Now Lawmakers Must Help Women

COMMENT

February 06, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

Debating whether or not creating a women's commission in Carroll County is good public policy is a moot issue now, but the problems facing this county's women remain.

Since five of the county's six legislators -- Sens. Charles Smelser and Larry Haines and Dels. Richard Dixon, Donald Elliott and Richard Matthews -- refused to introduce legislation that would have authorized a county commission, they now have a duty to address those issues the commission would have handled.

However, if they are going to be of any use to Carroll's women, these five males will need to raise their consciousness quite a bit. They will have to immerse themselves in some of the pressing needs of Carroll's women, which differ quite a bit from the characterizations leveled by the opponents of the proposed commission.

Promoting lesbian rights or abortion are not, for instance, the top priorities of Carroll's women, as the legislators will discover. Those were red herrings thrown out to distract the legislators and to distort the women's commission supporters as some radical fringe.

Although women are often called a minority group, the reality in Carroll is that they are a majority group, according to the 1990 U.S. Census. Carroll's total population is 123,372; women comprise 50.7 percent of that. Of 49,122 females who are 15 years or older, 62 percent are married and have a spouse living with them. Ten percent of Carroll's women are widowed, about 7 percent are divorced and about 3.5 percent are separated from their spouses.

Other statistics show that about one-fifth of Carroll households are headed by women. About half of those are women who live alone, the rest are primarily single-parent households.

Even though Carroll has women of all ages, races, religion, income and education levels, they all have to deal with the same problems and obstacles -- problems that cannot be smoothed over with political rhetoric.

Take the fact that more than half of Carroll's women are employed.

Working women have daily struggles with a wide range of problems, from inequitable pay to lack of child care.

I expect the Carroll lawmakers to convene a hearing or two to examine how pay and promotion policies discriminate against women. As part of their investigation, they should conduct surveys of industry and local government to see how many women are in supervisory positions and are appointed to county boards. A women's commission would have undertaken such an examination. Now, the lawmakers will have to do it.

The next workplace topic our legislators ought to learn about is sexual harassment. Some bosses and co-workers make gratuitous comments and sexual innuendoes and never suffer any consequences. Others fondle and demand sex in exchange for promotions.

If the anti-discrimination and harassment laws that are on the books are not working, Carroll's delegation to the General Assembly ought to enact the necessary legislation so women can do their jobs without fear and intimidation.

Other issues germaine to women who work are providing more day care, after-school care and care for sick children. Working women are also interested in how the responsibilities of motherhood can affect their prospects for career advancement.

Neither should the legislators neglect the other half of Carroll's adult female population whose job is running their households.

These women are among the most neglected. They are taken for granted by the rest of society, but the problems they face are as real as those of women who receive a paycheck for their work. Many of them need education and training programs. Others need instruction on health, safety and child-rearing issues. I hope the lawmakers follow the example of Frederick County, which established its women's commission in 1992 and has already sponsored a survey of women's home, health and safety needs.

Domestic violence is another constant threat for too many women. For too long this problem has been swept under the carpet. If the legislators don't want to take my word for it, they should listen to Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman. In a letter supporting creation of the women's commission, he wrote: "I see women who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. . . . I advocate the need for tougher laws to protect family issues and for education to better inform legislators and the community as to the services available for women."

By taking on the responsibility of handling these issues, the Carroll delegation is shouldering a burden that 14 other county delegations -- including St. Mary's, Garrett, Allegany, Calvert and Washington -- don't have. I can only conclude that Carroll's senators and delegates think this responsibility is so important that they are afraid to entrust it to anyone else. All of us will be watching our legislators deal with women's issues in this election year.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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