50 Best to Worst States for Women: The 5 Worst States

For the past nine days, iVillage has been counting down our list of Best to Worst States for Women. When we first envisioned this project four months ago, we hoped to gain some insight into what it’s like to be a woman in each of our 50 states. We could not have predicted how relevant the answers to these questions would be during a particularly eventful presidential election year.

While reproductive rights, birth control and health care access dominate the headlines, our investigation has brought these issues home to where women live. In creating our rankings, we analyzed health care and reproductive rights as well as economic success, access to affordable childcare, female representation in government and educational attainment. We wondered: Which states are getting things right and really helping women? And which states still have a learning curve on these issues?

Our list kicked off March 13 with the top five states for women. Connecticut topped our rankings followed by Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and California. The countdown ends today with the states we believe have a long way to go -- Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi.

Not pleased with the way things are in your state? What better time than an election year to change things! We encourage you to reach out to your local politicians now, when they’re most likely to listen.

And speaking of starting a conversation, we’d love to hear your thoughts on our list. Do you agree with the way your state was ranked? Did we miss a detail that would illustrate your state’s greatness, or emphasize an area that needs improvement? Tell us by leaving a comment below.

 

Kentucky


The Lowdown

Leading our bottom five states is Kentucky, where high poverty and low college graduation rates limit women’s options.

The Good News

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear showed his support for a woman’s access to contraceptives in February when he turned down a bid by a Catholic-run hospital to merge with University Hospital in Louisville. Citing religious grounds, many Catholic-run institutions do not cover contraceptives as part of their health care coverage. Beshear turned down the deal “in part because of concern that some women would have less access to contraceptive services.”

The Bad News

Kentucky’s female poverty rate is 18.5 percent, among the country’s highest, and only 21 percent of women have college degrees (the national average is 28 percent). There are no women from Kentucky in Congress and less than 20 percent of the state legislature is female. Choice is severely limited -- 77 percent of women live in counties without an abortion provider and health insurance companies cannot cover abortion except to save the mother’s life.

See Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear's response to iVillage's ranking here.
 

Hear Us Roar

Country Music Legend Loretta Lynn, whose 1975 salute to sexual freedom “The Pill” was banned by many radio stations, was born in Butcher Holler, Ky.

= 2.3

West Virginia

The Lowdown

With the lowest female college graduation rate in the country, it’s no surprise that West Virginia women also bring home smaller paychecks than women in nearly every other state.

The Good News

Thanks to a health insurance mandate that requires coverage, contraceptives are easier to access in West Virginia than in the 22 states that don’t have such a requirement. One out of the state’s three congressional House seats is held by a woman: Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV).

The Bad News

West Virginia women are less likely than women in any other state to earn a four-year college degree: just 17.8 percent hold that distinction. That number is more than half the rate seen in the state with the highest percentage of female college grads: Massachusetts with 38.7 percent. That’s bad news for women’s paychecks. The median income is $29,651, which isn’t much more than wages in the worst state. Poverty is another big problem for West Virginia women: 17.8 percent meet that distinction, higher than the national average of 14.5 percent and nearly twice as large a percentage as those in the state with the lowest figure, New Hampshire at 9.2 percent. And as if all this economic news wasn’t demoralizing enough, West Virginia is the only state that has no laws on the books protecting a woman’s right to breastfeed. Fortunately, pending legislation might change that.

Hear Us Roar

Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck, whose work focused on increasing understanding between eastern and western cultures, was born in Hillsboro, W.V. She was the first woman to be awarded both prizes.

Score = 2.2

Arkansas

The Lowdown

Arkansas ranks near the bottom of our list on economic indicators: poverty, women-owned businesses, the number of college grads and median earnings.

The Good News

If your health insurance plan pays for prescription meds, then by law it has to cover contraceptives, too. Breastfeeding in public is also okay in Arkansas, where laws passed within the last five years ensure that nursing your baby is not an indecent act. And if you need childcare, it’s pretty affordable -- just $5,400 per year for an infant.

The Bad News

It’s hard for women to stay healthy or get ahead financially when they don’t have health insurance, which is the case for 24 percent of Arkansas women, far higher than the national average of 19 percent. Women earning less than $30,000 a year will likely qualify for federal childcare assistance. But with a waiting list topping 14,000 kids, odds are the state’s little ones will be driving before they qualify. It’s nearly impossible to get an abortion -- only 3 percent of Arkansas counties have clinics that offer the procedure. Arkansas has no female representation in Congress, women make up just 22 percent of the state legislature and the state has never elected a female governor. And women’s median earnings -- $29,148 a year or about $14 an hour -- put Arkansas second to last among all states.

Hear Us Roar

Arkansas was the first state to elect a woman, Hattie Wyatt Caraway, to the Senate. She served from 1931-1945. It’s also the birthplace of poet Maya Angelou and the ultimate “Cosmo Girl” Helen Gurley Brown.

= 2.1

Oklahoma

The Lowdown

A woman’s right to choose is under attack in Oklahoma, a state where there are few women in politics.

The Good News

Oklahoma offers family planning medical assistance (contraceptives and reproductive wellness exams) for families of three earning up to $35,000 a year, a higher threshold than that federal law stipulates. Roughly the same group qualifies for childcare assistance and the state has no waiting list for help.

The Bad News

Nearly 25 percent of women lack health insurance -- that’s one out of every four women. Not coincidentally, Oklahoma women also rank among the worst in the nation when it comes to Pap smear and mammogram rates. Healthy weight and healthy diet are also an issue -- Oklahoma women have the nation’s worst record when it comes to eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Choice is extremely limited in Oklahoma, where 96 percent of counties have no abortion provider and there are only six such doctors in the entire state. Health insurance companies are banned from covering the procedure (except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the mother’s life). Women seeking an abortion have to wait 24 hours after undergoing a sonogram where they will be offered a chance to view the fetus and are required to listen to a description of the image on the screen. The state legislature is working to limit choice even further. The state Senate recently passed a Personhood bill that gives legal personhood rights to embryos from the moment of fertilization. The bill is awaiting action in the House. A “Heartbeat” bill requiring doctors to tell women they have the right to hear the fetal heartbeat before ending a pregnancy passed the state Senate in early March and is awaiting action by the House. If passed, both bills will likely be signed by anti-choice Gov. Mary Fallin.

Finally, politically the state has one of the lowest percentages of women in its state legislature -- a mere 12.8 percent and there are no Oklahoma women in Congress.

Hear Us Roar

One-time U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick was from Duncan, Okla. And Anita Hill, whose testimony at the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings ignited a national conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace, hails from Morris, Okla.

= 2.0

Mississippi

The Lowdown

It’s nothing personal Mississippi. We’re sure you’re a lovely place to visit. But we would not want to live there. At least, not right now. But we have some ideas on how you can do a better job empowering women. Read on.

The Good News

Mississippi has the country’s lowest childcare costs ($4,650 per year for an infant) which is good considering its high fertility rate of 15 births per 1,000 people. Mississippi’s childcare assistance policy is relatively generous considering women’s median earnings (see the “bad news” below), covering families of three that earn up to $35,000 per year, but with nearly 10,000 children on a waiting list, women will need to make sure they register early.

The Bad News

Mississippi came in dead-last in four of our ranking categories. It has the highest rate of female poverty (22 percent), the lowest median earnings ($28,879), and the highest percentage of overweight and obese women (68 percent). Mississippi women exercise the least (36 percent don’t work out at all). Women here eat fewer fruits and vegetables than women in every state except Oklahoma. And Mississippi ranks in the bottom 10 on college graduation rate (21 percent), health insurance coverage (24 percent uninsured), mammogram rates (32 percent unscreened) and political representation.

In fact, Mississippi is one of just four states that have never sent a woman to Congress. Not a one. Ever. It has also never had a female governor and its state legislature is just 15 percent female -- 26 out of 174 seats. And in the state’s 195-year history, voters have only sent a woman to office four times -- and three of those times it was the same person: Evelyn Gandy, who filled three different executive seats during the 1960s and 1970s.

Mississippi’s reproductive rights record is equally abysmal. Considering 99 percent of counties have no abortion provider and Mississippi accounted for 0.2 percent of abortions in the U.S. in 2008, the state has a de facto ban on the procedure due to lack of access. In 2011, state lawmakers tried but failed to pass a Personhood Amendment that would identify life as beginning at conception, a move that would have further eroded women’s reproductive choices. But in this legislative session, lawmakers have advanced bills that would ban abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected (around six weeks) and require doctors to be present when a woman takes medication to induce an abortion. The law is meant to stop doctors from prescribing via telephone, a move that allows physicians to serve women who cannot travel to one of the state’s only two abortion providers.

Hear Us Roar

Mississippi’s most famous citizen is Oprah Winfrey, who was born in Kosciusko and ranks 139th among Forbes’ list of the country’s wealthiest Americans. (We think we can guess what she thinks of her home state’s dubious distinction.)

= 1.7

Watch Arkansas Women React to Their State Being Named One of the Worst for Women

 

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