Oklahoma’s 1.89 million women face serious issues. Our women earn 76 cents to every man’s dollar. The state has higher-than-average teen birth and infant mortality rates. According to a 2011 census bureau community survey, more than 18 percent of Oklahoma women, or more than 340,000 women, live below the poverty line. Oklahoma women are incarcerated at the highest rate in a nation that leads the world in imprisonment.

Add to this the Oklahoma Congress’ penchant for writing and advocating controversial birth control and abortion legislation, and the Sooner State can at times feel downright hostile toward the fairer sex. Indeed, Oklahoma consistently lands in rankings of the worst states in the U.S. to be a woman.

What Can You Do?

In the Oklahoma Congress, former State Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre was one of very few female legislators amid mostly white male colleagues. She was elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives for District 73 in 2002, then moved to serve as a State Senator for District 11. During her 10-year career in politics, she became the first African American to preside over the state senate. Oklahoma ranks 49th in the nation for representation of women in the state legislature.

“I’ve talked with young girls who came to the Capitol, I told them you have to look at it like the Civil Rights movement, stay on the battle line,” says McIntyre.

Number of Oklahoma women living below the poverty line.

“What can you do?” is a question she frequently asks.

McIntyre looks to younger women to continue the fight for gender equality – and to define what equality and gender means to them.

“The pendulum is gonna swing,” McIntyre says, as a new generation of girls grows up and takes her place at the table.

“You will win some and you will lose some,” McIntyre tells young women who ask her advice, “but you cannot give up.”

Bomb-Loud Girl Poets

In the corner of a shabby coffeehouse, four teenaged poetesses hold court with iced lattes and big dreams to talk about what Oklahoma’s political climate means for them and their bodies.

These four girls met through Tulsa’s Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB). The youth poetry festival and year-round writing and performing program is run by the Arts & Humanities Council of Tulsa in collaboration with Young Chicago Authors.

Performing in regional and national poetry competitions, meeting other students and learning to express their feelings in words through LTAB has changed all of the girls’ lives, they say.

Kat Weaver, 16, and Taylor Johnson, 17, perform on a Holland Hall school team, while Allison McClaughry, 18, and Ali Schellhorn, 15, participate on an East Central High School team. They’ve made new friends, and learned how to speak eloquently about their experiences as Oklahoma girls on the verge of college and the tricky waters of womanhood beyond.

Thinking Of Mom

We asked the girls how they felt compared to their classmates, and about their mothers and grandmothers, too.

“I always think of my mom,” says Weaver, a Holland Hall student with long black hair. “My mom brings in the money.”

Her father has health issues, so Weaver’s mom “is the one who holds it all together. She does everything for us,” she says.

She grew up watching her mother balance work life and household responsibilities. She is frustrated that her mother earns less than her male counterparts. “For society to say she is not as equal as my father is just ridiculous,” she says.

Oklahoma women in prison per 100,000. The highest rate in the nation.

Women are paid less than men in Oklahoma, on average. When the Equal Pay Act passed in 1963, full-time working women were paid only about 59 cents for every dollar paid to a man doing the same job. The act narrowed the gap, but there are still clear disparities in pay.

In the past 50 years, the average Oklahoma woman increased her earning power to 76 cents to the man’s dollar, according to 2011 census numbers, a cent less than the national average of 77 cents.

The wage gap exists regardless of education. With a high school diploma, a woman earns 62 cents compared to men with the same education. Add a bachelor’s degree and the figure bumps to 70 cents.

Oklahoma women working full time typically make about $30,901 compared to the average man’s $40,458. These numbers add up to one thing: Oklahoma has the 12th largest gender wage gap in the nation.

As Strong as Our Women are Healthy

“We are always, as a nation and as a state, only as strong as our women are healthy,” McIntyre says.

Six years ago, McIntyre was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram. After recovering from a preventative double mastectomy, she is back to advocating for women, children and minorities as co-chair of the Tulsa Democratic Party and volunteer for Soulful Survivors, a cancer charity.

McIntyre was a Department of Human Services social worker for 31 years before she began her career in politics. She says she saw a lot of people in need during her years in the child welfare division of DHS.

“As a social worker, I do believe in a holistic approach (that spans from) the cradle to the graveyard,” McIntyre says.

“To help women and children in need,” she says, “it starts when a woman gets pregnant and getting her access to prenatal health care. From there, babies need help and eventually preschool.”

Then there are the shots and dental work and preventive medical visits. “We’re cutting Health Department (funding),” McIntyre says, “So kids miss out. As they get older, the kinds of health care needs they have go uncared for because parents cannot afford it.”

The amount the average woman earns for every dollar earned by her male peer.

The Oklahoma teen birth rate per 1,000 is 50.4, more than 15 points higher than the national average of 34.2 (for ages 15-19), according to 2010 vital statistics. Between 2007 and 2010, the teen birth rate in Oklahoma dropped by 14 percent, but lagged behind a national drop of 17 percent.

The infant mortality rate is also higher in Oklahoma than the national average. Between 2006 and 2008, there was an average of 7.9 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to 6.7 nationally.

More startling is Oklahoma’s relatively high rate of teen deaths per 100,000 teenagers (aged 15-19): 80. The nationwide rate is 53, according to 2012 Kids Count national data.

Women are more likely to rely on public benefits like Medicaid, Planned Parenthood, food stamps and housing assistance – services that Oklahoma has slashed year after year in an attempt to balance an ever-tightening budget.

Woman, Commissioned

The Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women has monitored statistics like these since its inception in 1994. As a health care professional from Oklahoma City, the commission’s chair, Adeline Yerkes, is particularly interested in the state of women’s health.

“This past year, we partnered with several agencies and did a women’s health summit,” Yerkes says. They studied obesity and diabetes and possible solutions to the growing problem.

“Today, one in three children born will have type 2 diabetes at some point in their lives,” Yerkes says. “It’s a huge issue.”

Women’s health in Oklahoma has much room for improvement, according to data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, an ongoing telephone health survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control. Currently, 23 percent of Oklahoma women smoke, 31 percent are overweight and 31.4 percent are obese. About 33 percent have high blood pressure, and 11.1 percent have diabetes.

Yerkes wasn’t born in Oklahoma, but once she moved here she says she noticed that “health was not all that important” to the citizens she met. “It’s not a priority,” she says.

She maintains that if a woman doesn’t have her health, it’s impossible for her to reach her economic and intellectual potential.

Infant deaths per 1,000 in Oklahoma.

Yerkes advocates healthful eating and exercise. “We need that combination of good diet, exercise, fun, love and happiness to be a healthy woman,” she says. “Too many times we put our families ahead of us.”

Aside from addressing health issues, OCSW has also focused on the high rate of female incarceration, human trafficking and honoring extraordinary Oklahoma women.

In 2009, the commission participated in a “blue ribbon panel” of experts from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition. They hammered out an action plan to address the state’s high rate of female incarceration.

More women are jailed in Oklahoma per capita than any other state, with an incarceration rate nearly twice the national average. Oklahoma averages about 130 women in prison per 100,000. Compare that to the national average of 67, according to 2010 Bureau of Justice statistics, and it’s easy to see what has people so concerned.

The panel identified numerous ways to reduce incarceration rates to less than the national average by 2020. Strategies include the expansion of alternative sentencing and rehabilitation and detox programs, as well as increasing access to mental health programs and drug courts. The panel also advocated community programs to help at-risk youth and the children of incarcerated parents.

The commission has joined the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition to take a formal stand on 11 pieces of legislation wending through congress. These bipartisan bills will affect Oklahoma women on issues that range from human trafficking to protective orders, from domestic violence to health and wellness.

“It’s A Rights Thing”

McIntyre talks openly about her opposition to legislation targeting women’s rights, such as the 2012 “Personhood Bill.” She made national headlines when she picketed against the controversial bill, displaying a sign that read, “If I wanted the government in my womb, I’d (expletive) a senator!”

The bill was struck down by the Oklahoma Supreme Court as unconstitutional because it interfered with a woman’s legal right to abortion.

We asked the four teenage poets, revved on iced lattes and chai, what they think about Oklahoma’s failed Personhood Bill and got a raucous ear-full on everything from abortion to birth control and everything in between.

Johnson says she is frustrated with “old men” in Congress “trying to tell a woman what to do with her body.”

Weaver chimes in quickly, “I don’t think pro-choice means pro-abortion. It’s just about the rights over your own body.”

Schellhorn says, “People act like it’s some big thing,” she says. “But it’s a rights thing. It’s not a want-to-kill-babies thing.”

McClaughry says she thinks it’s an issue of control. Then she ruffles around in her beat-up black backpack and pulls out a book, then quotes her favorite lines.

The book is by Oklahoma City poet Lauren Zuniga, an idol among this group of girls. The award-winning writer recently published her second book of poetry, called The Smell of Good Mud, with Write Bloody Press.

A poem she wrote, called aptly “To The Oklahoma Lawmakers: A Poem,” appeared in her book and ends with these lines: “If you want to play god, Mr. and Mrs. Lawmakers, if you want to write your bible on my organs, then you better be there when I am down on my knees pleading for relief from your morality.”

Her words speak to younger Oklahoma women who are curious about gender equality and where they stand as legislators float bills that would affect their futures and their bodies.

For her part, Zuniga, a 31-year-old mother of two, says she is inspired by other “phenomenal activists, artists, teachers and mothers I know who are fighting every day to live the life they choose to live.

“Someday, I will have adequate health care, be able to marry the woman I love and be able to make decisions about my body in a loving, safe community,” Zuniga says, “all because of the women and allies working tireless to fight for basic human rights.”

“You Become A Housewife”

Johnson says she grew up in a farming town near Enid before her family moved to Tulsa. The spunky teenager says she wanted to work on a farm to earn extra money, but when she showed up, the farmer said he was surprised to see she was a girl. “I was expecting a boy,” the farmer told her. “I never had a woman try to work for me before.”

But he gave her a chance. Johnson says in her family and in her rural town, women were more likely to cook and clean, to keep house rather than go to work. “You become a housewife,” she says of her family’s traditional gender roles.

Not all of the girls we interviewed said they experienced their mothers and grandmothers in traditional roles, or even traditional living arrangements. But all of the girls agreed on one thing: They aren’t ready to think about settling down or getting married right after high school.

Young people tend to be most progressive on the issue of gender roles, but national attitudes regarding the role of women in society has shifted drastically across the board, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which has tracked public attitudes on social and political values for more than 20 years.

In 1987, Pew Research Center found 30 percent of Americans said women should return to their traditional “housewife” role in society, and 66 percent disagreed. In 2009, only 19 percent said they think women should return to a traditional role, while a full 75 percent disagreed. People under 30 reject traditional gender roles 84 percent of the time.

Still, 61 percent of people under age 30 say they have old-fashioned values about family and marriage – so our poetesses may still be forming their own ideas about how their lives will look post-college and beyond.

It’s A Trap

Ralena Groom grew up in Bristow, the daughter of three-term town mayor, Leon Pinson, and full-time working mom, Ramona Pinson.

After graduating from Bristow High School, she says she fell into the “trap” of what’s accepted for women in rural areas. “We seem to have this trap in Oklahoma, where women don’t venture out as much,” Groom says. She learned early that “what a woman does is have children and make a home.”

She grew up in a traditional two-parent home, despite her mother working long hours. “She got up at 4:30 a.m. and worked all day in a cold factory in the winter, a hot factory in the summer, then gardened and made big meals,” Groom says.

The kitchen table was always set with heaping plates of fried pork chops or chicken, hominy and green beans steamed in a harvest-gold Frankoma Pottery dish. “There were very strict gender roles, except that my mom worked, too,” Groom says.

When she graduated from Bristow High School, Groom decided to settle down right away. Groom gave up her dreams of attending a theater school, of being someone else, somewhere else. “I was going to go on Saturday Night Live and be Chris Farley’s twin sister,” Groom laughs. “But that’s what it comes down to. I was born in Oklahoma.”

Oklahoma’s rank for women in serving in legislature.

She divorced her first husband and is raising her two teenagers. She has since remarried and works part-time as an elementary school tutor through a Creek Nation grant.

Though society has stretched to accept the new reality of women working outside the home, attitudes toward the mothers of young children have changed little, according to 1994 and 2002 General Social Surveys. Once a woman has a child, society still believes mom should stick close to home.

In 1994, only 10 percent of people surveyed said a woman with a young child should work full-time. In 2002, the percentage budged by a single percentage point to 11 percent.

There are differences between the young women who eventually become stay-at-home moms and those who work full- or part-time, according to a 2007 Pew survey. Moms who stay home are often slightly younger, on average, than moms who work full- or part-time. They also have less formal education and lower household incomes than working mothers. Only 21 percent of at-home moms are college grads, compared to 34 percent of working moms.

Look Out, World

The status of women in Oklahoma is a complex and ever-changing picture that shifts through legislation, advocacy, societal ideals and health and wellness. And then there are the unwritten rules, the unsaid expectations.

Since her divorce, Groom says she has taken on the responsibility for her two children. “It’s one of those unwritten rules; it’s the mom’s job,” she says.

Since the 1960s, men have stepped up to take on more household responsibilities. Married dads now care for babies and do housework twice as often as they did in the past. Women spend less time on housework than in days gone by, but they still bear much of the burden of household responsibilities and caring for children.

Groom says she looks to her own hard-working mother for inspiration. Her daughter, Savanna Gantz, is 18 and ready to graduate with honors from Bristow High School. Groom has taken care to empower her sassy, blonde daughter. “I feel like I really try to empower her to be a woman that doesn’t need a man to define her or take care of her,” Groom says.

She isn’t worried about her daughter heading out into the world. “When something needs fixed, sometimes I have said, ‘Oh well, that’s kind of a guy’s job,’” she says.

But her daughter just shakes her head, gets out the toolbox and Googles the solution. “This is a girl who can,” Groom says.

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