Speaking of Women's Rights: 03/10

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A tough week for teenage girls

When are we going to start standing up for teenage girls? Young women are insanely talented – academically, athletically, artistically, all over the world. But society doesn’t trust them, doesn’t respect them, and doesn’t want them defining their own identities. Teen girls got raked over the coals left and right last week.

A young woman in Cleveland, Ohio was sexually assaulted. Afterward she came forward with her story, seeking justice and punishment for her attacker – something that’s notoriously difficult for victims to do. Imagine her surprise when the judge ordered HER to take a lie detector test.

Meanwhile, here in Seattle, a teenager worked with a clinic located in her high school to arrange to have an abortion off school property. When her mother found out, this was her ever-so-supportive reaction: she broadcast her outrage on the local television news.

"We had no idea this was being facilitated on campus," said [the mother]. "They just told her that if she concealed it from her family, that it would be free of charge and no financial responsibility. … Makes me feel like my rights were completely stripped away."

Check this out: the teen didn’t break any laws, and neither did the clinic. There are no parental disclosure laws in Washington state, which is a good thing – it means teens who fear for their safety don’t have to reveal a potentially explosive issue in a dangerous home environment. And now we have an excellent example of why this is right: disclosure potentially equals broadcast of totally private medical information on television. Thanks, mom.

And in Mississippi, all Constance McMillen wanted was to spiff herself up in a tux and take her girlfriend to prom. Her high school had some wildly different ideas, though: A. Girls don’t wear pants to formal events and B. By the way, prom is CANCELLED. Because of YOU. (Pardon me, because of the “distractions to the educational process caused by recent events,” the school’s euphemism for “lesbian couple that wants to attend prom.”)

Constance’s story set off a national media frenzy and ended up with her receiving a $30,000 scholarship from Ellen. Not bad, as far as happy endings go, but it doesn’t change the fact that she was treated like crap in the first place.

Teen girls deserve better. If we respected them, they would be able to come forward with stories about being sexually assaulted and know that the justice system would be up to the task of keeping them safe. If we accepted their own definitions of their still-forming identities, they’d be allowed to wear whatever (and bring whomever) they want to prom. And if we trusted them, we’d be proud that they’re brave and knowledgeable enough to take care of themselves, and we’d be thankful to the people who give them safe, timely medical care – even when their parents are out of the loop.

The watchword in the women’s rights community this year is the late Dr. George Tiller’s slogan: “Trust women.” Let’s add an equivalent motto for the younger set.

Trust girls.

What are you doing to support the teen girls in your life?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Birth Control Pill: His & Hers in our future?

June 23, 1960.

The FDA approved the first form of the birth control pill for use as a contraceptive on this historic day, though nearly half a million women were already using it for “menstrual disorders and infertility.” This was hardly the beginning of widespread use of the pill, as state laws came into place barring it. It wasn’t until a federal lawsuit - Griswold v. Connecticut – ruled that these state laws were unconstitutional that a greater number of married women began to use it. It took another suit in 1972, Eisenstadt v. Baird, to gain access for unmarried women.

Fast-forward fifty years.
Roughly 100 million women across the globe now use the pill. It’s fairly indisputable that the birth control pill has been one of the most important inventions of our time, allowing women to enter the workforce in larger numbers and enjoy a great deal more autonomy.

A birth control pill for men?

Talk of a pill option for men is not a new phenomenon. So why did it take almost 50 years to get this far in its development, you might ask? Though the science is certainly much more advanced (think 1500 sperm to a woman’s singular egg), it’s hard not to assume that our patriarchal society has been in no hurry to even out the burden of birth control. Also hard to ignore is the disparity between how little research was done before the release of the pill and how much careful research is being done before the possible release of the male pill. Back in the day, they pretty much put the pill on the market and waited to see what happened, much to the chagrin of those who grew beards, lost hair, and battled severe depression.

My initial reaction to the idea of a male pill is along the lines of “Great! Men are finally going to share in the bloating, moodiness, and migraines that have plagued women for years.” Quentin Brown, a participant in a UCLA Medical Center Study on the male pill has other ideas. “It is time for men to have some control. I think it would empower men and deter some women out there from their nefarious plans,” says Quentin. “Some women are out there to use men to get pregnant. This could deter women from doing this.” Yeah, give men some control for once. Geez women.

It seems that it would just make good sense to place reproductive control squarely in the hands of both genders. But the social implications of a male birth control pill are as far-reaching and complex as many other current issues surrounding reproductive technology (surrogacy, anyone?). Would men actually be interested in taking the pill? As the cartoon on the cover of thia week's Seattle Weekly suggests, will women trust men to be the ones responsible for birth control? Studies have shown that men and women both perceive women to be better at carrying out regimens (like taking a daily pill, for instance). Is this a reality or simply a stereotype? Do pharmaceutical companies stand to profit enough to make sinking billions of dollars into research worthwhile? Would use of the male pill decrease condom use, thus increasing the spread of HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases?

I guess my hope is – apart from the slew of other unknowns – that development of the science of the male pill will coincide with a more drastic shift in gender stereotypes. The availability of the birth control pill changed the terrain of gender roles once. Perhaps the release of a male pill will change it once again.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Feminist Homemakers: Oxymoron, or Food for Thought?

Probably you too have noticed the recent trends toward a more DIY (do-it-yourself) culture. In 2009, 35% of U.S. households participated in “food gardening,” according to the National Gardening Association. More folks are canning, raising chickens, knitting, quilting, and taking part in all manner of pioneer-type activities. The First Lady planted an organic garden at the White House, to much fanfare. Even I, a chronic black thumb, succumbed last year to growing some edibles and whipping up some pillow covers and drapes on my new sewing machine.

Do such acts of “homemaking” have the potential to be transformative, another wave of feminism? Or are they a retreat to an old way of life in which women's contributions to family economics were devalued?

For me, such activities are mostly a hobby. For others, they are an economic necessity. For yet others, though, they are a choice: a conscious rejection of a consumerist culture.

A recent New York Times article chronicles the rise of a movement of “Radical Homemakers.” The word “femivore” in the article’s unfortunate title, “A Femivore’s Dilemma,” in fact means “eater of women.” If you can get past that little precision problem, the title is a riff off of Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, about the search for an environmentally sustainable, back-to-the-land, slow-food, locavore way of living.

The eponymous Radical Homemakers website and book describe the concept this way:

It is the story of pioneering men and women who are redefining feminism and the good life by adhering to simple principles of ecological sustainability, social justice, community engagement and family well-being. … Radical Homemakers is about men and women across the U.S. who focus on home and hearth as a political and ecological act, and who have centered their lives around family and community for personal fulfillment and cultural change.

The article has generated a lot of interesting discussion in the blogosphere (see, for example, here and here and here), raising questions such as these:
  • Is this movement yet another way for working women to feel guilty, for not being superwomen who also grow and can their own food while toiling in a factory or in an office?
  • Does completely embracing the “back-to-the-land” movement end up just duplicating an ages-old structure in which women are not compensated for domestic duties, and women’s work is separated by men’s work because of differences in physical strength?
  • Are only women who are already economically empowered (read: stay-at-home moms) able to make the choice to devote their time to such endeavors as raising chickens or feeding their own families fresh, local food?
  • Is it misguided to bemoan the lack of women in the Forbes list of richest people (only 14 females out of 1,011 self-made billionaires in the entire world), when this list merely reflects a corporate, industrial structure that relies on exploitative labor and ecologically extractive processes – and is radical homemaking the antidote?

While I don’t pretend to have the answers, I do know this: All women should have real choices, and real opportunity to develop economic self-sufficiency and financial stability.

We don’t need to completely eschew corporate industrialism, nor do we have to accept it as the ultimate measure of women’s empowerment and success. A person’s gender should not constrain her from pursuing some form of economic self-sufficiency – whether it be on a farm, in a restaurant, in a manufacturing job, or in an executive suite. And advocating for, and enforcing, laws that ensure equitable treatment at the workplace, as well as laws that change the normative employment standards (for example, laws protecting workers who need family and medical leave, or laws promoting flexibility and worker empowerment), can help transform work - wherever it takes place - to be more in sync with the lives of real women.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Strike Up the Band for the Unsung (and the known) Heroines!

One of the great things about Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day is the discovery of women’s accomplishments you’ve never heard of. Equally heart-warming are the ceremonies and awards that surface every year acknowledging women who have been overlooked.

How could we fail to be touched by the bestowing of the Congressional Gold Medal on 200 surviving members of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) on March 9th? During World War II more than 1,000 women pilots flew throughout the U.S., ferrying planes to where they were needed, hauling targets for shooting practice, and performing duties that freed male pilots to serve in the theaters of war. They were denied veteran status until 1977, and basically discarded once the war was over. They even had to pay their own bus fare home. Yet their patriotism was magnificent, and remains undimmed: when the Star-Spangled Banner was played at the medal ceremony, one of the women rose from her wheelchair and saluted throughout the song.

I’m glad they were finally recognized, just as I was tickled (yet annoyed) to see that the Society for Baseball Research has finally acknowledged the full contribution that Dorothy Mills made to the groundbreaking historical research and writing of her husband, Dr. Harold Seymour. Seymour and Mills wrote three books widely recognized as the first scholarly treatment of baseball history. Seymour deliberately, repeatedly, and it appears, spitefully refused to acknowledge her contributions, and she had to fight to the get the Society to admit her role. Gee, were his feelings going to be hurt? Did he feel like ‘less of a man’ because his wife was so good at the research and writing? (And she didn’t even like baseball, which I don’t get, but it’s her prerogative.)

Of course, these aren’t the only woman whose vital contributions have been overlooked. Our history abounds with them, once you start to look. Fair warning, though: it can be tough to find them, as they are unsung. In other words, the usual Catch-22 when it comes to exploring women’s history. But I’ve managed to find a few whose stories inspire me and illuminate our society.

Many of you have heard of Grace Hopper, who was not only a distinguished Navy Admiral, but also a pioneering computer programmer and the co-inventor of COBOL. But did you know about Ada Byron Lovelace (daughter of Lord Byron of poetic fame), who developed a method of using punch cards to calculate numbers, becoming in essence the first computer programmer?

Or what about Catherine Littlefield Greene, wife of Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene (himself a sometimes-overlooked hero), whom many people say was the true inventor of the cotton gin? At a minimum, Eli Whitney could not have completed the invention without her.

For every Marie Curie, there’s an Ada Lovelace, a Belva Lockwood, a Bessie Coleman . . . I could go on, but it's fun to explore, so why don’t you?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Olympic Women: Jumping the Gender Gap...quite literally.

As the Vancouver Sun put it, this year the Canadian women “wore the snowpants” in Canada’s Olympic Family, winning more than 2/3 of the country's medals. The case was the same in the past two winter Olympics actually. And though the male faction of the U.S. team beat out the women in number of medals earned, Germany – also placing in the top 3 of the medal count – boasted more female medal-winners as well. If women are out-performing the men on the whole, why does it still seem like such an uphill battle to garner support for women in sports?

Steven Hume of the Vancouver Sun points out that some of the female biathlon and cross-country athletes posed nude in magazine features in order to raise funds for their training. “If there's any lasting gold to be taken home from these Olympics, it will be for all of us to insist upon adequate funding for the development of our exemplary female athletes.” Funding for and acceptance of women’s sports seems to increase the more that women participate in them. Yet, more women participate in sports when there’s funding and acceptance of their choice to pursue athletic excellence. A bit “chicken or the egg,” eh?

With the cavalcade of Olympic skiing events – from Ski Cross to Biathalon, Freestyle to Combined – it may’ve been easy to overlook the omission of women’s ski jumping. The International Olympic Committee’s decision to deny female ski jumpers the chance to compete in the 2010 games actually resulted in a lawsuit filed by 15 competitive ski-jumpers from around the world.

The IOC maintains that women’s ski jumping is “not yet advanced enough for inclusion in the Olympics,” a questionable claim given the sheer number of elite female ski jumpers across the globe, and the fact that the longest jump recorded in history belongs to an American woman. The lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that Canadian law has no jurisdiction over the IOC. Though they lost out in Vancouver, the movement has set its sights on 2014, spreading the world through an online petition.

Skiing isn’t the only arena where women were left in (or out of) the cold this Olympics. 21 more medals were available for men than women. And one relatively recent addition came under fire this year from critics who say the sport isn’t competitive enough around the world to warrant inclusion in the Olympics. Little did the Canadian and U.S. women’s hockey teams know that by obliterating their opponents they were putting the future of their sport in jeopardy.

Says sports columnist Jeff Passan “So wide is the chasm between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, the International Olympic Committee should issue an ultimatum to the sport’s powers that be: Figure out how to balance the sport’s competitiveness or risk losing standing as an Olympic competition after the 2018 Games.”

Eight years to even the score, huh? The thing is that we’re not just talking about a sports score here…we’re talking about gender discrimination and gender stereotyping that have been ingrained for hundreds – and in some case thousands – of years. In China, for instance, 200 out of a whopping 650 million women participate in the sport. That means that if you’re a Chinese female hockey player you have a roughly 1 in 5 chance of being on the Olympic team.

And let’s not forget the humble beginnings of men’s Olympic hockey. In 1920, the United States beat Switzerland 29-0. Canada outscored opponents in pool play 85-0. And though teams from around the world have improved, who played for the gold and silver medals again this time around? That’s right…the same old North American friends!

Perhaps the IOC needs to take another look and determine whether its policies are helping to achieve its mission: "To promote Olympism throughout the world and lead the Olympic movement." I don't know what the heck "Olympism" is, but waiting around for countries to wipe out gender discrimination doesn’t really sound like “leading” to me. C’mon IOC: as this beautiful video promoting women’s ski jumping suggests “Let’s not just bridge the gap in 2014…let’s jump over it!”

Monday, March 8, 2010

Growing Feminists

Something we here at Legal Voice talk about, and think about, a lot: how do we effectively engage youth – both male and female – so that they, too, see the interconnectedness of what are sometimes seen as purely “women’s issues”?

I confess, I wasn’t always a feminist. I don’t think I was ever anti-feminist, but it is true, I didn’t always view things through a gendered lens.

However, I knew it wasn’t OK that my dad consistently belittled my mother (for her accent, for imperfect meal preparation, for not wearing the right makeup) and that he expected her to do the laundry, child care, and take care of all household matters even though she, too, worked outside the home.

I knew that I was lucky to be born in the U.S. and not in Korea like my mom, where first-born males were king. And I knew that even my mom had been lucky, all things considered: growing up through two wars, fatherless from age 4, my mother might well have not received schooling either. It was only because she was an only child – and because her mother had sufficient education to enable her to find employment outside the home – that she was able to go to school.

Yet I didn’t have a name for this sense that things … well, things just didn’t quite seem fair sometimes. Even though I attended an all-girls leadership camp, went on a civic education field trip to D.C., and took all manner of history classes – not once did the word “feminism” come up until college.

There, I learned that up until 20 years prior, my own school had refused to admit women – and when it did, the school merely tacked on an extra 250 to the entering class size, so it wouldn’t have to reduce any opportunities for the “1000 bright young men” it boasted of graduating each year. There, also, I learned of the fight for women’s suffrage, Simone de Beauvoir and the French feminists, Betty Friedan, and rising third world feminist political movements. Aha – perhaps the problem had no name, but the solution did (thank you, Betty)!

So I shouldn’t have been too surprised that when I attended a youth summit last week to facilitate a break-out session for a group of high school students, almost no one chose the topic “sexism.” Granted, we were up against some tough competition: drug/alcohol abuse, homelessness, the environment. Still, one would think the topic of “sexism” would be at least a little bit sexy? (We did eventually find participants and had a great conversation about a scenario involving Title IX and unequal funding of a girls’ sports team.)

Two things have stuck with me from that afternoon. One is when a female student said, “Wow. I guess I never really thought much about this issue, but I can see now how it is sexism.” The other is that the one male student at the table, who kept himself busy typing notes and didn’t participate in the conversation, except when directly asked a question.

One of women’s rights advocates’ biggest challenges is shining a light on the interconnections among issues in women’s lives – making the case for why women’s rights truly are “the cause of our time.”

Certainly, there’s nothing like experience to raise that awareness. Unfortunately, many women gain this awareness the hard way. One in five women will have their rude awakening during college; a shocking one in five women students will be subjected to rape or attempted rape by the time they graduate.

Others will experience that rude awakening at work. For Lilly Ledbetter, whose case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (and who recently paid a trip to Seattle), it took an anonymous note in her work mailbox when she was in her late 50s – a note that informed her that her male counterparts at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company were being paid up to 30% more than she was.

Other women will become aware when they need emergency contraception, but face a pharmacist who refuses to dispense it based on his or her personal, religious, or other beliefs.

Some will be moved by stories about young women in other countries who are subjected to acid attacks just for going to school, who are sentenced by their culture as teens to marry their rapists, or who are sold into sexual slavery.

Many others, including males, will learn about gender equality through their own family members’ experiences. Children might realize the importance of women’s employment if their family’s primary breadwinner is a woman, as is increasingly the case. (See, for example, this recent report on women’s and men’s unemployment during the recession.)

If you are reading this, I’m probably preaching to the choir. So I’m curious: How did you become a feminist? What do you think we each can be doing to make sure the next generation doesn’t have to learn the hard way about why women’s rights matter? (Please feel free to add your comments below.)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Great news from the other Washington

Legal Voice is located in Seattle, Washington, but we’re grinning about big news from Washington D.C. Today was the first day that same-sex couples could legally marry in the nation’s capitol.

A lot of folks have been singing a ditty to the tune of “marriage equals one man plus one woman,” but it seems like the tune is changing – and so are the words! So says the NYTimes:

Court officials explained that the Marriage Bureau had changed its license applications: They ask for the name of each spouse rather than the bride and groom. Officials who perform the weddings read, “I now pronounce you legally married.”

So much for that antiquated “man and wife” business, eh?

Here’s a round-up of our favorite feel-good photos from this celebratory day:

Monday, March 1, 2010

Looking For Leadership In All The Wrong Places

The tragic stories keep coming. Last Friday morning a special education teacher in Tacoma was shot and killed by a man who was infatuated with her. A man against whom she had obtained a protection order, who had apparently been stalking her for years. Police say he had a semi-automatic weapon.

Last Halloween, a Seattle police officer was executed as he and his trainee partner sat in their car.

One month later, a man shot and killed four police officers in Lakewood, near Tacoma, while they were in a coffee shop before their shift.

Less than one month after that, a Pierce County sheriff deputy was injured, and another wounded so critically that he died without gaining consciousness a week later, after he and his partner were ambushed while responding to a domestic violence call.

You know all this, right? And I bet you’re expecting me to demand gun control, and thereby unleash the “if the teacher had been carrying a gun, she could have defended herself” pundits. They’re out in force already, commenting on the various news stories about these incidents. And they’ll be not only vociferous, but triumphant, if, as expected, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Chicago’s handgun ban as violating the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The “right to bear arms” is one of the most contentious issues in our country. The facts about guns are not in dispute: more than 30,000 people die every year, 70,000+ more are wounded. Countries with stricter gun laws, such as Australia, experience far lower gun-related injuries and deaths, both absolutely (approximately 600 per year combined in Oz) and proportionately (2.94 per 1000 people, compared to nearly 12 per 1000 in the U.S.)

So yes, we could talk about gun control and the epidemic of deaths in this country. Instead, though, I’m interested in the crevasse that divides the leaders of the anti-gun control movement from their own members. The National Rifle Association takes the position that any regulation of guns violates the Second Amendment. A citizen’s desire to shoot a deer with an Uzi is constitutionally protected; her right to have automatic or semi-automatic weapons in her house is undeniable. Background checks, waiting periods, regulations about who may and may not own guns --- these are all impermissible, in the NRA’s view.

Is that what NRA members believe? Actually, no. A recent poll (commissioned by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, it’s true) found that nearly 70% of NRA members believe that people who buy weapons at gun shows should go through a background check (not currently required). And a whopping 85% of gun owners who do not belong to the NRA thought so. As for restricting gun sales to people suspected of being terrorists, 82% of NRA members think that’s a fine idea.

All of which is to say that once again, as is arguably the case with health care reform, the financial crisis and many other issues considered polarizing and divisive, when it comes to gun control the people of this country are perhaps not as divided as the media would have us think. What can we do with that? How can we break through the rigidity and unwillingness to discuss or compromise, when those we are supposed to look to for leadership maintain positions so much at odds with what their ‘followers’ believe?

I wish I knew. If you do, let me know.