July 25, 1996

July 25, 1996 | Commentary on Political Thought

ED072596a: Women Don't Need Affirmative Action

A well-financed, pro-affirmative action propaganda campaign is underway to defeat the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), an amendment to California's constitution that would prohibit the state from granting preference -- or discriminating -- on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or sex.

Much of this pro-affirmative action, anti-CCRI campaign is focused on women. The obvious reason: Women are a bigger voting bloc than minorities, the usual target of such campaigns. If most women can be convinced that race- and sex-based preferences are fair, that could decide the battle. And this is a battle whose outcome could easily affect the lives of both men and women across the nation.

That's why it is important to understand why women should reject race- and sex-based "affirmative action." There are at least four reasons.

First, like men, women believe in equality before the law. They believe racial, ethnic and gender preferences violate the proposition that all men and women are created equal. Women know their advances in the workplace and voting booth have come not by departing from this creed, but by upholding it -- by showing that America wasn't living up to its own principles of equality.

Second, women are mothers, wives, daughters and sisters. No one is better placed than a woman to see the double-edged nature of racial and gender preferences. It is clear to a mother that an institutional preference for her daughter is institutional discrimination against her son. Susan Constantine, a mother of three boys, made precisely this point in a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle. "I find affirmative action and the like racist and sexist ... Just as I am opposed to racism and sexism, I am opposed to this form of unequal opportunity toward our sons."

Third, women themselves often are treated unfairly under affirmative action plans. Consider the case of Lydia Cheryl McDonald. A Los Angeles resident, McDonald grew up in a broken home and lived on welfare after her father abandoned her family. Yet she accumulated a grade-point average in high school of 4.5 -- on a four point scale -- due to credit for advanced placement classes. In addition to working 15 hours a week, McDonald wracked up an impressive list of achievements and awards, including high honors on California's prestigious Golden State Exam for geometry. She is exactly the kind of candidate the University of California at Berkeley claims to be looking for: high-achieving, well rounded, but poor.

In March 1996, McDonald received a rejection letter informing her that "we sought an academically strong freshman class which includes students from a wide range of cultural, ethnic, geographic, racial and socio-economic backgrounds." In other words, "diversity" was more important than excellence. Had it not been for the intervention of a lawyer so outraged by McDonald's case that he offered his services pro bono and threatened the University with a lawsuit, Lydia would not be looking forward to spring admission.

Finally, women know that their most significant advances in the workplace have not resulted from affirmative action, but from equality of opportunity and hard work. A modern political mantra has it that white women have been the greatest beneficiaries of quota-based affirmative action. But academic analysis finds little conclusive evidence that women, on the whole, have benefited from such preferences.

Women have made progress in all segments of the work force in the last 30 years. As Anita K. Blair, executive vice president of the Independent Women's Forum recently pointed out, the most important reason is that women went to college. In 1960, only 19 percent of bachelor's degrees went to women. By 1995, women claimed 55 percent of B.A.s. During the same period, women increased their share of lucrative professional degrees -- M.B.A.s, M.D.s and J.D.s -- by more than 500 percent. The increase in college enrollment is a result not of affirmative action, but of changing personal choices.

Today, half of all professionals are female, and women hold nearly half of all managerial and executive positions. Women are starting their own businesses in droves. In 1995, according to the National Foundation for Women Business Owners, women owned nearly 8 million businesses with more than $2.25 trillion in sales.

Those fighting the California Civil Rights Initiative are saying, in essence, that women need the government's help in order to compete. But the facts do not support this view. Women should not fall for the sophistry and hypocrisy of organized interests who actually benefit from the perpetual racial and sexual strife caused by affirmative action.

After all, a society where equal rights are protected by the full force of the law is as beneficial to women as it is to men.

Related Issues: Political Thought

This essay by Sally C. Pipes and Michael Lynch adapted from their article in the latest issue of the Heritage Foundation's magazine Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship.