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Santa Clara County’s Commission on the Status of Women still fighting for equality 50 years later

Santa Clara County’s Commission on the Status of Women still fighting for equality 50 years later

For Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, the rollback of Roe v. Wade — a landmark ruling that gave women the right to an abortion — is a “torturous example” of how 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision, women’s rights are not safe.

“We cannot relax,” she said. “We cannot count on our rights being protected.”

2023 marks the 50th anniversary of Santa Clara County’s creation of the Commission on the Status of Women — an advisory board that has established pay equity among the county workforce, provided menstrual products to those who need it and worked with incarcerated women to help reduce recidivism.

The commission recently celebrated its golden anniversary on Women’s Equality Day at an event held at LinkedIn’s headquarters in Sunnyvale. The festivities reflected on the last half century of women’s advocacy in the county and across the U.S., making special note of the ups and downs the 1970s held for women.

In particular, 1972 and 1973 were monumental years for the women’s rights movement, from the fight for abortion rights to the push for the ratification of the doomed Equal Rights Amendments and the National Organization of Women creating a rape task force to push for reform. All were “righteous fights” that county women have been a part of.

“We have a national history of women’s issues of being ignored or disregarded when we don’t essentially force the broader community to focus on them,” Ellenberg told the Mercury News. “I think that goes back to the suffragist movement. We sometimes erroneously say women were given the right to vote in 1920. We were not given anything. Women had to fight to get that and we seem to still have to fight for equal pay, for harassment free work environments, for childcare, for family leave and without women leading on these issues, they would not receive any public or political attention.”

In May, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors took a major step in addressing gender inequality by adopting the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, commonly referred to as CEDAW. The 1979 United Nations resolution is considered to be the international bill of rights for women, aiming to end gender discrimination in a myriad of settings.

The United States, however, failed to sign on, making it one of seven nations, including Iran, Sudan and Somalia, not to join the convention. Santa Clara County is the fourth county in the state to adopted CEDAW.

Lisa Liddle, the vice chair of the commission, called the adoption of CEDAW by the county “foundational” and said the work with the ordinance is only just beginning.

She said one of the starting points is looking at procurement and ensuring that the county is awarding contracts to companies that are providing women with equitable pay and haven’t been cited for sexual harassment or assault.

“Those differences of just making sure that we’re keeping vendors accountable to the county and watching that they have the quality and values that the CEDAW ordinance has is really a baseline that will help us be better at supporting our community and making the rest of the county accountable to the standards,” Liddle said.

Supervisor Cindy Chavez, another fierce proponent of women’s rights locally, pointed to the county’s ability to quickly test rape kits as one of the many reasons the commission is still needed 50 years after its creation. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimates that 90 percent of adults who are sexually assaulted are women.

In 2020, the county announced it had eliminated its entire rape kit backlog starting in May 2018 and was processing them within two weeks — twice as fast as the 30 day goal it had set for its crime lab.

The supervisor said it’s one thing to set a guideline, but another to ensure it’s actually being met.

“Imagine there are places in this country today that don’t have any guidelines for how quickly they test and more often in those places they don’t even investigate these as crimes,” Chavez said. “We as a community need to say we are prioritizing the welfare of women because we understand that the welfare of all people has to be fair and equal in order to have a society that really functions in a way that we all want to raise our kids in.”