Speaking of Women's Rights: 11/11

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

From Gucci Purse To The Homeless:
The Myth of a Trickle Down Economy.

At a recent Seattle City Council meeting a concerned citizen tried to relay how bad things have gotten for people by saying something to the effect of this: Yes, trickle-down exists. The lower class is trickling down into homelessness. The middle class is trickling into the lower class and realizing that there’s no safety net for them there.

According to the Homelessness Research Institute, in the next three years, 74,000 more Americans will likely be homeless.

46.2 million people are now living in poverty in the United States, up from 43.6 million last year. African Americans have the highest poverty rate at 27.4%, followed by people of Hispanic origin at 26.6%, both much higher than the national average of 15%.

More than 1 in 5 children in America are living in poverty, also an increase from 2010.

These numbers are devastating, especially when we consider that more cuts to social safety net programs are looking likely. Yet another set of statistics caught my eye the other day. It appears that if your name is Chanel, or Neiman Marcus, or Mercedes, your numbers have been on the rise too, but in a much different way. A recent New York Times article reported that “The luxury category has posted 10 consecutive months of sales increases compared with the year earlier.” Tiffany’s first-quarter sales were up 20 percent this year, bringing them a cool $761 million. BMW and Porche more than doubled their quarterly profit from last year. In contrast to these figures, Wal-Mart has begun to sell items in smaller quantities because its shoppers can’t afford to buy multipacks of toilet paper.

We’re told that we should be excited about the fact that the top 5% of earners are spending gazoods of money on sparkly coats and shiny cars. Get more rich people to spend money and everyone will benefit, right?

No, not exactly.

Whether you call it “trickle down,” or “supply side economics,” or the 19th century term “horse and sparrow,” we’re not buying it anymore. No matter how much more money the top 5% or 1% or .001% makes, social safety nets meant to protect our most vulnerable are being dismantled left and right. People are being booted from their houses. Unemployment has fluctuated at a hefty 9-10% for multiple years. More and more people are being discarded from health insurance plans, food supplement programs, and other services that have helped them to stay on their feet.

And guess who is disproportionately affected by poverty? Yep - women. According to national data from 2010, 59 percent of all adults in poverty are women. Single mother households are particularly susceptible to poverty. The rate of poverty for single mother families has hit an all-time high of 42.2%, with an extreme poverty rate of a whopping 21.6%. Here in Washington State, there are plenty of examples. As a new report from the Economic Opportunity Institute details, “In Yakima County, 80% of single-mom families meet the low-income requirements for free or reduced price lunch.

Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women’s Law Center points out that “we have a long history of distinguishing between the ‘deserving poor’ and the ‘undeserving poor’ in this country.” She guesses that “for a lot of people, single mothers are so far outside their idea of the deserving poor that they can hardly think straight about what might be done to help these mothers or the millions of children that live with them.

The President and chief executive of the Neiman Marcus Group had this to say about the current success of luxury item sales: I think that she (the customer) is willing to pay whatever price the manufacturer and the retailer deem appropriate, if she sees that there’s intrinsic value in it.” When will we agree on the intrinsic value of making prosperity possible for everyone in this country, regardless of race and gender and heritage and sexual orientation and birthplace?

For those of us that already believe in the value of the social safety net, we can start this process by telling our legislators, in no uncertain terms, that we won’t stand for more cuts to vital services for those in need. The Washington State Legislature is convening a special session to talk about balancing the state budget, beginning this Monday, November 28th. There are many direct actions planned to send a strong message that we want new revenue sources, not more cuts. Be a part of one. Contact your legislator. Spread the word.

Monday, November 21, 2011

With Liberty and Justice for . . . Who, Exactly?

His name was Jimmy.  He lived a few doors down from me, and we were in the same class.  His parents were immigrants to the U.S., and English was his second language.  Though I don’t know where he is or what happened to him, he came to mind when I saw the recent flap about Seattle Schools requiring every class to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day.

Every year, on the first day of school, Jimmy had to go to the teacher and explain that he would not be participating in the Pledge of Allegiance.  Perhaps his parents did it for him in the very early years, but by 4th grade, Jimmy was on his own.  His religion forbade him from saluting the flag or saying the Pledge, on the basis that it is blasphemous to worship, serve, or pledge allegiance to any secular image, because such idolatry interferes with undivided loyalty to God.

This was the 1960’s, when the country and its mores were changing.  But it was still shocking to many people that anyone (that is, anyone who wasn’t a hippie burning a draft card) would refuse to say the Pledge.  It was --- well, un-American.  And now, at various schools around Washington State, parents are saying, in effect, “it’s un-American to force children to pledge to a symbol.”  

Mind you, no one will be forced. The same right Jimmy had to stand quietly will be accorded children who refuse or whose parents disapprove of the practice.  That’s different from the lack of rights of students in Florida, who may be excused only if they have a written note from their parents (apparently in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, the 1st Amendment right belongs to the parents, not the students.  Who knew?) 

And it’s also true that however much people may try to gloss over controversy related to the Pledge, there have been objections to it since at least 1954, when Congress added the words “under God” between “one nation” and “indivisible.”    Students and parents objected over the years, and in 2002 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the phrase “under God” unconstitutional.  But the U.S. Supreme Court threw out that decision on technical grounds (that is, not deciding the underlying issue.)  

As for me, though I always recited the Pledge at assemblies and other events, I also always omitted those two words.  Not because of any anti-religious motivation, but because I viewed them as imposing one view of religion – Judeo-Christian – on those of other beliefs and those who do not believe in God or a god.  It made me uncomfortable for the state, the school, the mass of people, to require people of different faiths to use the words of the majority.  Or maybe I was just thinking of Jimmy.

But at bottom, the inclusion of those two words, or even the stern admonition to recite the pledge, is not the most troubling feature of this controversy.  Rather, it’s that we ask all children to say we are one nation, and that we are indivisible, and most important, that we believe in liberty and justice for all, yet we do not ask ourselves to live that way.  We are not indivisible, and we certainly don’t ensure liberty OR justice for all.  As a nation, we continue to discriminate against women, we refuse to treat LGBTQ persons equally, we deprive immigrants of many of the blessings of liberty.  In fact, we are horribly divided, and schoolchildren with their hands on their hearts won’t change that.   Only we adults can make that true. And we don’t seem to be trying very hard. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mississippi Boiling

When talking about abortion rights in the U.S., my boss often uses the “boiling frog” analogy.  It goes like this:  If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out.  But if you put the frog in cold water and slowly raise the temperature, it won’t perceive the danger until it’s too late.

I was thinking about how the boiling frog fits with the results of the 2011 elections.  In case you haven’t heard, the most important victory for women in the elections came in the most unlikely place:  Mississippi, where voters resoundingly defeated an amendment that would have declared a fertilized egg to be a “person” under state law.    

This measure would have outlawed abortion without exception, as well as many forms of birth control and in vitro fertilization practices.  Given Mississippi’s anti-choice history, many thought the amendment would pass easily.  But after pro-choice forces put together a strong grassroots campaign, Mississippi voters rejected it by a solid 58-42 percent margin.

This victory was due to incredible efforts by abortion rights advocates in Mississippi and across the country.  But advocates of the “personhood” amendment also made a mistake:  They turned the heat up too high. 
It looks like other anti-choice organizations recognized this error.  Many anti-choice groups – including the National Right to Life Committee and the Catholic church – refused to endorse the Mississippi amendment. 

Why?  Publicly, they said that a “personhood” amendment would be immediately challenged in court, and would almost certainly be struck down by lower federal courts as violating Roe v. Wade.  They also expressed concern that if the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court now, the Court could issue a ruling that reaffirms or even strengthens a woman’s constitutional right to choose.

But privately, Mississippi must have confirmed their fear that when voters have an up-or-down vote on their ultimate goal – outlawing abortion in all circumstances – they lose.   

Instead, the cooler heads in the anti-choice movement continue to raise the temperature gradually by taking a systematic incremental approach of restricting abortion rights bit by bit across the country.  While not outlawing abortion entirely, these measures have sharply limited access to abortion in many states – including Mississippi, which now has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.  

And they are focusing on elections – particularly on electing an anti-choice President in 2012, who will appoint more anti-choice justices to the Supreme Court.  They know that Roe v. Wade likely has just a one-vote margin of support on the Supreme Court.  As a result, the right to choose could hinge on the results of the 2012 elections, when the state of the economy will be weighing much more on voters’ minds than abortion rights.

So the good news is that the frog isn’t boiling yet – not even in Mississippi.  But the anti-choice forces are still trying to raise the heat across the country, and we have to dial the temperature back before it’s too late.   

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Great Season For Royalty

Last week, the British Prime Minister proposed a change in succession laws that would allow first born women to become queen, no matter how many little brothers their royal parents happen to spit out afterwards. Yesterday we were met with more great news, this time from the land of American high school royalty. Last weekend Patrick Henry High School of San Diego, California crowned Rebeca Arellano the very first female homecoming king in the nation, and gave the title of queen to Rebeca’s girlfriend Haileigh (and no, the seasonal finale of last season’s Glee doesn’t count, people).   Typical teenage screams and wild applause followed the announcement, along with words of support from classmates.  One student pointed to an increase in same-sex couples showing affection at school the following week, in her mind a result of Haileigh and Rebeca’s win.  

Time for celebration across the nation, right?  Yay, it’s ok to be an out lesbian couple in high school!  You can take part in popularity contests too, and even win sometimes!

Oh, but not so fast…

Though the feminist blog Jezebel reports that “for the most part, their classmates have been very supportive, with only a few haters chiming in,” news stations across the nation would like to remind you that everything is not so hunky dory.  Fox 5 reports that though the election was “supposed to be a sign of tolerance and openness,” it has now “become a sign of hate.”  In fact news reports all over the country are doing what they do best:  dramatizing the incident in the name of their ratings (complete with doom-tone and emphasis-hands).  

The people involved in this story are trying their best not to let the event be used to whip people into a state of homophobic fear.  The school district’s superintendent made a statement earlier in the week expressing his disappointment in the messages the school had received from “adult bullies,” but decided not to talk about the specific nature or number of negative messages they had received.  Haileigh and Rebeca have asked news outlets not to show pictures of their crowning, in order to quash the growing drama of their story.  

It’s really too bad that what should have been cause for celebration has become another example of the news media promulgating the usual culture of fear.  By focusing on the few threats the school district received , whether they mean to or not, the media is saying to the general public “these people are afraid…you should be too.”  As consumers of tv news, are we going to send the message that we’re not going to take part in this culture of fear by turning the television off?  Or are we going to take part in the culture and give them cause to conduct business as usual?  

As a side note, maybe someday royalty of all varieties won’t be so gendered? (Ruler Elizabeth?).  We can always hope, can’t we? 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Congratulations! It’s a Queen!

By Guest Blogger Lily Hereford

Finally.  Parliament is getting with the times. 

Bye-bye, puffy wigs

I’m kidding, of course.  I think they still wear those. 

What I’m actually referring to is royal succession reform.  The British Prime Minister finally proposed changing the laws of succession so that age – and age alone – will determine who inherits the crown.  The reform would end centuries-old discrimination against royal daughters.

Currently, the line of succession is controlled by “male primogeniture.”  No, that’s not a disease.  Well, not literally.  It means the firstborn son will inherit the throne – even if he’s not the firstborn child.  To put this in context: If the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Will and Kate) have a daughter, followed by a son, their daughter won’t get to be queen, despite her being the oldest.  As soon as little brother is born, he cuts big sister in line.  Typical

If it isn’t obvious, the current rules do not treat men and women equally.  They’re out-dated, unjustified, and send a bad message.  The British monarch is both Head of State and Head of Nation – roles that carry important duties.  Among these duties are providing a focus for national identity, unity and pride and representing Britain to the rest of the world. By favoring firstborn sons, the current rules say on behalf of Britain: “Ideally we’d represent ourselves through one of our men, but if there aren’t any in the family, I guess one of our women will do.” 

It’s definitely time for a change. 

After all, a queen is just as good as a king, card games aside.  Consider the present monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who has reigned for nearly six decades. Or Elizabeth I, who ruled The Golden Age.  I’d say queens have a pretty good track record so far. 

I mean, Bloody Marys are delicious.

Yes, it’s hard to believe that queens have been a last resort for so long.  BUT, if these new rules of succession become official – and, Will & Kate’s first child is a baby girl – then FINALLY, we’ll be able to exclaim:

 “Congratulations! It’s a queen!”

Lily Hereford is a recent graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and is currently interning at the California Attorney General's Office in San Francisco, CA.  When not fighting for women's rights, she spends her time eating and/or hanging out with friends.