Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Is there a War on Women?

Reading Hanna Rosin's The End of Men this week, I wanted to spend some time thinking about the onslaught of articles reporting the continued politicization and diminution of women's issues.

Firstly, is there a war on women?

Democrats say yes - and it's Republicans setting the land mines.  Republicans say no - and have uncovered a slew of female faithful (Mary Kate Cary, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and Sabrina Schaefffer to name a few) to get the message out.  But more importantly to women - how have the rights of 51% of the electorate become so politicized? 

The proof is in the pandering.  What do our representatives say and do about women's rights and the issues that particularly impact women? 

The majority of the legislation and rhetoric targeted at women's rights have centered on abortion and contraception, which may also be linked to a reported drop in pro-choice identification among Americans.  These bills have been numerous and unrelenting - including bills to mandate transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, seeking to give private employers control over their female employees access to contraception, seeking a personhood amendment to the constitution, seeking to redefine rape as limited to 'forcible rape' to prevent funding for abortions in cases of acquaintance rape, seeking to criminalize abortion even in cases of rape or incest, and even attempts to limit access to the HPV vaccine for minors.   

But the hoopla over reproductive control has obscured some equally disturbing trends from the GOP in relation to equal treatment for women. For instance, the GOP party platform includes avoiding "social experimentation" in the military - including denying women the right to serve in ground combat. The right to be placed in extreme danger for little compensation may seem like a hollow victory to some, but for many top leadership positions, both within the military and in the federal government, experience in combat service is a necessary career move

The GOP has also obstructed efforts to achieve and protect equitable income between the sexes: Democrats drafted a Paycheck Fairness Act, which would shift the burden of proof on employers to justify facially inequitable pay for women, as well as permit compensatory and punitive damage awards. The bill was filibustered by Senate Republicans. Democrats also sponsored the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act - only 8 of 219 Senate Republicans voted in favor of the bill. In defense, many prominent GOP lawmakers now deny the existence of a gender pay gap, thus explaining why they refuse to take action to address the problem.  

Is the war on women also a war on moms? Working moms? 

It seems counterintuitive, being that the GOP have evinced such a fervid investment in our fruitfulness, to think that they would oppose the systemic protections that make it possible for most Americans to afford parenthood. However, vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan has proposed cutting Medicaid, a program insuring 28 million children, by $770 billion. A move which harms all poor and working class Americans, but single mothers in particular. Head Start and pre-school programs across the country have likewise been among the first programs to see their funding slashed.  Lawmakers in Frederick County, Maryland, went so far as to say women should get married and stay home with their pre-schoolers in lieu of formal schooling anyway, as justification for funding cuts. Even the federal school lunch program has been targeted for defunding by Republican senate candidates, such as Todd Akin and Jeff Flake. Really? Feeding tater-tots to poor kids is what's holding our economy back fellas?  
One area where both parties are leaving us in the lurch? Paid maternity and family leave

In case you didn't know already, we are behind Pakistan in paid maternity leave, in that we don't have any! So yes, I conclude that we women are suffering and have suffered many blows in our march towards equality - and whether we call it a war is inconsequential. Because I can't help but think, that when the rights of one gender - the gender which has struggled and has not yet achieved equality - are even subject to debate, we have already lost. And when one side of that debate disputes the science, the math, the polling, the data, the statistics which support the inequality in the first instance, who treat as greedy the necessities for life, autonomy and dignity, we have lost no matter what our male proxies ultimately compromise that we should be 'given'. What is earned is precious, and what is gifted can be taken away. So I reiterate my battle cry of last week - and say we need to sponsor more strong women candidates to truly represent us in this battle. 

Single Mother Stigma Part 2

As the product of a single mother, I take issue with people taking issue with single mothers. However, arguing against single mother stigma is particularly difficult when said negative rhetoric finds strength in statistics. According to a 1997 Census Brief, “Children with Single Parents - How They Fair”, data confirms the stereotype that low-income parents tend to be single is true: two-thirds are. The other side of that statistics is that one-third of all single mothers live below the poverty line. This translates to nearly 6 of 10 children with only their mothers were near (or below) the poverty line. Project Single Mom finds that the condition is more acute for black single mothers, with 38 percent, or 1.2 million of 3.1 million black single mothers raise families below the poverty line. A recent NY Times article reports that marriage provides a " profound advantage in income and nurturing time, and makes their children statistically more likely to finish college, find good jobs and form stable marriages."(Further, it finds that privileged individuals are able to maintain their privilege through the benefits of marriage.) In many ways these statistics find that children living with two parents have multitude of advantages over those in single parent households.

On August 19, 2008, Neal Boortz used U.S. Census Bureau statistics to support his categorization of “single mothers receiving public assistance” as “welfare broodmares” lacking values, morals and ethics. (A broodmare is a female horse kept for breeding.) Ann Coulter also takes these statistics to categorize single mothers as selfish and dangerous to society. In her book, Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and Their Assault on America, she spends a whole chapter apostatizing against the terrible single mother, entitled “Victim of a crime? Thank a Single Mother." She argues that single mothers are responsible for raising criminals and American moral blight, and she likes to refer to children of divorce as "future strippers." The following is a list of direct quotes from her book of the statistics she uses to validate her claim that single mothers (both unwed or divorced) not only "cost the US taxpayer $112 billion every year," but also plague our entire society:
  • Controlling for socioeconomic status, race, and place of residence, the strongest predictor of whether a person will end up in prison is that he was raised by a single parent.
  • By 1996, 70 % of inmates in state juvenile detention centers serving long-term sentences were raised by single mothers.
  • 72% of juvenile murderers and 60% of rapists come from single-mother homes.
  • 70% percent of teenage births, dropouts, suicides, runaways, juvenile delinquents, and child murderers involve children raised by single mothers.
  • Girls raised without fathers are more sexually promiscuous and more likely to end up divorced.
  • A 1990 study by the Progressive Policy Institute showed that after controlling for single motherhood, the difference between black and white crime rates disappeared.
She sums these statistics as saying that "look at almost any societal problem and you'll find it is really a problem of single mothers." She believes that single mothers who keep their children are selfish and should put their children up for adoption to dual parents.

People, such as this blogger, find Coulter's statistics as certifiable evidence that "as a society, we need to understand: staying in marriage, even a bad marriage, is better for the children except in the most egregious cases because single parents, even conscientious, well meaning single parents, generally don’t do as good a job raising their children as two parent families." This rhetoric is not only offensive but also defies basic logic. Enduring a terrible marriage because it doesn't reach a level of "egregious" special exceptions creates unhappy parents, which affects not only their life but also their interactions with their children. Berit Brogaard further counters, "women who divorce sometimes find that they have more time for the kids after the divorce. When you no longer have to devote time to a marriage, that time can be spent with the kids."

There are two extremes of single mother bias. On one end, there are the Coulters of the world who hold the notion that single mothers are the root of societal evils. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who are highly uncomfortable with this demonizing opinion but ultimately agree that while there is nothing "wrong" with single mothers, ultimately, two parents are undoubtedly better than one. Though one is more toxic than the other, both are troubling. Lindsay Cross reminds us that we should not harp too much on statistics, as we may lose the individual stories in these "broad strokes" and forget that while marital status may impact individuals, individuals are certainly not dependent on it. After all, there are many successful people in every part of society who were raised by single parents (the past two of three US Presidents for example). Bella DePaula, PhD unpacks some of the statistics in her book, in a chapter titled “Singled Out.” For example, while children of single parents have higher substance problems, she notes that the statistic is only 1.2% more than that of the children of two biological parents. That nominal difference is " not a very big return on twice the love, attention, and resources." Further, she notes that if we really want to talk about the ideal number, children do best when there are three parents - two parents and a grandparent. Problems with their grades or with their siblings or friends depended not on having two parents but "on whether there was a lot of conflict within families, high levels of disagreements between parents, or endless arguments between parents and kids." Single parents were also found to be friendlier to their children and spent more time with their extended families. In my opinion, children of single parents are more independent.

Having a good partner in life can be beneficial in many ways including parenting. It can provide an extra income, extra hand, shared responsibility, and a way to keep your sanity. We all need support networks; after all it does take a village. I was raised by a wonderful mother, various family members, terrific day care, passionate babysitters, leaders in after-school care, summer camp, and of course inspiring teachers. Things were economically difficult at times, but I was never poor when it came to love, support, and my education. The U.S. society is structured in a way that disadvantages women, and mothers even more so. Single mothers simply feel an intensification of the societal barriers all women face. If we had paid maternity leave, better after school care, and availability to go yet affordable childcare (to name a few), single motherhood would most certainly not drive these kinds of statistics. If it takes a village to raise children, lets put our energy and resources into the infrastructure of that village. After all, whether you have children or not, we all benefit from giving all children an opportunity to thrive.

I'd like to dedicate these two posts to my single mom, to whom I owe so much of my success and strength, and to the many individuals who live in my village.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Goin' Legit

Hana Rosin recently published a book titled "The End of Men." There have been many discussions around the web (NYT and WSJ) and in our classroom about the truth of her central thesis: we are experiencing “the end of 200,000 years of human history and the beginning of a new era” in which women and feminine traits are valued more than men and masculine traits. According to Rosin, this economic shift is leaving many men behind and unemployed.

This discussion reminded me of one of my favorite books from my undergraduate courses in Sociology called, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio by Philippe Bourgois. From the inside cover: "For the first time, an anthropologist had managed to gain the trust and long-term friendship of street-level drug dealers in one of the nation's roughest ghetto neighborhoods--East Harlem." I loved the book's extensive quotes of the drug dealers, particularly three named Caesar, Primo, and Willie. Besides finding the drug dealers funny and complex, I appreciated Bourgois' connection between anecdotes and detailed scholarly analysis of a 'bigger picture.' I read it several times as an undergrad and saw something new each time.

Roslin's book and our class discussion made me think of something else new in Bourgois' book: everyone hates entry level jobs. One chapter in Bourgois' book is titled: "Going Legit: Disrespect and Resistance at Work." It documents Caesar, Primo, and Willie's attempts to get legal work outside of the street gang. Bourgois cited several studies documenting the shift from the industrial industry to the service industry over the past several decades. (page 114). Many people in the book pointed to the lack of manufacturing or industrial jobs near Harlem as the main reason why the street level gang members were unemployed in legal sectors:
"It almost appears as if Caesar, Primo, and Willie were caught in a time warp during their teenage years. Their macho-proletarian dream of working an eight-hour shift plus overtime throughout their adult lives at a rugged slot in a unionized shop had been replaced by the nightmare of poorly paid, highly feminized, office-support service work." (pg 141)
What was it about service industry work that put off these street dealers? Caesar put it this way:
"I had a few jobs like that where you gotta take a lot of shit from fat, ugly bitches and be a wimp. My worst was at Sudler & Hennessey--the advertising agency that works with pharmaceutical shit. I didn't like it but kept on working, because "Fuck it!" you don't want to fuck up the relationship. So you just be a punk. [...] She used to make me do fucked-up errands for her--wack shit. One time I had to go all the way to Staten Island and find this fucking' place, and go collect two paintings for her. And shit like that. That bitch just didn't like me." (pg 146).
What makes this quote so attractive to me is that I relate to it. Through high school and college I worked several entry level, minimum wage jobs. All of my supervisors were female. I hated all of them. Working those jobs convinced me to go to law school. I figured that if I become a lawyer, I could set up my own shop and never have to work for "bitches" like them.

The point? Everyone hates working entry level jobs: men, women, and drug dealers. In economies of scale, the person lowest on the ladder gets micromanaged by those above him or her. The minions are constantly pressured to be more efficient. There is little communication or collaboration. It is all top down. This isn't feminization of the workplace it's Fordism.

We can tie some of the traits now rewarded in the economy as feminine: submissive, non-physical, and deferential. However, this is an over simplification. Employees also need to be masculine: confident, responsible, disciplined. Describing the new service economy with a 'masculine' or a 'feminine' adjective doesn't address the reality of micromanaged entry level employees.

Instead of focusing on 'The End of Men,' it would be more fruitful to explore fruitful relationships between businesses and entry level employees. The simple answer is for everyone to get everyone a higher education and skip the entry level slot. However, this isn't possible. As Primo points out: "[a]nd they talk about that school shit 'cause they're pampered, they lead pampered lives. Everybody can't go to school a lot. Some people have to live, man. They got to eat--you know what I'm saying? People got to eat, man. Especially if you got a son, you got to... people got to do things." (pg 151). We need entry level positions that everyone wants, not just men or women, and that they can earn a living doing.

Without a better option, Primo's only alternative to entry level work was dealing drugs. For me, it was going to law school. As my favorite fictional drug dealer Omar Little once said to his attorney: "I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It's all in the game though, right?"

The woman tax: gendered products and gendered pricing

Earlier this year, an editor from a women's financial planning website, LearnVest, posted an article suggesting that there is a “woman tax.” The post indicated that products are priced differently depending on the gender they target. This price difference results in women paying more per year than men for similar products. The editor got the idea for the post after visiting her local dry cleaner where she discovered that it costs $4 more to clean her plain, white shirt than it would for an identical men's shirt.

A 2010 study by Consumer Reports further bolsters the editor's theory. The study found that products directed at women could cost up to 50% more than similar products for men. Of the products studied, razors provide the best example of a product that is marketed differently to men and women, but is identical in performance and features. Although men and women's razors are exactly the same product, Consumer Reports found the women's version sells for 50 cents more.

The study also looked at products that are marketed differently to men and women because they do have some differences. These differences, however, are minimal and don't account for the larger price tag on the women's version. For example, Neutrogena makes eye creams that are marketed differently to men and women: Hydrating Eye Reviver for men and Ageless Essentials Continuous Hydration Eye for women. The key ingredients are identical, but the women's version costs $5 more. I find it hard to believe that the synthetic fragrance in the women's version really costs the manufacturer an additional $5.

Megan Duesterhaus of the University of Central Florida is the co-author of another study that looked at gender-based pricing. She summed this issue up nicely when she said, "These companies have us convinced that men and women are so biologically different that we need completely different products, as though we are a different species." It is this essentialist thinking that promulgates the idea that men and women are so different that they need to have separate products. Although Duesterhaus points out that many personal care goods are unisex, such as toothpaste.

An article in Marie Claire broadens the focus of both the Consumer Reports and University of Central Florida studies by looking at the import tariffs on men and women's products. According to Michael Cone, a trade attorney from New York City who was interviewed for the piece, women's products may cost more because of higher import tariffs. For example, women's shoes are taxed at 10%, while men's are taxed at only 8.5%. Import tariffs vary in this way for numerous other products.

So how do companies "genderize" their products such that they can charge more for the women's version? According to an article in Gender and Consumer Behavior called "Gender Identity, Gender Salience and Symbolic Consumption," it is a combination of the visible design features, advertising, promotion, and distribution of the product that caters to one sex or the other. The basic characteristics of the goods are acceptable by either gender, but the end product is modified to include symbols that identify it with one gender. These symbols are conveyed either through a masculine or feminine image on the packaging or by strongly associating the product with sex-role stereotypes in the product's advertising.

An older study in Advances in Consumer Research called "Sex Roles and Consumer Perceptions of Promotions, Products, and Self" found that the gender of the individual seen promoting the product was the most important cue in the formation of product gender, followed by who purchases the product and then by who uses the product. Product placement is a factor too. Stores keep gender-specific products in different areas and by doing so vendors are able to hinder comparison shoppers from seeing the price difference. Few consumers actually go see what male or non-gendered products cost if they are not sitting right next to each other.

Deodorant provides an excellent example of a product that has identical ingredients for men and women, but is marketed separately. I was curious about these differences and decided to do my own research. I visited Degree brand deodorant's website and was surprised how quickly I could see the gender differences. The homepage forces you to select either "men" (button on the left) or "women" (button on the right). A user cannot even enter the website without first deciding which gender's products they would like to view.

The men's site has a dark color scheme, with grays and blacks dominating. The women's site is much lighter, with green, yellow and white dominating the screen. If you scroll through the various products, it's easy to see that there are men and women's versions of the same deodorants. The men's deodorant with "motion sense" is called "Adrenaline Series and the women's is called "Expert Protection." The ingredients are identical except for the available scents: men can choose the "Adventure" scent that has hints of musk, while women can choose the fresh scent of tiara flower.

All of these marketing signals reinforce stereotypes regarding men and women. Men are supposed to be tough and therefore need a deodorant that conveys strength and power. Names like "Extreme" and "V12" along with descriptions that promise to "cool that roaring engine inside you" bolster this ideal. Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be demure and thus need deodorants that with "a smooth and soft fragrance of white rose petals and jasmine buds." Again, these are the exact same product with completely different marketing strategies to appeal to gender stereotypes.

As annoying and ridiculous as I find this type of marketing, it frustrates me more that the prices are not the same despite the products being almost identical. At my local Target store, a stick of Degree for women is $3.99 for 2.6 ounces while men's is $3.49 for 2.7 ounces. The price and size differences are subtle, but they are still there. I'm somewhat at a loss for how to discourage this practice in personal care products. I tend to use gender neutral products, so that's a start. I will continue to use The Crystal as my deodorant of choice. Unfortunately, after decades of gender-neutral advertising, just this year, The Crystal came out with a "men's" version of their product. At least the men's version is formulated differently, so the different marketing is somewhat justified.

Friday, October 26, 2012

My big fat gypsy gender disparity

After I published my last blog post two weeks ago, I happened to catch a re-run episode of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” on TLC, a show the channel calls “a visually arresting portrait of the secretive and extravagant world of gypsies today.” The show chronicles several aspects of traveller culture in the U.K., but perhaps the most compelling portions of the show are those that give some insight into the lives of gypsy women. I was slightly horrified by the position of gypsy women with regards to education, courtship, and domesticity. The show raises questions not only about women’s rights, but also the extent to which feminist critiques should be sensitive to cultural norms (something that we discussed during our class on feminism and Mormonism).

One aspect of the show that caught my attention was a scene in which a young gypsy woman (I believe she was 16) was discussing her family and how she left school at the age of 11 to help her mother care for her many young siblings. 

An article entitled “Why fat gypsy weddings are a feminist issue” by Vicky Allan of The Herald (Scotland) suggests that the practice of taking young travellers out of school may also be due to the gypsies’ strong desire to maintain their culture and limit the influence of outside values. 

Either way, this practice surely leaves gypsy women behind and sets them up for a life inside the home. Their lack of education would make employment outside of the home seemingly impossible. But to what extent can “outsiders” criticize this cultural norm? 

Possibly the most troubling portion of the episode I watched was a scene in which a young traveller girl (just shy of her 16th birthday) was “grabbed” by a boy at a wedding. “Grabbing” is an apparent courtship ritual that involves a young man physically grabbing a young woman and attempting to “steal” a kiss from her. It sounds like rape, right? Well it looks like rape too. 

The clip that follows depicts the incident. The young woman, Cheyenne, discusses how some boys take it too far, but this grab in particular wasn’t one of the more violent she has experienced. She says, “You just have to live with it.” In a shocking twist, Cheyenne calls this grab the best thing that ever happened to her because she later accepted a marriage proposal from the boy who grabbed her. The young man appears to apologize for the grab in the clip, saying that it must have been “love at first sight.” 

In another clip, two traveller men discuss "grabbing" and respect for women. They say that grabbing may look like rape, but its not. But, they say that while they respect women, they respect men more.

These comments make me wonder whether gypsy men respect women at all if they are willing to admit that they respect men more. But, once again, the issue of cultural norms rears its head. One man says, “Other religions have weird things where we go, ‘Oh my God, how could you do that?’ But that’s their way. Who are we to question their way? And who are they to question our way?”

Although outsiders should have a certain amount of respect for cultural norms they may find offensive or oppressive, I think many women would agree that a line must be drawn somewhere. “Grabbing” is a cultural norm that I would argue goes a bit too far.

It is clear from the show that the role of the gypsy woman is to look after her husband, her children and the household. In the first clip above, Cheyenne says that she can’t wait to be a good wife and make sure “everything is in place” for her husband. According to the show, traveller women typically get married between the ages of 16 and 20.

A young Traveller named John, who was interviewed by Allan in the piece mentioned above said
That’s bang on, how the women stay at home and the men go out to work. My wife doesn’t work and among everyone that I know or speak to, the women don’t work. If the young man had to make his wife work, it would be a disgrace.
This comment is interesting because it almost seems like John thinks that it would be a burden for a woman to work outside of the home, but I think most women I know would agree that it would be a burden to be forever confined to the “private” of the home. 

The central issue raised by "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding" and its portrayal of gypsy culture in the U.K. is the tension between feminist critiques and cultural norms, and which of those norms may cross a line. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A cafeteria feminist catholic

I grew up in a Catholic household. We went to church on Sundays wearing dresses with white stockings underneath. My mother made sure we knew our prayers and attended catechism regularly. The Catholic Church is not the most progressive or liberal institution. No one would say that, as an institution, it espouses feminist ideas or liberal politics. After all, one of the primary tenants of Catholicism is that men may be priests and women may not. Only a priest can bless the Eucharist and turn wine into the blood of Christ.

At catechism on Saturday I was told that Eve was made from Adam’s rib. She was meant to be his partner and his wife. My mom told me to save my virginity for marriage and marriage for my thirties. She also told me to wait to have children (with my husband, of course) until I was established in a career and could take of them and myself, on my own. My mother and father always told me my goal in life should be independence. I should educate myself and have a career I could depend on. You should never have to rely on anyone, and certainly not any man, for anything.

I don’t think my mother ever thought that the views she told me came from God might be inconsistent with the opinions she had about my future. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I had a religious crisis about these inconsistencies. When I began studying for my Confirmation, I realized I would always be a cafeteria Catholic. I would pick and choose what aspects of Catholicism I could believe in.

After studying Catholic doctrine and theology I realized I disagreed – a lot. I do not think that the Pope has a holier relationship with God than I do. I believe a woman should have the legal right to choose. I believe that marriage should be legally recognized as a relationship between two consenting adults. Most importantly I don’t believe that my own faith should dictate my political views. My faith is mine and I respect that I should not hold others responsible accountable to my own religious beliefs.

I am not alone in my dilemma. American Catholic nuns have been called radicals by the Vatican. ( A group of American nuns have been ostracized by the Vatican for disagreeing with American bishops on issues varying from same sex marriage to male-only priesthood. These are my kind of nuns.

Yet some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around religion. I don’t think I can remember ever feeling as happy or beautiful as I did on the day of my first communion. I remember sitting in my pew in my pretty dress knowing that God loved me. The absolute certainty of that love made me happy beyond belief. While I do not have that simple child-like faith anymore, I still love God and am pretty sure God loves me. The only difference is that now I feel that way regardless of my church attendance or acceptance of Catholic doctrine. I don’t plan on having children and I don’t think that makes me any less of a woman or any less deserving of God’s love. If I did have children I don’t know if I would raise them with the religious background I experienced.

In class we seemed to focus on the downsides of religion. I agree that at least for me wholehearted acceptance of Catholic doctrine and theology is not something I, as a feminist, can be a part of. However, for me faith is beautiful. Faith is something that I can always rely on. My faith in God has helped me throughout my life and it is not something I will ever want to give up. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Women's Law Firms (Part II)

In my last post I discussed the rarity of women-owned law firms in the United States. While doing research about women-owned law firms, I came across firms that focus on women in a different way: they only serve female clients. In turn, I found a law firm that serves only men and began to question whether having gender-exclusive law firms is a good idea.

Two of the women-only law firms I came across practiced divorce and family law. The Hofheimer Family Law Firm in Virginia represents only women in divorce and custody cases. Hofheimer also claims to be the largest law firm in the United States that represents women exclusively. Hofheimer's staff is a mix of genders with eight attorneys and a support staff of 13.  DAWN, a law firm in Michigan, is also for women only. DAWN claims to be the original and oldest law firm for women in Michigan and states that while others have tried to do what they do, they are the "tried and true original." DAWN also represents women in divorce and other family law matters including domestic violence and wills. DAWN only has three attorneys, two men and one woman.

Not all for-women-only law firms practice divorce or family law. Kramer & Dunleavy in New York practice areas of law that can affect women in unique ways. These areas of law as described on their website include women's health issues (such as birth injuries and delayed diagnosis of breast cancer), family needs (such as car accidents and wrongful death), women's safety (such as dangerous drugs and sexual assault), and women's rights (wrongful termination and discrimination). Kramer & Dunleavy only have two attorneys, who are both female.

Potentially in response, men-only law firms are now popping up. One particular law firm, Kenny Leigh & Associates in Jacksonville, Florida, is one such law firm. Its slogan is "Men Only. Family Law Only." The slogan grabbed the attention of the Florida Bar which suggested Leigh review the ethics rules to ensure his slogan and practices were in compliance. As described in an article here, Leigh decided to represent men exclusively because he felt the family law system was biased against fathers. He also states that if he is forced to represent a female client, he will fight against it in court under an argument that such force is unconstitutional. Interestingly, Leigh's law firm has one women attorney and a support staff that is composed mostly of women.

While researching these law firms I began to wonder if they are acting ethically. California's Rules of Professional Conduct suggest that discriminating against clients based on gender is unethical. According to Rule 2-400, "in the management or operation of a law practice a member shall not unlawfully discriminate or knowingly permit unlawful discrimination on the basis ...(2) accepting or terminating representation of any client." It would seem that in California for-women-only and for-men-only law firms are unethical. However, under Rule 2-400 the State's Bar cannot take action until a court adjudicates a complaint of discrimination and finds that the attorney participated in unlawful conduct. While the Virginia State Bar does not have the same rule, it does state in its Principals of Professionalism that a lawyer shall "avoid all bigotry, discrimination, or prejudice." Florida's and Michigan's rules of conduct do not contain any similar language. It appears as though law firms in these states can continue to provide services exclusively to men or women without fear of professional discipline.

Nevertheless, the question remains whether gender exclusivity is a good thing for the legal profession. While in most divorces men and women are pitted against each other, should law firms increase the gender divide by heightening the difference between men and women? It feels as though these law firms are reinforcing the idea of essentialism- where men and women each have defined aspects that are essential to their beings. Such a viewpoint will inevitably not consider women and men who diverge from the alleged "essential" aspects of their genders. Yet, each person does deserve to have the best representation possible, and even if coming from an essentialist point of view, a law firm that is more aware of women's issues and needs is better than one that is completely unaware.

In addition, part of me believes there should be for-women-only law firms because such law firms represent a distinct group that the law does not always treat fairly and is underrepresented in the legal profession. Should men also have law firms that serve their interests exclusively if they dominate the legal profession? Maybe they should not as they already hold the power in the legal system. At the same time, each person should have the opportunity to be represented equally, regardless of gender, and if the best way to do that is through gender exclusive law firms, then maybe that is what our legal system needs.

While having law firms that serve only women may help to bring greater equality in legal outcomes for the clients of these firms, likely the better way to gain greater equality for women in the law is to have more women lawyers in women-owned law firms and positions of power. Many for-women-only law firms appear to have attorneys of both genders. As such, I am curious to see what the offices of these law firms look like. Do they cater to women in stereotypical ways with pink and purple furniture, accented with gossip magazines? Hopefully I will never be in a legal situation that would compel me to find out.

Feminist perspectives on surrogacy

Recently my best friend and I discussed whether or not we want to have children. We both confessed that one of our greatest concerns is the physical process: carrying the child, the delivery, and the pressure of losing weight afterwards. We talked about adopting, but then you miss the entire experience of passing on your genetics and noticing little pieces of yourself in your child.

Camille Grammer and family
Eventually our discussion turned to surrogacy, but the topic seemed taboo. I have read about a few celebrity couples who paid women to carry and birth their children, but the stories are always accompanied by justifications as to why the genetic mother was unable to carry the children herself.

Sometimes I wonder whether people are truthful about their motivations for choosing surrogacy. For example, Camille Grammer of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills insists that she hired a surrogate mother to carry her children because she has irritable bowel syndrome. Come on Camille, we all know you didn’t want to ruin your hot bod! Not that I blame her; she looks great. Plus, I think a lot of women would do the same thing if they could afford it.

This got me thinking, is surrogacy taboo because it is innately bad? Or is there something more? I think it is helpful to view the practice through the lenses of various schools of feminism.  

While there are different types of surrogacy and surrogacy arrangements, I will focus on gestatory surrogacy or full surrogacy: the commissioning couple's egg and sperm have gone through in vitro fertilization and the surrogate mother is not genetically linked to the child. Moreover, my focus is on commercial surrogacy as opposed to altruistic surrogacy.
From an equality perspective, acting as a surrogate mother can be framed as an economic opportunity. In her book, Birth Power, Carmel Shalev argues that the “reproducing woman” should be treated as an autonomous moral and economic agent. Women who wish to act as surrogates should be free to enter into contracts. While most women would not choose to be a surrogate mother, I think Ruth Bator Ginsburg would argue that some women might. Surrogacy is an economic activity and the decision to participate should be respected. 

Equality feminists also evoke separate spheres ideology. Having children is associated with the private sphere. Surrogacy can be viewed as a way to question this separation and blend the spheres.

A difference perspective recognizes that women’s childbearing capacity is distinct and valuable. Men and women are not similarly situated. The debate over the best way to recognize women’s unique childbearing capacity reflects the divergence of views on women’s caregiving role.  Some argue that surrogacy depreciates women’s special role. Women become merely a means to an end and babies become commodities. Conversely, others argue that women should be able to add economic value to their role.

From a dominance theory perspective, surrogacy is problematic because men will use it to debase and dominate women. Andrea Dworkin compared surrogacy to prostitution: surrogacy sells what prostitution sells without the stigma of prostitution because there is no penile intrusion. Men will inevitably control the surrogacy process and use it to vindicate their own economic interests. See Dworkin, Andrea., Right-wing women: the politics of domesticated females. (The Women's Press, 1983).

Finally, an anti-essentialist perspective evaluates how the practice of surrogacy affects different groups of women. Less privileged women provide physical, menial labor, while privileged (white) women can pursue more fulfilling careers or other passions. See generally Dorothy E. Roberts, Spiritual and Menial Housework, 9 Yale J.L & Feminism 51 (1997). Women abroad should be given special attention as a group because they are especially at risk of exploitation. The high costs or blanket ban of surrogacy in many first world countries, lead couples to turn to poor women in undeveloped nations. Recently there has been a focus on surrogacy in India. The following segment highlight the issues:

Personally, on the question of whether surrogacy is inherently bad, I am drawn to the equality perspective of choice and economic opportunity. I also think that it is an important way to challenge the separation between the public and private sphere. Women like Camille Grammer should be honest and admit she wanted a surrogate because she wants to have it all.

That being said, I find anti-essentialist and dominance perspectives particularly compelling when we look beyond the question of whether surrogacy itself is unethical. There is something more that we are concerned about—the abuse and exploitation of certain groups of women.  While the decision to become a surrogate mother is more easily framed as a choice in the U.S., women’s situations abroad are very different. 

Ultimately, it seems to me that making surrogacy more available here would help to diminish exploitation abroad. Domestic regulation may decrease the outsourcing of surrogacy to countries where we have no control over the process. I am interested in hearing which perspectives you find compelling and any solutions you have to offer.  

To My 15-year-old Self...

October 11 came and went this year, yet many of us were woefully unaware that it was the International Day of the Girl. 

In a wonderful photo-essay commemorating the day, CNN interviewed some of the world's most remarkable and impressive women in all walks of life, and asked: "Looking back, what one piece of advice would you give to your 15-year-old self?" For some especially inspiring excerpts, read on. I took on this assignment myself, and this blog post is what I would say to my 15-year-old self, after getting out of my phone booth time machine and confiscating all of my 15-year-old self's death metal t-shirts and credit cards:

#1: Don't ever, ever, ever, ever, ever give up. 

#2: You don't feel this, and you won't feel like this for a pretty long time. But you! You are capable of nothing less than extraordinary greatness. And if you achieve anything less than extraordinary greatness, I will never forgive you. NEVER.

#3: Less makeup. Just...less, ok? Ok.

#4: There are so, so, SO MANY things you have prioritized today that will soon vanish, and by 24, you will have absolutely no mental trace that these things or people ever held meaning for you. 

#5: What you look like today has absolutely NO impact on what you will look like in 10, 20, or 50 years. Don't sweat it. 

#6: 99% of your best friends today - those friends you spend hours of each day obsessing over impressing and fitting in with - those blonde-haired mascara-eyed girls and the wild-haired rebellious boys - you will never see again after high school for the rest of your life. Ever. Also, when you eventually find them on facebook after all these years and painstakingly stalk their lives - using that career-family-physical attractiveness trifecta - in making these judgments - you will still never again speak to them. 

#7: Your mom doesn't know everything. Far from it. Unfortunately, neither do you. She might not really understand you, or know what's best for you, but the upside of erring on the side of religious fanaticism masquerading as maternal TLC is that 10 years from now you have someone other than yourself to blame. 

#8: I don't care how much pain you will be in during this life - I don't care how hard it gets and how horrible everything seems or is and how tasteless your food becomes and how badly you want to drive your car onto the train tracks and how lonely you feel and powerless and pathetic and unloved and unlovable - you grit your teeth and you HANG ON. Suicide is not the solution - because when you disappear from this gritty, disgusting picture, they win. Don't surrender. Don't let go. Channel your anger - the pity, the sadness, the alienation, the whatever - and kick their asses.

#9: I know it seems like sex is, like, the most insanely important and miraculous thing that has ever existed in life. While this might hold some meager truth, I'd like to assure you that sex is neither sufficient nor necessary for happiness. No even close. I mean - sex is amazing - heart-stopping under the right circumstances. However, using physical manifestations of others' perception of your sexual desirability as a measure of self-worth...not very accurate.

#10: There are some people on this earth who end up marrying their elementary/middle/high school/college sweetheart. You are not one of them.

#11: You. Are. Not. Crazy. You are not crazy. You. Not crazy.
Your feelings, motivations, aspirations, pain, anger, indignation, frustrations - your emotions - they are valid. All of it is valid, legitimate, reasonable, and human. You are human, you are valid, and these feelings are valid. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise - is just an asshole.

Your turn, dear reader. What are some things you would tell your 15-year-old self?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Happily ever after, the Disney edition

The first time I saw this internet image was three or four years ago.  Over the years it has been sent to me many times.  I suppose people know I would enjoy it and maybe this is my future fairy tale.

A fairy tale is described as being idyllic, extremely happy, and what essentially someone dreams and hopes for.  It is the quintessential happily ever after.  Disney folklore has been under siege in recent years for exemplifying unhealthy gender roles and stereotypes for the young women it is aimed towards.  The Disney princess empire is estimated to be worth approximately $4 billion dollars.  It elevates the ultimate aspiration in life to being with Prince Charming, and the ultimate duty to be the perfect home-maker.

For starters, every Disney princess is more than a smidge anorexic, loved because of her beauty, celebrates domesticity, and beholden to the men in her life.  Mulan (who is not one of the classic princesses) is the only one who gets a sword, but she must cross-dress as a boy.

Taking a critical look at the classic princesses, misogynistic actions are actively reinforced in these fairy tales, beyond the damsel in distress, perfect homemaker archetype.  Aurora marries a man who molests her in her sleep.  Ariel endures lifestyle altering plastic surgery to be with a man.  Belle remains with an abusive man hoping he will change.  How can a little girl who grew up idealizing these tales, identify these episodes as sexual violence as an adult?  Why are boys being taught this is an acceptable way to get the girl?

I grew up with these fairy tales.  I do not feel any life-altering psychological damage as a result.  Unfortunately I think that is only because the ideals are so inherent and reinforced with every social construct no one particular thing can be attributed as the cause of why society is still clutching to these gender identities.

I have nieces and cousins who are on the cusp of beginning to play with dolls and watch cartoons and I wonder if giving them an alternative type of fairy tale of girls who fight oppression, seek higher education, and do not need or require a man would make a difference.  With a quick internet search I found some interesting results.  An example of which is:
A story of a princess who rescues the prince from dragons, and still chooses not to be with him (all while wearing a paper bag).

With children watching an average of 2-3 hours of television a day, it might not hurt to see some evolution in the typical pop media geared towards little girls.  It would not hurt for happily ever after to mean something besides Prince Charming.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On objectification

In my previous post, I argued for the destruction of modesty. However, the more important issue is what should replace it. Modesty apologists often argue that when women dress immodestly, they “become objectified; they become objects of pleasure instead of independent, beautiful, free thinking, covenant making women.”

It is true that many clothes considered “immodest” may be used to objectify women. One need only browse through the latest issues of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition or Maxim to be assaulted with the worst of this type of objectification. It is even making its way down to girls as young as six years old.

The knee-jerk reaction to this kind of objectification is often modesty. However, modesty also objectifies. By keeping the focus on the body, modesty emphasizes its importance. The tighter the controls, the more women and girls obsess about their appearance. Rather than fighting the over-sexualization of girls, modesty contributes to it. Everything revolves around whether or not an outfit may be interpreted as provocative by the old white man or the sexual predator.

This tension is perfectly illustrated by this postcard from PostSecret:

In both situations, women are objectified. With the bikini, women’s bodies are put on display for the judgment and approval of men, and are forced to live up to an unrealistic standard of beauty. With the burka, women’s bodies are being hidden to avoid being sexualized by men.

One response to this dilemma is to simply redraw the modesty line. Women are encouraged to dress “tastefully,” not “trashy.” This seems to be the dominant approach, and it is followed by make-over shows like “What Not to Wear.”

However, this strategy is fundamentally flawed. It still keeps focus on a woman’s appearance. It still focuses on avoiding being too provocative for an unnamed (generally male) onlooker – the patriarchy’s “Big Brother.” It still objectifies. As a former member of the Quiverfull movement argues:
[B]y even accepting modesty as a valid area of concern for women, you have accepted a premise that defines women by their looks and objectifies them. Women have already lost the moment a modesty debate begins.
The true solution requires a closer examination of the concept of objectification. I propose three possible definitions of objectification.

First, objectification can be defined as seeing a conscious being as a mere object. However, this definition is problematic. Its central problem is that it is not clearly grounded in human happiness. If seeing someone as an object increases their happiness, then under this definition, objectification can be good. If one argues that objectification always causes unhappiness, then this definition simply creates unnecessary abstraction.

Furthermore, this unnecessary abstraction only creates problems. I find it hard to believe that men see women as nothing more than a blow-up sex doll – a true object. If one objects that men only partially objectify women, then I would argue that it is impossible to see an entity as both an object and a conscious being at the same time. Consciousness is something an entity either does or doesn’t have.

Second, objectification can be defined as dressing for the pleasure of the opposite sex. However, this definition is over-inclusive. It includes both situations of oppressive sexuality and situations of mutual pleasure. One can dress for the pleasure of one’s partner without being objectified.

Third, objectification can be defined as the systematic subordination of the happiness of women to men. A man objectifies a woman when he does not put her happiness on the same level of his, when he sees her as merely a means to an end, rather than an end in herself. This approach mirrors Kantian metaethics: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

Seen in the light of the third definition of objectification, the core of the modesty dilemma becomes clear. The cartoonist Malcolm Evans illustrates this nicely:

Both modesty and over-sexualization use women’s sexuality to systematically subordinate women’s happiness to men’s happiness. Any attempt to play the game – by aiming for “tasteful” – simply reinforces the underlying power structure. Just as the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued that trade-unionism can never be used to break free from capitalism, norms of appearance predicated on male exploitation of female sexuality can never be used to break free from objectification. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

The solution is to wear exactly what you want to wear, and to never make decisions based on the fear (or the hope) that Big Brother is watching. The solution is radical creative freedom.

And the master can always help things along by burning down the house himself.