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Some of the greatest progress has been made in admissions to law and medical schools. A third of the graduating class of Harvard Medical is made up of women. Law has had to practice what it has preached and legislated. When Justice O'Connor graduated from law school in 1952, the only job she was offered by major West Coast law firms was that of legal secretary. Now, if a firm wants the top of the law school class, it has to skim women along with men in the cream of the crop; 30.2% of 1981's graduates were women.
Over the past ten years, women have made significant progress in professional education. Women who left the campus with engineering degrees, for example, rose from .8% in 1971 to 10.4% last year.
But lawyers, doctors and women in what might be called high-profile jobs (journalism, publishing, broadcasting, fashion) take an outsize portion of public attention, partly because they are attractive exemplars of what is possible. But it is at the nether end of the economic scale that the hardest battles are being fought, and it is there that the statistics begin to take on the proportions of a body count.
Poverty is a longstanding social problem that hits American women with particular force. "Female heads of households are the disproportionate group of people in poverty," says Columbia University Economist Eli Ginzberg. "The feminization of poverty" is Sociologist Diana Pearce's blunt phrase for it. A Census Bureau report covering 1980 just goes by the numbers: "About one-half of all families below the poverty level in 1980 were maintained by women with no husband present. The poverty rate for such families was 32.7%, compared with 6.2% for married-couple families, and 11% for families with a male householder, no wife present." The report indicates that 50.8% of the female-headed families with related children under age 18 were poor. Seventy-five percent of absent fathers contribute no child support at all. The Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which spent $6.8 billion in fiscal 1981, will be spending only $5.4 billion in fiscal '83.
Work must be done, but work cannot always be had.
When government services are curtailed, it is not only a small, fixed income that is lost, but jobs as well. The people dealing out federal funds are often one step away from poverty themselves, and as Cornell University's Barbara Wertheimer points out, "when you cut out services to the poor, you're also cutting the jobs that are held by women—child-care attendants, home health aides and the like. It's a double whammy." The disproportionate share of the reduction in federal programs is inexorably borne by the black working woman, "For me," adds M.I.T.'s Phyllis Wallace, "the shocking thing is that most families with black women as heads are impoverished, and nearly half of all black children are in these families. The problem is how to improve the chance for these women to get jobs in the private sector." Women in black families almost always had to work;