Speaking of Women's Rights: 05/09

Friday, May 29, 2009

The big feminist sorority

Katha Pollit’s article on generational conflict in feminism (second wave, third wave, etc.) in The Nation starts “Can we please stop talking about feminism as if it is mothers and daughters fighting about clothes?”

Her argument boils down to this: the conflict isn’t about sex, age, or social mores – it’s about who has, and wants, power in the women’s movement.

Legal Voice is an unabashedly feminist organization, and the women and men who work and volunteer here range from their 20s on up through their 60s, with stops at every decade in between. Ms Pollit’s point – essentially, that conflict among feminists of different ages is simultaneously damaging to the cause and not as bad as it’s made out to be – rang really true. Butting heads is part of how we get work done around here – a little conflict breeds conversation and stronger ideas – but it is far from all we do.

I had two interviews before I started working at Legal Voice. At the second one, the whole staff gathered around the conference room table, grinning, to meet me, and I grilled them with probing questions like “What do you love about your job?” It seemed like the most appropriate question – everyone in the room clearly really did love their job.

I also mentioned that I like to bake pie, although I hope they hired me for other reasons.

After that, when people asked me why I took a job here, I told them I felt like I was joining a big, multigenerational feminist sorority. The way I see it, the conflict isn’t going away, (example: the sniping between these ones and those ones) but it doesn’t have to stand in the way of our achieving things together.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

And (A) Justice for All?

I recently completed service on a jury in a criminal trial, and emerged to the news of Obama’s selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the nation’s highest court. Both of these events have me thinking anew about how gender and justice impact decision makers. When is acknowledgment of difference a sign of unwanted bias – and when does it provide valuable perspective?

In the case of juries, the attorneys for each side ask potential jurors questions to help elicit biases. They ask whether a juror – despite any known biases – can set aside those biases and make a decision based on the evidence in each case.

While the jury’s role is to determine the facts, by contrast, the role of a judge, particularly an appellate judge, is not to make credibility assessments. Rather, it is to determine what the law is – and yes, as loaded as Sotomayor’s statement to this effect has become, to “make the law” (by issuing decisions that interpret the statutes and create precedent for subsequent cases).

Of course, judges must also pay attention to facts, to determine which ones are legally significant. In other words, they must understand the real world context for their decisions.

As a juror, the question of whether I could set aside my prejudices triggered a surprising amount of self-reflection. But ultimately, as desperately as I would have liked to have been able to say “no, I can’t” (and thereby save myself a couple of days’ worth of inconvenience), I could not say that I was unable to apply the law fairly.

The point is, setting aside biases requires a degree of self-awareness. Yet Judge Sotomayor is being pilloried by opponents for acknowledging that she has biases from her life experiences, in statements such as this:

“I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences but I accept my limitations.” And, “I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage, but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate.”

Throughout the court system, there are all sorts of potential causes for bias that sometimes do, and sometimes do not get aired. Judges get distracted (apparently) by women lawyers who wear skirts that are too short, or by attorneys who are different in some way, such in the case of the Spokane jurors who used troubling terms invoking an attorney’s national origin. Jurors or witnesses could get distracted – or confused – if someone speaks with an accent. (In the case I heard, the defendant was Ukrainian, and though he did not use an interpreter, some of his witnesses did.) They notice other things about witnesses beyond their testimony – such as police officers who have tattoos, or the witness who forgot to remove the labels from a new jacket – and make judgments and assumptions based on such details.

Why do we trust jurors to set aside personal biases and decide cases based on the evidence* – but not judges? Could it be that Judge Sotomayor was simply being more honest than others have been about the sources of this thing she has, what Obama and the press are calling “empathy”?

These are the qualities that matter in a Justice: Honesty. Integrity. Intelligence. Openness. (You can read about what goes into the American Bar Association’s ratings here.) To these I would add, the self-awareness to identify personal biases – and the ability to either set them aside, as appropriate, OR to use them to understand, and “listen to,” the facts.

I too will be listening very carefully to hear how Judge Sotomayor answers questions at her confirmation hearing – listening to how she thinks, listening to whether this is a person who can understand what justice means to individuals and translate that into meaningful – and just – legal opinions.

* Granted, legal doctrines govern the admissibility of all sorts of evidence, including what types of evidence are legitimately related to assessing a witness’s credibility.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Have we reached the tipping point for marriage equality? Or swayed backwards?

Last month was great for marriage equality: Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut, Maine. Today, not so good: California Supreme Court upholds Proposition 8. We all knew that was the likely outcome, but couldn’t quite resign ourselves until we saw it in writing, all 186 pages of it. If you’re really up for it, read the decision and dissent.

So – had we reached a tipping point for marriage equality? Put another way, how big a setback is the decision? Not that big, actually. The real blow was when the voters in California supported Prop 8; this decision was just a last rebuff to the effort to stop it. The winds of change are still in our favor.

Now we need to make sure that nothing similar to the Prop 8 tragedy happens in Washington. Our Legislature passed a bill providing that registered domestic partners will be afforded the same rights, responsibilities and obligations as married couples (though provisions of the bill that will cost the state money, like pension benefits, won’t take effect until 2014). Sadly, we’re facing a possible referendum to repeal that law.

Those of us who will work in opposition to the referendum (Washington Families Standing Together) are assessing several issues: Can the far-right-wing religious conservatives gather more than 120,000 valid signatures by July 25th? How responsive will the voters of Washington be to signing the petition, and if it comes to it, how will they vote? We know what the polls say (more than 65% of Washingtonians support LGBT couples having the same rights and responsibilities as married couples). And there’s positive movement across the country toward acceptance of the right to marry for LGBT couples. We also know, however, that even if things are changing rapidly, 42 states have constitutional or statutory prohibitions against LGBT couples being married, so even in the best scenario, it will take quite a while to eradicate all that discriminatory treatment.

For now, we’ll focus on stopping the anti-family referendum in Washington, on continuing to educate the people of the state about the protections all families need and deserve, and on moving toward full marriage equality. Please join our fight.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pro Choice? Pro Life? Both? Why Not?

As has been the case for the 20 years or so that I have been involved with Legal Voice, I am intrigued, frustrated, bewildered and resolute as I ponder what ‘the public’ thinks about abortion, reproductive rights and health, contraception, and other issues related to women’s autonomy, rights and liberty. In the last week – before, during and after President Obama’s commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame – we saw news stories, polls, opinion pieces, letters to the editor (holy cow! Public discourse: what a concept) from all sides of the debate.

The most prominent were a Gallup poll allegedly revealing that for the first time in history more Americans are “pro-life” than “pro-choice,” and refutations from various sources of that finding. But few of the analyses (I use the word advisedly, if charitably) truly delved into what underlies the results of the Gallup poll or a CNN poll in April that found 68% of Americans would not overturn Roe v Wade.

So where’s the truth, or at least the kernel of truth, in all this? (Setting aside the “it depends on how you ask the question” issue.) First, consider that a much larger recent poll found that those who think abortion should be legal in most cases outnumber those who think it should be illegal in most cases 52%-41%. And that hasn’t changed in more than 30 years.

Then, there’s the more basic response to the pro-choice-pro-life wordplay: DUH. We at Legal Voice have known for years that many if not most people identify themselves as both pro-choice and pro-life, and that they don’t have cognitive dissonance about it. We conducted polls in 2003 and 2005 in central and eastern Washington, which are popularly believed to be more conservative and less likely to support women’s rights than western Washington (or at least Seattle), about people’s attitudes toward choice. We found that most people -- more than 65% -- self-identified as pro-choice and pro-life. Notwithstanding that apparent duality, they also strongly supported a woman’s right to choose, just as most people in this country do.

From our perspective, the supposed polarity on the issue is, at least to some extent, imposed by the media and by ‘the movements’, all of which need – or at least rely upon – sound bites and catch phrases to sell their stories and make their cases. Nuanced approaches just don’t get the right headlines or permit the automatic, unreflective responses to which we’ve become accustomed.

But the real story isn’t how people label themselves. It’s about the philosophy underlying the labels and catch phrases, and the back-story we all think we know when we hear those phrases. And for those of us who call ourselves pro-choice, that back-story has to do with respect for women, and with the belief that women make the very best decisions they can, and that they think about those decisions carefully. The false dichotomy created by the anti-woman movement, pitting women against children, overlooks a simple truth: most children have a relationship with a mother. Not all, of course, but most. So you just can’t talk about them separately, at least not if you want there to be any relation to reality.

To impose that separation is to buy into the ‘women are selfish and make bad decisions’ back-story, which might make a facile sound bite (is that redundant?), but doesn’t sound like most women I know. I bet it also doesn’t sound like most women you know.

So yes, we need to preserve women’s right to make decisions about whether, when and how to bear children. And yes, most Americans agree with that proposition. And definitely yes, we need a new Supreme Court justice who understands that at the most fundamental level. But what we don’t need is to let our heads snap back and forth in response to the competing stories and polls. We need to think about real women and their real partners and families, and we need to acknowledge the intelligence, thoughtfulness, and morality of women.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hey, remember this one?

Photo from Wikipedia

This, if you don’t recall, is a photo of twelve lawmakers looking on and grinning – grinning – as President George W. Bush signs the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.

Mostly I try to put bad memories behind me, and I remember feeling pretty frustrated the first time I saw this photo. I acknowledge that the people in charge aren’t always going to be people I agree with, but nothing has ever stated so clearly to me “the powers that be don’t give a @#$% about your perspective, so sit down and shut up while they decide what you can do with your body.”

Ugly photo. Bad times.

That’s why I was pretty tickled to see a new picture on a New York Times blog last week – one with men, women AND people of color standing behind President Obama in support of health care reform.

I think it’s possible to extrapolate some broad themes from these two media artifacts – an era of prescribed morals (have you heard about health care refusals?) giving way to a movement to make health care more affordable for everyone (and we’ve got a rally on May 30th to prove it!).

Given that an estimated 8.9 million kids in the U.S. don’t have health insurance , and 52% of working women can’t get health coverage through their employers , it’s about damn time.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The New Bill of Rights: Credit Card Companies Shall Not Screwith You Over

When the economy first started to crumble and banks were failing right and left, there was a lot of talk about shifting policies in the credit card industry. I caught an NPR segment on the “financial profiling” of consumers, which led me to second-guess every purchase I made on my credit card. If you’re buying groceries, it will make you seem risky, they said. If you buy the cheaper set of tires, it will say to them that you’re one hardship away from financial ruin. Paranoia ensued. And really, it turned out to make no difference at all. I received a letter from my credit card company last week, containing an increase of 6 percentage points. I’ve been a customer since 2005 and have always paid my bill on time. What’s a girl to do? (except to close her account, which is exactly what I did.)

Although the financial struggles of working class families have taken a couple of blows in the Senate with a failed plan to allow bankruptcy judges to restructure mortgages, and a cap on credit card interest rates losing out, things are looking good for legislation that’s being dubbed the “Credit Card Holders' Bill of Rights. It passed the house last week by an overwhelming margin, and will more than likely be voted on in the Senate by the end of the week.

Though not one Senator has stepped up to defend the credit card industry, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas said several weeks ago,"I haven't heard any evidence that the competitive market isn't working. In the absence of that, why are you attacking risk-based pricing?" Perhaps Rep Hensarling was taking a little snooze while Wesley Wannemacher told congress about his dealings with Chase Bank. Wannemacher exceeded the limit on his card 3 times (for a total of $200), but was then charged 47 over-limit fees totaling $1,500. And there are thousands more stories like Wannemachers out there.

Lobbying groups that represent the credit card companies argue that the legislation would limit their ability to manage risk. “We know in the end they are going to pass very tough legislation,” said Edward L. Yingling, president of the American Bankers Association. “We just hope they don’t go overboard.” I’ll tell you what seems overboard to me: the fact that, as Senator Bernie Sanders reported on the Senate floor, one-third of credit card holders are paying more than 20 percent interest and sometimes as high as 41 percent on their accounts! A cap on interest rates was thrown out of the proposed legislation, because it was feared that the bill would not pass if it was included. Though a cap seems necessary in order for consumers to recover from debt in this challenging economy, it’s true that we have more pressing matters when it comes to credit card industry policies. Here are a few of the more egregious practices that the Credit Card Holders' Bill of Rights is seeking to abolish:

•If a consumer has any balance owing on a card from the prior month, there is no grace period on new purchases -- every purchase racks up interest charges from day one.

•Under the policy of "universal default," companies will sometimes raise a cardholder’s interest rate when the cardholder is late making a payment on an unrelated debt.

•Here’s the kicker: Companies sometimes charge late fees if they’re late in processing a payment.

The "Stop Unfair Practices In Credit Cards Act" goes a long way to fix the injustices doled out by the industry, but in my opinion it doesn’t do enough. If working families are going to recover from the financial turmoil that the current state of our economy has caused, we’re going to have to find every way possible to fight unfair lending practices, including the amount of interest that a credit card company is allowed to charge its customers.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Desperately Seeking “Neutral” Judges – whatever that means.

Folks are watching the Obama administration avidly for lots of reasons – the economy, responding to terror, the good-looking first couple, North Korea, the “first-mother-in-law” – and now there’s an additional reason for lawyers and legal devotees: President Obama’s first opportunity to appoint a justice to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Much has been written about this momentous decision, including whether it’s momentous, given that Justice Souter is a member of the “liberal” wing of the Court, and that the President is considered a pragmatist who might not be interested in appointing someone who could be called ‘liberal’ or even, heaven forefend, ‘radical’. The prevailing assumption in all this analysis is that he will appoint a woman, or possibly a man of color.

Which leads to the question: how much difference do sex and race make in judicial decision-making? The argument can be made both ways (see Thomas, Justice Clarence for evidence supporting one view), but there is some research to inform us. Scholars at Washington University in St. Louis and Northwestern School of Law have published a paper analyzing whether women judges rule differently from men judges, and whether the presence of women judges on appellate panels causes men judges to vote differently. The answer? In 12 of 13 areas of law, it does not. But in the area of sex discrimination, there is a measurable difference in both aspects.

Now, I can just hear it from the social and legal conservatives: “See, that proves it! Women judges rule from their personal perspectives, and hand down one-sided decisions.” At least two responses leap to the mind. (“So what?” would make three, but seems . . . injudicious.) First is the oft-repeated canard about ‘activist judges’ – baloney. The second relates to deep-seated problems in our legal system and our society: embedded sexism and denial about the extent to which everyone’s experiences affect their decision-making, judicial or otherwise.

Of course women’s experiences play into how they view the facts in a given case. Strangely enough, so do men’s. So do those of lawyers who primarily represented corporations, or criminal defendants, or hospitals. Ditto those who grew up poor, or in rural areas, or in Manhattan. Why is that bad? Wouldn’t we rather have a judge who had deep experience in some area, who knew the nuances and ramifications of that legal issue or that life experience? We just don’t call it out when it’s a white male who came from a position of power and privilege. It’s the “other” – the woman, the person with a disability, the person of color – whose life experience is somehow tainting her legal analysis. But it’s not. It’s just informing her perspective and giving her (or him) insight. If she’s a good judge (and most judges work very hard to remain neutral and open-minded) we and our system of justice can only benefit from that perspective and insight.

So --- go for it, Mr. President. Think hard and long about what perspective needs to be added to our highest court. And if you get stumped, you know where to reach me.

Would you like some Swine Flu with that latte?

Working in the coffee industry taught me a few things about calling in sick: if it didn’t get you fired or written up, it certainly earned you a generous helping of disdain from your fellow baristas, not to mention the extra challenge of getting rent together with a short paycheck. Eight years in the same industry and yet paid sick days were an abstract idea – something that other people enjoyed (which is good, because I probably passed my cold to them more than once).

Thankfully these days are behind me, but for a large number of Americans, lacking paid sick days is a reality. 1 million Washingtonians—48 percent of Washington workers—are not able to take a paid sick day when they are ill, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fifty-seven million workers are in this same boat nationally.

The recent outbreak of the H1N1 virus, more commonly known as “swine flu”, has called to attention just exactly which industries this issue hits the hardest: the people handling our food. A whopping 86% of food industry workers are unable to take time off to stay home when they’re sick. This raises some fairly obvious questions about the health of our society. Do we really want those that serve us our food to come to work, even when they’re sick? Yet we give them no other option.

Sick leave concerns don’t stop at the issues a pandemic brings to light either. Research has shown, time after time, that employees are more productive and heal faster when they’re allowed paid sick days, resulting in increased productivity (imagine that!). Studies have also shown that children whose parents are able to stay home with them get better faster and do better in school. You can read more about the cost of employees coming to work while ill here.

Mandatory sick leave seems to be a popular idea with voters. San Francisco citizens passed an initiative that required every employer in the city to provide a minimum number of paid sick days, by a margin of 60%. Milwaukee voters approved a similar measure by an even higher 69%. A poll conducted by the Institute For Women’s Policy Research shows that 4 out of 5 Americans believe that paid sick days should be a basic labor standard.

So how do we make this desire a reality? There are currently a number of statewide movements across the nation, from California to Maine. Also up-and-coming is a piece of national legislation, known as “The Healthy Families Act.” You can go here to thank congressional representatives who have sponsored the bill, and encourage those that haven’t to do so.

Eventually our society will come to realize that when workers are given paid sick time, it benefits us all. Then you can stop eyeing your barista suspiciously, checking for sunken eyes and signs of a runny nose.