Speaking of Women's Rights...: 2009

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Toasting with a Glass Half Full. Or Half Empty. Or Both.

It seems just about everybody is glad to bid 2009 ‘good-bye, good riddance, don’t let the door hit your rear on the way out’. Before we do, though, I can’t resist one of those “10 (or so) Best and Worst” lists. It’s a reflection of sorts on the status of women in our society, as filtered through the media.

Most Uplifting News:
Old stereotypes can be destroyed. Girls are NOT worse at math than boys -- except in sexist societies. In countries with gender equity, and, I suspect, with stellar educational systems, girls do as well as boys. Sadly, the U.S. has . . . neither. Yet. But at Legal Voice we’re doing everything we can to take care of the equity issue.

Americans believe that women have more of the attributes necessary or desirable to be a good political leader than men do. (No offense intended to great male leaders; I didn’t do the research, I’m just re-reporting it.) Those attributes include honesty, intelligence, creativity and decisiveness, all of which points to more stereotype destruction.

The truth about women's leadership is also emerging, if slowly, in business. A number of studies have shown that women score better on a number of leadership issues, when rated by peers, subordinates and bosses, and that they are viewed as overall better leaders.

For the first time ever, five women received a Nobel Prize in one year, and they included not only women in the arts (not common, but not that remarkable) but also in the sciences and in economics, which occur much more rarely. No longer must we stop our Nobel list-making at Marie Curie.

Women can be just as greedy and immoral as men (back to eliminating stereotypes). Among the AIG executives who resigned in a huff because they might not get paid $10 million or so is corporate vice chair Anastasia Kelly. But some commenters have pointed out that she’s getting much more flak than the men are, and had to work much harder to get where she just was. Okay, maybe this one goes in the second half.

On the Flip Side:
Even though women are widely perceived to have the traits of great political and business leaders, Americans still don't think women make better leaders. And women lag far behind men in holding top executive positions in corporations. What’s up with that? Can you say ‘cognitive dissonance’? Well, I guess not, and that’s part of the problem.

Oh, and women still get paid far less. No need to say more than that (and too many sources to bother citing them). Except that women of color get paid even less than white women, putting them at the bottom of the legendary, and often illusory, American ladder to success.

Also, women’s enormous productivity in the workplace isn’t matched by appropriate laws, policies or societal views supporting adequate (in some arenas, any) paid leave, flexible work schedules, or accommodations for the real lives of women, men or families. For that matter, it’s not matched by true comprehension and acknowledgement of the dimensions of this problem and the havoc it wreaks not only for families, but for our society as a whole and for our economic future.

We still have to count the number of women who win prizes, are great leaders, are considered important, etc. (yes, see the Nobel Prize item above.) When we can’t count them anymore, then we’ll have equality.

Even when we count them, we don’t count them. Voters in the Associated Press poll couldn’t come up with 10 top female athletes who are also women. Come on, people, HORSES? Yes, great athletes, those horses. But I don’t see equines on the list of top male athletes. Actually, let’s debate whether the top 10 males are actually men, Mr. Steroid Guys.

Finally, Ellen Goodman has stopped writing a regular column, four decades after she – and the full-blown women’s movement, really – started out. Yes, she’s only one woman, and no, I didn’t always agree with her, but Ms. Goodman’s insight, passion and wit will be sorely missed. And as she noted, we’re at a point of good news/bad news for the movement, with undeniable progress and much still left to do.

AND WE WILL DO IT. Count on it. Join us.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Can't We All Just Get Along Reform Health Care Already!


Editorialist Timothy Egan gave us this befitting quote in his New York Times editorial last week: “For now, Americans are against “the bill,” whatever they think it is.” It’s not surprising that Americans are confused about the health care reform bill, recently passed by the house and more recently—on Christmas Eve— by an exhausted Senate. Between the name-calling, fact-bending, and outright lying going on, it’s a wonder that anyone is still paying attention.

Though no one has resorted to the“H” word yet (that I know of), there have been allusions to slave ownership Judas’ betrayal of Christ, and everybody’s favorite miserly holiday character. "Not even Ebenezer Scrooge himself could devise a scheme as cruel and greedy as Democrats' government takeover of health care," said house republican John Boehner (OH).

Rep Boehner goes on to say that "Senator Reid's health care bill increases premiums for families and small businesses, raises taxes during a recession, cuts seniors' Medicare benefits, adds to our skyrocketing debt, and puts bureaucrats in charge of decisions that should be made by patients and doctors." Holy cow, that sounds terrible! Except that none of those claims are even remotely true.

Researchers from Temple University conducted an interesting study in 2006 and found that members of Congress tell the truth -- the whole truth -- only about a quarter of the time when debating major legislation on the floor of the House and Senate. It seems like the only way to truly know what the bill contains is to read the thing for yourself. (in your plethora of spare time, of course)

Also concerning is the disconnect between what the American people want and what has actually made it into the bill thus far. As the Pew Research Center notes, only 3% of Americans oppose health care reform over the possibility of abortion funding. (Let’s find some other fun things that a small faction of Americans support: 5% of Americans hold a favorable view of al Qaeda. And let us not forget the 4% who don’t support health care reform, but don’t know why.) On the other hand, 76% of the American public support a public option. Why was an amendment with 76% support (the public option) removed from the bill while one with 3% support (abortion restrictions) remained. Though I’m clear on the fact that this is not a direct democracy, it’s a little disconcerting that what’s happening in Washington seems to be completely disconnected from the desire of the American people.

Tell your Congressional Representatives
to step it up a notch. We hired them to do a job and we expect them to do it well.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Words are powerful



Kudos to Mexico City for turning a beautiful phrase this week as its lawmakers legalized same-sex marriage.

Legal Voice tends to be a bit writerly – we’re wordsmiths and grammar nerds. We’ve spent 12+ hours and counting composing our new vision and mission statement, for crying out loud…

So it’s no surprise that Mexico City’s rewritten definition of marriage warmed our bookish hearts. The precise wording? Marriage is now defined as "the free uniting of two people."

Let’s hope that this isn’t just a verbal victory, but the continuation of a trend that rolls into 2010 and beyond. Legal Voice worked all summer and fall to help pass Referendum 71, which brings domestic partnership rights in Washington State in line with the legal rights accorded to married couples. (You can get all the details in our new brochure on domestic partnership rights.)

Now we’ve got our eye on the big prize: full marriage equality. This week’s news from Mexico definitely bolsters our enthusiasm.

Photo: laverrue

Friday, December 18, 2009

New Dockers' Ad Campaign: Shocking? Offensive? You bet your pants.


My mother often tells me about her experiences as a young woman in college…how the women in her class were actually required to wear skirts to class. It’s hard for me to imagine, as I throw on whichever pair of denim happens to be the near the top of the pile and relatively clean, and head out the door to work. Perhaps it’s partly because of my mother’s stories that I found myself shouting at the above image on my computer screen yesterday morning.

Dockers has unveiled a new ad campaign for its line of khaki pants. The gist? We were all a whole lot better off when men “wore the pants”.

“In today’s world, men have lost a bit of footing, in part because women have come so far,” claims Dockers Marketing V.P. Jennifer Sey. What is with this idea that only one gender can be doing well at any given time?! I have an idea wherein we all prosper together…it’s called “equality.” (ok fine, so I didn’t come up with that one…) Why does it have to be one or the other?

Then there’s this nice little bit from the full-text version of the ad: “But somewhere along the way, the world decided it no longer needed men. Disco by disco, latte by foamy non-fat latte, men were stripped of their khakis and left stranded on the road between boyhood and androgyny.” Yes Dockers advertising team, there’s nothing less manly than a non-fat latte. Clearly. (oh, and way to piss off Starbucks.)

My real problem with the ad is this: While Dockers thinks they’re being all “tongue and cheek” and cutesy, they’re actually perpetuating gender stereotypes that we’ve spent years deconstructing – stereotypes that create dangerous situations for those who don’t seem to fall into the “norm.” And let’s get real here: We all know what “wearing the pants” means in our society. It has to do with power and money, things that have been in the hands of men for centuries. Women have come a long way since the days when a lady in pants was a faux pas. In 1979, the first year anyone kept track of the wage gap between genders (we can only imagine what the numbers were like before then), the ratio of women’s to men’s earnings was 62 percent. The most recent data for 2009 has us making 80% of our male counterpart’s salary. There’s still a lot of work to do on the issue of wage disparity, and a whole host of other gender equality issues. And blaming the decline of our society on our decreasing need for gender stereotyping isn’t going to give us a lick of help.

I can’t speak for potential khaki-consumers everywhere, but the America I live in is working toward equality and acceptance. Let’s hope I am proven correct and this campaign falls flat on its face.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Families: You Can’t Live with ’Em, Can’t Live Without ’Em?


Ah, the holidays. It’s that time of year when family comes into focus – for some, a good thing, for others, perhaps not so much. But for many, the burdens – and benefits – of family are year-round when it comes to family caregiving.

For me, last week was one of those when I said, “Thank goodness for mom.” When my husband and I both found our work travel schedules required us to be out of town simultaneously, it was my mom who got the call to come help with the kids. Her response to our thanks? “It’s just what Korean grandmas do.”

OK, maybe it is what they used to do. But with changes in our society – such as people working longer before retiring, more women in the workforce – let’s face it: our society is facing a caregiving crisis. According to a new report, in the past year, an estimated 65.7 million people in the U.S. served as unpaid family caregivers to an adult or a child.

Predictably, the economic downturn has only made things worse (according to this report), with more caregivers having moved in with their care recipients. And financially, even though 73% of caregivers were employed at some point while they were caregiving (64% in the last 12 months), many report feeling less comfortable taking time off from work to care for their friends or family. Four in ten have experienced a cut in their pay or work hours, and 30% have either had to work more hours or get an additional job.

What’s often missing in the public discourse about the need for “family-friendly” workplaces is that increasingly, we really aren’t just talking about mothers and child care needs. This IS a women's issue - but it isn't JUST a women's issue.

Here are the facts: only 14% of caregivers are caring for their own children. This means that many caregivers are caring for people other than their own children – whether it be a parent (35%), another relative (86%), or even a friend. Kinship caregivers – relatives other than parents who provide care for children – are also a large and growing group. (Some great resources about, and for, kinship caregivers are here and here.)

To be sure, the majority (66%) of caregivers still are female. This means that whatever policies exist – or don’t – to support caregivers have more impact on women. And, more women’s work lives are impacted either in fact, because of conflicts between their work and family caregiving responsibilities, or because of stereotypes about their ability and commitment to perform a job.

What are some of the policies that could help caregivers? Job-protected leave, and, even better, paid time off to care for sick family members. Enforcement of anti-discrimination laws to ensure that caregivers are not treated adversely by employers because of their caregiving responsibilities. Tax credits for caregivers. Voucher programs through which caregivers could receive compensation for at least some of their caregiving time.

So, what am I asking Santa for this year? That ALL family caregivers could enjoy a few more benefits, and fewer of the burdens, of caregiving.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Human Rights Day in Seattle


Yesterday, Legal Voice received the City of Seattle Distinguished Citizen Award for Human Rights. We’re honored. And we’re grateful that the Seattle community continues to strongly support our work.

We must point out that the support of our donors, volunteers, allies and other like-minded folks is the only reason we’re able to do the work that earned us this award. Over the years, with lots and lots of help, we have passed hundreds of bills to enhance and protect women’s legal rights, and provided free legal information to more than 96,000 women and men.

Last night’s chilly weather didn’t deter a roomful of Seattle’s most ardent human rights supporters from gathering at Town Hall to celebrate. We may have been red-cheeked and shivering when we arrived, but were quickly warmed by the welcoming buzz of dozens of smart people who work to make the world better.

There was Sun Lik Zhou, a high school student who entices her teenage peers to talk about diversity and social justice through an ACLU club. Our longtime allies at Pride Foundation received some much-deserved recognition for doling out dollars and support in the LGBTQ community and beyond. Another award went to the women of De Comunidad a Comunidad, who do intensely important organizing work in Washington’s immigrant communities. And Joe Martin, a fierce advocate for low-income folks, raised the roof with his impromptu remarks, which were one part acceptance speech and one part consciousness-raising/call-to-action on behalf of Seattle’s homeless.

The staff of Legal Voice is overjoyed to be included among this impressive collection of do-gooders. Thanks, Seattle.

Photo: Lisa Stone, Executive Director of Legal Voice (center), with representatives from the City of Seattle Office of Human Rights.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Brother, can you spare 100 million dimes?

Five top American International Group executives threatened to quit recently in the latest spat over compensation at the government-owned insurer, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday 12/8/09. The executives are also trying to preserve their ability to collect severance payments if they leave, the Wall Street Journal added, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter.

I almost just left the whole post at that. I mean, what’s to say in response? How about: “You’re kidding, right?” Or, “chutzpah just took on a whole new dimension.” Oh, the options are endless. And yet . . . we do live in a capitalist, market-driven society. Prices for various goods and services are set by supply and demand (or so we tell ourselves when not thinking about agricultural subsidies, various tariff processes, etc.). So, the theory goes, if these executives can command large salaries and the market is willing to allow severance to people who quit in a huff because they’ll have to make fewer millions of dollars this year, then maybe that’s how it should be.

After all, it’s a brutal world out there: A chief executive officer of a Standard & Poor's 500 company was paid, on average, only $10.9 million in total compensation in 2008, so losing some of that could cause a drastic shift in lifestyle. And I have no doubt that they work very hard and are very good at their jobs. (really.)

Then again, amid the outrage that “Main Street” is now unleashing on Wall Street, let’s also consider this: the non-profit sector accounts for 10% of all jobs, 8% of the economy’s wages, and 5% of the Gross National Product. In 2006, the non-profit sector contributed $666.1 billion to the US economy. That’s quite apart from the social good the sector contributes to our country and everyone in it.

And the average salary for a non-profit executive in our community? Just over $90,000.

Now, I am not saying that the director of a non-profit should necessarily be paid the same as the CEO of a multi-national corporation. As the mantra goes, we’re not in it for the money. And $90,00 is a good living, even in this high-cost region.

But this disparity highlights a fundamental problem in our national economy: we (at least in Washington) refuse to pay enough in taxes to fund essential services; we (across the nation) demand that the non-profit sector pick up the slack because we want to slash government spending even further; and yet we look askance at the salaries of non-profit execs and employees. That’s so even for employees of non-profits that really are large companies, like the YWCA or Asian Counseling and Referral Service. These are organizations with hundreds of employees and multiple sites. They just don’t distribute money to shareholders. Instead they ‘produce’ social good and reinvest any money they make into that social good. And for that, we think their employees should be satisfied with satisfaction -- never mind if they can’t pay their mortgage.

Somehow, society assumes that because charity employees are not in it for the money, it’s okay to pay them much less than their counterparts in the private sector. This stems from a couple of sources, I believe. Women are over-represented in non-profit jobs, and the continuing embedded sexism in our society reinforces the willingness to pay charity employees less. Also, because it’s ‘do-gooder’ work that might in the past (or in the near-future, come to that) have been done by a volunteer, it’s acceptable – even preferable – to assume that do-gooders will be content with less money than they would make working for a for-profit company.

And that’s been true in the past. But it’s not sustainable in the long-term. As a society, we will have to decide what we truly value, and at some point we will have to recalibrate our economic scales.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Your New Faux Feminist Friends


Interesting thing I found on the internet yesterday. It’s an article about a study that came out in August regarding the efficacy of prostate cancer screening and the hypothesis that screening too frequently is causing over-treatment. If this is all sounding a little bit familiar, there’s a reason. A few weeks ago the U.S. Preventive Services Taskforce came out with new recommendations regarding breast cancer screening. You would’ve thought that someone had just suggested mass transit in Seattle.

It seems that Republican members of congress didn’t miss a beat, whipping up fury in the feminist community by suggesting that these new recommendations could lead to the rationing of health care under the proposed Democratic health care reform.
You know what else could happen? Space aliens could invade planet earth and take over all medical practices, mandating skin pigment alteration for all Americans. At what point are we going to stop talking about what “might” happen and look at what is actually being proposed?

"To have a task force make the recommendation that has been made, and to have in this bill the authority that's given to various unelected bureaucrats to make health-care decisions, including coverage frequency, in my opinion, is wrong," said Representative Joe Barton (R-Tex).

I ask you this Rep Barton: What’s the difference between an insurance company making decisions regarding what is covered and how often, and an unelected bureaucrat making those decisions? And now I will answer that question: The people on the advisory board have medical credentials and are backed up by scientific data. That’s more than we can say for the typical insurance company executive. And let’s not forget the bottom line in this whole debate; insurance companies are making their decisions based on profits.

There are many things at play here, not the least of which is the fact that the new recommendations actually make scientific sense. Should we think twice about the fact that our society is more likely to call out over-treatment of women than of men? Perhaps there’s something to that. But let’s be clear: These members of congress who want you to think that the potential rationing of women’s health care is their top concern are full of #*$@. They’re exactly the same jerks who want to cut reproductive health care out of the reform bill. They’re simply swinging at anything that might bring health care reform crashing to the ground. Don’t let them get away with it.

If you live in Washington State, come out and join your fellow citizens for a state-wide rally for Health Care Reform. And call, call, call those representatives in Congress!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Here A Ration, There A Ration

A temporary free clinic in Houston, TX.


There’s a giant fear running around out there that a government-run health care system is going to create the rationing of health care. Americans needn’t be afraid because, guess what? Rationing already exists in our current healthcare system.

What is a life worth? And are some worth more than others?

The National Association of Free Clinics recently set up a temporary clinic in New Orleans to offer health care for those without insurance. Ninety percent of the patients who came through the clinic had two or more diagnoses. Eighty-two percent had a life-threatening condition such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or hypertension. Some hadn’t seen a doctor in a decade. One woman went home without a referral, choosing not to treat the stage-four breast cancer that had gone undetected because of her lack of insurance. This picture of people in need of serious care is just one example of the rationing that’s happening all over the country.

A study was just released by Harvard University showing that uninsured Americans are more likely to die in the Emergency Room than those who are insured. Experts in the field say that patients without insurance are often transferred to “financially strapped” hospitals with less equipment and less staffing. Hmm…some people getting to stay at the hospital that has more life-saving equipment and staff, and others being sent away. Sounds an awful lot like rationing to me.

Add up an employer-based health insurance system and more than 2 million jobs lost already in 2009, and you get a whole lot of people without access to health care. Tell those people you’re worried about health care rationing and they will laugh in your face (or possibly hit you).

It’s clear that rationing has to happen in some regard – Peter Singer points out in his New York Times article “Why We Must Ration Health Care” that if you believe there is any limit whatsoever on the price that should be paid to keep a person alive for any amount of time, then you believe in rationed health care (including, as he points out, 1 million dollars to extend a person’s life by 6 months). The truth of the matter is that for all of us to be able to visit the doctor when our bones break or when illness strikes, something has to give. It seems that we’re very willing to talk about a few cancer patients who are being denied expensive life-extending medication, but are unwilling to broach the subject of the 45,000 Americans who die every year because of their lack of health insurance.

Perhaps what people mean when they say “I don’t want the government to ration health care” is “I don’t want the government to ration my health care.” Isn’t it about time we thought about the greater good on this one? Or is that just an antiquated socialistic notion.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Don't worry, little lady -- we'll take care of you later. Honest.


I just can’t let go of this “abortion coverage in health care reform” issue. The more I learn, the more commentaries I read, the more enraged I get. Let me count the ways:

Quite apart from the abortion question, the reform bill passed by the House omits basic preventive care for women. Not one of the bills emerging from the House and Senate requires insurers to cover all the elements of a standard gynecological "well visit." This means the basic health care that most women need – and use, thereby helping us avoid more serious illness and disease – such as pelvic exams, domestic violence screening, counseling about sexually transmitted diseases, and, oh yes, birth control, will be off the list of basic benefits all insurers must cover. Mind you, laboratory testing of our PAP smears will probably be covered, but not the visit to the doctor who performs the test. How’s that again? Yep: be sure to send the sample to the lab, but I guess you’ll have to learn to take the sample yourself.

But back to the abortion question. Will someone please explain to me why religious organizations and ideologues get to decide what care will be covered by my insurance plan? I know, there will always be some things not covered. But how did my uterus become a bargaining chip? And why are women being castigated for ‘insisting on the perfect plan when reform is necessary’ just because we want to be able to make choices about our bodies, and have the most basic care? I know, we’re only 51% of the population, so maybe we’re just another silly special interest group, but . . . no, we’re 51% of the population, and we’re neither silly nor a special interest group. What’s more, we are really tired of being asked to ‘take one for the team’, as Katha Pollitt has said.

And let's be clear: The Stupidak (sic) ban would prohibit millions of women from using their own money to buy private health insurance that provides comprehensive health care benefits.

Not only that, but why is it that my taxes must pay for things I abhor (war, tax exemptions for religious organizations that engage in electoral politics but deny they do, obscene agribusiness subsidies) yet other people’s abhorrences are codified into federal law? There’s something fundamentally wrong there. (Pun intended.)

I know it’s an old cliché (are there such things as new clichés?) but really: just tell me, Bill Clinton and Al Franken and E.J. Dionne and all the rest of you Y chromosome people yammering about how we just have to hold our noses and accept this bill – how about if instead we preclude coverage for prostate cancer screening and treatment, vasectomies, and erectile dysfunction? You can buy a rider for those. If you can find one. And you can afford it.

Don't stand for this. Please tell your senator to STRIP THE STUPAK BAN from the Senate version of the health care bill.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Got a soapbox? Use it wisely.

Look at this horrible, horrible advice.

A woman is raped by her boss on a business trip, decides to have the baby, her husband leaves her. Years later she wants to reconnect with her ex, and writes to Lesley Garner (an advice columnist for the UK’s Daily Telegraph) for guidance.

Garner’s reply: You weren’t raped, you should’ve had an abortion, and your husband’s awful reaction is completely understandable.

Seriously?

Writers with access to large audiences have a responsibility to talk about women’s issues in a way that makes sense and doesn’t reinforce hundreds of years worth of oppression and stereotypes.

An advice columnist is uniquely positioned to A. set a graceful example for handling tough situations by showing a true grasp of what someone is going through, and B. make an important introduction that feminists have advocated for decades – “Hello, Personal, I’d like you to meet Political – I think you’ll find you have a lot in common!” There’s an opportunity in this column to bring awareness to all kinds of political issues (workplace harassment and assault, a woman’s right to choose, single motherhood...), but what does Lesley Garner do? Blame, scold and shame the victim.

Ignoring the bad apple for a moment, I’d like to point out some people using their soapboxes for good, not evil: The Sexist , who tipped me off to Garner’s faux pas. Also, Bitch Magazine (especially in a recent article pondering what the world would be like if we reacted to rape the way we are to H1N1.)

If you’d like to advise Lesley Garner on better ways to use her column, you can contact the Daily Telegraph here and comment on the original article here.

Here’s an opportunity that hasn’t yet been missed: The Seattle Times recently covered a story about a man who disappeared suddenly last year. (He was found sometime later living in another state under another name.) The article points out the extraordinary attention the case garnered – anonymous tipsters called in with their theories, guesses, and offers to assist.

How often do you see a “woman goes missing” story get that kind of response? I think it’s a point that deserves to be raised in a public forum by a reader. Original article here if you’d like to comment.

Photo credit: visual.dichotomy

Thursday, November 12, 2009

More Hand-Washing Won’t Protect Family Economic Security


How many of you know someone who has been sick in the past month?

If we were standing in a room together, chances are, every single person would have his or her hand up. This week alone, in my son’s classroom of 29 kids, 14 were out sick – as well as the teacher. Nationally, at least 600 schools have had temporarily closures – including 351 schools last week alone, affecting 126,000 students in 19 states.

The sensible advice, of course, is to keep your sick child home – or to stay home if you yourself are sick. But what if your family cannot afford for you to do so?

Consider these facts:
  • Only 61% of private sector employees have access to sick pay for their own illness or injury, and nearly half (47%) of working women in the private sector (approximately 21 million) are not able to take a paid sick day when they are ill.

  • The lower a worker’s wage, the less likely she or he is to have access to paid sick leave. (See chart here.) More than half (59%) of minimum wage workers are women.

  • Industries with some of the most public contact – retail trade, accommodations and food service (which are also the industries that employ the most women) – are also the least likely to offer paid sick days. More than half (55%) of retail workers and (78%) of accommodations and food service workers lack paid sick days.

  • Even when workers have access to sick leave, they may not be able to use it to care for their family member’s illness. (In Washington State, the Family Care Act does allow workers with available paid sick leave or other paid time off to use that leave to care for sick children, and, in certain limited circumstances, also for other ill family members.)

It’s a Catch-22 for working families: either (1) go to work sick (and send your kids to school sick) and spread illness, or (2) don’t go to work and lose pay – or worse, your job.

Legislation such as the Healthy Families Act, which would provide seven sick days a year to workers in companies with 15 or more employees, would help eliminate this economic insecurity. The Obama Administration recently announced its support for this federal bill.

No longer having to worry that your food service worker is spreading H1N1, because she couldn’t afford to stay home? Helping sick kids get better, without their parents having to risk their jobs? This kind of policy sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

If you have faced a conflict between your work and family responsibilities because of H1N1 or other illness, please tell us your story.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Score:
Religious Bigots and Indifferent Congress -- 1.
Women's Needs and Rights -- 0.


Remember that scene in the first Harry Potter book and movie, where Ron Weasley directs a chess game with Harry and Hermione taking the place of chess pieces so Harry can proceed to the next obstacle in recovering the Sorcerer’s Stone? Well, that’s how I – and hundreds of thousands of women – feel in the health care debate right now. Except my side isn’t winning the game.

Nope – we’re just pawns, our health care needs and rights at the mercy of a) the Catholic Conference of Bishops; b) members of Congress, who have the best health care coverage in the country and a seeming indifference to the life realities of the rest of us; c) so-called “blue dog” Democrats, who couldn’t care less about the well-being of the people as long as their importance is honored; d) the wimpy Republicans who have forgotten what it means to keep government out of people’s lives – or that it was ever a central tenet of their party; e) President Obama, who needs to stand up for the rights of all women – including his daughters.

I want health care reform just as deeply and passionately as you do. But I also want, and I deserve, to be treated equally and fairly. The bill passed by the House of Representatives yesterday not only freezes into law the horrific Hyde Amendment prohibiting government from providing funds for abortion, it goes further, limiting coverage even for women paying for their abortion without government subsidies. That’s right, folks: according to The Washington Post, if this bill becomes law, thousands of women won’t be able to use their own money to get health care they are constitutionally entitled to obtain.

The Catholic Conference (which to its credit has long pushed for universal health care) won the day in the House yesterday. “We think that providing health care is itself a pro-life thing, and we think that, by and large, providing better health coverage to women could reduce abortions,” said Richard M. Doerflinger, a spokesman for the anti-abortion division of the Catholic Conference. (Just curious: why do they label it the ‘anti-abortion division of the Conference’? Isn’t that redundant?)

“But we don’t make these decisions statistically, and to get to that good we cannot do something seriously evil.”

Right back atcha, Mr. Doerflinger: what you have done is impose your religious views on me, my nieces, cousins and hundreds of thousands of women. And in our constitutional system, which is supposed to guarantee freedom of and freedom from religion, that’s another kind of evil.


P.S. Don’t be thinking it’s just health care. Good news from last week: the Senate lifted most of the long-standing restrictions on use of non-federal funds for legal services activities. Bad news: it specifically left in place restrictions on assisting clients with legal issues related to abortion.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Polarizing Effect of Politics



I’ve lived on or near Capitol Hill for some time now. I often refer to it as “the hill,” though I’m clear on the fact that there are 7 different hills here in Seattle. It’s just the only one that matters...to me.

Sometimes it’s tempting to wrap ourselves in our own little world, surrounded by those who think just like we do. Remember 2004 when you didn’t know a single person who voted for George Bush and wondered how on earth the man got elected?! (King County went nearly 65% for Kerry) Immediately following the election we began to see vivid maps of blue coasts and the red heartland, accompanied by half-hearted threats of secession from blue-staters. I remember feeling so far removed from the thought process of someone who believed that four more years of what we’d experienced was a good idea.

Looking at the results—by county—of Washington’s Referendum 71 battle, gives me this same feeling of dismay (and makes me realize why my partner and I spend the majority of our time in the northwest corner of the state). East of the mountains, it seems there was very little support for domestic partnership rights, with some counties rejecting R-71 at rates of 60 and 70 percent. As the Seattle Times points out in an article posted today, “Part of the challenge facing gay-equality supporters, both here and across the country, is that not many gay families and individuals live in rural areas and smaller towns, many preferring urban centers where they feel more comfortable and have more legal protections.” But there’s another way to look at these statistics: If 60% of people voted down domestic partnership rights in Spokane County, that leaves 40% who voted for them. And we mustn’t forget that there are still 35% of people in King County who disagree with equal rights for gays and lesbians. (Ruby, of the “Are We Married?” blog talks about this notion in her recent post “What I Learned At Wendy’s: An Accidental Meeting with Small-Town Gay America")

"There's two sets of values in Washington.” Says Larry Stickney of Protect Marriage Washington. “There's values in Seattle, and there's the rest of us." I think it’s easy to buy into the color-coding of values. But are we really that different? Do we actually live inside of these red/blue dichotomies? Or is our reality closer to a shade of purple.

In any case, it’s vital that we talk to everyone, everywhere about the importance of equal rights. Whether you’re in the presumably safe haven of a Capitol Hill coffee shop or in the middle of nowhere .

Friday, October 30, 2009

Forget Hallowe’en … What’s REALLY Scary

Hallowe’en approaches, and with it, the usual excitement for kids (sugar! lots of it!) and trepidation for parents (sugar! lots of it!). And, of course, there’s the perennial challenge of what costume to wear.

Hallowe’en is one of the few sanctioned times that as a society, we allow ourselves to publicly transcend the constraints of reality – to imagine ourselves as something other. Yet, even then, how often do you see kids crossing stereotypical gender lines? And why does it matter?

I admit, these observations stem in part from my sadness that my little boys no longer will agree to dress as cute animals; they want to be Darth Vader, skeleton-biker-dude-with-a-sword, and other scary things. Meanwhile (though there are, of course, exceptions), their female classmates are gravitating toward the princess, fairy, and other “feminine” fantasy characters.

As children get older, they often feel a bit freer to experiment with gender transgression. For example, my white male neighbor, a Catholic middle-schooler, is dressing as a cheerleader. But note: he’s doing so because he thinks it is funny. A boy? In a cheerleader’s miniskirt? Oh ho!

But back to the question: Why does this matter? There are oodles of studies, articles, and theses about gender stereotyping, gender politics, queer politics, etc. But the rubber hits the road when people’s discomfort turns to bullying, harassment, and violence.

Under existing laws, courts are often reluctant to find that harassment based on sexual orientation is prohibited discrimination, unless sexual orientation and gender identity are explicitly listed as protected classes (which, FYI, they are in Washington’s law against discrimination). Yet there is no question that the root of many acts of discrimination and harassment against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals is gender stereotyping. The kind that begins with seemingly innocent Hallowe’en costumes and eventually turns into hardened expectations about how males and females (yes, just two choices) should act.

Nearly 9 out of 10 (86.2%) LGBT students experience harassment at school and 60.8% feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, according to GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s 2007 Survey of 6,209 LGBT students in middle and high school. LGBT youth are four times as likely as their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide, and 28 percent of LGBT youth drop out of school because of harassment resulting from their sexual orientation. (See here.)

Moreover, between 1998 and 2007, the FBI reported “nearly one hate crime for every hour of every day over the span of a decade," according to Attorney General Eric Holder. A little more than a decade ago, in 1998, two horrific events brought popular attention to the issue of hate crimes. On June 7, 1998, three white men chained an African American to a pickup truck and dragged him to his death. On Oct. 7, 1998, two men in Wyoming beat up a gay teenager and tied him to a fence, leaving him to die.

In honor of these two men, earlier this week, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which makes it a federal crime to assault an individual because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, race, or religion. While seemingly simple in concept, it took over 10 years of focused effort after the deaths of Shepard and Byrd (and many more years of work before that) for this to become the law of the land.

So it’s no wonder parents are worried about what to do if their little boy wants to wear a tutu, out of fear that he will be bullied. And why it is helpful for there to be more support for kids who are questioning their own sexual orientation and coming out as early as middle school.

According to GLSEN, “It is difficult to understate the powerful impact of allies who intervene when they witness anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment. Allies play a crucial role in addressing and raising awareness about the pervasive problem of anti-LGBT bullying.”

So listen up, parents, neighbors, and others – as you look at the parade of Hallowe’en costumes this year, it’s OK to laugh or be amused by the cute gender-conforming costumes, as well as the gender-transgressing ones. But when Hallowe’en is over, and the official “costumes” are put away, let’s work to create a respectful and safe environment for kids who aren’t “dressing up” or defying gender expectations just for fun.

World domination and Halloween candy

Yesterday, Legal Voice made a plan to take over the world.

Well, not exactly. But we did take some time to think about the big picture that guides our daily work - in other words, we took part in some strategic planning exercises!

I know, thrill-o-rama. Even we cringed as we heard oursleves say corporate-ese things like "cultivate a culture of excellence." Once you're done yawning, though, take a look at the Wordle illustration I created from the draft of our new vision statement:


Puts some nice pictures in your head, doesn't it? Yesterday ended up being a great day to feel optimistic and idealistic about everything that Legal Voice does, thanks to the expert guidance of our consultant, Heather Andersen. A little motivation in the form of Halloween candy didn't hurt, either.

What does your ideal version of the world look like? Ours has a whole lot of happy feminists running around shouting "Woo hoo! Social and economic justice everywhere! It's a dream come true!"

Friday, October 23, 2009

What Are Those "Self-Evident Rights," Again?


Vacations are great. And then there’s what you learn – or are reminded of. Having returned from a trip to Ireland, where a hotly-contested election occurred during my visit, only to leap back into the various races and initiatives in Washington State, I was brought face-to-face with a sad yet indisputable reality: people in the United States are woefully ignorant about politics, civics, and even our own Constitution, compared with citizens elsewhere.

First, let me say Ireland is a fabulous place to visit, and the people are tremendously friendly. They are also wonderfully well-informed not only about their own country and its governance and politics, but also about the rest of the world. I had conversations with clerks, B&B owners, salespeople, restaurant workers – folks from a wide range of jobs and professions – about the pending vote on the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty. And they not only had an opinion about it, they had in-depth knowledge of its provisions and implications. “I was in favor of it until I read Article #XX,” a cabbie said. “Its effect on diary and sheep farming in the country will be dreadful, and here’s why: [details and data omitted], an unemployed salesperson told me.” “The opposition government in Germany have pointed out why the treaty will have a good/bad economic result, and I agree,” others said.

And here in the U.S.? Quick: name an ‘opposition party’ (or any party) in either Mexico or Canada. Identify the provisions of any treaty the U.S. Senate should be (but probably isn’t) voting on. For that matter, name the three branches of government in the U.S.

Hope you can, and congratulations if so: you’re in a select minority. That’s right, surveys in 2006-07 revealed that fewer than 30% of Americans can pass a short, basic civics quiz.

Why am I not surprised? You wouldn’t be, either, if you had been present when I testified before the Washington Legislature several years ago about a bill that would have declared that any bill the Legislature passed was constitutional, simply because they passed it. Ummm . . . there’s this thing called ‘separation of powers’, but that didn’t seem to occur to the bill’s sponsor. Or to the House Committee that passed the bill. (It died after that.) That’s why I am so pleased to see that the new President of the Washington State Bar Association (and Legal Voice cooperating attorney) Sal Mungia plans a mentoring program to ensure that by the time children leave the 3rd grade, they can read, write and perform arithmetic and have an age-appropriate knowledge of civics. Teaching about our government, constitution and civics in high school and college is just too late, so thanks, Sal!

Even if we do increase civics education, though, we still somehow have to deal with the polarized, sound-bite, non-thinking, hate-filled rhetoric that this country seems to wallow in. Not that it’s a new phenomenon, or that there isn’t zealous speech in Ireland and elsewhere. But in this country we’ve replaced thoughtful analysis and civil debate with frenzied screaming. And, of course, that is nowhere more evident than in the debate around Referendum 71 here in Washington, which must be APPROVED by the voters so we can retain the full domestic partner law that passed last session.

I wish I had a solution to the shallow shrieking, because “can’t we all just get along?” doesn’t cut it, but alas, inspiration has not struck. How about you: any suggestions?

P.S. In case you’re wondering, yes, I passed the civics quiz, though I did not achieve a perfect score. Oops: that last economics course was a looooong time ago.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Help! Gays Are Taking Over The World!
Or...
Why Seeking Equality Is Not A Crime Against Humanity.


There are so many offensive falsehoods in Washington State Senator Val Steven’s recently published plea for donations to the Reject R-71 campaign, I don’t know where to begin. The term “depraved lifestyle” certainly stands out right off the bat, but as I read down the page I realize that this immediate assault is merely a case of ignorant name-calling… and you know what they say about sticks and stones. What’s truly troubling in this “important message” to the homophobic base is the insinuation that wanting “full-scale acceptance” or "normalizing homosexuality” are somehow perverse goals which will lead our society down a path of destruction. (If I hear one more person allude to the decline of Scandinavian society due to their acceptance of homosexuality, I’m going to barf up my lutefisk.

Though there seems to be a lot of pointing to nameless studies and un-cited claims coming from the anti-gay contingent, I have yet to see one shred of proof that gay families are ruining societies anywhere. In trying to illustrate the devastating impact of legalizing gay marriage Stevens’ writes this:

“The sociological effects of fatherless homes are clear from every study...”

What’s clear to me is that a “fatherless” home is not the same thing as a family with two parents of the same gender (nor a "motherless" one for that matter). Pediatrician Dan Summers recently spoke about this in his testimony to the Maine legislature in support of marriage equality.

“It is scientifically untenable to use studies about the effects on children of divorce or being raised in a one-parent household to draw conclusions about children raised in two-parent households where the parents are of the same gender.”

I am not aware of a single study which supports the theory that children are harmed as a result of being raised by gay or lesbian parents, and apparently neither is the Iowa Supreme Court. The court threw out evidence that made this claim because it lacked scientific merit.

Speaking of lacking merit, one of the most ridiculous points the Senator attempts to make (I’ve been in a constant struggle with myself over which claim truly takes the absurdity prize) is that speaking against homosexuality will soon be against the law. I would like to remind Senator Stevens that we have this little thing in the United States called the First Amendment, which allows her to spew as much uninformed, ludicrous, hate speech as she can conjure up. But that doesn’t mean that we have to take it sitting down.

Stevens is right. We are in a battle: Equality is under attack, and as patriots of this great nation it is our duty to defend it. So get out there and vote, and make your neighbors, friends, family, coworkers, baristas, and fellow transit riders do it too. Approve Referendum 71, and bring us one step closer to a state where equality is a reality.

p.s. Does Val Stevens represent your district? Email her and let her know that you don’t appreciate her hateful, false rhetoric, and that you would like her to stand with you in support of equal rights for ALL Washington citizens.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Beauty and Health: A step in the right direction for our young women.



Artwork by Stephen Shanabrook




A recent survey found that 60% of female Caucasian middle-schoolers read at least one fashion magazine regularly. In another study, women’s magazines were found to have over 10 times more advertisements and articles promoting weight loss than men’s magazines did. That’s why I’m glad to hear about a couple of companies who are focusing on providing a true picture of how women look.

In 2004 Dove launched a campaign called the Campaign for Real Beauty . Since then they’ve developed advertisements that point out the amount of photoshopping that takes place in the ad industry and have pledged to use only “real” women (ie: not professional models) in their adds to ”provoke discussion and debate about today’s typecast beauty images.” They’ve also begun a fund to enhance the self-image of adolescent girls, and to support research into the causes of negative self-esteem.

Very recently Brigitte, one of Germany’s most widely distributed magazines decided to ban professional models from its issues, in order to combat body image issues it believes that “rail-thin” models are contributing to. Instead, they will feature women who “have an identity,” including women involved in music and sports, and who are furthering their education. A spokesperson was quoted as saying that “the magazine views the move as an investment.” Investment indeed!

Hooray for Dove and Brigitte! It’s about time we start to focus on the self-esteem issues created by the unreal depiction of women in the media.

Friday, October 2, 2009

What on earth is a Bumpaholic?

An article on the UK website Daily Mail makes a jaw-droppingly outrageous claim: that women become pregnant multiple times because they are addicted to the "euphoria of pregnancy."

There are almost too many obnoxious elements of the piece to try to name the highlights. Which is worst? The writer's assumption that her observation ("I see lots of pregnant women!") = a real trend, despite having a single, unexamined statistic about birth rates as her only research? Or is it the way that women are represented exclusively by celebrity actresses and models? Or maybe it's the weird insistence on diminishing and cute-ifying childbearing by referring to women's pregnant bellies as "bumps."

Regardless, I think this piece illustrates a trend I've noticed in celebrity reporting lately - not that I've conducted a thorough literature review. I marked up a copy of the article to show you what I mean... Click the small image below for a larger version.



Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On Real Choices and Happiness

The blogs are a-buzz about a study that shows that women are less happy than they were 40 years ago, compared with men, and that as women get older, they get sadder. There’s always a certain danger to generalizing on such matters, as it often leads to harmful stereotyping. These alarmist headlines – Women Are More and More Unhappy! – smack of age-old attempts to tie women to mental illness, depression, hysteria, and the like (a connection demonstrated by the very term “hysteria” – derived from the word “uterus”).

Moreover, at a surface level, these findings seem a paradox, as one paper’s title suggests (“The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”). Don’t women have more options today than 40 years ago? Don’t we get wiser as we get older?

The author who stirred up this recent firestorm dismisses each of the following as possible causes for women’s declining happiness: (1) longer working hours, (2) gender stereotyping, and (3) the “second shift” (the unpaid domestic work) – because, in short, all of these have improved for women over the years. While somewhat coy about his actual theory (no doubt so that you will buy his book), he does point to the inherent stressfulness of having choices as part of the cause, along with the premium our culture places on youth and looks.

I’m intrigued by this suggestion that choice – specifically more choices – breeds unhappiness. Also intriguing is the data that “[a]cross the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children.” (Not really surprisingly, the author does also note that there are very few people who would tell her they wish they hadn’t had kids.) Of course, the word "choice" is particularly fraught with meaning in the context of discussing family planning.

Regardless of how stressful it can be to make choices, the availability of meaningful choices surely must make a difference. The source study includes a representative sample of men and women of all ages, education levels, income levels, and marital status. But even these characteristics (education, income, marital status) are the effects of choices – choices that are not necessarily freely made or equally available to all.

What would this study show if all women were empowered to make, and supported in making, informed choices? If, instead of trying simply to curb teen pregnancy, we gave young women the knowledge, access and power to plan their families in the ways that work best for them (as the Latina Institute for Reproductive Health suggests)? If we didn’t have the power dynamics that result in domestic violence? If we had schools and workplaces that were free of discrimination and harassment? If senior women could age gracefully in financial security?

Then all women might truly be able to exercise that most cherished democratic right: the pursuit of happiness.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

“We are all the same human beings”


Whether it’s the debate over health care reform, gay rights legislation, or the age old battle over abortion, the need for compassion toward one another is something that’s been weighing on my heart as of late. That’s why, when I heard the following comments from the Dalai Lama’s International Freedom Award acceptance speech, I smiled from ear to ear.

“Whether you believe this religion or that religion, we are all the same human beings,” said the Dalai Lama. “We all come from the same mother. That creates the basis for compassion.”

You may disagree vehemently with someone’s views. But the name-calling, accusations, and violence that seem to have reached a deafening decibel on so many issues do nobody any good. Thank you Dalai Lama for reminding us what being on this earth is really about.

Oh, and he called himself a feminist! “Isn’t that what you call someone who fights for women’s rights?” he said to a cheering crowd.

Favorite person of the week.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Women in the “Mancession” – The Gender Poverty Gap



One of the media’s latest catchy terms – “mancession” (see here and here) – describes the “unusual” fact that in this recession, a disproportionate number of recent job losses have been experienced by men. Of course, this by no means is any cause for celebration for women. (Except to the extent that some men may be more available to attend to that “honey-do” list – and on a more serious note, that gender stereotypes relating to domestic work may make some permanent shifts.)

In reality, even if fewer women have lost jobs in the past year than men, the latest Census Bureau figures also show that women are still 35% more likely to be poor than men, with a 2008 poverty rate of 13% compared to 9.6% for men. There’s no doubt we still have reason to be worried – and to focus on – economic justice for women. Consider these facts:

· Women’s earnings are increasingly important for families. Of families with children, 20% (1 in 5) are headed by working single mothers, and nearly half (46.6%) of families with children are supported by two working parents (as opposed to dual parent families with male breadwinners, or single fathers). (Figures are from this report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.)

· The unemployment rate for single mothers is higher than for either married men or women - 12.2% in August 2009 (compared to an overall 9.6% national unemployment rate).

· Women still make just 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. There is much research on why this is, but the wage gap is at least partly attributable to the fact that women’s jobs are concentrated in lower-paid industries, including retail, education, health care, and nonprofits.

· Women’s jobs also tend not to be family-sustaining jobs – not only because they tend to be lower paid, but also because they lack benefits such as health care, sick days, and retirement benefits.

· The poverty rate would be even higher if it reflected the reality for many working families and women and accounted for expenditures on child care, which make income unavailable for other basic needs. In 2002, child care cost an average of $412 per month.

· In many states, women are still ineligible for unemployment benefits if the reason that they leave work is because of a personal reason, rather than a work-related reason – for example, if their child care falls through or if a family member becomes ill and needs their care.

In these times of economic uncertainty, many feel thankful simply to have a job. But it’s even more important in these times to ensure that women workers aren’t disadvantaged – in seeking jobs, while on the job, or if they leave a job.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Big thanks!

Legal Voice staffers are self-reliant. We like to think we can do everything on our own. But even we will admit that when volunteers help us out, it’s like putting gas in a Prius: a little goes a long way.

Which means getting a lot of help is like stepping onto a rocketship. And right now we’re on the moon.

Thank you, thank you, thank you a million times to the generous, quick, fun, smart volunteers from Nordstrom who came to our office last Friday. For their United Way Day of Caring project, they assembled our fall fundraising mailing. They put together 2,500 letters – each with a handwritten note – in just under 5 hours.






We’re grateful to have gotten our great group through United Way of King County – check with your local United Way for details on how to get involved. If you’re in the Seattle area, you are always welcome to volunteer at Legal Voice.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Thorn On the Road To Health Care Reform

Kevin Dietsch / UPI / Landov

In the wake of President Obama’s address to Congress on the need for change in our health care system, analysis of his speech has dominated the web. Google “Obama health care speech” and you will find 47,600,000 results. It seems that everyone has a view on some aspect of the proposed legislation to extend health care to all Americans.

One of the more contentious pieces of the health care reform puzzle is the issue of abortion. Though not explicitly mentioned in any proposed legislation, those on both sides of the abortion debate have been attempting to uncover just what will happen if the bill passes. Will abortion be funded in a public option plan? Will it be covered by insurance companies who are receiving federal funds? Will women whose insurance companies currently cover abortion – about 86% according to a study by the Guttmacher Institute - suddenly find themselves without coverage that they had before (therefore breaking Obama’s promise that those who are happy with their insurance coverage will get to keep it)?

This is what Obama had to say about the issue on Wednesday night: "One more misunderstanding I want to clear up -- under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place." Abortion foes called Obama’s words a “political hoax,” and held that his assertion that abortion would be paid for out of patient premiums and not government funding “a distinction without a difference.” At the same time, the pro-choice community takes the wording of the house bill to mean a continuation of the Hyde Amendment, which forbids that Medicaid pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the mother’s life. With politicians trying to tip toe around this thorny issue, it seems to be nearly impossible to pin down exactly how a government-run health care plan would treat abortion.

Apparently the swirling tides of confusion around this debate have gotten to some folks: Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) recently baffled the pro-choice community by co-opting their language in an effort to voice her opposition to a government-run health care system. "That's why people need to continue to go to the town halls, continue to melt the phone lines of their liberal members of Congress," said Bachmann, "and let them know, under no certain circumstances will I give the government control over my body and my health care decisions."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Pumping at work - a punishable offense?



Can an employer lawfully fire a worker for taking breaks to pump breastmilk? The Ohio Supreme Court recently provoked boycotts of the company totes / Isotoner (the maker of gloves, umbrellas, etc.) when it answered “yes.” How exactly did the court reach this decision, and what does it mean for working women?

In a remarkably terse opinion, the majority noted that the employee, LaNisa Allen, admitted that she had taken unauthorized breaks to express milk, and that her supervisor told her she was fired for failing to “follow directions.” The directions being, she could pump once, on her lunch break. In the bathroom, by the way – even though many, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommend against that (“Breastfeeding employees should never be expected to express milk in a restroom! Restrooms are unsanitary….).

Finding no evidence that the employer’s reason – Ms. Allen failed to follow directions – was a pretext (legalese for made-up excuse) for discrimination, the court expressly sidestepped the big issue, stating it was not addressing whether discrimination due to lactation is covered by Ohio’s anti-discrimination law.

The result was that the trial court’s decision dismissing Ms. Allen’s claims was upheld. And this was the “reasoning” of the trial court: “Allen’s condition of lactating was not a condition relating to pregnancy but rather a condition related to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding discrimination does not constitute gender discrimination.”

Everyone, altogether now: “Huh?”

It’s always fun to watch as judges duke it out in their written opinions. In this case, in addition to that very short, unconvincing majority opinion, there were no less than four additional opinions, for a total of five (and this court has only seven justices).

The other judges all disagreed with the majority - and each other - on various points, but in a nutshell, here is some of the alternative analysis they suggested: (1) The statute prohibits discrimination based on sex. (2) The statute (both Ohio and its federal counterpart, Title VII) defines “because of sex” to include claims based on pregnancy, or pregnancy- or childbirth-related conditions. (3) Lactation (milk production) is a bodily function triggered by hormones released after childbirth.

Further, (4) a work rule or policy that places restrictions on employees based on their sex, or pregnancy, or pregnancy- or childbirth-related condition, is discriminatory. And finally (and at this point, we’re down to just the one dissenting judge), (5) if other employees were allowed to take unscheduled restroom breaks without seeking a supervisor’s permission, then firing Ms. Allen for taking unscheduled restroom breaks to pump milk was unlawful discrimination. Unfortunately for Ms. Allen, the majority did not sign on to that complete line of reasoning. Bottom line: the court's majority decided the company did not break the law by firing Ms. Allen.

The good news – and there is some – is that, as mentioned above, the majority did not actually rule on whether lactation is covered by the anti-discrimination statute; it found that in this case, there wasn't enough evidence for the claim to proceed to trial. Also, this ruling is limited to Ohio; there are still many other state courts, and federal courts, that haven’t addressed this issue.

On the other hand, this case spotlights the fact that many workplaces lack adequate support for breastfeeding workers – despite the proven benefits to both newborn and maternal health. Further, low-income women are more likely to lack both breaks to express milk and appropriate facilities to do so (as noted in this report on improving employment security for pregnant women and new mothers).

Unlike the Ohio Supreme Court’s reasoning, this much is very clear: We need better workplace protections so that women who face family responsibilities are not disadvantaged at work. In case you were wondering how far exactly the U.S. lags in workplace protections for working women, check out this list of other countries – including Burundi, Cambodia, and Zimbabwe – in which women workers have protected breaks for breastfeeding.

There has indeed been some progress in the U.S. on this issue - breastfeeding women in most states cannot be prosecuted for public indecency, and some states explicitly prohibit discrimination based on breastfeeding in public accommodations (such as swimming pools, stores, or restaurants) (read about new Washington legislation here). But the workplace, of course, is really where the rubber hits the road in terms of women's economic advancement and security.

After all, as no less than Bill Gates has said, responding to a question about how Saudi Arabia could become a top competitive economy, to an audience segregated by sex, “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the top.’”

Hear, hear.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Dancing around sterotypes

Kari Brunson switched careers recently. The way that she’s being portrayed in the media hints at the way men’s jobs vs. women’s jobs are stereotypically perceived.

Brunson, until recently, was a ballerina with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. She made a bit of a splash when she pursued her interest in cooking by taking an unpaid position in the kitchen at a Seattle restaurant, and an even bigger one when she quit her dancing gig to cook full time.
Take a look at how she was photographed at different stages of this process.

March 2008 – still a dancer


(Mike Urban / seattlepi.com)

It’s a cute photo, of course – it’s flattering, as is the accompanying interview. But the gimmick doesn’t do justice to her considerable culinary interest and talent.

It suggests something like, “Isn’t she cute? She’s a ballerina who likes to cook – what a neat hobby! I thought ballerinas didn’t eat anything. She’s so tiny that she fits inside that giant pot! ” The takeaway – this photo is a joke, not intended to make the viewer take Brunson very seriously.

(By the way, being a ballerina? NOT EASY. Anyone who can do this has got to be in incredible physical condition.)

September 2009 – now a chef

(Joshua Trujillo / seattlepi.com)

Another flattering portrait, yes, but the tone of it is totally different. She looks serious and professional here – like a “real” chef.

When Brunson was primarily affiliated with professional ballet – a field very much dominated by women – she was photographed as a darling dilettante, lounging around in her cookware. And now that she’s primarily affiliated with the restaurant business – a field dominated by men – the portrait is suddenly all business.

The gender stereotyping dynamic in stories about Brunson is subtle -- like, say, a hint of cumin in your ratatouille -- but it’s definitely in there.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Loss of a Hero, New Heroes for a Changing World

Petri dish

Seems like everybody’s talking about heroes these days. It’s natural just now, of course, with the passing of Senator Edward Kennedy. But even before that tragic loss, I was noticing that the theme of Legal Voice’s annual auction, “Heroes,” was echoed in various media and community events. (Don't forget to join us!)

I’ve been enjoying thinking about just why I or others view someone as a hero – courage in the face of danger? Standing up for others? The ability to articulate a vision others can only dimly glimpse? All of these, I think, and last week I was lucky enough to spend time with two women whose work and lives fit in the last category.

It’s a truism that the law often (okay, usually) lags behind social and technological advances and challenges. We social justice and social change lawyers do our best to keep up and anticipate emerging issues, but let’s face it: we can’t always stay abreast of all these issues, let alone anticipate them. Here’s a sample of conundrums:

· How do we reconcile the needs of gay and lesbian couples and infertile different sex couples to form their families using assisted reproductive technology with concerns about the health of women who provide eggs or serve as surrogates?
· If we support the rights of women to do what they choose with their bodies (and we do), what should our position be about sex-selected abortion?
· Is there a meaningful distinction – practically, morally, ethically and legally – between the (permitted) sale of human eggs and the (prohibited) sale of kidneys?
· Should we as a society permit, prohibit, or regulate germline modification, which some people believe would lead to “designer babies”?

Questions of this type abound as technology and biotechnology surge forward. And they are extremely difficult to grapple with. That’s why two of my current heroes are Dr. Sujatha Jesudason, the founder and Executive Director of Generations Ahead, and Kathryn Hinsch, founder and Executive Director of Women’s Bioethics Project.

Generations Ahead works with social justice organizations around the country to expand the public debate on genetic technologies. Its work bringing together advocates and thought leaders on social justice, reproductive justice, the rights of persons with disabilities, and LGBTQ people and families for respectful, insightful discussions and analyses of genetic and reproductive technologies shines as an example of social justice in action. Sujatha’s leadership and scholarship have helped diverse communities, organizations and constituencies articulate shared values, important questions, and looming challenges in these and other areas.

Women’s Bioethics Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy think tank dedicated to ensuring that women’s voices, health concerns, and unique life experiences strongly influence ethical issues in health care and biotechnology. Since 2004 the Women’s Bioethics Project has identified, researched and commented on cutting-edge issues around stem cell research, end-of-life concerns, neuroethics, and women’s health. Kathryn has established herself and WBP as key participants in bioethics debates around the country, and ensured that a feminist, pro-choice, pro-science viewpoint is heard.

Kathryn and Sujatha understand (and embrace) the enormity of what they’ve undertaken, and they both approach their work in the spirit of inquiry as well as advocacy. Their leadership and their dedication to helping the rest of us understand the issues and develop sound policies around them make them my heroes of the week.

Well, except for the everlasting hero Teddy Kennedy. I hope – how I hope – that Congress responds to our enormous loss in the same way it did when his brother was assassinated: just as we owe the Civil Rights Act in no small part to the determination to honor JFK, we should have comprehensive health care reform that protects women - indeed, protects all people in our country, to honor Teddy’s legacy.