Sunday, February 28, 2016

Abortion back before SCOTUS this week, with little mention of distance, new focus on shortage of providers

Abortion regulation and litigation is very much back in the news this month.  The New York Times has run a number stories, op-eds and even an editorial board opinion this past week about abortion regulation and the decisions of federal courts regarding the constitutionality of those regulations (so-called TRAP laws--targeted regulation of abortion providers).  Just three of those stories are herehere and here, and what is striking to me about them (other than the sheer volume of bad news regarding diminishing abortion access, especially across the South) is that the rhetoric and concern is shifting farther away from the obstacles of distance and poverty (admittedly my pet concerns, as discussed hereherehere and here) to a concern more widespread among reproductive-age women:  the shrinking number of abortion providers--especially in certain regions--means long wait times for all women seeking abortion services.  (Among other places, we see this in a 2014 decision by Judge Myron Thompson of the federal district court in Alabama and in the recent 7th Circuit opinions regarding a Wisconsin law that requires hospital admitting privileges).  This shortage of providers delays abortions until much later in women's pregnancies, thereby increasing the likelihood of complications and making abortion more expensive.  (In the education sector, we would say the services are "impacted"--hard to get because of high demand.)

These are matters of great concern for all women, but I can't let go of the distance issue just yet, not least because of my outrage at some of the knuckle-headed things that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has said about abortion availability and the failure to meet the undue burden standard.  (Read more here).  The court is, for example, now treating as a firmly entrenched and unassailable constitutional truth the proposition that traveling up to 150 miles, each way, to reach an abortion provider, does not constitute an "undue burden."  That court in particular has been very stubborn about not recognizing the plight of poor and rural women.  With that in mind, let me highlight some of the key points from this week's news and opinion coverage of abortion regulation and the pending oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Linda Greenhouse's op-ed in today's Sunday NYT is titled "Courts Shouldn't Ignore the Facts About Abortion Rights."  In it, she lists some critical facts that the Supreme Court should take seriously in the Hellerstedt case, in which oral arguments will be heard on Wednesday, March 3.  One of those facts is:
Fact No. 2: If [Texas H.B. 2] goes into effect, the abortion clinics in El Paso will close, leaving no abortion services from San Antonio west to the New Mexico border. This is no problem, Texas maintains, because women who would have gone to El Paso can travel about 12 miles farther, across the New Mexico line, to an abortion clinic in Santa Teresa, N.M. The fact that New Mexico has neither the admitting-privileges nor mini-hospital requirements — the very requirements that Texas maintains are necessary to protect the safety of abortion patients — seems not to concern the state.
This is the only mention of distance in Greenhouse's op-ed, which fails to note that the current state of abortion availability in Texas--following implementation and upholding of the admitting privileges requirement of Texas H.B.2--has nearly 1 million reproductive age women living at least 150 miles from an abortion provider.  The women whose access to abortion has been greatly reduced are in south and west Texas, far from the surviving abortion clinics along the I-35 and I-45 corridors.

Erik Eckholm's recent story in the NYT focuses on the situation in Alabama (previously in the Fifth Circuit with Texas and Louisiana, but now in he 11th Circuit with Florida). It features June Ayers, who owns and directs Reproductive Health Services there.  The burden of distance is definitely a feature of the story, though it comes up only at the end:
Already, many of the 1,000 to 1,200 women obtaining abortions at this clinic each year face hours of driving, Ms. Ayers said, and all must make the trip twice because the state requires a 48-hour waiting period after the first visit, which abortion opponents hope will cause those planning to end their pregnancies to have second thoughts. More than two-thirds of the clinic’s patients live at or below the poverty line, and a large majority already have at least one child, she said.
Eckholm's story also features Ashley Garza, a 29-year-old veteran who drove two hours from southeastern Alabama, with her boyfriend, to get an abortion at the Montgomery Clinic.  Eckholm quotes Garza, who experienced extreme hardship as a child, and who is using her G.I. Bill to pursue a degree in social work:
If I had a child now, we’d be in absolute poverty.  It wouldn’t be fair to the child.
If the Montgomery clinic closed, Ms. Garza would have to drive five hours to Huntsville, the sole clinic to survive Alabama regulations.  That, Ms. Garza commented, is something “a lot of women just couldn’t do.”

So now let's consider how all of these issues look in the current litigation.  The Petitioners' brief in Hellerstedt doesn't talk much about the burden of distance--not as much as I expected given the focus on distance in the courts below.  It does, however, quote some of the most powerful language from Judge Lee Yeakel's decision in the federal district court, including this:
"increased travel distances combine with practical concerns unique to every woman." to create barriers to abortion access.  ... These practical concerns include "lack of availability of child care, unreliability of transportation, unavailability of appointments at abortion facilities, unavailability of time off from work, immigration status and inability to pass border checkpoints, poverty level, the time and expense involved in traveling long distances, and other inarticulable psychological obstacles." 
That is followed by the sole mention of rural women, again quoting from the district court:
"The district court also noted that "the act's two requirements erect a particularly high barrier for poor, rural, or disadvantaged women throughout Texas, regardless of the absolute distance they may have to travel to obtain an abortion."
It may prove a good litigation strategy to focus on that which burdens all women rather than "only" those living far from the major metropolitan areas that still have abortion access.  One reason that this shift away from the burden of distance and poverty bothers me, however, is that courts are not being compelled to see and grapple with the lived realities of more vulnerable segments of the population.  And on that issue I'm with Linda Greenhouse:  I'd really like to see Supreme Court Justices actually facing--and not evading--some cold hard facts.  Besides, if urban women are having difficulty getting timely appointments for abortion, just think how much more challenging the situation remains for poor and rural women who must overcome so many more obstacles in order to get to whatever appointment they are able to get.    

One of the questions this turn in the litigation raises for me is this:  Will the reproductive rights community do a better job of advocating against laws that curb the rights of all women--women "like them"--than they have done advocating for the well-being of the poor, rural women whose circumstances they probably cannot relate to?  More importantly, will judges be better able to empathize with the "generic" woman facing a long wait at an abortion clinic than they can with the poor, rural outliers/others?

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A woman's appearance is not an excuse to sexually harass or slut-shame her

The Urban Dictionary defines slut-shaming as a "phenomenon in which people degrade or mock a woman because she enjoys having sex, has a lot of sex, or may even just be rumored to participate in sexual activity."

The reality is that many of us, regardless of our gender, have at one time or another slut-shamed a woman. The most common scenario is labeling women who are exposing their skin or wearing tight clothing as sexually promiscuous. These character judgments about women based on their appearance are harmful especially for young girls who grow up internalizing these messages. What is even worse is that the perception of women as sluts is used to blame victims of sexual abuse, commonly known as victim blaming.

A good example is when a few days ago I came across an article about celebrity and model Amber Rose who appeared as a guest on a new show called “Its Not You, Its Men” hosted by Tyrese Gibson and Rev. Run. I was shocked to find out that both hosts slut-shamed Amber Rose during a segment.  Basically the hosts told Rose that the way she dressed encouraged people to assault her.

Rose admitted to the hosts that she is frequently sexually assaulted. She explained to them that fans, both men and women, frequently ask her if they can touch her breasts or behind. In return, Rev. Run said, “They are asking you to do that because of [the] representation of what you are wearing and stuff and what it seems like in their mind what you’re representing.” He then told Rose, “Dress how you wanna be addressed.”

Fortunately, Rose quickly criticized their notions that the manner in which a woman dresses is an invitation to be sexually harassed by explaining that a woman’s provocative appearance is not the equivalent of consent to touch her.

Nevertheless, what Run and Gibson said to Rose is a common occurrence for many women, especially in the school setting. In fact, slut shaming starts early. According to a 2011 survey by the American Association of University Women, slut-shaming is one of the most common forms of harassment experienced by middle and high school students. Among the third of all students who admitted to experiencing “someone mak[ing] unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures to or about” them in person, 46 percent are girls. 

School dress codes are notorious for policing girls’ appearance. An L.A. Times article reports that school administrators all over the country slut-shame girls through the use of dress codes. For instance, a girl who recently won her lawsuit against a school district was suspended for wearing a t-shirt that read “Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian” because it was deemed a violation of the high school’s dress code.  The assistant principal directly told the student that her t-shirt was “promoting sex” and an “open invitation to sex.”

School administrators’ notions about young women’s clothing are wrong, and their approach to policing women’s appearance is misguided.  Suspending young women from schools promotes the shaming of young women for their appearance and reinforces the idea that women are to blame for sexual assault. I believe that society in general needs to change its beliefs about women and their appearance. But change cannot come without first creating awareness of these issues. 

To me, the SlutWalk campaigns that began in 2011 in Toronto, Canada have been great at the transnational level for challenging rape culture by creating awareness that it’s not acceptable to victim-blame women.  The SlutWalk rallies began after a Toronto police officer suggested to a group of young people that "women should avoid dressing like sluts" as a prevention to sexual assault.  Since then the SlutWalk has become a transnational movement of protest marches that call for the end of rape culture. I primarily have a positive view of the SlutWalk campaigns because of the movement’s ability to attract the attention of the mainstream media on an issue women have worked for years to address.  

I acknowledge the criticisms surrounding the SlutWalk movement. These are the failure to include women of color and its perpetuation of the male gaze. However, I agree with feminist author Kaitlynn Mendes that the SlutWalk movement has been instrumental in bringing a key feminist issue back onto the public’s consciousness and the ensuing feminist discussions are more widely available for the general public. I remain hopeful that the campaign evolves into a stronger movement to promote societal change to end the shaming of and violence against all women. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Public defense is feminist work

Recently, headlines like “About That Time Hillary Clinton Smeared A Tween Rape Victim,” and “Hillary Clinton and her defense of an accused child rapist: Is it a big deal and will the media cover it?” have flared up across my Facebook newsfeed. While the headlines are dated, and I assume only being referenced due to the current election, the articles sparked a nerve.

The gist of the story is that when she was a young attorney, a judge asked Clinton to defend a man accused of raping of a 12-year-old girl. The articles alleged that Clinton “smeared” and disparaged the victim. Certainly, the criminal justice system frequently does not provide justice to victims of rape and sexual assault. To say that the system is imperfect is a gross understatement. That said, Clinton was doing her job. A job that she was obligated to take according to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, and a job that guarantees that the constitutional protections of our nation stay in tact. Perhaps the reason these headlines hit such a deep nerve, is because as a future public defender, I will almost certainly have to defend people accused of rape.

Most of the time when I tell people that I am going to be a public defender they are supportive and say something overly generous along the lines of, “we need more people like you,” or “I could never do that type of work.” But every once in awhile, usually in a group of women, someone will say, “how could you defend a rapist?” or bluntly, “criminal defense work is un-feminist.” The first time I heard someone respond in the latter manner, I was taken aback and not sure how to respond. Surely public defense is nuanced and challenging, and part of the job is defending people guilty of horrendous crimes, but is it inherently un-feminist? I don’t think so.

For one, stating that public defense is un-feminist ignores the substantial amount of women in the criminal justice system. The number of women incarcerated in federal and state prisons has increased at almost double the rate of men in the past 30 years. In 1980, there were 13,258 women in federal and state prisons and in 2013 that number jumped to 104,134. According to The Sentencing Project, “these women often have significant histories of physical and sexual abuse, high rates of HIV infection, and substance abuse.”

The reasons for the rapid increase of female prisoners are varied and complex, but can be tied to four major factors – according to Erika Kates, a social scientist at Wellesley College – the war on crime, women’s susceptibility to drugs, relapsing to jail, and bail. During the war on crime, tough sentencing laws with mandatory minimums were passed for drug offenses; these laws contributed to an “800 percent increase in black women’s incarceration.”

Another factor that contributes to the rise in incarcerated women is women’s inability to pay for bail. Thus, women “languish” in higher security detention centers, farther away from home, because many states do not have the capacity to house women in their county jails. The juxtaposition of harsher sentencing laws for non-violent offenses, and the fact that women are poorer than men in every state, assures that many of my future clients will be women. Supporting the most politically disadvantaged women in our society, at the most vulnerable times in their lives, seems obviously feminist to me.

I understand that part of my career future career will be representing men who hurt women. While representing an alleged rapist is not something that I am excited about, doing so will not make me anti-feminist. In her article “How Could You Represent Those People,” Abbe Smith states that, “these cases are not my favorite part of the job, but I have found a way to do it that is consonant with my feminism.” Smith continues, “Feminists have a long history of working on behalf of the disadvantaged and marginalized. We take a critical view of law and recognize that it can perpetuate inequality.” Like Smith, my feminist beliefs are rooted in intersectionality and I understand that the patriarchy benefits from disenfranchising poor people and men of color, just as much as it benefits from disenfranchising women.

Our adversarial system of criminal justice pits parties against each other and leaves very little room for multifaceted accounts, legitimate justice, and genuine healing. The belief that some people are inherently good and other people are inherently evil is overly simplistic and fails to consider the various factors that intersect to determine people’s opportunities and outcomes. Frequently, my clients have suffered from a combination of adverse life events including physical and emotional abuse, addiction, mental illness, poverty, and institutionalized racism.

Indigent criminal defense is about more than guilt or innocence; it is about providing support and justice for the most disenfranchised members of our society. It is about the feminist notion of treating every person with humanity, regardless of their offense.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Bathroom Panic and the Myth of Bathroom Predators

Public bathrooms are the worst. I’m positive that this statement would receive a nearly universal confirmation. Yet as living beings, almost all of us will regularly encounter public restrooms. It’s the natural consequence of eating and drinking. Luckily, I have never felt unsafe to enter a public restroom. This isn’t true for many gender non-conforming and transgender women.

Thirteen years ago the Sylvia Rivera Law Project produced a documentary entitled “Toilet Training” that chronicled the discrimination, harassment, and violence gender-nonconforming people face when using the bathroom in public. The documentary depicted stories of transwomen who had been beaten and killed simply trying to relieve themselves. Recently, a Williams Institute Study found that over 54% of transgender individuals experience dehydration, urinary tract infections, and kidney infections due to avoiding bathrooms in public. I believe this is a human rights issue that must be addressed. Despite the growing body of LGBT advocacy, little has changed on the restroom front.

In an effort to protect transgender residents, a select number of states have enacted anti-discrimination laws that allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom that most closely matches their gender identity. In Maryland, for instance, the Fairness for All Marylanders Act updated the state’s existing Civil Rights Law to include protections on the basis of gender identity. This law prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender identity in places of public accommodation. This law, like other similar anti-discrimination laws requires an individual to use the bathroom consistent with their “core identity.”

This past Tuesday, however, the South Dakota Senate voted to approve a bill that will require public school students to use the bathroom based on their “chromosomes and anatomy” at birth. This week, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina is set to vote on an ordinance that would allow transgender people to use the bathroom that reflects their gender identify. While the Charlotte ordinance is inclusive of transgender individuals, it has ignited a surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) hateful controversy. A website and Facebook group titled “Don’t Do it Charlotte” urges the city to reject the ordinance. The advertising campaign demands “No Men In Women’s Bathrooms.”

Let’s be clear. Transwomen are not men. Transgirls are not boys. This type of language is dangerous and needs to stop. It invalidates the existences of transgender individuals.

Beyond deceitful language, the ad campaign specifically suggests that women and girls need protection while using the bathroom. This type of fear mongering reminds me of the equally stunning advertisements during the Prop 8 campaign. The “let’s protect our kids” mantra worked so well that the liberal state of California voted to deny same sex couples the right to marry.

So are women and girls in danger? If so, then these men in power should undoubtedly swoop in and find some sort of legislative solution to end all predatory behavior. However, there is little evidence (I would argue—no evidence) that suggests that allowing people to choose the restroom that conforms to their gender identity. This lack of factual basis did not stop Fox News from airing a fake story about a transgender student harassing girls in the bathroom.

Beyond the fact that these transphobic smear campaigns are based on absolutely nothing factual, Equality Maryland pointed out that “If someone goes into a restroom to ogle or expose themselves or harass or assault someone, what they are doing is illegal and they will be prosecuted – regardless of how they are dressed or what their sex is or what their gender identity is.”

This post does not intend to undercut the very real dangers that many women and girls face. Allowing transwomen the basic human dignity to relieve themselves in a safe space is not correlated, connected to, or the cause of any predatory behavior. Further, criminal statutes remain intact and aim to protect women and girls from predatory behavior.

Transwomen are women. Transgirls are girls. They need protection too, and that starts with equal access to the bathroom.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

This millennial feminist is voting for Hillary

There has been a lot of discussion lately, both nationally and on this blog, about women and feminists voting in the Democratic presidential primary elections. Much ado has been made about the generational split revealed in early primary voting, with younger women overwhelmingly supporting Bernie (69% of women under 45 and 82% of women under 30 voted for Bernie in New Hampshire). Exit polls from Nevada, where Hillary won overall, reveal similar trends.

What does this mean, and why does it matter? It matters to me because at the same time I’m being told that it’s sexist to vote for Hillary because she’s a woman, my presumed voting preference as a 28-year-old is being defined for me because I’m a woman. I’m supposed to ignore Hillary’s gender when I vote, but the media focuses their coverage on the electorate’s gender. What gives? Either way, women are being told what to do and how to think.

A big part of why I’m voting for Hillary is because she’s a woman. Because she’s also struggling to break through the glass ceilings we all face as women. Because she continues to slog through the implicit bias and discrimination women see on a daily basis. Because I want the person determining the fate of legal precedent for the next three decades through nomination(s) to the Supreme Court to understand the importance of ending the Hyde Amendment. Because it’s ridiculous that there have been forty-four Presidents of the United States and never has someone of the gender that makes up more than half of the U.S. population sat in the Oval Office. I don’t think it’s sexist to vote for Hillary because she best represents the same lived experience as me or because I believe she has the best chance of representing my interests in the White House. (Sure, I also have concerns about Bernie: his ability to win a general election, the lack of nuance, the fuzzy math.)

I find myself empathizing with some of the recent commentary that hypothesizes that the generational Bernie/Hillary split is due to younger women not yet having experienced the sexism in the workplace that older women have. I certainly see that parallel in my own voting patterns, from a 2008 college-age Obama supporter to a 2016 world-wearier Hillary supporter. But that’s simply my own experience. I don’t think it’s right to extrapolate so broadly over a generation of women. Nor do I agree that all women who vote for Bernie have a “special place in hell” waiting for them. We can’t all be defined in one broad brushstroke. What I think we all can agree on as female voters is that who we vote for is a personal choice, made by each of us based on our lived experience, our beliefs about the candidate, and our priorities for the future. Don’t assume that we all think and feel the same way solely due to our age and gender. Don’t tell me how to vote because I’m a woman, but then tell me I can’t vote for Hillary because she’s a woman.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Recognizing stay-at-home dads to challenge traditional gender roles

As a mother I feel disappointed when I read articles that report statistical findings suggesting that working moms are happier than stay-at-home moms or vice versa.  The first time I came across such a report was in 2012 as I was taking the light rail to work.  At the time, my child was two years old.  As a working mom, I was curious to know who was the happier group, but I couldn’t help wonder why I had not read articles about the happiness of working dads versus stay-at-home dads.  To me the lack of articles about men on the same issue reinforces the traditional notions of women as caregivers without recognizing that in many families men are also primary caregivers. 

Today, at-home dads may represent a small percentage of at-home caretakers, but statistics show more dads are staying at-home to care for their children than ever before.  The Pew Research Center’s 2014 report estimates that more than 16 percent of fathers are at-home caretakers.  Nevertheless, child rearing is still sociologically considered a woman’s role.  This prevailing attitude not only hurts women by reinforcing gender stereotypes, it is also a factor that prevents shifting to a more egalitarian view that it is acceptable for fathers to be caregivers.   

Recently I read Beth Burkstrand-Reid’s, “Dirty Harry Meets Dirty Diapers: Masculinities, At-Home Fathers, and Making the Law Work for Families.” I found her article compelling because she argues that at-home fathers may be subtly reinforcing gendered family notions of breadwinner and caregiver roles instead of subverting these stereotypes.  She based her findings on about 430 news media articles reporting on at-home fathers.  However, I disagree with Burkstrand-Reid’s conclusion that balancing work with family life is not an issue that resonates with men.   

Burkstrand-Reid’s argument is mistaken because it does not account for a recent societal shift in which many fathers are purposely working less and spending more time with their children.  For instance, the Pew Research Center reports that from 1965 to 2011, fathers reduced the number of hours they devoted to paid work from 42 to about 37 and increased the number of hours they devoted to child-care each week from 2.5 to 7.  Furthermore, a survey of 1,023 professionals by Citi and Linkedin reveals that balancing work life with family life is the number one career concern for both men and women.  Thus, to state that the issue of work-family life does not resonate with men is at odds with empirical evidence of today’s trends. 

I  believe Burkstrand-Reid’s argument is further misguided because it conflicts with my own experience where the men in my life have been just as concerned with the issue of balancing work and family life.  Five years ago, my own partner willingly took time off work to care for our son when he was born.  This permitted me to recover and return to part-time work.  My partner’s decision to take an extended work leave was not financially motivated because it was unpaid and actually prevented him from being promoted.  Growing up, my father would take time off when the occasion called for it.  To this day, my godfather takes care of his two little girls while my godmother works as a full-time teacher and spends evenings in a masters program. 
Perhaps I am biased from my own personal experience, but the men in my life have demonstrated that they are as concerned as women are about balancing work and family life.  The notion that men are “breadwinners” is quickly becoming outdated as more women are challenging the notion by becoming the breadwinners of their own households.  

Women should have the ability to take on any role they want instead of being restricted by society’s construction of appropriate roles for men and women, especially for fathers and mothers.  Therefore, I believe that for men to take on women’s traditional roles of caregivers, employers should be more accepting and encouraging of male employees who take family leave.  It is not enough that men and women alone take the initiative to defy traditional gender roles.  After all, employers can be highly influential in shaping employees’ beliefs about what is acceptable in the workplace.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Turning Down Men's Sexual Advances

"Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them." - Margaret Atwood 

While I have seen this quote previously, I came across it again in the comments of a news article I read recently reporting on the murder of a young Wisconsin woman. Last week, a twenty-four-year-old woman named Caroline Nosal was shot and murdered by her co-worker, Christopher O'Kroley, after she had turned down his advances. Two weeks before Nosal's tragic death she had complained to the store manager that O'Kroley had been harassing her. This led to O'Kroley's suspension and eventual termination. O'Kroley later returned to the store where he fatally shot Nosal in the parking lot. After being apprehended by the police, O'Kroley confessed to the murder and said that "it was easy to kill" Caroline because she had "ruined [his] life." This young woman who loved books and animals, who was "wonderful and sassy" and who had her whole life ahead of her was killed because a man apparently thought that he had more of a right to her time and her body then she had a right to continue living. 

As tragic and horrifying as this murder is, it is sadly no longer shocking or unexpected to hear of (largely) women being harassed, abused, or killed when they exercise their freedom to turn down the advances of men they are not interested in. Indeed, a Google search of "men killing women who rejected them" produces a horrific amount of hits. There is even an eye-opening Tumblr page titled "When Women Refuse" which collects the stories of violence inflicted on women who reject someone's sexual advances. It includes many stories, such as that of women who was killed for refusing to talk to a man at a bar, a man throwing a woman's puppy out of a third story window after she rejected his advances, and a man locking a young women in a walk-in freezer until she would talk to him. There are even stories about men targeting all women or specific groups of women for their perceived general rejection of him. 

Obviously not all men become violent when they are rejected. Most men in my experience do not. However almost all women have some personal story in which they turned down the advances of a stranger, a friend, a co-worker, or an ex and their "No" was either ignored, mocked, or used as an excuse to threaten or harm. Additionally, you hear the stories of your female friends and family (and obviously the news stories) about what can happen when you reject a man incapable of understanding and accepting a woman's right to not entertain their advances. These are the experiences that I believe are behind the sentiment in Atwood's quote. Even if 99 out of 100 men accept your "No" and calmly move on, you are always aware that there may be one man that will not and you have no idea who to firmly identify him from the others. So, out of a sense learned self-preservation, I believe that women have been taught through their own experiences and the stories of those around them to be inherently wary of rejecting men and sadly I have no idea what to do about that.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Period profits & the tampon tax

In some ways, this is a response and continuation to another author’s earlier blog post, #MasculinitySoFragile and the Gendering of Consumer Products. However, instead of focusing on the gendering of “male” products, this post will delve more into the “pink tax” profits associated with menstrual products.

The period profits

In one lifetime, the average person with a period will spend around $18,000 on menstrual products. 

While research has shown that historically the feminine hygiene industry has profited immensely from menstrual taboos and stereotypes, women continuously choose to purchase products associated with menstruation. 

Recently, it seems like people on the internet have been mesmerized with Thinx, the "period panties for modern women." Not only have Thinx come up in conversation with multiple groups of my friends, but they have been marketed to me on Facebook and Google Ads incessantly for the past few months. Time Magazine even included them as one of the best inventions of 2015. However, one pair of Thinx comes in around $30. Similarly, the ever-popular and environmentally friendly Diva Cup also costs around $30. While these products may result in costing less than disposable hygiene products, they also require a more hygienic living condition and are only options for women who have regular access to washrooms.  

California tampon tax

This year, California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia introduced Assembly Bill 1561: No Tax on Tampons. The bill proposes to make tampons, pads, and other menstrual products exempt from state sales tax. Each year, women in California spend over $20 million in taxes on these products. The average woman pays seven dollars a month for menstrual products, and has an average of 468 periods over her lifetime.

Assemblywoman Garcia asserts that feminine hygiene products should not be taxed because they are a basic necessity and taxing them creates a gender injustice. Women (or biologically female persons) are subject to paying tax on a product solely because of their biological sex.

The bill’s joint-author, Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, stated, “Our government is imposing a charge exclusively on women by forcing them to pay extra for the ‘privilege’ of a health necessity…and for many low-income communities it is difficult to access hygiene products.” While advocating for the bill, the authors have also focused on the difficulty many low-income women and women without permanent shelter have in affording and accessing these products. When women use irregular materials, or try to use tampons for longer than recommended, health concerns arise with issues around toxic shock syndrome, infection, and other sanitary concerns. 

Currently, California's tax code exempts numerous health items, including Viagra, walkers, and medical ID tags. To reiterate, men do not have to pay taxes to purchase the erectile dysfunction pill, but women must pay taxes on monthly feminine hygiene products. 

The National Coalition for Men put out a statement that they would support AB 1561"as long as it also includes sales taxes exemptions for neckties, jockstraps, and condoms." While taxing condoms presents a different issue, the fact that this group is equating tampons with neckties highlights the absurdity of the tax because there are no "medical" male equivalent products. 

Knowing When to Stay in Your Own Lane

Although I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, I did see my fair share of commentary on Beyoncé’s latest release, “Formation.” I know I won’t do justice to the artistry when I merely describe it as a song and video of female empowerment (particularly for black women), celebrating a heritage and struggle that the mainstream media often ignores.

My description, while reverent, is reverent from a distance. I don’t think I can articulate the majesty of this work and what it means to the people it represents. Simply put, I know that the song, video, and performance are best understood, appreciated, and explained by black women. I try to stay in my own lane and don’t pretend to know more than I do.

That’s not to say that I, an Asian female, can’t enjoy the work for what it is. But I also have to acknowledge that there are strands and complexities that I will never fully understand because of my identity, my experiences, and how others perceive me. I am a female of color, sure, but I will never face what black women face. Because I respect the strength it must take to endure the unique struggles that black women face, I do my best not to speak out of turn. I do my best to not pretend that I know of another group’s feelings or motives. I do my best to acknowledge that relative privilege pervades my perspective at every turn, so I cannot be immediately dismissive of what I may disagree with. 

At the same time, we should not underestimate the power and duty we have to speak up when nobody else will. We often find that we are the only people in the room who are anywhere near similar to the group that needs defending. But even as we take on this responsibility, we are still obligated to operate with tact. For example, I, as a cisgender Asian female, can only address the experiences of black trans women to a limited degree. But if I am in a room full of white, cisgender men who clearly have misconceptions about what a black trans woman experiences, I feel compelled to say something. I have to do my best to stamp out the more damaging misconceptions. But I should also lead with the caveat that these are not my own experiences; don’t take my word for it and ask someone more qualified, who can truly speak to these experiences.

To me, striking the balance between speaking and not speaking is one of the most difficult balances to strike when advocating for social justice and equality.

Nobody is ever immune from having to be conscious of staying in their own lane. Queen Bey herself has gotten quite a bit of flak for this as well. Some think, for example, that the struggles the black community faced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was not Beyoncé’s story to tell in her video. Some think that because of her fame and relative privilege, she could not do justice to representing something that she didn’t experience. Similarly, not too long before the Super Bowl, Beyoncé’s video with Coldplay, "Hymn For the Weekend," directly utilized and invoked imagery and aspects of Indian culture. Did Beyoncé “stay in her own lane”? Was this cultural homage or cultural appropriation? The jury is still out on that issue, reminding us just how delicate the balance is.

I emphasize knowing when to speak and not speak because I believe that failure to exercise such care appears disrespectful to others and ultimately drives divisions among us all. The feminist agenda is fragmented because interests among a diverse group are not monolithic. It can't be monolithic. No single perspective is controlling. We will never get a sense of those other perspectives if we lack the humility and respect to honor the struggles and needs of others. Most importantly, we cannot move forward in solidarity or speak with a unified voice if we keep trying to talk over and subordinate each other.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

This feminist is for Sanders

“Young women have to support Hillary Clinton… It’s not done and you have to help. Hillary Clinton will always be there for you. And just remember, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Former secretary of state Madeline Albright told a crowd of Clinton supporters yesterday in New Hampshire. Albright was not alone in addressing young women voters this weekend.

In an interview on Friday, with Bill Mahers, Gloria Steinem suggested that the main reason Bernie Sanders has so much support from young women is so that they can meet boys: “When you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.’” While Steinem has since apologized for her statement, I don’t really buy it and I’m starting to get offended.

In attempting to support Clinton, Steinem reduced young women to mindless bimbos who are unable to make rational political decisions on their own, and instead politic based on the whims of their hearts. Surely, revolutionary feminist Steinem does not agree that young women are incapable of critical decision-making. However, her views - and Albright’s - echo a widespread sentiment that drives the rhetoric that voting for anyone other than Clinton is both un-feminist and untenable.

I am a feminist, and I support Bernie Sanders. It isn’t because he reminds me of my grandpa (which due to their shared Brooklyn accent and white hair, he really does). And it isn’t because of his “willingness to look and sound like a hot mess,” or that Hillary just isn’t cool enough. It also isn’t because his fervent fan base convinced me. It’s because after a careful analysis of Sanders’s and Clinton’s politics, my beliefs are more aligned with Sanders’. I also firmly believe that Sanders’ policies are feminist policies.

As Kevin Young and Diana C. Sierra Becerra wrote in their 2015 article, “All issues of wealth, power, and violence are also women’s and LGBT rights issues.” Sanders supports single-payer healthcare, women’s reproductive healthcare, free college tuition for public universities, and a $15 minimum wage -- all policies that benefit women in this country. Sanders has an established history of supporting LGBTQ rights, in stark comparison to Clinton who supported DOMA and did not announce her support of gay marriage until 2013. Sanders’ history of opposing foreign wars, the Patriot Act, and the death penalty are all reasons that I support him for president. This is not an exhaustive list, it is merely illustrative of the fact that I, a young, female, millennial am capable of comparing two candidates and coming to my own feminist conclusions.

My support for Sanders does not mean that Clinton has not faced an enormous amount of misogyny and sexism in this election - and throughout her career. Nor is my support for Sanders unwavering. I have legitimate qualms about some of his policies. I’m worried about his age. I’m worried about his effectiveness implementing his policies once in the White House (though, to be honest, I am not sure that Clinton will do any better).

That said, my support for Sanders is indeed rooted in my feminist beliefs. Beliefs that recognize the complexity of womanhood, and the need for intersectional politics that acknowledge race, gender identity, class, and more. I have to support the candidate that I feel embodies those beliefs and I truly believe that Sanders will be the better candidate for all women. After all, I don’t want to end up in that special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.

Worker Coops and Economic Empowerment

I don’t know if women—or for that matter, anyone—can “have it all.” This country has an intractably imbalanced work-life culture. Add to this the deeply rooted expectation that women should act as the primary caretaker and a whole host of gendered consequences flow from employment in America. Women who work full time receive 78 cents on the dollar compared to men, or even worse, only 67 cents on the dollar when comparing female and male earners with professional degrees. Women are also less likely to have health insurance or retirement savings plans offered by their employers, according to the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers.

When viewed on a macro-level, the weight of these problems seems crippling. It feels as though there are no viable solutions to a stubborn workplace structure that discriminates against women and fails to recognize their economic contributions.

Luckily, I discovered a source of optimism in the form of worker cooperatives. As a summer law clerk at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, CA I became involved in community economic development efforts—efforts to empower communities through economic opportunities that respect the rights of workers, provide job opportunities to marginalized groups, and add needed services to surrounding communities. Worker cooperatives play an essential role in these efforts.

According to the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, a worker cooperative (“worker coop”) is a business entity that is owned and controlled by its worker members and adheres to a one member, one vote model. Workers invest in, own, and are the primary beneficiaries of their labor. You can think of worker coops as democratic workplaces that are owned and controlled by the workers themselves, as opposed to outside investors or management.

Rather than wait for a national consensus on workplace issues—like raising the minimum wage or requiring paid family leave—worker owners can set their own priorities and enact workplace policies that meet their individual needs. And, fortunately, California just made it easier to incorporate as a worker coop.

Prospera, a worker coop incubator, has helped establish successful female owned and operated ventures throughout the Bay Area. Prospera was founded in the mid-90s to specifically address the lack of economic opportunities for Latina women in the Bay Area. Prospera incubates worker coops, meaning it provides business expertise and connects entrepreneurs to start-up capital and the institutional knowledge necessary to help a business get off the ground.

In particular, Prospera has successfully incubated eco-friendly house cleaning businesses. These businesses developed out of necessity to deal with a traditionally exploitative industry that funneled predominately Latina women into low-paying cleaning jobs, exposed them to harmful chemicals, and provided little control over workplace policies. While commercial cleaning is an accessible service industry job for workers lacking professional degrees, it’s also notoriously exploitative. By melding together the accessibility of the cleaning industry with the democratic nature of worker coops, Prospera helped create an economy for women to shape their own workplaces and economic opportunities.

One of Prospera’s creations, Emma’s Eco-Clean, has generated $9 million in sales since 1999, employs 27 workers, and provides health and dental benefits along with flexible vacation time—benefits virtually unheard of in the commercial cleaning industry. The worker-owners in Prospera coops have also, on average, tripled their income compared to their pre-Prospera employment.

Worker coops are not a cure-all solution. As with any new business venture, entrepreneurs need access to capital, a consumer base, and some level of business savvy. Nonprofit incubators, like Prospera, are helpful in connecting entrepreneurs with the resources necessary to start a successful new business. But these low-income, entrepreneur-focused incubators are few and far between. Women in rural communities may find it especially difficult to access the resources necessary to start these businesses. And nothing excuses this country’s inability to deal with inequality on a larger, national scale.

Even so, worker ownership puts workplace policies in the hands of the people most affected by these policies. In the context of women’s worker-owned coops, women are empowered to set policies that meet their particular needs. This is a more localized model that gives me hope in a larger economy that disempowers workers and sets unreasonable expectations for employees and their families.

Friday, February 5, 2016

A different perspective on Orange Is the New Black – Part I

Orange Is the New Black (OITNB)—the Emmy-award winning Netflix show—has received critical acclaim and rave reviews. More importantly, it’s prompted people to talk about women in prisons—a topic that isn’t exactly commonplace in most American households.

Despite the fact that on any given day an estimated 200,000 American women are behind bars, most of us haven’t thought much about what life is like for these women—who they are, where they came from, and types of struggles, humiliations, heartaches, and indignities they face on a daily basis.

But, since OITHB's release in July 2013, people all over the country are talking about just that. Talking about important, and historically neglected, issues like abortion access, sexual assault, treatment of transgender inmates, shackling of pregnant inmates during labor and delivery, and pregnancy related health care in correctional facilities.

In 2013, The New Yorker’s television critique, Emily Nussbaum, praised the show, noting that “for all its daffy, dirty ways, ‘Orange Is the New Black’ is more strongly rooted in the real world…it intends to illuminate injustice by using stories so bright that you can’t ignore them.” I was intrigued.

Over the next year, it seemed as if everyone around me was singing the show’s praises. “You will love it,” friends told me. “Get ready to binge watch, because you won’t be able to turn it off.” My experience was rather different — I did not love it, and I did turn it off.

These stories have certainly drawn attention to critical social justice issues, but they have also, on several notable occasions, missed the mark. These are stories that aren’t “rooted in the real world,” misrepresent key aspects of the issues, and perpetuate dangerous and already deeply rooted stereotypes—stereotypes, that in a time of unprecedented attacks on women’s reproductive rights and access to care, do incarcerated women — and us all — a tremendous disservice.

One such issue is that of anti-abortion violence and harassment. While the show raises the issue, it distorts it in a way that is insulting to women and abortion providers — many of whom risk their lives every day to ensure that American women continue to have access to safe, comprehensive, and essential reproductive health care.

The first season’s primary antagonist, Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett, is incarcerated for murdering an abortion provider. Episode 12 includes a flashback of her in an abortion clinic, as a patient — shortly after receiving an abortion. While recovering from the procedure, a nurse looks at her critically and with disdain tells her “Number five, huh? We should give you a punch-card, get the sixth one free.” Pennsatucky then storms out of the clinic, grabs a gun from her friend’s car, storms into the clinic, and shoots the nurse.

Harassment and violence towards abortion providers is a real issue in this country, but when we portray it, let’s get it right.

Every day in America, intimidation, harassment, and violence endangers the lives of both clinic staff and patients, and it is severely interfering with and compromising access to reproductive health care.

Including the November 2015 attack in Colorado, there have been 11 murders and 26 attempted murders due to anti-abortion violence. These horrific crimes were perpetrated by fanatic individuals who oppose abortion. Not one of them was a patient.

In addition, abortion opponents have directed more than 6,948 reported acts of violence against abortion providers since 1977, including bombings, arson, death threats, bioterrorism threats, and assaults, as well as more than 194,615 reported acts of disruption, including bomb threats, hate mail, and harassing calls.

Patients are not the perpetrators of these crimes. They are, along with clinic staff, the victims.

As a former employee of a reproductive health care provider, I have experienced these threats first hand. And, I have seen the devastating effects they have on women’s ability to access health care, and the experiences they have when they do. They are called offensive names, harassed, and photographed when entering clinics. And, for many women, the massive groups of protesters and the harassment they are subjected to, prevent them from receiving the care they need.

This care could be an abortion. But it might also be prenatal care, or a breast exam, or even a visit with a primary care provider. The fact is, abortion is a health care service, and it is part of comprehensive health care. Many clinics that provide abortions also provide other reproductive health services, and some offer primary and pediatric care. Often they are community clinics that serve low-income individuals and families— so when harassment and intimidation keeps patients from accessing care, some of them have nowhere else to go.

But in portraying Pennsatucky’s abortion experience, OITNB paints a different picture. Instead of being harassed by protestors outside the clinics, she is mistreated and disrespected by a staff member. And, instead of fearing for her own safety or witnessing violence and harassment at an abortion clinic, she commits it.

The portrayal of the clinic worker is also problematic. OITNB depicts her as unprofessional, cold, and judgmental. Why? If this is really an attempt to raise awareness about abortion access and anti-abortion violence and intimidation, why portray the clinic staff in this way? What value does it add to the show? None.

Every day, the brave men and women who work in abortion clinics face threats of murder, violence, and intimidation. Threats, that are as we have seen, very real. And yet, they continue to provide care — even when this requires wearing a bulletproof vest to work and spending their days in buildings that receive bomb threats.

Given the severity of anti-abortion violence, it’s no surprise that there is a shortage of abortion providers in the U.S.. In some states there are none, and doctors fly in from other parts of the country. They risk their lives to ensure that women in America continue to have access to their constitutionally protected right to abortion.

These people aren’t villains. They are heroes. To depict them as cold, unprofessional, and judgmental is not “rooted in the real world.” It’s disrespectful and insulting.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Vocal Fry and Shrill-ary Clinton

Last spring I attended a hearing in federal court. A female attorney argued on behalf of the defendant. After the hearing I debriefed with my colleagues. One of the men I was with mentioned that he found the female attorney “off-putting” and “shrill” and "he couldn't even pay attention to what she was saying." Adjusting my voice, I asked him what he meant. My questioning was met with a long-winded defensive non-answer.

Shrill. This is a real concept women in the workplace have to contend with. Not only are we expected to be conventionally attractive and intelligent (but not overpowering), we also have to worry about the natural tenor of our voices.

A few weeks later I was filling out the evaluation for an adjunct professor’s course I had taken that semester. I overheard a male student talking about her. “She’s just hard to listen to.” Again, I pressed. What did he mean? Why was she hard to listen to? He offered no explanation. Weeks later I heard the term “vocal fry” for the first time.

Vocal fry is the term coined to describe the oscillating sound heard in speech. It is the “fluttering of the vocal cords, resulting in a popping or creaking sound at the bottom of the vocal register.” Based on media discussions, vocal fry is not something one should wish to possess. Though both men and women fry their voices, the phenomenon almost exclusively hinders women.

Women are expected to have higher-pitched voices. Yet, people with deeper voices are perceived as dominant and successful, and more often than not land coveted leadership positions. Men prefer female partners with high-pitched voices and female leaders with low pitched voices. This double standard manifests in vocal fry, which occurs when women attempt to lower their vocal registers. The result is a vibrato that many find unprofessional. One journalist described vocal fry as a “fingernails-on-the-blackboard phenomenon” and vapid.

The correlation between deep voices and professional success is unsettling. Our voices (like so many other female-attributes) are already held to an unattainable standard. If we speak too quietly we are meek, if we are too loud we are abrasive, if our voices are high-pitched we are mousy, and if they are too low we are masculine. The natural tenor of women’s voices has become a subconscious factor in how we perceive a woman’s intelligence and professionalism.

Hillary Clinton gave a speech this past Monday acknowledging her success at the Iowa Caucus. Before she even left the stage, users took to Twitter to attack not the content of her speech, but the what she sounded like. One commentator suggested that Clinton is “incapable of finding the difference between yelling and passion.” Another expressed fear that we would be forced to listen to her screech for the next eight years (“Imagine 8 years of that screech”). Hillary Clinton has long been the recipient of vocally degrading-epithets. Donald Trump has labeled her as "shrill." And the nickname Shrill-ary was tossed around during the 2008 election.

Yet Bernie Sanders is free to yell to his heart’s content. His vocal range is seen as passionate and revolutionizing. Bernie can be as unpolished as he wants—where Hillary must adhere to the feminine standards of both appearance and voice. In 2008, Stanley Fish, in a New York Times article observed:
If she answers questions aggressively, she is shrill. If she moderates her tone, she’s just play-acting. If she cries, she’s faking. If she doesn’t, she’s too masculine. 
Eight years later and little has changed. Hillary is a political powerhouse, but she is seen as “calculated” and a “politician” (which in 2016 is considered an insult). She embodies the establishment. Yet, each day on the campaign trail, she must control her tone. Each sound and word that escapes her mouth must be practiced and prepared or she might sound shrill or domineering. Her laugh is a cackle but when she does not laugh she is cold. She cannot win.

Hillary is a public figure, and some could argue that she has placed her voice in the spotlight. But she is an example of one real way women are silenced. Women’s voices tell stories, they advocate for others, they express ideas and values. The attorney I saw argue in federal court was articulate and accomplished. Because of the sound of her voice, her ideas went unheard.