The XX Factor
What Women Really Think

April 28 2017 3:39 PM

Trump Will Appoint a Zealot Who Insists Abortion Causes Breast Cancer to HHS Leadership

Donald Trump announced Friday that he is appointing an opponent of abortion, science, contraception, same-sex marriage, and common sense to the Department of Health and Human Services. Charmaine Yoest, who was until recently president of the radical anti-abortion group Americans United for Life, will serve as the agency’s assistant secretary for public affairs.

At AUL, Yoest was behind a sizable segment of the wave of anti-abortion legislation that swept U.S. statehouses in 2011 and 2012. These days, right-wing politicians are retreating from claims that their abortion restrictions protect women’s health and safety, since the Supreme Court exposed those arguments as pretense in last year’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision. But for many years, that narrative—developed in large part by Yoest—drove anti-abortion legislation, including bills with absurd titles like the Abortion Patients’ Enhanced Safety Act (a law, since deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, requiring abortion providers to be outfitted as ambulatory surgical centers) and the Mother’s Health and Safety Act (Arizona’s 20-week abortion ban).

April 28 2017 1:52 PM

This Week in Women’s Rights: Public Funding for Abortion, Gay Adoption, and A Win in Texas.

This week, leaked documents showing Donald Trump’s budget calculations revealed plans to eliminate all funding for the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, a program that supports women’s rights initiatives around the world. Trump also walked back a child-care proposal that would have given average American families less than $20 in tax discounts while granting high earners like his wealthy Upper East Side pals a several thousand dollar-cut. He’s reportedly considering a new plan the would shift some of those benefits away from the wealthy and toward people who are actually having trouble affording child care, though it would still come once a year as a tax cut or refund, leaving parents to foot bills year-round with money they may not have.

April 28 2017 1:33 PM

One Sly Lesson of The Handmaid's Tale: Appreciate the Messy Feminism We Have Now

My favorite sign at the Women’s March on Washington had been made in a hurry. “NOLITE TE BASTARDES CARBORUNDORUM,” it said, in black marker scrawled on a ragged piece of cardboard. In Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale—which takes place in a near future where brutal theocracy has replaced U.S. democracy—this fake-Latin phrase is a message left for one subjugated woman by another: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

In January, that sign felt like a small, subversive secret, a code for which I—like Atwood’s protagonist, Offred—had the key. Three months later, the phrase, like most references to Atwood’s novel, has burgeoned into a national feminist rallying cry. The Handmaid’s Tale made the best-seller list in the weeks after the inauguration, along with 1984 and other classic dystopias, and it’s been popping up at protests and rallies ever since. In March, a group of women went to the Texas State Legislature dressed like the titular handmaids—in white wimples and robes the color of blood—to oppose two anti-abortion laws.


It’s hard to say if this is happening precisely because of Hulu’s efforts to hype a new television adaptation—the first three haunting, richly textured episodes of which dropped this week—or if Hulu lucked into a kind of timing it couldn’t possibly have predicted when it teased the show last spring. Either way, Atwood’s vision of the future has never felt more prescient than it does in the age of Donald Trump. Her book occurs in a world where men’s desire to control women’s bodies has precipitated the fall of democratic society. Environmental catastrophe has decimated the birthrate, and in the totalitarian Republic of Gilead, women still capable of bearing children have become breeding stock, bestowed on a member of the ruling class and ritually raped until they fall pregnant. Offred literally means “Of Fred,” or “property of Commander Fred Waterford.”

This sounds like a straightforward feminist parable. Yet when Atwood wrote in March about the countless people who have asked her whether she considers The Handmaid’s Tale “a feminist book,” her reply was not a simple yes. “If you mean a novel in which women are human beings—with all the variety of character and behavior that implies—and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes,” she said. This circuitous yes is a yes all the same—but there’s nothing persnickety about its qualifications. Atwood’s caveats leave space for the essence of her book, which is its skepticism of movements, ideologies, and any other force that flattens individuality—and she includes feminism on that list.

In Atwood’s world, there’s nothing more dangerous than a person convinced she knows what’s best for someone else. After all, what’s dystopia to most may be utopia to some; Gilead, for example, has its share of true believers. “Better never means better for everyone,” as Commander Waterford tells Offred in defense of the society he helped to create. “It always means worse, for some.” His chilly calculation doesn’t really add up; in Gilead, religious principles are a pretext oppressing most people to enrich an oligarchic few. But is it ever justifiable to dispatch with freedoms because they gum up otherwise perfectible societies? Atwood suggests this is a vital question for feminists, who speak the language of utopia, too.

Offred’s inner monologue is not overtly feminist—in fact, she seems fairly apolitical, a person with a far-reaching curiosity but little instinct for joining the fray. (In the book, she reveals that she never attended a single protest as the fundamentalists were slaughtering Congress and imposing martial law; in the show, we see her at a march with a friend, but she confesses to paying little attention to the news.) In flashbacks to Offred’s lost life in Cambridge, Mass., the reader sees her clash with her mother, a feminist activist who berates her conventional daughter for reading Vogue and marrying a man. In one childhood memory, the future handmaid accompanies her mother to an anti-pornography book-burning and helps throw naughty magazines on the pyre. Atwood scholar Fiona Tolan has pointed out that this scene presages Gilead, where porn is banned, except at a re-education center where the handmaids must watch images of women “then” and practice feeling grateful that their lives are different. Feminists, in Gilead, are classified as “Unwomen” and sent to “the Colonies” to clean up toxic waste. Yet one overseer at the reeducation center—an “aunt,” in Gileadan parlance—admits, “We would have to condone some of their ideas, even today.”

“There is more than one kind of freedom,” the aunt says. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” In Gilead, the overlords may feel “freedom from” is sufficient, but in the real world, feminists never stop arguing about how to balance the two.

One debate about positive and negative freedoms is raging now at American colleges, where detractors accuse campus rape activists of embracing victimhood by demanding protection from their schools. In a sense, those activists are seeking both—the freedom to pursue an education without being stymied by sexual violence is an important one—but it’s alarming that some schools, in their effort to support victims, may risk trampling the due process rights of the accused. I wondered if the Hulu adaptation was nodding to this conflict in one flashback scene, which shows the college-age protagonist working on a paper about campus rape. “For or against?” her best friend Moira deadpans. It’s not a particularly funny joke—but irreverence is the flame that flickers in Offred and Moira, preserving their humanity even under the homogenizing conditions of autocracy. There’s something both provocative and useful in The Handmaid’s Tale’s impiety—the boldness with which it flips the scripts of such sensitive debates.

It’s hard to imagine a more feminist book than Atwood’s, which makes women’s bodily autonomy synonymous with freedom of all kinds. But Atwood isn’t interested in an easy feminism, or a feminism that won’t brook disagreement: She’s focused on the mess of dissent and contradiction that defines life in a liberal society. In the book, Offred misses the arguments she used to have with her husband—a feature of mundane daily life, but also of liberty. In another moment, Offred thinks of her mother: “Despite everything, we didn’t do badly by one another… I wish she were here, so I could tell her I finally know this.” From Offred’s rigidly constricted circumstances, she sees that there was no crime in their refusal to be who the other wanted. Atwood makes us nostalgic for our own thorny present, grateful even for the conflict that brings us pain.

April 28 2017 12:27 PM

With Access Under Threat, Advocates Want to Help Women Take Medication Abortion Into Their Own Hands


In countries where abortion is illegal or more heavily restricted than it is in the U.S., external women’s-health organizations often try to fill in the gap. There’s Women on Waves, the Dutch group behind a semi-famous “abortion boat” offering medication-facilitated abortions to women in international waters a few miles off the coast of their own countries. (It anchored near Mexico last week.) Its sister organization, Women on Web, mails abortion pills to women in places where the procedure isn’t legal or safe and counsels them to administer the medicine themselves. Safe2Choose and Women Help Women do the same.



But women in the U.S. have been largely excluded from efforts to make abortion medication available by mail. Some of these organizations focus their work on countries where abortion is least accessible and least safe; the U.S., where abortion is a constitutional right offered at well-regulated clinics, doesn’t qualify. Other groups, like Safe2Choose, do send pills to women in countries with legal abortion, but fear of legal repercussions keeps them from mailing them to people in the U.S.


April 27 2017 5:27 PM

How Did a “Men’s Rights” Supporter End Up in New Hampshire’s Women-Friendly Legislature?

In the popular Reddit community “The Red Pill”—a subreddit devoted to pickup artistry and “men’s rights”—browsers can find such helpful threads as "There is no Friendzone!,” and “The need to return to a more measured, Machiavellian frame of mind,” all part of the group’s mission of fomenting “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men.” And who to thank for this gleaming beacon of misogyny? According to the Daily Beast, a 31-year-old owner of a small local computer-repair chain named Robert Fisher, who, when he’s not fixing computers or using them to fulminate against feminism, also happens to a New Hampshire state legislator.

Reporter Bonnie Bacarisse builds a meticulous case linking Fisher to the Red Pill, collecting various screen names and online identities, along with other blogs, message board entries, social media pages, and more. She digs up evidence that Fisher has ranted about feminism and dating, bragged about maintaining a “soft harem” of women who were mostly unaware of each other, and lambasted women who think “bringing a pair of boobs grants her equal footing with somebody bringing intelligence or a personality.” He said he keeps a video camera in his bedroom to prevent false accusations of rape, a subject of consistent paranoia. “Statistically I’m overdue for a false rape allegation,” he wrote in 2013. He is no longer the Red Pill's lead moderator, but has popped in to praise its success as recently as last year. Bacarisse’s reporting is pretty good for a member of the sex Fisher has accused of “sub-par intelligence” and “lack of curiosity.”

April 27 2017 5:04 PM

Stanford Becomes the Most Prominent School Yet to Adopt a Sexual Assault Reporting App

On Wednesday, Stanford University became the most prominent college yet to announce that it will use a reporting system called Callisto to combat sexual assault on campus.

Callisto, which launched in 2015, quickly set itself apart from the host of other apps and companies cropping up to cater to colleges on this issue. As Tyler Kingkade wrote at the Huffington Post, that might have a lot to do with the extensive feedback the platform’s designers, at the nonprofit Sexual Health Innovations, solicited from survivors of campus sexual assault to figure out which features would actually be salutary. (The organization’s executive director Jessica Ladd is a survivor herself, and has said that Callisto grew out of her own negative experience reporting an assault when she was in college.) Stanford, which will launch a three-year pilot in May, will become Callisto’s eighth user, to be followed by an as-yet-undisclosed ninth this summer.


Pomona College and the University of San Francisco were the first to try the platform, followed by two schools in Iowa—Coe College and Central College—and three in New York state: St. John’s University, Canisius College, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

For survivors, reporting a sexual assault raises fraught questions. Coming forward can set in motion an overwhelming disciplinary process, perhaps aggravating a trauma that hasn’t had time to heal. Many students wait to report—an average of 11 months, according to Callisto—but this can undermine their accounts in the eyes of administrators. Some students stay silent because of uncertainty about how to label what happened to them; others hang back out of fear that they won’t be believed.

Callisto provides students with three options: They can report the assault to their school’s Title IX coordinator from the privacy of a dorm room, typing up the details and submitting them electronically. They can save the report on Callisto’s encrypted database, recording details while they’re fresh and time-stamping the account for possible submission later on. Or, they can select a third option: to reveal the saved report to administrators only if it “matches” another entry in the database—or, in other words, only if another person has reported, or later reports, the same perpetrator. This feature is designed to single out serial assailants while providing survivors a sense of safety in numbers.

“If you think about asking someone to report someone they have classes or mutual friends with, it feels scary,” Ashley Schwedt, Callisto’s director of campus relationships, told me. A “match” can give survivors the confidence that “they will be believed, so they don’t worry as much about the social repercussions.” For some, it can corroborate an instinct they may not have fully trusted, or alleviate self-doubt that was holding them back.

An estimated one-in-five women are sexually assaulted in college, and the number is even higher for trans and gender non-conforming students. Roughly one-in-20 men are also believed to be victims of assault in college. But these figures are inexact, because only a fraction of survivors come forward. Callisto attempts to address this problem by turning the saved, encrypted reports in its database into anonymous data-points, balancing survivors’ desire for privacy with colleges’ efforts to understand the extent of sexual violence on their campuses.

Stanford’s announcement caps an academic year of rapid growth at Callisto, where Schwedt says the team has more than doubled—from four people to nine—since last summer. Founder Ladd has ambitions of expanding beyond university campuses. In April, the Upright Citizens Brigade school, and incubator for improv and sketch comedy in New York and Los Angeles, announced that it would adopt the platform for its students. Schwedt says partnerships with military branches and academies are also on the organization’s wish list. In the meantime, Callisto’s code is open source and available for others to copy. As Ladd recently told CNN, “I want people to take this idea and run with it.”

April 27 2017 1:43 PM

Massachusetts Governor Proposes Bill Protecting Teen Sexters From Felony Charges

The Massachusetts state legislature will consider a bill that protects teen sexters from excessive prosecution while imposing harsher punishments on people who share nude photos with others without the subject’s consent. Filed by Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday, the bill would prevent prosecutors from charging teen sexters as child pornographers, recommending that they be sent to an educational program instead of prison or juvenile detention.

April 26 2017 6:07 PM

The Gender Pay Gap In Medicine Is Abominable. Here’s Where It’s Worst.

A newly published survey of more than 36,000 U.S. physicians has pinpointed the metropolitan area where doctors experience the widest gender pay gap: Charlotte, North Carolina. There, the average female physician gets paid only two-thirds as much as the average male physician, making for an annual gap of about $125,000.

April 26 2017 4:56 PM

Why It Matters That Karen Pence Pursued Medical Assistance When Trying to Get Pregnant

Karen Pence used an obscure Catholic-friendly alternative to IVF when trying to get pregnant.

April 26 2017 3:20 PM

Trump Considers Revising Child-Care Plan to Help More People and Deregulate Daycare

Just days after the Center for American Progress calculated that Donald Trump’s proposed child-care plan would barely benefit low- and middle-income families, the administration is changing its approach. The Trump administration is reportedly revising its plan from a tax deduction to a tax credit in response to criticism from child-care advocates who noted that low-income families, who need assistance the most, won’t see the benefit of a deduction from their $0 in tax liability.