Speaking of Women's Rights: 11/10

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Out Of The Shadows, Into The Light

Statistically speaking, 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. This data has always perplexed me; I know far more than six women, yet there’s only one woman in my life who is a survivor of sexual assault… or so I thought. I recently received an email from a friend with whom I’ve shared stories and feelings and philosophies of life. Despite all of this sharing, until now, I had no idea that she was a part of the roughly seventeen percent of women who have experienced sexual assault or abuse.

The NBC show “Private Practice” took on the topic of rape last week, depicting a scene where one of its main characters is the victim of a violent sexual assault. There are of course differing opinions on how the show is handling the storyline, but what I find most interesting is that there are a substantial number of comments from women who have been victims themselves. My friend said that watching it is helping her to confront her own attack. This sentiment is echoed in online comments from other survivors.

Also among the comments in the blogosphere is this complaint:

“I was really bothered by the fact that a seemingly strong, independent woman was so afraid that other's opinions of her would change that she didn't report the rape.”

Perhaps this comment has merit, but could it also be simply a truthful depiction of what happens to women, even the strongest among us, when they are sexually assaulted? According to the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, rape is the most underreported crime in America – a startling 60% of all sexual assaults are never reported. Our society does not like to talk about sexual assault. Just the word rape makes people uncomfortable. Yet so many women share this horrific experience and many are left to deal with the fallout on their own:

Universities, where women are 4 times more likely to be victims, often have no idea how to handle sexual assault.

Women often feel they don’t have anyone on their side. These women end up in tragic situations, like threatening to jump off the King County Courthouse rooftop, or – worse yet – succeeding in ending their own lives.

Advocacy funding for victims is increasingly on the chopping block, especially during this time of difficult budgets.

Reading the statistics and thinking about just how many women are affected by this issue can make the situation feel overwhelming. Luckily there’s some progress being made out there to help victims of sexual assault feel less alone.
The Voices and Faces Project is attempting to give women a forum for their stories with a series of multi-media projects. Their most recent video combines pictures and quotes from survivors.

“…But when I started to talk about it, it freed me.” In my mind, progress involves an array of changes to our thoughts and actions around sexual assault. But perhaps the very first step is to listen.

Photo Credit: Ariion Kathleen Brindley

Thursday, November 11, 2010

November 11th:
Taking a moment to remember and reevaluate

At 11:00 am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918, the guns fell silent on the wastelands that were the battlefields of western Europe. The War To End All Wars was halted by an Armistice between Germany and the Allies. The hundreds of thousands of men and tens of thousands of women (who were on the battlegrounds as nurses and ambulance drivers) stopped what they were doing. Back home, whether that was England, the U.S., or Canada, family members also paused in gratitude.

We now observe November 11th as Veterans Day, an opportunity to honor those who have served in the military. Parades, ceremonies and somber speeches occur around the country; banks and government offices close, and children have a day off from school. Yet I have to wonder: what is our true connection to this “holiday” and to the people who volunteer to risk their lives in service to our republic. How many of us actually know an active or recently returned service member? What is our emotional and intellectual investment in their lives, their risks, their sacrifice?

We read the papers (and now can sometimes even see photos of the flag-draped coffins or hear stories on the radio); progressives bemoan the waste of lives and money; President Obama struggles to move the morass to resolution. But do we pay the issue more than lip service?

Do we really understand, at a deep level, the horrifying and increasing rate of sexual assault on women in the military, and the totally inadequate response to it? Does the average person in this country know that a woman who is assaulted has almost no recourse? She essentially waives all her rights when she enters a branch of the service. Victims of domestic violence committed by their military partners are equally bereft of rights, and must depend on the military to protect them. That reliance, sadly, is often misplaced.

Similarly, the persecution of gay and lesbian soldiers continues, not just through the senseless discharge of dedicated military personnel, but with actual physical attacks. While more than 70% of Americans think Don’t Ask Don’t Tell should be repealed, and a majority of service members themselves think the irrational and discriminatory policy should be repealed.

Don’t misconstrue this as an attack on the military and the people who choose to join. For many, if not most of those women and men, military service is their best route to education, vocational training, and better prospects for a post-military career. (Some organizations, such as the conservative Heritage Foundation, dispute this premise.) I applaud those who make that choice. But with the wars stretching on seemingly interminably, I think we all have to ask ourselves: what can we do besides applaud and line the parade routes? They deserve more, and our nation’s integrity demands more.

Photo Credit: Sgtcip

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Woman's Place Is In The House (Of Representatives) And The Senate

Election talk this week seems to be dominated by the issue of color: A “red wave” has swept the country, from coast to coast. Blue lost. Red won. But little else has been discussed about the shifting demographics in our new 112th Congress. Take women, for example…

Since Jeannette Rankin was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1917, there has been a gradual rise in the number of women serving in the US Congress. In 1932 Hattie Caraway – “the little lady from Arkansas” – was the first woman to be elected to the US Senate, though there have been many years since that the Senate has been void of women. If you go back far enough in the congressional archives, under women Senators you will see this: N/A. Yes, women used to be not applicable to the Senate. The case was the same on a state level: Rose Ann Vuich – the first woman elected to the California Senate – took to ringing a bell whenever her fellow Senators addressed the assembly as "Gentlemen,” as a reminder that there was a woman present. It was the 107th congress (2001-2003) that put our number of female Senators into double digits. Since then the number of women who hold Senate seats has grown steadily, though we’re still only at 17% - hardly a number representative of the American female population. The case has been exactly the same in the House.

Until now.

Our November 4th election marks the very first time that women have had a net loss in seats. Though we won’t know for sure until the Alaska race is sorted out, it’s looking like women will hold their 17% in the Senate, but lose seats in the House. This fact doesn’t seem to be getting much airtime, but more importantly where is the discussion of why this is the case? What questions do we need to ask in order to reach the goal of more women to represent us in government?

Are women running?

In the 2010 election, women candidates competed for fewer than one-third of the 435 seats at stake in the U.S. House and only 15 seats in the 100 member U.S. Senate. A national Women’s Campaign Forum program called “She Should Run” – which claims to “help women think about running for office”- points out that when women do run, they win at the same rate as men. Yet, women are 50% less likely to run for office.

How do we talk about women running for office?

Slate’s Hanna Rosin provides a narrative about the 2010 election she assumes we can all relate to:

Sarah Palin is Carrie, directing the action; her Samanthas lost, while her Mirandas won. The rules were the same as they are for dating: You can't show too much crazy. Nikki Haley, for example, could have gone either way, with the affair allegations and the Tea Party extremism. But in her demeanor she is so solidly a Miranda that crazy did not stick to her.

Wait, is this Sleepover Friends, or are we talking about election to the United States Congress? Must everything female come down to Sex & The City?

Geraldine Ferraro was asked in the vice presidential debate of 1984 “Do you think... the Soviets might be tempted to take advantage of you simply because you are a woman?” During Hillary’s ’08 bid for the presidency, sexist tshirt slogans abounded, including “Iron My Shirts” and “Life’s a Bitch So Don’t Vote for Her.”

Is the sexism dished out to female candidates part of the reason that women are reticent to run? And are we as women unwittingly adding to that sexism by perpetuating stereotypes?

Is there something to be learned from those who have succeeded?

To date, thirty-eight women have served in the United States Senate; 222 in the House. Perhaps they have something to offer us in the way of advice? A roadmap of sorts, to surviving the landmines inherent in the process of “campaigning while female?”

One thing is clear: We’re losing ground where we should be gaining it. And while the country is busy screaming about partisanship and pendulum swings, perhaps we can create a broader discussion about the place of women in the leadership of our country.