Empowering women from Alaska to Afghanistan

Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2010

"The battle for the individual rights of women is one of long standing and none of us should countenance anything which undermines it."

-- Eleanor Roosevelt

In the nearly half century since Eleanor Roosevelt's time, women's advancement has dramatically changed the way we live. Yet we have much further to go to empower women everywhere, from Alaska to Afghanistan. March is Women's History Month, a chance for us to celebrate the achievements of female trailblazers, assess the current landscape for women and determine a path forward for future generations. I believe Alaskan women in particular are emblematic of the "can do" attitude that has transformed America and the world.

This week, our nation paid tribute to three such Alaskans who served in the Women Airforce Service Pilots, an elite group of women who flew military aircraft during World War II. Hometown heroes Nancy Baker and Virginia Wood of Fairbanks, and Ellen Campbell of Juneau selflessly defended our nation in a way that women never had before and were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol. These fearless women symbolize the spirit of America's "Last Frontier."

We also recently cheered on four female Alaskan athletes who became part of history in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Holly Brooks and Kikkan Randall of Anchorage, Callan Chythlook-Sifsof of Girdwood, and Kerry Weiland of Palmer were all fierce competitors, delivering remarkable performances in their events. Their efforts, determination and team spirit helped the U.S. break the overall record for the number of medals won by a country in the Olympics. We are proud of these Alaskan women, who are role models for young girls everywhere.

Women in Alaska join a growing trend of women across our nation rising through the ranks in boardrooms, legislatures, classrooms, courtrooms, and in other professions. Today, females constitute half of the workforce, receive more than 60 percent of university degrees, and are growing businesses two and a half times faster than the growth in the overall business sector. During the economic downturn, women have been the glue holding many households together. Three out of four people who have lost jobs since the recession began are men, leaving many families to rely on the wife's income while the husband seeks work.

We also have witnessed the rapid progress of women in leadership positions throughout the world. For example, there are now 25 female ambassadors stationed in Washington, the highest ever, and five times the number that were present a decade ago. In Alaska, 46 women have reached the top level of public service in the State Executive Branch, the highest number yet. As leaders, women bring a different perspective to the table. Issues that affect families, such as poverty, health care, education and domestic abuse now receive more attention.

While women have forged a strong path ahead, problems still plague women in underserved communities, developing countries and war torn regions. Early this year, I joined a Congressional delegation tour of Afghanistan. In Helmand province in the south, I was the only women to be found in public. In fact, I was likely the first female face that many young boys, accustomed to seeing women covered from head to toe, had seen. While women have made gains in a post-Taliban era, they still suffer from a wide range of injustices, including forced marriages, lack of access to education or healthcare, and domestic abuse.

Alaskan women enjoy freedoms unimaginable to Afghan women, yet we too have challenges to confront. Our rates of fetal alcohol disorders are four times the national average. This is unacceptable and preventable -- simply consume no alcohol during pregnancy. Far too many Alaskans also come home to the reality of domestic violence, a problem I thank our governor for tackling head on.

In observance of Women's History Month, let's applaud the progress and accomplishments of women everywhere, including Alaska's female pioneers, as we continue to promote freedom, justice and equality for all women. I think Eleanor Roosevelt would approve.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is Vice Chair of the Senate Republican Conference.

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