Speaking of Women's Rights: 12/10

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Be It Resolved . . .

Yes, it’s a cliché, the making of resolutions around the New Year. But, as is often the case, it’s a cliché at least partly because the tradition is so well-established; in fact, some sources say people have been making resolutions as long ago as 2,000 BCE, when the Babylonians started the new year by vowing to return borrowed items to their neighbors. That’s a nice, simple one, and easy to keep, you’d think. Unless you’re Herb Woodley, Dagwood Bumstead’s next door neighbor, who apparently finds it impossible to return Dagwood’s tools to him.

At any rate, returning borrowed items is a heck of a lot easier than keeping the 72 resolutions penned by colonial minister Jonathan Edwards. (Actually, almost anything is easier than whatever Jonathan Edwards did or told others to do.) So I decided to come up with a manageable number of resolutions that I have some slight chance of keeping.

1. I will seek out and talk to more people who don’t necessarily agree with me. True, those folks are harder to find in Seattle than in some other places, but I am sure they are out there, and such conversations could result in my learning something new or even persuading others to think more openly about controversial or challenging issues.

2. Instead of just rolling my eyes, venting to colleagues, and then letting it go when I encounter something sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise offensive, I will quietly, respectfully and clearly challenge the remark. For example, why does the author of this article in the Washington State Bar News think that only women file ex parte (without notice) orders in divorces? Perhaps this item should go under the first resolution, but really: can we dispense with the sexist stereotyping? Yes, this will be a hard one to keep, at least as to the ‘quietly and respectfully’ part.

3. In keeping with my nerd identity, I will brush up on the rules of grammar. This one, of course, is to keep me happy and to balance out possible challenges with the preceding two. The groans you can still hear emanate from my co-workers, who think I am too obsessed already, so I will add to this resolution the intent to avoid over-sharing my delightful grammar, syntax and vocabulary findings.

4. Also in the “this can be fun” department, and related to #2, I will keep my eyes open for language that reinforces gender stereotyping, and attempt to send prompt, pithy missives to journalists, public figures, editorial writers and others who default to time-worn phrases like “feisty woman” (are any men feisty? Yes, if they are gay). And while I am on that subject, do we need to know that a woman who stages PR events in Washington, D.C., is “flame-haired and voluptuous”? (That would be “NO,” even if the article is in the Style section.)

5. Seeking greater opportunities to carry out #4, I will learn about subjects in which I am not well-versed, such as economics, transportation, energy science and policy, roller derby . . . .

6. Finally, with all that learning and engaging and scrutinizing, I should be able to find more fun topics to blog about.

If you have resolutions to suggest to me, feel free to comment. I will endeavor to respond cheerfully and with an open mind. (See # 1.)

Happy new year to all, and to all a peaceful, prosperous 2011.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tangled In Gender Stereotypes

Just a couple of months ago a friend and I were discussing what horrible role models the older Disney films provide girls: Snow White, Minnie Mouse, The Little Mermaid. Always a princess waiting for a man to wake her up, untie her from the train tracks, or give her a voice. Watching the trailer for Disney’s new animated adventure “Tangled,” filled me with hope. Was this going to be the break-out fairy tale that gave Disney women their independence? Would Rapunzel have the free-spirited, go-get-em nature of a Pippi Longstocking? Was Disney finally getting there? Were they at last going to offer us a woman who wasn’t a bone-thin, pale, shell-of-a-person, waiting around for her prince?

Though Rapunzel is certainly sassier than your average cartoon heroine, gender stereotyping lives on in the film in many subtle ways, just under the surface enough to seem harmless and almost quaint. Perhaps the same way that it lives on in our society? From the frying pan she uses to defend herself, to her purpley-pink outfit, she is one hundred percent quintessential princess.

What really intrigued me though was one scene in particular. Rapunzel and her love interest, Finn, are in a sticky situation, threatened by a gaggle of angry-looking men. It seems as though they’re toast… that is until Rapunzel decides to appeal to their humanity. She explains that they’re on their way to see the lights in the sky, a lifelong dream she’s held dear. “Haven’t you ever had a dream?” she asks them. At which point, in true Disney fashion, the big scary tough men begin to sing about their dreams of becoming concert pianists and mimes and whatnot. Beyond the suspension of disbelief this plot twist required, it got me to thinking about how we see women as leaders. We assume that they hold this innate “talk it out” mentality that supersedes any urge to fight or make war. Now that we have some examples of how women govern – granted, they still make up only 17% of congress and have yet to occupy the position of highest power – are they living out this idea we have of women as peacemakers?

Upon further investigation I found that, though a majority of women in the house of representatives voted against the Iraq resolution, 78% of female senators voted for the war, an even greater percentage than that of their male counterparts. I realize that the reasoning behind a legislator’s vote can have a great deal to do with power dynamics and politicking, but I still think that these statistics call into question this notion we have. We think of women as meek and accommodating, but does this hold true when we look at the way that women are governing?

The end of the movie had me excited, as Finn filled the audience in on what happened after the classic Disney happy ending. “I know you’re all wondering if we got hitched. It took her two years to pop the question…” The line turns out to be a “joke”: “Just kidding. I asked her,” Finn concedes. Maybe once we have a first man in the White House, a Disney Princess proposing to the man of her dreams won’t seem so preposterous?

Though I’m still waiting for the Disney heroine who wields a pistol and passes up a love interest in favor of greater adventures, Rapunzel is at least a step in the right direction.

Image credit: Disney

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Out with the Old, In with the New: We Wish

Change, dumping old ideas and familiar people, shifting directions: this, the pundits agree, dominated the voters’ minds and determined the election results. By which I mean, the Change theme determined which persons, of which political party, will occupy seats in local, state and national legislative bodies.

What the ‘out with the old, in with the new’ sentiment did NOT do was help move the country forward, whether to the left or right. My preference (try not to be surprised) would be to move it to the left, to a nation animated by tolerance, support for human rights, and reinstating the social compact, but increasingly I despair of the likelihood of any movement at all.

So here’s my request to elected officials, whether you’ll be sworn in for the first time in January or you’ve been serving for decades: DO SOMETHING. Something real.

To make it easier, I’ll give you some ideas about things not to do, so you can use that saved time actually to accomplish something:

Don’t pass a resolution honoring a sports team for winning a game (Idaho) or a series (Congress).

Don’t prohibit people from carrying a concealed weapon longer than six feet (Seattle, WA; wouldn’t you like to see someone try?), or making a moose drunk (Fairbanks, AK; though I confess an inebriated moose could be a danger), or using canned corn as bait (Oregon; with or without the can, is what I want to know).

Don’t keep saying “no. Uh-uh. Forget it.” This applies whether you’re trying to preserve tax cuts for the very rich, or ‘reducing the size of a bloated federal bureaucracy’ by killing a childhood nutrition bill. (Really, you’re against nutrition?) And it applies to both political parties: reflexively rejecting every element of the deficit reduction commission’s plan really doesn’t help people who are barely surviving in this continued economic crisis. I don’t know what aspects would work, if any, but that’s why I am in my job, not yours. Just to be clear, that job is to make laws that are in the best interests of the people of your city, state or country. It is NOT to get yourself elected in perpetuity.

Let’s try this again. You are supposed to do the following:

Enact laws that help form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty for all of us.

Sound familiar? Then get to it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Human Rights On The Homefront

Guest Blog by Lillian Hewko

As holiday travel commenced, the blogosphere filled with stories of the new TSA travel regulations that force individuals to “choose” between projecting one’s naked body image for a security guard or undergoing an invasive pat down of one’s most intimate areas. Advocates appropriately voiced concern for survivors of sexual violence, as well as transgender and gender non-conforming individuals for whom the intrusion would be greater. Amidst this debate, however, I was surprised that an equally important event—the first ever U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing on the ratification of the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and Children (CEDAW)—gained much less attention.

We are the only industrialized nation that has not yet ratified CEDAW. CEDAW affirms basic human rights for women and girls and serves as a tool to end abuses against them. So why hasn’t possible ratification gained more coverage? One blogger pointed out that the TSA uproar received media importance since it was men who were leading the backlash. It may also have something to do with the U.S.’s emphasis on negative rights: we are up in arms at the slightest invasion of our privacy, while many of us sit idly by as hunger increases, access to health care and housing decreases, and prison rates go up. Unlike the invasion of privacy, these poverty-related issues are seen as a result of individual choices—think meritocracy and the American Dream.

Our rights framework is touted for its victories in terms of desegregation, abortion rights, and the repeal of sodomy laws. However, “victory” only goes so far. At present, schools are said to be more segregated, many low-income women lack comprehensive reproductive healthcare, and the criminalization of transgender people continues, therefore for many in the U.S.—particularly low-income individuals who are disproportionately people of color—our framework falls short of ensuring full equality.

A true human rights legal framework supports positive rights. As a party to CEDAW, the U.S. government would not only be obligated to respect and protect women’s rights, it would be required to take affirmative steps to ensure all persons have the means and conditions necessary to enjoy their rights. Does fear of fulfilling these rights explain our reticence in ratifying CEDAW?

Mainstream proponents such as Senator Durbin, chair of the judiciary hearing, avoid the topic. He rightfully recognizes that ratification will give us credibility in the international arena where we demand other governments to uphold women’s rights. But—possibly to appease opponents who see CEDAW as a “tool for mischief”—he claims the U.S. does not need to ratify CEDAW to protect the rights of American women and girls. Yet, ratification could greatly advance women’s rights abroad and on the home front. For example, under CEDAW, the right to access reproductive health services would support repeal of the Hyde Amendment and policies that restrict access to contraception, such as pharmacist refusal clauses, lack of insurance, and abstinence only education programs. Such possibilities for real equality warrant more attention. It’s not too late to join the effort to get CEDAW ratified by the U.S. Senate:

Contact your Senators and urge them to support CEDAW.

Contact President Obama
and urge him to make CEDAW a priority.

Support CEDAW grassroots activities in the United States.

Lillian is a former Legal Voice intern and a third-year law student at the University of Washington School of Law, where she recently founded the UW Incarcerated Mothers Advocacy Project and currently serves on the national board of Law Students for Reproductive Justice.

Photo Credit: Brian Glanz