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Best & Worst States for Women

Women in the U.S. still have not achieved equality with men, and the disparities in women’s status among states has not improved. This is the conclusion reached by The 2002 Status of Women in the States report from the Institute for Women’s Policy research. Many important problems and obstacles to women’s well-being still remain, including the lack of many of the legal guarantees that would enable women to achieve economic and political equality.

The best states for women are Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, Connecticut, Washington, Alaska, Maine, and New Hampshire. The worst are Indiana, Florida, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

The report ranks states on 30 factors of women’s status as well as these five areas of overall status: political participation, employment and earnings, social and economic autonomy, reproductive rights, and health and well-being.

Massachusetts, which was not among the top states in 2000, is now tied for first with Minnesota and Vermont. Primarily, this is due to improvements in women’s representation—with the election of a woman lieutenant governor who then became governor—and in women’s reproduction rights. Also new to the top ten is Maine, while Colorado and Hawaii dropped down. Minnesota jumped from fifth to first, while Connecticut dropped from first to fourth.

Indiana joined the ranks of the worst states for the first time, primarily because its proportion of women in the state legislature dropped by half between 2000 and 2002. Alabama rose from 49th to 46th, but Oklahoma and Kentucky fell three places. For the third time in a row, since 1998, Mississippi remains the worst state for women in the United States.

The report details how much women’s rights and status vary among the states, and even within states, based on race and earnings. Says IWPR’s president and CEO Heidi Hartmann, "We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go," in noting that today’s women have more education, are better represented in the workforce, and have made strides in narrowing the wage gap.

"I’d like to think all our states provide a decent environment for American women," says Barbara Gault, IWPR’s Director of Research, "but the reality is that many do not. Our search for the one state that could earn the Ms. America title came up short. Those who think feminism is dead, or should be, need to take a closer look at the data."

What’s Promising

  • Between 1989 and 1999, the wage ratio between women’s and men’s earnings rose in every state but four.
  • Between 1995 and 1999, the percentage of women living in poverty fell in 42 states, dropping from 13.7 to 12 percent nationally.
  • Between 1996 and 2002, 19 states adopted laws mandating comprehensive coverage for contraceptives by health insurance companies.
  • Between 1997 and 2000, women’s average annual incidence rate of AIDS decreased from 9.4 per 100,000 to 8.7.
  • Between 1998 and 2002, 20 states introduced legislation to expand unemployment insurance coverage to cover parental leave (none passed), and California passed paid family leave as an add-on to its Temporary Disability Insurance Program.

What###s Disappointing

  • The proportion of women state legislators grew only slightly, from 20.8 percent to 22.6 percent, between 1996 and 2002.
  • In a third of the states, women’s political representation dropped.The increase in the ratio between women’s and men’s earnings in 25 states between 1989 and 1999 was due, in part, to the drop in men’s earnings, rather than pure salary increases for women.
  • Women’s poverty increased in eight states between 1995 and 1999 and only fell by less than 1 percentage point in nine others.
  • In 1996, 14 states had waiting periods for women seeking abortions; in 2002, 22 states do. Rates of chlamydia grew from 336 to 404 per 1000,000 women between 1997 and 2000. Nine more states have implemented family caps since 1996, denying benefits to children conceived or born while a mother is receiving welfare.


Political Participation

The report looks at four aspects of women’s political status: voter registration, voter turnout, representation in elected office, and women’s institutional resources. Hawaii has the lowest registration rate for women in the country and North Dakota has the highest with more than 40 percentage points dividing the two. Minnesota has the highest rate of women’s voter participation (67.9 percent) and Arizona the lowest (41.4 percent).

Only four states have ever sent two women to the Senate simultaneously. Six states have never sent a woman to either house of Congress.

Employment and Earnings

The employment and earnings composite index combines four indicators of women’s economic status: women’s earnings, the wage gap, women in management and professional jobs, and women’s participation in the labor force overall. Women earn the most in Washington, D.C., and come the closest to wage-earning equality with men there—earning 89.2 percent of men’s earnings for full-time, year-round work. Women in Wyoming only earn 64.4 percent of men’s wages. Overall, women’s earnings tend to be higher in the West, Northeast and parts of the Midwest. They are lower in the Southeast and Mountain states.

Social and Economic Autonomy

The social and economic autonomy composite index combines four indicators of women’s ability to have control over their social and economic lives: health insurance, college education, business ownership, and poverty rates.

Women in the Northeast, West and parts of the Midwest are most likely to have a college degree and own a business compared with women in other states. Women in the Northeast and Midwest also are more likely to have health insurance and to live above the poverty line.

In Louisiana, 20 percent of women live in poverty; only 7 percent of women in New Hampshire do.

The West has six of the top ten states for women’s business ownership; Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. also rank high on this indicator. Women own the fewest businesses in the mid-section of the South and in the Mountain states.

Reproductive Rights

Most of states show a mixed commitment to reproductive freedom, but women’s reproductive rights are continually challenged in every state. Women who live in Mississippi, North and South Dakota have extreme challenges to their reproductive rights. Women living in Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, and Vermont have better access to reproductive rights.

Health and Well-Being