Women's issues come to the forefront in Yampa Valley

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Since May 25, the Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Craig Daily Press have worked to bring women's issues to their front pages. The goal was to gather and examine statistics, but also to explore the stories of the women living right here in Northwest Colorado -- the faces behind the statistics.

By identifying the issues that specifically affect our communities, we hoped to help organizations to "choose their battles."

Armed with information, they would be able to focus on solutions.

On Wednesday night, a group of women gathered at the Steamboat Pilot & Today office to discuss the series of articles, codify a path for the future and brainstorm solutions.

They began by evaluating the need to discuss women's issues.

Why is this important?

Domestic violence, sexual assault and women living in poverty are all issues in Routt County, the women agreed, and the journey to equality is not yet over.

Marianna Raftopoulos gave her personal testimony.

Raftopoulos was the first woman to be elected in Moffat County.

"That was in 1996," she said. "It took that long. As my term has gone on, I've realized how important it is to have that female awareness in office. It was something I didn't notice until I was on the commission."

Since her term began, Raftopoulos has made a concerted effort to appoint women to committees and boards, she said.

"It's important to include women because they represent a different walk of life. Until I was there, that was not represented," she said. Still, there are no women on the Craig City Council.

In government, women tend to focus on health and social service issues.

"Those issues come up, and I see the guys get a glazed-over look," she said.

Visiting Nurse Association Executive Director Sue Birch said that since having women in office in recent years, she has had a better response to funding needs for child care and domestic violence programs.

Psychotherapist Nancy Young said women's issues tend to be trivialized when women are not in government.

In her mind, the most important issues still at the forefront of the struggle for equality are the wage gap, the cost of teenage pregnancy, domestic violence and the need to get women involved in politics.

"Getting women into politics is at the forefront of affecting change," Young said.

Raftopoulos knows that more women need to be elected, but she admitted it is not easy to bring about such change.

"Rural counties tend to be more male-dominated, but I don't know how to break that boundary," she said. "The Women's Foundation of Colorado should focus on getting more women involved in politics. Because of term limits, I will be leaving office in 2004. Who will take my place?"

Running for elected office is difficult for many reasons and can be intimidating because "women are held to a higher standard than men," Raftopoulos said. "Many women don't want to step forward because they don't want to get shot at. Sometimes you feel like there is no support out there."

Is it getting better?

The women cited wage disparity as something that no one wanted to talk about, but a subject that needs to be addressed. The Women's Foundation of Colorado is dealing with the issue in two ways: First, the organization is encouraging girls to enter higher paying professions, such as technology and science. Second, the group wants society to place greater value on the "nurturing" professions that women usually choose.

"The fact is that there is a glass ceiling, and it's hard to demand better pay," Women's Foundation trustee Linda Hamlet said. "I heard from several women while these articles were being written that they didn't want to come forward to talk about it. They didn't want to be controversial and they didn't want to put themselves in a bad position (professionally)."

To Women to Girls project coordinator Jennifer Fritz, that sounded like a self-esteem problem, and low self-esteem is intertwined with all women's issues, she said.

"It seems to me that there comes a time in women's lives when the focus shifts from competence to what they look like. The focus shifts away from 'what am I good at?' to looks and competition with other girls for boys," Young said. "This impacts development in such a way that it takes them until their late 20s to wake up again. It's like girls go into this altered state and by the time they come out of it, they have lost themselves, their voice and their power."

Watch the grocery store checkout counter, she said. The magazine articles are all about looks, weight and how to get, keep and please men.

She pointed to the way women are treated when they do achieve positions of power. Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Clinton are attacked for their looks as a way to trivialize what they are saying, she said.

The women believed that many things have improved for their gender over the years, but an increasing pressure to look good was inhibiting women, especially young girls.

"There is an incredible pressure on the young," Young said. "Fifteen years ago, when a woman said that she did something sinful, she was probably referring to sex. Now, she probably means that she had a piece of chocolate cake."

There is a dramatic shift in how women feel about themselves, she said. "Being fat is about the worse thing you can be."

The second biggest crime is getting old.

"Women have a very different experience in growing old than men," Young said. "Women become invisible in our culture when they age."

Finding time to be perfect

Women have made progress, but at a price.

Raftopoulos has three children, a husband and a position as a county commissioner. She described her day to the women in the room:

She wakes up at 5 a.m. in order to pay bills and get her children ready for school. She spends the day attending meetings and returns home in time to do a load of laundry and make dinner. After dinner, she usually has another meeting in the evening.

"We all do that," she said. "I wouldn't want to give up any of it. I want to be a mother and a wife, but I want this, too."

Women think of parenting in different ways than men, Young said.

"Men are given permission to go about their lives, but the woman is the caretaker," she said. But the blame can be put on the women as well as the men for clinging to that idea.

"Women have to let go. They need to stop over-functioning so that a place can open up for men to step up to the table. Sometimes, we cut out the invitation to the man to participate as a partner in the family. Women set themselves up."

Solutions

After spotting the issues, the women ended their discussion by searching for solutions. If pressure to be beautiful shifts a girl's focus to her exterior and limits her potential later in life, girls should be encouraged to "grow from the inside out," Hamlet said.

"Girls need to be encouraged to think a little deeper about life and girls need to be taught at an early age to think critically about the messages they are receiving from the media and society," she said.

Monitoring the messages is also the responsibility of the parent, Birch said. Mothers and fathers need to pay attention and nurture their daughters' self-esteem.

Once girls have self-confidence, they have a critical tool to help them deal with the other challenges that will face them in life. They will negotiate for higher wages.

They will think about their educational choices and think critically about what they choose to do with their careers.

They also will have the confidence to control their reproductive life.

"Planned pregnancies are key in a woman's success," Birch said.

"An unplanned pregnancy is the single most derailing moment in a woman's financial life," Hamlet said.

Lastly, women cannot be embarrassed to fight for themselves.

"When we talk about women's issues, they throw the word 'feminist' back at us as a way to trivialize. Don't be co-opted by that word," Young said.

Raftopoulos agreed.

"Just because I talk about women's issues, doesn't mean that I hate men," she said. "We're not here to take over the community. We are here to participate."

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