When I worked on Northwest dailies, beat reporters were expected to file year-ender reports, summarizing what had happened that year. Staffers would often grouse about producing the so-called “rear-enders” used to fill pages on light-news days with elections over and Congress in recess.
If I have a “beat” today at Post Alley, it would likely be “women’s and minority rights.” Looking at that area of interest this past year, I’d have to say that 2023 was a case of one step forward and one or two backwards. There were notable gains but worrisome setbacks as well.
On the political scene, women – more than 50 percent of U.S. population – are still left with half a loaf: only 27.1 percent of the U. S. House (slightly less than the last Congress). The Senate has 25 women: 15 Democrats, nine Republicans and one independent. But since Kamala Harris became vice president in 2020, there no longer are any Black women senators.
There’s a more encouraging split in the states: Twelve had women governors in 2023 — more than any previous year. Of the eight Democrats, two are open lesbians, Gov. Maura Healey of Massachusetts and Tina Kotek in Oregon. At the same time, numbers of women in state houses are increasing; almost one third of state legislators now are women with Democrats faring better than their GOP counterparts. Women occupy mayor’s offices in 25 cities with populations over 30,000. Counted among them are black women mayors in Washington D.C., San Francisco, and New Orleans. Asian-American women linger behind with exception of Boston’s Michelle Wu and Asian-American women leaders in Bakersfield, Fremont and Irvine, California.
In the business world, there was some positive news. January 2023, dawned with 53 women CEOs heading Fortune 500 companies, more than 10 percent. Included are two Black women CEOs: Toni Townes-Whitley of SAIC and Thasunda Brown Duckett of TAA. That’s long climb since 1972 when the Washington Post’s Kathryn Graham became the first woman to head a major company.
But despite progress, some sectors suffered setbacks. In August, the New York Times found female CEOs were losing ground in retail’s top echelons. Although women comprise the majority of retail personnel and make most household buying decisions, they are woefully underrepresented in the C-suites.
What often occurs is that women are appointed to chief executive roles only when a company is facing a shaky financial situation — a concept known as “the glass cliff.” According to Utah Sociology Professor Christy Glass, this describes Sue Grove’s appointment at troubled Bed Bath & Beyond and hiring of Sonia Syngal as CEO at Gap Inc. After two years, Syngal left the company and was replaced by a man, Richard Dickson, as chief executive. That’s known as “the savior effect.” In effect, the company is saying, “We tried that, now we’re going back to the status quo: safe and steady (and masculine) through the crisis.”
Meanwhile, things were rosier for women in popular music. When Grammy nominations were announced in November, women led the field. Leaders included Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, and R&B singer SZA, along with Miley Cyrus, Billie Eilish, and Brandy Clark. The “Barbie” soundtrack, filled with female artists, collected a total of 11 nominations in seven categories. It was a welcome change from previous years when the Grammys were criticized for failing to reward female artists.
In theater and visual art, women have always had to scurry – it’s even worse for women of color — and things have only barely improved. This is not to say there hasn’t been the occasional breakthrough. One notable coup was the December appointment of Indhu Rubasingham, first woman and first person of color, to lead the National Theater in London, whose three theaters stage 20 plays and musicals each year.
In film, another bright spot is emerging. Women are leaping forward with female-led movies that branched beyond limited rom-coms and drama to adventure, sci-fi, and even horror. Notable were such breakthroughs as “Barbie,” the highest grossing movie of 2023 and highest ever at $1.4 billion. Among other top women-produced films are the British action comedy “Polite Society” and “Emily,” based on the life of Emily Bronte.
Literature, too, found women having a positive year. Among 2023’s most notable novels were “The Fraud,” by Zadie Smith, “Tom Lake” by Ann Patchett and “Demon Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver. Nonfiction too produced outstanding books authored by women: “My Name is Barbra” by Barbra Steisand, “Enough” by Cassidy Hutchinson, “Monsters” by Seattle’s Claire Dederer, and “The Illiad,” Emily Wilson’s forceful new translation of Homer’s poetry.
In academia, ups were offset by downfalls. In fall, 2023, we had barely celebrated that 11 of the nation’s top 20 colleges were led by a woman or a person of color when the conservative posse arrived to create havoc. Three university presidents, women from Harvard, M.I.T. and the University of Pennsylvania, were summoned to a House hearing and grilled by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) about campus speech. Would they admit that students chanting about the intifada were calling for genocide of Jews? Was that against the college’s code of conduct and what disciplinary action would be taken?
Finding themselves in a no-win situation, the presidents resorted to legalistic contortions and walked into a public relations trap. Amid calls for her resignation, Penn’s Elizabeth Magill resigned after posting an apologetic statement. The other two presidents remain under attack. Women looked at the uproar and asked, “Would it have happened if they’d been male?” One observer commented, “Suppose it had been Larry Summers.” (The former Harvard president has hung onto his post despite a speech demeaning women’s cognitive abilities.)
In another of 2023’s academic debacles, Gov. Ron DeSantis singled out Florida’s New College, a progressive liberal arts school, for a cultural transformation. Last fall, returning students found the institution increasingly unrecognizable. Over a third of the faculty had left and college leadership announced they were moving to abolish the gender studies program. Chris Rufo, the culture warrior whom DeSantis put on the New College’s board of trustees, boasted it would be the first public university to dismantle gender studies.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that the incoming class — recruited by the new administration — had lower average grades than the previous year’s class. The drop can be attributed to incoming student athletes who cornered most of the school’s $10,000-a-year scholarships. The new student athletes were housed in newer apartment-style dorms with existing students moved to older buildings, some with mold problems.
New College’s interim president, Richard Corcoran, a GOP politician who served as DeSantis’s education commissioner, sent a memo to faculty proposing new majors in communications and sports psychology “which will appeal to many of our newly admitted athletes.” When interviewed, Rufo (a one-time failed Seattle city council candidate) conceded that the makeover is designed to make New College more male. His charge: “Women (formerly about two-thirds of the student body) had turned the college into ‘a social justice ghetto.’”
While reactionaries like DeSantis and Rufo were busy waging cultural warfare (banning books and revising history), there were positive gains elsewhere. For a more cheerful view, one need only look at continued gender progress in journalism. Suzie Buzbee continues as executive editor at the Washington Post. Kimberley Godwin heads ABC news and Alessandra Galloni is Reuter’s editor-in-chief. Women now occupy top jobs at CBS, CNN, MSNBC, The Economist and USA Today. Maribel Perez Wadsworth, former Gannett News president, was just named president of the Knight Foundation. Closer to home Lynn Jacobson serves as managing editor at the Seattle Times with Michele Matassa Flores as its executive editor.
Finally no assessment of the year’s wins and losses for women and minorities would be complete without painful revisiting of the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe vs Wade. The aftermath of last year’s decision has led to ever deepening divisions between anti-abortion forces and pro-abortion activists. Twenty-one U.S. states now ban abortion and states like Texas are passing ever-more-restrictive and -punitive laws. The only glimmer of hope for those who believe women should be able to manage their own reproductive health is found through citizen initiatives like the Ohio vote that added abortion protection to that state’s constitution.
Thus the year passed with multiple losses and a few wins. We’re still haunted by hope that being born female or a minority won’t be an automatic liability.