The XX Factor
What Women Really Think

March 30 2015 2:12 PM

Nashville Prosecutors Reportedly Offered Women Plea Bargains in Exchange For Sterilization

The district attorney in Nashville, Tennessee recently had to take an unusual action: banning prosecutors from offering women plea deals in exchange for sterilization. The Associated Press reports that Nashville prosecutors have used sterilization as a "bargaining chip" four times in the last five years.

The latest case was the tipping point. Jasmine Randers, 36, woke up in the Nashville motel bed she was sharing with her five-day-old baby "only to find the child unresponsive," the AP reports. The infant died overnight, with no cause of death reported. Randers has serious mental-health issues and was under court order to be committed in Minneapolis; she was on the run when her baby died. The prosecutor charged Randers with aggravated child neglect; according to Randers' defense attorney, Assistant District Attorney Brian Holmgren said he would not entertain a plea deal unless Randers agreed to get her tubes tied. Nashville's District Attorney Glenn Funk later told the Tennessean, "I have let my office know that that is not an appropriate condition of a plea," and has officially banned prosecutors from offering plea deals for sterilization. (Randers, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity, is currently committed in a mental hospital in Tennessee.)

The Lexington Herald-Leader reports on three other cases in which defense attorneys say that prosecutors brought up sterilization in exchange for lesser sentences; in all three, the women gave birth to infants who tested positive for drugs. (Two of them said they were already sterilized, and the other woman refused.)

It's tempting to shrug this story off, since no coerced sterilizations actually happened and the DA has now put a kibosh on the practice. But these cases are part of a larger picture of how ugly things are getting in Tennessee, where women's reproductive capacities are becoming increasingly criminalized. Last July, the state passed a law making it a crime to give birth to a baby who is "addicted to or harmed by" the mother's illegal drug use. Before that, creative prosecutors had argued that taking drugs while pregnant amounted to assault. While no one thinks that pregnant women should be using drugs, the gruesome reality here is that the act of giving birth triggers prosecution. The Nashville DA did the right thing, but under the state's new law, women in Tennessee are still in real danger of being imprisoned for giving birth under the wrong circumstances.

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March 30 2015 12:43 PM

Does More Face Time With Mom Help Kids? Nope.

For the past few decades, a backlash has formed to the rise of working women and non-nuclear families. We're all familiar with the shape of this narrative, from the endless stock photos of sad white babies with overworked mothers to conservative hand-wringing about "fatherless" children (even though most actually have fathers they see quite regularly). This guilt-tripping has had a powerful effect on American parents. Both mothers and fathers spend more time with their kids than they did in 1965, with mothers upping the face time from 10.5 to 13.7 hours a week and fathers nearly tripling their time, from 2.4 hours a week to 7.2. 

But does all this face time with the kids actually help them be smarter, kinder, healthier people? Brigid Schulte at the Washington Post reports that the answer is a big fat no. "In fact, it appears the sheer amount of time parents spend with their kids between the ages of 3 and 11 has virtually no relationship to how children turn out," Schulte writes, "and a minimal effect on adolescents, according to the first large-scale longitudinal study of parent time to be published in April in the Journal of Marriage and Family."

If anything, trying too hard to spend more time with your kids can backfire; one study shows that "parent time" around parents who are "stressed, sleep-deprived, guilty and anxious" hurts children. (For adolescents, the new study concludes, spending six hours of "engaged" time with one's mother—say, eating dinner together or playing games—was correlated with less delinquent behavior.)

Contrary to all those stock photos of babies sitting woefully in briefcases, being an ambitious, professional woman is actually good for your kids. "In truth, Milkie’s study and others have found that, more than any quantity or quality time, income and a mother’s educational level are most strongly associated with a child’s future success," Schulte explains. That's because parents with money and education can expose their kids to more educational opportunities and feel less day-to-day stress than families in more economically perilous circumstances. 

None of this is to say that you should neglect your children. But you shouldn't stress out trying to make more time with your kids, especially if doing so makes you feel frazzled—kids can pick up on that stress and it wigs them out. The most important thing is creating a safe, supportive home, so you can stop worrying about hitting some minimum of face time. 

March 30 2015 7:30 AM

She Left a “Rock Star” Job So That He Could Be Close to His Kid

Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of discussion about why women aren’t achieving as much in their careers as their male counterparts, even though women have been enrolling in and graduating from college in greater numbers than men since the 1980s. Explanations for this gender gap range from women aren’t “leaning in” enough, to entrenched sexism in the workplace, to husbands’ careers taking precedence, to a lack of social supports for mothers in American society

But when we discuss the issue in a macro way, we don’t hear the stories of men and women who are making career choices not as statistics in a think piece, but as part of an often complicated balancing act between various interests and responsibilities in their lives. Here is the ninth interview in an occasional series, Best Laid Plans, about how career decisions get made over time and are altered by the unpredictability of life.

Names: Stacie Williams and Delano Massey

Ages: 35 and 36

Stacie’s Occupation: librarian/archivist

Delano’s occupation: journalist

Children: Gabrielle, 7; Sheridan, 8 months

Location: Lexington, Kentucky

Hi, Stacie. What were your career expectations when you first started working?

I figured I would work for a bunch of daily newspapers and work my way up to something big and coastal. In journalism school, that was more or less how we were told to expect our careers to roll out if we worked hard enough. I also thought that I would eventually work somewhere for a long period of time—ten years or more. 

Hi, Delano. What were your career expectations?

When I got out of school, I was extremely ambitious and excited about having a career as a journalist. I started in print. My goal was to work at a publication on par with the New York Times. That’s what every ambitious print journalist aspires to. When I started at a small newspaper, I had the game plan to work my way up to a bigger market.

Did you have kids or a partner then, or did you expect to in the future?

Stacie: I had no kids when I finished undergrad, though I had a boyfriend. I was romantic about the idea of meeting my husband in college like my parents did. At the time, I was ambivalent-to-no about wanting kids because I couldn’t see how they were going to fit in with this workaholic life I was planning. There was no “lean in” at the time, just the expectation that I would work super-hard without complaint.

Delano: I did expect to get married and have kids in the future. My parents have been married for over 50 years, so I aspired to that model. At the time, I was single and ready to tackle the world. I went to Bellville, IL, and worked at the News-Democrat; then I was a cops reporter at the Lexington, KY Herald-Leader, and later I got a job at the Akron, OH Beacon Journal. Then I got married to my first wife, and the industry started to implode. I was the last person to get hired at the Beacon Journal, and the first fired. Luckily, I got hired back in Lexington, and I shifted gears to become an editor. Then I had my first child.

How does your current work situation match up with your earlier expectations?

Stacie: It is so, so different. For starters, I am a librarian/archivist, though I occasionally take on freelance editorial projects. Even my journalism career ended up being significantly different. I never did work for any dailies. I moved back home after college; my first job was as an editorial assistant at an education magazine. I was laid off very early in my career, so the expectations I had about the stability of my career were upended.

Now that I’m an academic librarian who works in special collections, my hours are pretty finite; there are no archives that are open until midnight. I’ve been very fortunate to have a level of autonomy that I never had in a newsroom.

Delano: Now I’m a digital content executive producer for WKYT, the local CBS affiliate. I had a different impression of TV before I worked in it—it never crossed my mind as a possibility. That changed when things fell apart in the newspaper industry. I didn’t know if there was going to be a newspaper industry. The opportunity to be in broadcast reinvigorated my approach to my career.

How does your current life situation match up with your earlier expectations?

Stacie: Again, it’s so different, but pleasantly so. I'm engaged to a man who has a 7-year-old daughter from a previous marriage and we have an 8-month old son together. We both have jobs that we find emotionally fulfilling, and we live in a community that we like. There is time and space to have a social life, to travel, or even take a little time for myself, though it's not as much as it was before children were involved.

Delano: All of it is different. I’m divorced, and that was a little difficult in terms of career advancement. There were probably opportunities that I passed on, to keep family first. I want to be a key part of my daughter’s life, so I’ve made a commitment to stay around here and provide her with stability. I didn’t want to be a weekend father.

In your family, whose career has come first?

Stacie: His, because he’s a journalist. We actually met at a National Association of Black Journalists conference in Philadelphia as I was transitioning into the career I have now. So I came into the relationship already understanding the politics and sacrifices that such a career takes. At the time, he was metro editor at the Herald-Leader, so with that plus his commitment to living near his daughter, it just made sense that I would be the one to move from Boston, where I was living at the time. I can be a librarian on Mars.

Delano: I think it’s gone back and forth. When we met, we did long-distance for about a year and a half. The first week we were together, I told her straight up that I have a child and she comes first. I wanted it to be clear to Stacie that that’s not negotiable. So she came here to Lexington; she sacrificed her job at the medical library at Harvard. She came here with nothing except a couple of prospects.

If I’m being transparent, we’re probably more focused on my career right now, but hers isn’t on hold—she has a really good job and a really important job. But I think that Stacie was a rock star in the library world at Harvard, and in some ways she put that on hold. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t know what’s going to happen down the line. Stacie, my ex, and I are all on the same page in that we put our daughter first. But I would be willing to make a similar sacrifice to the one she made. I took the job I have now looking long-term. Diversifying my skill set puts me in a better position down the line. If she got a great opportunity, it would be my turn. If I needed to piece together a couple of jobs until I could find a good fit, so be it.

What is your housework division of labor?

Stacie: Earlier in the year it was probably like 80/20, because Delano started a new job where he left earlier and returned later, so I was the primary person dealing with the children and cooking or cleaning. Now that he’s settled, things have evened out to a more equitable split. I don't necessarily come home after working all day and then spend more hours doing house-related chores, at least not every day. We have Gabrielle every other week, so on those weeks, and especially because his new job in broadcast is very demanding, I get myself in gear and do a lot of cooking, cleaning, and laundry, because her needs are immediate.

But on weeks when it’s just the two of us and the baby, I might not cook every night, especially since the baby is nursing, and I’m definitely not taking hours every night to clean every area of the house. It’s enough of a struggle just trying to wipe the spit-up. But he does all of the big house projects. Painting, drywall patching, fixing anything that breaks, yard work, taking out the trash and recyclables, etc. And usually on a quarterly basis, we'll take a weekend to clean and de-clutter the whole house together.

Delano: It’s a mix. We try to have everybody put their dishes in the dishwasher after dinner and one of us turns it on. If she cooks, I try to clean and put the dishes away. We split the laundry. Initially she couldn’t do the laundry, because she couldn’t iron. And she was more territorial about cooking. But I do know how to cook, because my mom wanted to make sure I knew how to cook and do laundry. She’s very particular about her pots, and I had a tendency to burn things on the pots.

When she was home with the baby, she did laundry when she was juggling the mommy duties. She doesn’t do deep cleaning. But I do. We probably divide our household duties by looking at the strength or weakness of each other and going off that. I cut the grass, but when we had 15 inches of snow here, Stacie shoveled the snow. I had to work late because snow is big business for TV news, and so she beat me to it. If there’s something that needs to get done, we’ll each do our part.

How much time per week do you spend on leisure? Does your partner have more or less leisure time than you do?

Stacie: Not as much as I should. I recently made it a priority to return to the gym for self-care reasons and it feels good to make that time for myself. Putting the baby on a sleep schedule has opened up more time for writing in the evening, and sometimes in the morning I'll drop off the kids early at daycare and school while still in my PJs and then come back to the house and take a little time to read the paper and have some coffee and a long shower. "Long" is longer than four minutes. The little things have become luxuries.

My fiancé probably has about as much free time as I do—which is to say, not much—because we're both heavily involved in community activities. I'm on a city council subcommittee and the board of directors for a local nonprofit, and he does a lot of volunteer work as a Mason and is also an adjunct journalism instructor. But I would say he probably makes more time for himself, which is a good thing. I think we both understand the need for self-care and balance.

Delano: We don’t take as much time for ourselves as we should. We just found a babysitter we trust, so now we’ve gone to concerts and movies. During the week it’s pretty hectic. We see each other and try to have sacred things—dinner time, everyone is at the table and all the devices are away.

I like to work out before I go to work. Stacie likes to do yoga, so if she can squeeze it in the morning, she’ll go. She is a voracious reader, and I like to read too, and we spend a lot of time consuming news and talking about the news. We also watch TV. Tonight we’ll watch Being Mary Jane together.

Is there anything, in retrospect, you wish you’d done differently?

Stacie: I ask myself this question frequently. I would say that in my first career, I didn't necessarily know how to access tools that would help me advance, like mentors and networking. But when I look back on my time as a journalist, I am incredibly proud of it. I accomplished some pretty cool things, like winning an award for a piece I wrote on immigration, or getting to write a nightlife column earlier in my career. When I started grad school, I vowed I wouldn't make the same mistakes I did coming out of undergrad and I think I was more successful in librarianship because of it. If I had done anything differently, I might not have learned the things I did. Sometimes it's necessary to take those hard knocks, and that was the same for my professional life and my personal life.

Delano: I do go over mistakes I have made, and I use those as tools to improve myself for the future. That’s one of the ways Stacie and I hit it off. We really do try to take the lumps and move forward, because we know there’s going to be a better day. 

March 27 2015 8:06 PM

Jury in Ellen Pao Case Doesn’t Find Gender Discrimination

The jury returned on Friday with what appeared to be a verdict in the high-profile lawsuit filed by Ellen Pao against Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, and Byers. Pao, who is currently the interim CEO of Reddit, accused her former employer, a venture capital firm, of gender discrimination. While the jury found in Kleiner’s favor in three of the four claims based on discrimination, the fourth—whether the firm had fired Pao in retaliation for her complaint—received only eight of 12 votes in Kleiner's favor, short of the necessary nine. As of Friday evening, the jury had been sent back for further deliberation by the judge, Harold Kahn, before a final verdict can be announced. (Update, March 27, 9:50 p.m.: The jury later returned with a vote for Kleiner on the last claim, giving the firm a total victory.)

While much of the public imagination was captured by lurid details of the trial—such as Pao’s claiming that she had been pressured into an affair by her colleague Ajit Nazrem—the real argument at the center of Pao’s case was that gender discrimination need not be overt in order to exist. The picture that Pao’s team painted was not of a Mad Men-style office rife with blatantly sexist comments and bosses openly stating that women weren’t good enough. Instead, Pao’s case rested on the idea that discrimination can take place in much more subtle ways, or even as the result of unconscious biases, and that men may not even know how sexist they’re being. Pao’s lawyers argued that women like Pao are caught in a lose-lose situation: that when they hang back they’re penalized for not being assertive enough, but that if they do display more confidence they are considered arrogant, while aggressive male colleagues are admired for their boldness. 

Because of this, the case was always a long shot. While sociologists and other researchers might be convinced of the power of unconscious bias to hold back women and racial minorities, the public at large tends to treat that notion like it's poppycock. After all, if we accept that others may discriminate without meaning to, we have to accept we might do the same ourselves. The instinctive I’m-not-a-bigot reaction is why we routinely see polls showing, for instance, that most white people believe racism is no big deal while black people still think it’s a problem. Similarly, polling shows that women will more readily agree that gender discrimination persists in the workplace than will men. While there’s no telling right now what the jury was thinking in considering Pao’s gender-discrimination claims, this widespread skepticism of unconscious biases meant it was an uphill battle for Pao’s legal team from Day 1.

But even if the jury does return with a complete victory for Kleiner Perkins, the heavy media coverage of the trial, especially in the tech press, has started some important conversations about the subtle digs and unconscious sexism that keep women out of the top ranks of the tech industry. The jury may not have been convinced that Pao was discriminated against, but hopefully in the future, leadership in the tech world will put a little more work into treating women with respect, instead of subjecting them to double standards. 

March 27 2015 3:40 PM

Wet Nursing Is Back! Sort Of.

These days, the idea that "breast is best" is a given. Even though the scientific evidence is lacking, many people continue to believe that breast milk is a superfood that creates smarter, stronger babies, and mothers should do everything in their power to keep a steady supply coming. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby's life.) So maybe it's inevitable that a 21st-century version of wet nursing—or suckling an infant you didn't give birth to—would return.

Wet nursing has been around in some form throughout most of history, as there have always been infants whose mothers couldn't feed them—they may have died in childbirth or simply couldn't produce enough milk. Formula seemed to have killed the practice off, with some help from the breast pump: Now, women with excess supply can express the milk and store it in "milk banks" for other women in need. Elizabeth Currid-Halkett wrote an op-ed in the New York Times today calling on women to donate to these banks. "For those of us who are given generous maternity leaves, who are healthy, who have the extra 10 minutes, or who are genetically disposed to produce surplus breast milk, I say go for it," she writes. She also calls on activists and government to do more to promote this service. 

Currid-Halkett hopes that increased donations to milk banks can help undercut the burgeoning for-profit milk-selling industry, citing companies like Prolacta Bioscience that pay women for breast milk. "This doesn’t seem right to me," Currid-Halkett writes. "Breast milk donation ought to be more like giving blood, not for profit and not as part-time work."

Jessica Valenti of the Guardian disagrees, writing, "we can’t be surprised when a market is created for something we continue to tout as near-magical."

"And if we value women’s bodily autonomy we’re going to have to get comfortable with the choices she makes," Valenti adds, "whether it’s breastfeeding, formula feeding, or pumping for cash." I'm inclined to agree with Valenti. "Breast is best" has become common wisdom in part because it neatly fits our romantic vision of motherhood as self-sacrificing—under this (faulty) line of thinking, women shouldn't making money off an act that epitomizes maternal forebearance.

That said, there's reason to worry about the long-term effects of commodifying breast milk. Activists for the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association have written an open letter to Medolac Laboratories, which has been recruiting mothers to sell breast milk in the Detroit area: "Around the country, African-American women face unique economic hardships, and this is no less true in our city. In addition, African American women have been impacted traumatically by historical commodification of our bodies. Given the economic incentives, we are deeply concerned that women will be coerced into diverting milk that they would otherwise feed their own babies."

It's hard to begrudge a new mother extra income if she can produce more milk than her baby needs. But it's also discomfiting to think that we're on a path where poor women's bodies are being commodified so that wealthier mothers don't have to resort to formula.

March 26 2015 12:43 PM

Arizona Wants Doctors to Tell Patients that Abortions Can Be “Reversed”

Doctors in Arizona might soon be required to tell women that abortions can be "reversed." As the Washington Post reports, the Arizona legislature just passed a bill that is the latest in state-based attempts to ban women from using their own health insurance to pay for abortion. What makes this bill especially Orwellian is this attempt to force doctors to put the stamp of medical authority on the fantastical belief that women en masse are regretting their abortions hours after getting them and are miraculously getting them reversed through heroic interventions by Christian doctors. 

I reported on this fantasy back in December, but to recap: Anti-choicers, backed by one particularly vocal doctor named George Delgado, are claiming that you can "reverse" medication abortions. A woman having a medication abortion takes two pill doses, one of mifepristone and then another of misoprostol. Proponents of "abortion reversal" would like you to believe it's common for women to take the first dose and become racked with guilt, desperate to save her pregnancy. To help these women, Delgado gives the woman progesterone shots, supposedly in an effort to reverse the effects of the mifepristone. 

The problem is it's almost certainly quackery. Mifepristone is not enough on its own to terminate a pregnancy some of the time, so you're not "reversing" the abortion so much as interrupting the process before it's complete. The progesterone shots reverse nothing—they are medically unnecessary theater, designed to portray anti-choicers as conquering heroes rescuing pregnant maidens from the clutches of abortionists. There's no evidence of much demand from women to interrupt their abortions, and in the rare circumstances that someone is seized by regret, all she needs to do is contact her regular doctor about stopping the pills. 

Forcing doctors to "inform" patients about an intervention that isn't medically useful and isn't really in demand serves no other purpose but to inject anti-choice histrionics into what is already a stressful situation for many patients. You should be able to get through an abortion without having to indulge a right-wing delusion.

This bill and its fresh interpretation of the word reverse is part of a larger trend of right-wingers attempting to restrict free speech and remold the English language in their image. In Florida, Department of Environmental Protection employees have complained about orders to excise the phrases climate change and global warming from their speeches. There's also been a movement, complete with bills in Texas and Florida, to ban doctors from discussing gun safety with patients. Some postmodern academic could have a field day with these attempts to rewrite reality to fit conservative fantasies. 

The Arizona bill is now headed to the desk of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.

March 25 2015 12:03 PM

Political Lobby for Frats Wants to Make It Harder to Enforce Title IX 

The political arm of the national fraternity system—known as the Fraternity & Sorority Political Action Committee (FratPAC)—is getting involved in the campus rape debate. Sadly, it seems they want to make it as hard as possible for schools to discipline students who sexually abuse or harass each other. Bloomberg reports:

March 24 2015 2:50 PM

Arkansas Legislator Says Single Mothers Should Get Free IUDs for the Sake of “Taxpayers”

Free contraception programs are a great idea. Free contraception programs that offer access to IUDs and hormonal implants—which are long-acting and highly effective, but carry up-front costs—are an especially great idea. A program offering free IUDs in Colorado helped lead to a 40 percent drop in the teen pregnancy rate in a mere four years. The St. Louis Contraceptive Choice Project showed that IUDs and implants can be wildly popular with young women

March 23 2015 1:28 PM

Are College Campuses Really in the Thrall of Leftist Censors?

Judith Shulevitz's op-ed from Sunday—about college campuses being overwhelmed by "hypersensitive" progressives who are eager to censor any ideas that ruffle their feelings—rocketed to the top of the New York Times most-emailed list. It's not a big surprise. The piece may give its readers a pleasant sense of superiority to students who take censorious attitudes toward "discomfiting or distressing viewpoints." "People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision," Shulevitz writes; students of previous generations—students such as the reader, perhaps!—were "hardier souls" who could tolerate disagreement without falling apart.

Shulevitz is right that many left-leaning students invoke the need for "safe spaces" in order to shut down debate. She cites an especially troubling example: when students at Northwestern demanded a "swift, official condemnation" of professor Laura Kipnis for writing an article opposing bans on student-professor relationships. The idea of safety shouldn't be used as a cudgel to censor any idea or image that you happen to disagree with, as when students as Wellesley tried to force the Davis Museum to remove a statue of a man in his underwear on the grounds that it's triggering to rape survivors.

March 20 2015 2:17 PM

Monica Lewinsky’s Comeback Tour Shows America May Finally Be Growing Up

Last summer, Monica Lewinsky made a big splash by writing an article for Vanity Fair that denounced the "culture of humiliation" she so famously endured—and which she fears is only getting worse because "the Internet has seismically shifted the tone of our interactions." The piece went a long way toward humanizing a woman who had been reduced to a punch line for so long. And Lewinsky is not done putting herself out there. She is successfully remaking herself as a rallying point in the fight against the kind of sexualized bullying that Internet feminists nicknamed "slut-shaming," her visibility heightened by a TED talk and appearances at events such as the play Slut, staged recently in New York City. 

This week, Jessica Bennett wrote a lengthy New York Times profile of Lewinsky that builds on the Vanity Fair piece by showing the impact—largely positive—of Lewinsky's "comeback" tour. But even now, when most are ready to hear her side of the story, Lewinsky is clearly still fretful over putting herself out there. "She is worried about being taken advantage of, worried her words will be misconstrued, worried reporters will rehash the past," Bennett writes. It would be easier for Lewinsky to continue hanging back. She is persevering because she believes that she can have a positive impact in the fight against what she calls the "the sexual scapegoating of women and girls."