Speaking of Women's Rights: 05/12

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Left, left, left, right, left... the slow march toward equality.

by Lisa M. Stone
One of the national radio shows devoted Monday’s program to a discussion of whether Americans have lost a sense of what Memorial Day means (opinions on that vary), which led me to reflecton how  the role of women in relation to the military has evolved.  That, and a call I had from a gentleman last week who explained to me that Title IX, the 40th anniversary of which we will celebrate this year, is what made it possible for women to enter the military academies and serve as soldiers.
Some historians say that the first Memorial Day observance was in 1865, when a group of former slaves  gathered at a Charleston, S.C., former racetrack where hundreds of Union soldiers had been buried in a mass grave.  The freed men and women (and children) reinterred the soldiers in separate graves, erected a fence, and honored the fallen soldiers. 

In the early years after the Civil War, only northern states observed what was then called Decoration Day in late May; it wasn’t until after World War I that the day became an opportunity to honor those who died in any U.S. war.  Or rather, to honor all men who fell in war.  The role of women was to do the honoring.  A noble role, but not sufficient – and arguably misleading.   Women have always died in war as well, whether from disease (which until very recent wars is why most soldiers died as well) contracted while nursing soldiers, or from stray fire.  Or, some would say, of broken hearts.   What’s more, the burdens taken on by wives, sisters and mothers left behind enabled the country to continue to function. 

We’ve all heard of Rosie the Riveter and how after the war women were forced out of the factories and other workplaces, to make room for returning veterans.  Yet even as Rosie worked on the home front, thousands of women were nurses, WAVES, and aviators (also known as “Fly Girls”).  Their participation in military activities arguably did as much to transform societal views of women’s abilities as that of the thousands of Rosies --- and also arguably contributed to the regression and repression of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, as men (over)reacted to the threat of women’s autonomy.
Fast forward 50 years, and Legal Voice’s client Col. Grethe Cammermeyer stands up for lesbian and gay service members by resisting her discharge from the service.  She is reinstated, and continues to this day to advocate for service members.  Progress!
And yet --- in some ways women in the military are in an endless game of “Mother May I?,” with as many steps back (or sideways) as forward.  While hundreds of thousands of women are in military service today, thousands of them suffer sexual assault, often at the hands of their fellow soldiers or officers.  For the privilege of serving, they endure the agony of rape.
Ten years into the current wars, women serve in almost all aspects of the military. But the last step toward eliminating “almost” – being in combat – is officially forbidden.  Setting aside that the distinction or lack thereof between “officially” being in combat and actually being in a combat zone is virtually nil, that prohibition stands as a barrier to women’s equality and economic security.  

Which is why I was glad to see the lawsuit filed by two women officers, demanding that they be allowed to formally and officially lay down their lives for their country.  Glad in an ironic way.  These women seek to risk their lives to the same extent as the men beside whom they serve.

That’s worth a memorial.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Bringing Abortion Out of the Closet

by David Ward

Earlier this week, a Gallup poll found that only 41%of Americans identify themselves as pro-choice –  the lowest percentage since Gallup started polling on the question in 1995.   The same day, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 53% of Americans support marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples, up from just 36% in 2006.
These polls suggest that marriage equality now enjoys greater public support than abortion rights.  And this is a trend we’re starting to see reflected in policy-making.  In Washington, for example, the State Legislature considered both issues earlier this year – with very different results. 
First, the Legislature passed a marriage equality bill by margins of 55-43 in the House and 28-21 in the Senate.  The margins of victory were surprisingly comfortable and included some strong bipartisan support.
But an abortion rights measure known as the Reproductive Parity Act faced a tougher road.  This legislation would have required health insurers in Washington to cover abortion services if they also cover maternity care services.  The bill passed the House, but with a thin margin of 52-46 – and no bipartisan support.  And in the Senate, the bill died when legislators twice voted by 23-26 margins against bringing the bill to the floor. 
Why the disparity in support?   The abortion rights and LGBT rights movements have a great deal in common.  Both are dedicated to protecting individual rights, autonomy, and privacy.  Both movements tend to face the same opponents.   In general, leaders in both movements strongly support each other, and recognize the close links between the two causes .   But to the public and to lawmakers, it’s looking like abortion rights are now considered more controversial than marriage equality for same-sex couples. 
The best explanation I’ve seen for this phenomena comes from the columnist Ellen Goodman in this piece she wrote in 2008.  She quoted Stanford law professor Pam Karlan, who summarized the issue neatly:  "Gays have come out of the closet, and women who've had abortions have gone back into the closet."

This feels true.  It’s no secret that support for marriage equality has grown as more and more LGBT Americans have come out.  According to this week’s polling, 71% of Americans now say they have a friend, family member, or acquaintance who is gay or lesbian – and support for marriage equality is 20% higher among those who say they know someone who is LGBT.    
I couldn’t find any polling on how many Americans say they know a friend, family member, or an acquaintance who’s had an abortion.  But I’m betting that it’s not 71%.
Of course, women who’ve had abortions shouldn’t need to “come out” in order to make people understand the importance of abortion rights.  But is that what it’s going to take to make Americans realize that being “pro-choice” means supporting the rights of their friends and families?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why I left Idaho (But Hope Someday to Return)

by Lauren Guicheteau

Dear Idaho,

I love you, but I am not coming back until you make some big changes. I miss your vast wilderness—your beautiful mountains, rivers, and forests—and the many amazing people who live with you. However, your blatant discriminatory practices have driven me away. While there are many issues that need to be addressed, I would like to focus your attention to two key problems: you lack basic rights and protections for women and LGBTI individuals.

There are many problems with Idaho for women. Idaho is one of the worst states for gender pay equality with a large wage gap (about 25%) between men and women. Fewer than one in four businesses is female-owned and the median salary is $30,403, seventeen percent lower than the national average. This is particularly problematic because many women lack health insurance coverage and women paying out-of-pocket for all heath care is higher than the national average. The National Partnership for Women and Families gave Idaho a whopping “F” for failing to provide a single state benefit or program to help support families before and after the birth of a child—programs that are especially important for working class women to keep their jobs. Idaho’s own Gov. Butch Otter fails to provide equal pay for equal work, with the median salary for the eleven women in his Cabinet at $85,446, while the median salary for the thirty-three men is $103,002.

Speaking of politics, Idahoans have never had a female U.S. senator or governor and have not sent a woman to congress in more than 10 years. Additionally, the Idaho legislature has passed a memorial (a formal opinion that’s non-binding) against the recent Obama administration guidelines that require private health care providers for religiously affiliated employers to provide contraception coverage to employees. Rep. Carlos Bilbao explained his support of the memorial because “[t]he federal government is telling private insurers what they must cover." This is funny considering that Idaho law restricts private insurance coverage for most abortions. This is in addition to parental consent laws, 24-hour waiting period, state-directed counseling, and prohibitions against public funding for abortions. While recent legislation for forced ultrasounds failed (props to the amazing activists that helped make this happen), Idaho has passed a fetal-pain abortion law that prevents abortions after 20 weeks, which is most likely unconstitutional.

LGBTI rights in Idaho are abysmal. In November 2006, Idaho voters adopted a constitutional amendment that proclaimed that "[a] marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state," a far cry from recent recognition of same-sex marriage and civil unions in other states. Idaho also needs to explicitly allow hospital visitation by same-sex partners or spouses and allow adoption by same-sex couples (although Idaho does allow adoption by single LGBTI individuals). It is crucial that Idaho take steps to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in employment and housing. Idaho should pass specific laws that address hate crimes and prohibit harassment in schools, issues the Idaho legislature actively resists. While Idahoans may soon have the constitutional right to hunt, LGBTI individuals in Idaho will still lack basic human rights.

Idaho, to stay relevant, you have to change. There are wonderful and passionate women and men fighting for change in Idaho, so please listen. Idaho, I believe in you.

Yours truly,


Lauren Guicheteau interned with Legal Voice and has one more year as a law student at the University of Washington. Once she graduates, she hopes to continue working on legal issues dealing with gender inequality and LGBTI rights.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Happy Mother's Day to all: the challenges of mothering behind bars

by Lillian Hewko

As Mother’s Day approaches, I want to recognize and honor all of our amazing mothers, drawing particular attention to our mothers who are currently or formerly incarcerated. Since 1986, there has been a 400% increase in the rate of incarceration for women, and a 800% for black women. As I discussed in a previous blog, “Mothers Sentenced to Lose their Children,” our socialized perceptions of individuals in prison or who have gone to prison often overshadow the strength and commitment to parenting that these mothers exhibit in spite of the numerous odds stacked against them.

Through my work with the King County Parents Advisory Committee, I get to work under the leadership of many formerly incarcerated parents who have successfully reunited with their children after navigating the complex web created by the intersection of our child welfare and criminal justice systems. The mothers I work with, called “Veteran Parents,” have used their experience to guarantee parents in these systems have the support necessary to reduce their chances of family separation. This year, their personal accounts and hard work lead to the passage of SB 6555, a bill that will allow the state to redirect resources and support vulnerable families early on and prevent their chances of ever entering the child welfare system.

This Sunday as some of us prepare to make phone calls to our mothers and/or children across state, or across many states, I ask us to take note of the many incarcerated mothers for whom phone calls are not available. Although it is recognized that phone calls are important to maintaining family contacts, calls are limited to 20 minutes and are financially impossible for most women. One 20 minute phone may cost up to $48.25: a $25 minimum to set up an account, a $3.50 connection fee for out-of-state calls, a 50 cent fee for each additional minute, and a $7.95 transaction and convenience fee each time funds are added. Collect calls cannot be made without a $25 minimum. This is extremely difficult when we consider that the pay for work in prisons ranges from 25 to 50 cents per hour.

This Sunday as some of us prepare for brunch or dinner with our mothers and/or children, I ask us to take note that as a 2000 Bureau of Justice statistics report found, 54% of mothers in state prison have never been visited by their children due to challenges created by distance, travel time, and expense.

The Veteran Parents I work with defied all odds to keep their children, including surmounting stringent child welfare law requirements that intersected with their time in prison and threatened the security of their families. In Washington, parents have 12 months to prove they have overcome parental deficiencies before their rights may be terminated. However, it should not be and does not need to be this way. In 2010, New York made changes necessary to give parents who face incarceration a fair chance. The laws allow foster care agencies discretion to delay filing papers to terminate parental rights when parents in prison or in substance abuse treatment programs are maintaining a significant role in their child’s life. This is not meant to ignore that a parental situation needs to improve, but to recognize that many so-called “deficiencies” are wrapped up in poverty and lack of access to resources that make it difficult for even the most diligent parents to show responsible parenting.

As reproductive justice activists we are reminded that choice also includes the opportunity to parent our children with dignity, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The distance created by our prisons and our current policies often leads to the permanent loss of parental rights. This separation flies in the face of studies that show maintaining family ties during incarceration improves the lives of family. These ties help children process their parent’s absence, it increases chances of family reunification, it reinforces children’s well-being and development and also reduces the chances that the mother will return to prison. As Mother’s Day nears, I hope we as reproductive justice advocates contemplate how we can ensure mothers are not unnecessarily separated from their children, and help make reproductive justice a reality for all women.

photo credit: The Daily Beast

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What Isn't in Your Average College Brochure

It's springtime, when many high school seniors are suffering from senioritis, preparing for graduation, and perhaps looking ahead excitedly to what lies ahead, especially if it is college. So it’s disheartening to be reminded that for some of them, their planned education may be derailed by sexual assault. This time around, the story is from University of Montana, where the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating a reported 80 sexual assaults in the past three years in Missoula, eleven involving students in an 18-month period.

What’s news is not so much that the assaults occurred; sadly, according to a leading study, one in five women who attend college will become the victim of a rape or an attempted rape by the time she graduates. And all too frequently, the result is that the student survivor ends up dropping out of school, if not worse, such as attempting or committing suicide. But what is news is that schools and students alike are now paying more attention to what is an acceptable response from the school.

Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in schools and extends to gender-based harassment and assault. Thus, under this federal law, schools have an obligation to investigate promptly and respond to any complaints of sexual harassment and violence in a fair and equitable manner.

Yet schools’ responses to complaints of sexual harassment and assault are all over the map, ranging from schools that outsource all such investigations to local law enforcement (a practice that courts have found illegal) to adjudicating complaints through existing student disciplinary hearing processes. The fact that campuses are often uncertain about how to handle such complaints adds to the already powerful incentives for student victims not to come forward. Students remain silenced – some estimate that up to 95% of sexual assaults on campus remain unreported – in part because schools’ investigative and adjudicative processes can be so secretive and unfair that the process itself re-victimizes students.

 Last year, the Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter that set out guidelines on what response Title IX requires schools to provide – including guidance on what kinds of procedures will establish a fair and equitable process for the students involved. The letter did not add new requirements, but clarified schools’ responsibilities for addressing reports of sexual violence.

Some schools responded to the guidance by reexamining and amending their procedures. For example, the University of North Carolina has reacted by removing sexual assault cases altogether from the jurisdiction of student disciplinary boards, with the intent of creating a separate process for sexual assault cases, including appropriate training for hearing panel members.

Unfortunately, the Department of Education’s letter has also provoked backlash, such as this letter to the Department of Education from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which argues that students’ due process and First Amendment rights are at risk if the recommended disciplinary hearing safeguards, such as using a “preponderance of the evidence” standard rather than a more stringent burden of proof (such as “clear and convincing evidence” or the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard necessary to prove a criminal sexual assault charge).

Ultimately, it is an encouraging sign that the federal government is taking proactive steps to enforce these laws by investigating the possible Title IX violations by the University of Montana, as well as local law enforcement’s responses to such charges. But schools, students, and parents need to keep their eyes on the purpose of Title IX: to enable students, regardless of gender, to have equal access to an education. And as long as students continue to feel silenced from coming forward when they have been raped or harassed, or ignored or mistreated by their schools when they do come forward, the system still isn’t working.