Intersectionality Key Focus of Arkansas Women’s Commission

The group will produce a study on the status of women for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Gov. Hutchinson and his wife Susan pose for a photo with the recently formed Arkansas Commission on the Status of Women
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the creation of the Arkansas Commission on the Status of Women Feb. 17, 2022. The group had its first meeting Feb. 22. — Photo courtesy of the governor’s office.

The new Arkansas Commission on the Status of Women held its first meeting Tuesday, less than a week after Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced its creation. Led by the governor’s chief of staff Alison Williams, the commission is tasked with creating a report by Dec. 1, the first to be produced by this group in nearly half a century.

Commissioners will study labor force participation of Arkansas women, participation in high demand careers like those in the STEM field — science, technology, engineering and math — and barriers of entry into the workforce such as child care. 

Much of the discussion during the group’s initial meeting yesterday focused on brainstorming ways to tackle this study. While women are still facing some of the same issues they were decades ago, commissioner and State Senator Joyce Elliott said it’s important to consider these issues through a lens of intersectionality.

“That is something very new that I think we’ve haven’t thought about before because even with say women’s rights, women’s rights were mainly about white women,” Elliott said. “When we talk about women’s rights, we didn’t think about the intersectionality of women and their race or their ethnicity or even their geography, where they live.”

The commission itself is a reflection of that intersectionality, with its members having professional experience in a variety of sectors including academia, politics and healthcare. The advisory group includes women of African American, Hispanic and South Asian descent, as well as one man — Todd Shields, dean of the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. 

There have been a handful of women’s commissions in the state’s history. The first in 1964, focused on the social, political and economic status of women, while the next looked at state employment laws and the differences in legal treatment between men and women. 

The commission was reinstated in 1973 to find ways women could become larger participants in the state’s economic, political and social institutions. A 1975 commission focused, in part, on the implementation of Title IX and the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, but did not produce a report. 

Next year marks 50 years since the last report on the status of women. It’s also the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas who the governor credits with prompting his decision to create the commission now. WFA does not have a formal member on the council, but the group is acting as a resource by sharing the previous research they’ve conducted. WFA is also offering $20,000 in grant funding to support the work of the the advisory group, the fourth to be called the Arkansas Commission on the Status of Women.

“This is important work that continues on and so we purposefully elected to retain that name…Gov. Hutchinson created this commission not just to continue the work that happened before, but to talk about it in new ways,” Williams said.

COVID-19 is one example of a new issue impacting the lives of women and their participation in the workforce that will be included in the final report. In addition to examining new challenges, commissioners noted they don’t want to lose sight of persistent issues like the gender pay gap. 

“One of the things I think that is really important is that we understand that this report was created in 1973, but we are still dealing with the same issues nearly 50 years later…there has to be some bridge of connecting the old with the new,” said Tamika Edwards, a commissioner and special advisor to the CEO on diversity, equity, inclusion and engagement at Central Arkansas Water.

Members of the commission also agreed on the importance of producing a report with actionable recommendations and Williams said it would be instructive “to think about pulling all of the levers of power not just the legislature and the governor that are going to receive this report, but the nonprofit arena and educational institutions.” 

The Arkansas Commission on the Status of Women’s next meeting is Mar. 15 at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The meeting will be streamed live on the group’s YouTube channel.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.