Widespread progress for Hispanic women in America was slow to begin, but it has been quick to accelerate.
It took until 1992, for instance, for the first Hispanic woman to be elected to Congress. Today there are six. And from 1970 to 2007, the share of Hispanic women in the workforce rose from 40 percent to 54 percent.
There's still a long way to go. After all, there are 535 members of Congress, and Hispanic women remain the lowest-paid group in America. What's more, the down economy over the past couple years has served to slow the speed of progress.
But in the long view, the steady ascent of Hispanic women in America continues.
Every April, HispanicBusiness Magazine tracks this progress, and recognizes the strides made by some of this nation's outstanding Hispanic women.
This year's Woman of the Year, Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, is among the nation's highest-ranking education officials. As the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, Ms. Melendez is the chief adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on all matters related to preschool, elementary and secondary education. In 2009, she was named California's Superintendent of the year.
She refers to her career as an "occu-passion."
"I never in my life would have imagined I'd be here," she told HispanicBusiness Magazine. "I feel a deep sense of respect for the opportunity that the president and secretary have given me."
The goal of this issue is not necessarily to highlight the achievements of the most widely recognized Hispanic women, such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose Senate confirmation to the bench last year triggered a frenzy of media attention.
Rather, the idea is to also spotlight some of the unsung heroes -- the Hispanic women whose tremendous achievements belie their relatively low profile.
In addition to Ms. Melendez, the other finalists this year were Alicia Abella, the executive director of the innovative services research department at AT&T; Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant U.S. attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; Carmen Nazario, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; and Carmen Ortiz, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.
Through the prism of the lasting economic slump, the rise of Hispanic women in America has been tempered. Unemployment among Hispanic women hit a troubling peak in April of 2009, nearing 13 percent -- up from about 7 percent in 2000 -- though it has since settled back to about 11 percent, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
Suffering even more on this measure are Hispanic men, whose unemployment rate surpassed that of Hispanic women for the first time in December of 2007. It remains higher today, at 13.9 percent.
"More and more families are relying on the earnings of women," Jeffrey Hayes, senior research associate with the institute, told HispanicBusiness Magazine. "It's not just supplementary income anymore."
Undeniably, it's been a tough couple of years.
Still, despite the setbacks, the milestones among Hispanic women pioneers are becoming more and more frequent.
They include the first astronaut (1993), the first president of Purdue University (2007), the first leader of a California State University campus (2007), the first U.S. Labor Secretary (2009), and, most famously, the first U.S. Supreme Court justice (2009).
These women are the bellwethers for the future success of others. On a widespread scale, there is still a lot of catching up to do.
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