Speaking of Women's Rights: 04/10

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Just Stop It.

How far we still have to go.

That’s what runs through my mind as I ponder the ill-fortunes of various sports stars. When the Tiger Woods* scandal first broke and people obsessed about it, there was also some push-back: leave the guy alone, he’s just an athlete, people mess up, etc. But I couldn’t help flashing back to Kobe Bryant* and the outrage sports fans (including in my own natal family) expressed that he should be accused of, much less held accountable for, vicious, sexist behavior.

And now there’s Ben Roethlisberger*, who has just been suspended for six games (maybe; could be cut to four) for the second allegation of sexual assault in the last two years. Mind you, he was suspended for violating the NFL’s code of conduct, and he hasn’t been charged with a crime (yet. Though perhaps he never will be.) Innocent until proven guilty: I get it. Stick with me.

First, let’s pause to say “awwww, we’re so sorry, Mr. Roethlisberger, that you might lose money because you’re not allowed to play some games.” After all, I am sure you are worth $12.75 million per year. And making you forfeit $4.78 million just because you violated the player’s code of conduct does seem a bit harsh.

But don’t worry: like Tiger, Kobe, and other sports stars accused or convicted of crimes (e.g., Michael Vick*, Plaxico Burress*), your bank account won’t suffer that much. You’ve got Nike in your corner. And come hell, high water, felony convictions or bad publicity, chances are Nike will stick with you, as it did for the others. A sports hero and a role model sells shoes, after all, no matter what heinous activities he engages in.

It’s not just the money. Nor is it simply what all this says about sports, our society, and who we look up to and reward. It’s about how we view women. Timothy Egan is more eloquent on this subject than I, and he gets it right. An additional element to consider, though, is what each of these crimes is, and what they mean for the role and perception of women in our society. The majority of these crimes and actions are against women or indicate a profound disrespect for women. And even those that may not seem so are troubling signals about the value of women: abusing animals is a common precursor to or indication of domestic violence and battering, while the number of women shot and killed by their partners seems on a perpetual upward trend.

Equally disturbing, or perhaps just more blunt, is how Nike itself treats women, which is really a reflection of the greater society. Yes, Nike has programs for women’s sports, it has women endorsers (gosh, isn’t Maria Sharapova beautiful? Can someone remind me if Martina Navratilova had a Nike deal?), it gives some money to girls’ sports programs. But just look at Nike’s website: If you go to its homepage you can choose among (in descending order) Basketball, Football, Golf, LIVESTRONG . . . Soccer and Women. I don’t want to hear about how these are in alphabetical order. Until we stop making women’s sports (and women’s accomplishments, and women’s intelligence, and women’s interests) a ‘special category’, we can’t begin to eradicate violence against women, move toward paying women what they’re worth, or allow women to realize their potential. Too bad Nike just doesn’t get it.

*For the non-sports folks, the players’ sports and alleged misdeeds/crimes are, respectively: Golf (serial infidelity); Basketball (rape); Football (rape); Football (animal cruelty); Football (unlawful possession of firearms)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Women in the Military: A microcosm of the struggle for gender equality?

Though 4-20 may have had other significance for some of you, yesterday was also Equal Pay Day, the day on which women in America finish earning the salary they would’ve received in 2009, were they a man. The disparity between women’s and men’s salaries has decreased only half of a penny in the last 4 decades, hovering right around 80 cents on the dollar. Though there are many theories on why men still out-earn women, I think that the answer lies somewhere in the system; a system that still assumes that women are incapable of any number of things.

Take the military for example.

Having women on the front lines of a hard-fought war seems to be improving public perception of the role women play in our society. In a recent opinion poll, 53 percent of respondents said they would favor permitting women to “join combat units, where they would be directly involved in the ground fighting.” Even within the military, attitudes have begun to change. “Iraq has advanced the cause of full integration for women in the Army by leaps and bounds,” says Peter R. Mansoor, a retired Army colonel. “They have earned the confidence and respect of male colleagues.”

Public opinion may be changing, but a 1950’s law that does not permit women to be placed in direct combat is still on the books, leaving them with far fewer job options than their male counterparts (for example, only 20 percent of positions in the Marines are technically open to women), particularly positions of higher ranking and thus higher pay. This doesn’t mean that women are always kept out of harm’s way. What it does mean is that they are stealthily placed in the line of fire, often being “attached” to a unit, rather than assigned to it.

Because of this, benefits that are easily afforded to men are often harder for women to attain. Women sometimes have to have sustained injuries in order to prove that they’re eligible for combat pay, whereas men receive it automatically, based simply on their assignments. Author Kayla Williams says “One of my closest friends was told by a V.A. doctor that she could not possibly have PTSD for just this reason: He did not believe that she, as a woman, could have been in combat.”

Then there’s the issue of advancement, which often requires combat experience. A large portion of women in the military have been involved in combat, but that experience isn’t on the books because – according to the rules – that wasn’t supposed to happen.

It seems that, though we’re certainly not there yet, we’ve made strides when it comes to what society thinks women are capable of. Women are successful CEOs, negotiate foreign policy with other nations, and rescue fellow soldiers from enemy fire. Now we just need to bring our antiquated codes and laws in line with the valuable contributions women are making, and pay attention to the more nuanced ways in which policies can contribute to inequality. Only then will women be able to jump the barriers they currently face and join men on the front lines, literally and figuratively.

Photo from LIONESS: A film about the first women in U.S. history to be sent into direct ground combat.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What’s in that Tea They’re Drinking?

This week, as Tea Party activists around the country are rallying at Tax Day protests, a recent poll has revealed some interesting information about who Tea Party supporters are. Confirmed: There's little that is feminist, or progressive, in that tea they're drinking.

It’s no big surprise that they are overwhelmingly white (89%) and male (59%) and tend to identify as Republicans. But there are some other noteworthy findings that underscore a strong “us v. them”-ism that is disturbing.

What’s being reported is that Tea Party members say economic issues are more important to them than social issues. Yet the poll shows Tea Party members more likely to believe gay couples should have NO legal recognition, and that abortion should be either not be available at all, or be further restricted. They think too much has been made of the problems facing blacks, and that white and black people “have about an equal chance of getting ahead.” They also believe immigration is a serious problem, in much larger numbers than the general public. (See the full report here.)

As for the economic issues they claim to find more important? Well, your average Tea Partyist ain’t exactly poor folk: 68% are in the top half income-wise (greater than $50,000 a year). And 56% believe the current Administration’s policies favor the poor.

Yet this “us v. them” attitude really doesn’t make much sense when it comes to tax policy. Taxes are the ultimate manifestation of the social contract; in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous words, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.’’

This is especially true in our post-agrarian, industrialized economy. Though it seems like a contradiction of their core values, even Tea Party supporters recognize the need for taxes, to some extent: A large majority (62%) of those polled believe that “benefits from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs of those programs for taxpayers.”

In fact, for much of our lives, the benefits we receive from government services far exceed the taxes we pay. In particular, young Americans and older Americans get more in benefits than they pay in taxes. In 2004, net government expenditures on individuals up to age 21 came to $208,552 per person. It would take more than 17 years for the average taxpayer simply to repay what older taxpayers invested in them in their first 21 years – what economist Nancy Folbre has called “tax payback years.” (And according to one source, an estimated 47% of Americans don’t even owe any taxes, either because of credits and deductions or because they don't earn enough to file a tax return.)

In Washington State, to avert a cuts-only budget, the legislature just made some hard decisions to raise revenues through new taxes on soda, beer, cigarettes, and the like. The crazy things those taxes will help pay for? Oh, things like college financial aid, hospice care, and preschool. Community health centers and law enforcement. Yet, on the heels of the new budget, there was our local knee-jerk anti-tax advocate, Tim Eyman, preparing more initiatives to repeal those taxes.

I get the appeal of the “individual responsibility” aspect to the Tea Party mission. And, it should be noted, there are individuals who actively campaign (here and here) to be assessed higher taxes. I’m honestly just unable to understand how others can be SO individual-minded – yes, selfish – that they do not see the societal benefits of what our tax dollars pay for.

As Professor Folbre has said, “Let’s remember that we were all once young and hope eventually to grow old.” Whether we’re now young, old, or in-between, doesn’t it make more sense to acknowledge the benefits we all gain, at whatever stage of life, and whatever our race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. - and move from “us v. them” to “we’re all in it together”? That, to me, is true patriotism.

Who invited the gender & fashion police?

March was Women’s History Month, and one New Jersey elementary school found a special way to celebrate: canceling an activity about women in history.

A teacher planned to have her 3rd grade students wear outfits representing women’s fashion during historical time periods of their choosing. No one had to wear anything in particular – pants and dresses were fair game for boys and girls alike.

Some parents took the planned activity to mean that their sons were being forced to dress as girls. A blogger claimed that the school was “pushing the gay agenda while feminizing our young boys through a cross-dressing day.” In response to the ensuing hoopla, the teacher canceled the activity.

Hysterical mobs everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief. Traditional gender norms are safe! Willful overreaction saves the day again!

Even if the uproar is silly, it sends a serious message to the kids in that class: women’s history isn’t important. “Acting normal” is. What does it convey to kids when parents insist “YOU CAN’T FORCE MY SON TO WEAR A DRESS!" ?
  1. Boys who wear dresses are unacceptably weird.

  2. That the lesson, as planned, is invalid, pointless and not at all educational. That it’s a stunt intended to screw up kids.
The teacher was attempting something progressive here, but it wasn’t anything wrongheaded or crazy, like making boys and girls switch clothes against their will. The point was to show that women’s contribution to history is important enough to be the center of a major lesson, and not a “Betsey Ross sewed a beautiful flag!”-style afterthought.

I'm not knocking flag-sewing – I just want to point out that Great Men Of History accomplished the things they did because they had ultra-skilled domestic support. Did the fellows that wrote the Constitution churn their own butter? Doubtful. It seems to me that if various founding fathers had had to focus on feeding and clothing themselves and educating and disciplining their kids - tasks their wives no doubt deftly handled - it might've taken a bit longer to finish writing those very important historical documents I had to commit to memory in elementary school.

I support celebrating women’s contributions as being important in their own right, not as an auxiliary, just-for-fun aspect of history. I hope that for every cancelled-due-to-uproar women's historical fashion show I hear about, there are ten others quietly taking place, teaching kids that women's history is cool.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Health Care Myths:
The political struggle against public misconception is certainly not a new one.

Being jam-packed with a potpourri of travelers at the airport is often one of my favorite and least favorite parts of going on vacation. The pinnacle of patience-trying came last week from an overheard conversation while waiting to board my Denver to Seattle flight. “Well I had my heart surgery last month and boy am I glad that I got it before this whole health care thing kicks in, cause who knows what’s gonna happen! One thing I know…I don’t want no Obama care. People are gonna start droppin’ like flies cause they won’t be able to get the care they need.” His comments were met with half-hearted nods (was the other guy thinking what I was thinking? Best not to start something with someone you’re about to be confined in a tight space with for the next 2 ½ hours?).

While reading my book on the flight, I came across an interesting passage on the Child and Family Services Act of 1975. The bill would’ve made childcare available to every family that wanted it, in a program run by the federal government. The legislation seemed to be going nowhere, yet out of the blue legislators began to receive thousands of angry letters from constituents who were under the impression that the bill would allow children to form unions, and sue their parents for making them do their chores. These misconceptions were traced back to a flyer created by the leader of a Kansas Bible Camp who had confused the bill with a “children’s bill of rights” that had been circulated at one point. Since creating it, the man had realized that nothing on the flyer was true and was “sort of sorry” about it. Does this whole scenario sound a little bit familiar?

I’m sure it wasn’t the first, and certainly not the only time that outrageous claims have destroyed a piece of legislation. In the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment falsehoods tore through the country like wildfire; claims that women would be forced to use men’s bathrooms and pregnant women would have to join state militias. And then there’s our more present example…

The Obama administration certainly has its work cut out for it, crossing the country, trying to straighten out public misconceptions about the health care bill. Though some of the more egregious fallacies have been debunked (ie: offing Grandma), there still seems to be a gaping hole where public understanding of what the bill accomplishes (and doesn’t accomplish) should be.

I get it…there’s a lot of information to wade through in this bill. But though the world might seem much easier to grasp with absolutes and catchphrases like “nationalization” and “socialist communist Nazi corporatist,” like everything else, health care reform is nuanced. For example, people like to talk about whether or not insurance premiums will be higher than they are now, once the state-run exchanges are implemented in 2014. Though it’s true that they will be higher (name me one thing that won’t cost more in 2014), the increase will be far less than it would’ve been, had the bill not passed. There are some pretty great things that this bill does and also some things that it lacks. And in these days of the internet, we have some great tools to help break things down for us (for instance this New York Times interface called “How The Health Care Overhaul Could Affect You”.)

The important thing, especially in light of challenges the bill is bound to face, is to engage in a real debate that involves fact rather than fiction, and as Tom Coburn (R-OK) recently suggested at a town hall meeting “get a perspective…know what other people's thoughts are -- not just what (you) hear through a pipe channel.”

Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America

Friday, April 9, 2010

Out of Balance: the Supreme Court Loses a Bulwark of Integrity and Restraint

As a law student, I had several “aha” moments, also known as “are you kidding me?” experiences. One of the biggest was truly understanding that when the U.S. Supreme Court decides a Constitutional issue, there is no higher authority to which one can appeal, no recourse except amending the Constitution or waiting decades to try again. Think segregation: 62 years between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. Even the relatively rapid shift to decriminalize same sex sexual activity – only 17 years between Bowers v. Hardwick and Lawrence v. Texas – was a long time to wait for the people subject to those criminal laws.

Just consider -- if you disagree with a decision of the Supreme Court, you have two options: try to get both houses of Congress to pass an amendment by a 2/3 majority, and then persuade 3/4 of the states to adopt it also; or convince 2/3 of the states that a Constitutional Convention should be held, then persuade 3/4 of the states to adopt whatever comes out of that Convention. Good luck with that. (Equal Rights Amendment, anybody?)

Of course, that immunity from appeal is precisely what makes the Court effective and provides the crucial check on the political branches. While the Executive and the Legislature are subject to the people’s will (at least in theory; let’s ignore election finance for a moment) through elections, the Supreme Court is designed to be above or distant from politics. Thus the checks and balances our system relies upon. Or did.

The supposed non-political nature of the Court (and the courts in general) is just one of the reasons that today is a sad day for American democracy: Justice John Paul Stevens is retiring. You can't blame him: he's almost 90 years old (though he still plays tennis every day), and he clearly wants to give President Obama and the current Congress a good shot at a fabulous replacement.

Putting aside whether you agree or disagree with his decisions, he’s one of the last Justices who was nominated and confirmed in a genuinely non-partisan manner. More than that, he has been the clearest, most convincing voice for keeping the Court above politics. His dissent this January in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is just the latest – and perhaps the most poignant – of his lamentations about the increasingly political nature and behavior of the Court, hearkening back to the minority opinion in Bush v. Gore. In Citizens United, Justice Stevens wrote:

“There were principled, narrower paths that a Court that was serious about judicial restraint could have taken,” he wrote. “Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.” He added, referring to the Court, “The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.”

Indeed, the damage has been done. The Supreme Court, and the legal system in general, have been derided more and more frequently in recent years, with complaints about ‘activist judges’ and ‘overriding the will of the people’. Yet that’s precisely what the courts are there for: to protect the rights of the unpopular minority (among other things). If we can’t trust them to be, or at least strive to be, above partisan politics, do we still have three independent branches of government? And if we don’t, is there anything we can do about it?

So long, Justice Stevens. We'll miss you sorely.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Women's Roles --- Still Up in the Air?

The news that four women were in space at the same time this week is perhaps not news.

As we've progressed from the days when Sally Ride broke the gender barrier in the U.S., through Bonnie Dunbar, who not only carried out 5 space shuttle missions but is now the President and CEO of the Museum of Flight, to today’s quartet in space, we seem to have developed a nonchalance about women who reach this pinnacle of scientific and aeronautic achievement. Though I couldn’t help wishing reporters had been able to refrain from asking Astronaut Stephanie Wilson about her hair. Come on, folks: did anyone care about Neil Armstrong’s sideburns?

Not being news is truly good news in many ways: it means we no longer marvel that women can be so smart, so accomplished, so ambitious. We’ve moved beyond silly, sexist stereotypes. Now we celebrate the heroism and valor of the “Fly Girls” of World War II, as the current exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery does, and as Congress did earlier this year (and as we discussed here.

Thank goodness we’re a long way from the infamous “Coffee, Tea or Me?” days in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, when women were not even allowed to apply to be commercial pilots, and flight attendants were ‘uninhibited’, salacious and acknowledged objects of desire. Aren’t we?

Well, no. (You saw that coming, I bet.) Now on the CW Network you can see “Fly Girls”, a ‘reality show’ that follows four flight attendants on Virgin America Airlines as they meet handsome passengers, accept invitations to posh parties, and show off their “smiles in the aisles”. Granted, we don’t count on television to break stereotypes, but it’s disheartening to see such an old and negative one resurrected. At least it’s stirring up some opposition and artistic as well as social criticism. Even if it’s ‘just a silly TV show’, it’s not something we should let pass: women (and men) who work as flight attendants deserve better. So do the millions of young women and girls who could be looking to Stephanie Wilson and the other women astronauts and envisioning their own trajectories. Not to mention the disrespect to those amazing women in World War II.

I wonder if Buffy is available to come back and slay the creators of the show?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What Children Should Be Learning: Reading, ’Riting, and Respect

Everyone’s buzzing about more bad news involving this country’s youth. Last week, a Massachusetts prosecutor brought criminal charges, including statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment, stalking, against nine teens who had harassed and made physical threats against another student, Phoebe Prince, until she hung herself.

This week also marks the one-year anniversary of Carl Walker-Hoover’s suicide – an 11-year-old who ended his life after enduring constant bullying, including being called “gay” and “faggot” (even though he didn't identify as gay).

I’m saddened to think of the pain these individuals and their families endured. But I’m also troubled by what kind of grownups the kids who did the bullying may become – and what it means for all of us.

Because being grown up is certainly no cure for bullying. One need look no further than the health care reform “debate,” in which supposedly “adult” discourse sank to new lows, all in the name of politics. Just this week, federal prosecutors filed charges against a Yakima man who threatened to kill U.S. Senator Patty Murray over her support of the health care legislation. Elsewhere, opponents of reform harassed, spit at, and made death threats against congressmen including African-Americans John Lewis and Emanuel Cleaver and Barney Frank, who is openly gay. And none of these three legislators was even a major player in the health care debate.

Frank Rich makes the interesting and compelling case in his piece, The Rage Is Not About Health Care, that this surge of anger is not in fact issue-specific, but really about a fear of “others” taking over. Rich notes, for example, that non-white births are on the verge of becoming the majority in the U.S. By 2042, “minorities” will outnumber whites in the U.S., according to a U.S. Census bureau report.

To me, it all boils down to this: we need respectful interaction with others, regardless of differences in background or viewpoint. Perhaps it seems a leap to link schoolyard bullying to Tea Party, Glenn Beck-style, anti-government activism. But who would have expected bullying to result in deaths, either?

Strengthening anti-bullying laws is not the only answer to preventing additional tragedies – and certainly may not have a measurably causal effect on political discourse – but it is a start. Some positive news on this front, for a change – two new Washington laws (which Legal Voice supported) and a pending federal bill will add to students’ protections from bullying, harassment and discrimination.

  • HB 2801 builds on a 2002 law that required schools to adopt policies prohibiting harassment, intimidation, and bullying. The new law requires the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to revise and update a model anti-harassment policy. By 2011, school districts must amend their policies to incorporate the model OSPI policy. Schools also must designate one person as the primary contact regarding the policy to receive copies of all complaints and responsible for implementing the policy.

  • Another new law, HB 3026, expressly prohibits discrimination in public education on the basis of race, creed, religion, color, national origin, veteran/military status, disability, and sexual orientation (including gender identity and expression), adding to existing prohibitions on sex discrimination in schools. The law gives OSPI authority to make rules to eliminate such discrimination and to monitor and enforce compliance with the law. (The only catch? The bill will be null and void unless it is funded in the state budget.)

  • A federal anti-bullying bill, the Safe Schools Improvement Act, is also in the works. In memory of Carl Walker-Hoover, the boy who died a year ago, his mother and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network have launched a petition and call to action in support of the federal bill.
We should all support laws like these that will help teach kids what respect looks like - and will help keep them safe. For Phoebe, for Carl, and for all of us.