parent, I was dreading the high school years, but I now look at my oldest daughter’s friends, the majority of whom are either field hockey or soccer teammates, and feel that she has surrounded herself with an amazing network.  The experience of our girls is not unique.  Research has touted the benefits of sports in reducing the risk of obesity and increasing self-esteem.  Studies have shown that girls who play sports are less likely to use drugs or smoke, and that there is a lower risk of teen pregnancy among athletes.  Girls involved in sports are also overall less likely to drop out of school. The list goes on and the lessons athletes learn on the field carry benefits that will enrich their lives well beyond the high school years.

My husband and I feel privileged to be able to offer these opportunities to our children but realize that not all girls and women have had the same experience. June 23rd marked the 42nd anniversary of Title IX.   After Title IX was voted into law in 1972, over forty years ago, girls’ involvement in high school sports increased dramatically from 295,000 in 1972 to over 3.2 million in 2012-13, according to National Federation of State High School Associations, and girls are becoming involved in sports at an earlier age.  However, there is still a gender and race disparity.  In 2013, girls’ participation in high school sports remains lower than that of boys in 1972.  That is a participation gap that spans four decades!  According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, only 64% of African-American and Hispanic girls play sports while 76% of Caucasian girls do.  Of all the many benefits around sports participation, the direct link between sports and education is critical.  Beyond the obvious sports scholarships, research shows that student athletes are more likely to graduate, an important fact when one takes into account that while overall, 24% of girls fail to graduate on time with a diploma, that number increases to 35% for African American and 34% for Hispanic young women. Not surprisingly, African American and Hispanic girls who have less participation in sports during their teenage years are at a greater risk to drop out.

While we can certainly celebrate the progress that has been made since 1972, there is still some work ahead of us.  All girls deserve to experience the joys and lessons of sports.  Let’s continue to debunk the myths that still exist around Title IX and encourage all to play sports. The U.S. Men’s National Team might be out of the World Cup this year, but in my house, we’re just as excited to see the U.S. Women’s National Team tear it up at the Women’s World Cup in 2015!

If you want to cheer on DC’s own women’s soccer team, join us on July 30th at the Washington Spirit’s game against FC Kansas City, where the team will be highlighting local non-profits, including Washington Area Women’s Foundation.  For discounted tickets to this game (and the rest of this season’s games), click here.

Takeaways from the White House Summit on Working Families

obama-working-families-summittYesterday, I had the privilege to attend the White House Summit on Working Families.  The White House hosted the Summit along with the Department of Labor and the Center for American Progress, to highlight and discuss some of the most pressing issues facing workers and families in our 21st century workplaces.

The Women’s Foundation will have a series of blogs on the Summit, but for now, here are my immediate takeaways:

1. Expect to hear more about paid family leave, especially parental leave; fair pay; and early learning. These were several policy areas the President explicitly mentioned in his speech. He also mentioned many more and announced new and greater flexibility for federal workers.

2. Get engaged at the local level.  National change is slow and, as the First Lady encouraged when she spoke to the Summit, we have to be okay with incremental progress of 20%, stacked on another 20%, and so on.  It is this steady – albeit slow – progress that can help us push forward.  On the local level, mayors and governors can enact change much sooner in their cities and states.  Likewise, CEOs can enact change in their own companies, and show others how these policies support workers and improve the bottom line.

3. Women everywhere, at all levels, are making sacrifices and choices.  As some women ascend, it is our responsibility to mentor the next generation and set “the tone from the middle” or “the tone from the top” – depending on where we are in our careers – and take it upon ourselves to create workplace cultures and policies that are fair, supportive and productive.

4. These are not just women’s issues.  These are issues for all working people, of all family types, and they can’t be pigeon-holed.  Whether it is a working dad, who wants to care for his infant in the first days of parenthood, or a childless worker that needs to take an elderly parent to a doctor’s appointment, issues like paid leave affect the ability of all working people to provide and care for their families while they earn a living and contribute to the economy.

Stay tuned for more in depth coverage of the Summit from The Women’s Foundation! In the meantime, you can find more information on http://workingfamiliessummit.org or check out the conversation on Twitter using #FamiliesSucceed.

Paternity Leave Roundtable Discussion

With Father’s Day just around the corner, we’ve been thinking quite a bit about how men and fathers are important allies in the work that we do. Part of the discussion around here has been about the role that paternity leave could play in women’s economic security, and with the White House holding the first ever Summit on Working Dads earlier this week, paternity leave has catapulted to the national level. Earlier this year, we also saw paternity leave make national headlines when New York Mets second baseman, Daniel Murphy, was harshly and inappropriately criticized for taking paternity leave and missing the first two games of the season. With all of this buzz, we decided to channel our paternity leave chatter and host our first recorded staff roundtable discussion. We are so excited to share it with you and would love for each of you to join the conversation by leaving thoughts, feedback and questions in the comments section below.

To begin our staff discussion, we watched part of the, “Can We All Have it All?” TED Talk from Anne-Marie Slaughter. With her thoughts as a jumping off point, we launched head first into our discussion on paternity leave, recorded for you below. (Note: The recording has been edited for time. The staff at the table for this discussion included Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat, Nicole Cozier, Donna Wiedeman, Claudia Williams, Lauren Stillwell and Jessica Zetzman.)

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As the discussion unfolded, we touched on:

  • The current state of paternity leave in the US
  • Feedback from our own Nicole Cozier, who just returned from maternity leave, on how the lack of spousal leave means leaving a young child in the care of a stranger vs. a partner (:36)
  • The model for paternity leave that exists in Sweden (1:23)
  • What the lack of paternity leave at a child’s birth means for gender roles and caregiving further down the road (2:07)
  • The need not only for leave when children are infants, but for more flexible schedules that encourage family engagement throughout a child’s life (4:45)
  • Family leave and prioritization of work and family (7:52)
  • Is “re-socializing men” the right way forward? (9:00)
  • The rate at which men use or take paternity leave if it were to be made available to them (11:36)
  • The economic effects on women’s future pay potential for every month that their partner takes leave (13:03)
  • Effect of paternity leave on divorce rates, custody and children’s health (14:50)

If you’re interested in any of the articles or statistics we referenced, here is the Secretary of Labor’s Huffington Post Article, a great New York Times article on the effects of paternity leave in Sweden, Pew research on the increasing role of women as breadwinners and the study on the correlation of lower child mortality rates and parental leave.

We want to know: what are your thoughts on paternity leave? Think we missed something? Leave your comments below!

Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month: A Snapshot of Our Region

During the month of May, festivities across the nation highlighted the contributions, richness and diversity of Asian and Pacific Islanders. Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month first started as a week-long celebration established in 1978 to commemorate the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants in May 1843, and the contributions of Chinese workers to the building of the transcontinental railroad, completed in May 1869.

Nationwide, Asian and Pacific Islander Americans have emerged as the nation’s fastest growing racial group, increasing by 51 percent between 2000 and 2012, growing from 10.7 million in 2000 to 16.1 million in 2012. The Washington region is no exception; Asian and Pacific Islanders numbered about 437,000 in 2012, up from 297,000 in 2000, and comprise 11 percent of the total population.

The groups with a larger presence in the Washington region are Indian, Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Vietnamese. But these groups do not even begin to uncover the enormous diversity of people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent that are our friends and neighbors, with ties to more than 20 ethnic groups, languages, religions, customs and origins.

This vast diversity influences the economic security and opportunities of Asian and Pacific Islander women in our region and beyond. While Asian and Pacific Islander women on average are only second to White women when analyzing economic indicators, it is not because everyone is doing well. Looking at the population of Asian and Pacific women without any nuance, glosses over the economic and educational inequities of the many groups that are part of this population.

Asian Americans are often considered to be high-achieving, high-earning and highly educated, but data from the 2010-2012 American Community Survey reveals, for example, that in the Washington region, roughly four out of ten Pakistani women (38 percent) are living at or below 200 percent of the poverty threshold, compared to slightly more than one out of ten Indian women (13 percent). Median annual earnings for full-time, year-round workers unearth stark disparities among women in this group as well; while Chinese women earn approximately $70,000 per year, Vietnamese women earn about $27,000 less.

A single-bloc analysis of the status of Asian and Pacific Islander women could leave the group out of important policy discussions. Immigration reform, for instance, is more likely to be associated as an issue of interest to the Latino community, and racial dialogues often times primarily focus on White and Black relations. The “model minority” stereotype, the idea that Asian Americans are landmarks of economic and academic success relative to other minorities, is an undermining factor that affects the most disadvantaged members of the Asian and Pacific community. This dangerous misconception can cause many who share significant challenges of achieving economic security to be overlooked.

To celebrate Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, let’s remember the vibrant diversity of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans and the importance of understanding the nuanced backgrounds of women and men, and girls and boys that make this such a vibrant community and allows us to better serve the diverse needs of every woman and girl in our region.

The source of data in this blog post is The Women’s Foundation analysis of the 2010-2012 and 2012 IPUMS American Community Survey, and 2000 Census.  

Memorial Day: One Veteran’s Perspective

Editor’s note: In honor of Memorial Day and the brave women and men who have sacrificed their lives for our country, we bring you today’s blog piece from a Women’s Foundation donor and supporter, Former Sergeant Stacy Kupcheni.

Memorial Day is a day to remember and honor military men and women who died in the service of their country, primarily in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle. Although female service members are included in the definition, they are often forgotten. Since the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, approximately 280,000 women have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and as of early 2013 more than 150 women have been killed in these wars, according to the military. This is more than the number of U.S. military women killed in action in Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm combined.

Memorial Day photoRecognition of these fallen women on Memorial Day is somewhat of an afterthought, and is a bit ironic, considering women were almost entirely responsible for the recognition of Memorial Day. Just weeks after the Civil War ended, Ellen Call Long organized a women’s memorial society to reconcile embittered enemies. Usually named some variant of “women’s relief society,” groups sprang up in both the North and South that not only memorialized the dead, but also cared for the war’s disabled and its widows and orphans. The efforts of these women led the way in turning the horrors of war into something that encouraged serenity and reflection.  Unfortunately, many people don’t know the significance that women have played in the origins of this holiday, but even more upsetting, is that all too often, we forget to spend the time reflecting on the meaning of the day itself.

Before joining the Army, I was like many other Americans who just thought of Memorial Day as another day off of school/work, another day for sales events, and the start of summer BBQs. People saying “Happy Memorial Day” didn’t bother me then, and honestly, the day had no true meaning to me. On some level, I knew it was a day for remembering and honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country, but I did not fully comprehend the scope of it.

After nearly 10 years of service in the military, and another 10 years of civilian service in the Department of Defense, 4 deployments to Iraq, and 1 deployment to Afghanistan, Memorial Day has taken on a new meaning.

To me, it is not only to remember and honor those who died in the service of their country, but also to honor those who returned home, like me, feeling like a shell of the person they once were.

No one who goes to war ever fully comes home – at least not in the emotional and psychological sense.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a very real battle wound that affects everyone differently. Some make it back mostly the person they were before, but many return only physically, forever unrecognizable psychologically.  These invisible wounds of war can be even more devastating than the battle scars that can be seen, but even harder to find support around.  This is a sad state of reality, and while strides have been made to provide mental health services to returning veterans, more must be done.

For many people, the military is a place that means opportunity for higher education and career advancement that they would not otherwise have access to – for me, it made the difference between going to college or not.  Yet, in many cases, the potential for economic security as a result from these opportunities is quickly negated by the impact of the psychological trauma caused by PTSD.  At best, PTSD can make it difficult to perform well at work.  But for many, the implications are farther reaching, resulting in an inability to keep a job, substance abuse, and other destructive behavior as coping mechanism.  For some, the trauma is just impossible to bear.

According to a 2012 Veterans Affairs study, 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Among active duty troops, 2012 was the worst year for military suicides – making troop suicide more lethal than combat, although this data has only been tracked since 2008.   As women, we are often expected to return to the roles that we led as spouses/partners, mothers, and caregivers while bearing these additional burdens of war.

This isn’t the kind of thing that most people want to talk about.  It’s heavy and it is hard.  But those are exactly the reasons why it is so important to talk about.  As a veteran, my desire is that every veteran returning from combat has access to the supportive services they need to try to return to their life at home as whole as they can be.

As a woman, I hope that these services reflect the full reality of our lives as spouses, mothers, sisters, etc., and that they also recognize the often tenuous line that returning veterans walk between economic security and insecurity when battling PTSD, especially women who are already at an economic disadvantage to our male counterparts in our society.

I hope that those who lose their battle with PSTD or “Shell Shock” after returning home are also recognized and honored with appreciation and reverence on Memorial Day because these too, were wounds sustained in battle.

But for today, this Memorial Day, I hope you will honor those among you who risk it all to serve their country by taking part in the National Moment of Remembrance at 3pm (local time).  Take the time to pause for one minute in an act of national unity, amongst the cook-outs and sales, to honor America’s fallen service members, their families, and the women long ago who made it a priority to recognize them.