The XX Factor
What Women Really Think

Sept. 11 2017 4:18 PM

Critics Aren’t Taking Issue With the Content of Hillary Clinton’s New Book So Much as Its Right to Exist

There is no one who loves talking about the 2016 election more than Donald Trump, who brings it up in public more than once a week on average. There is no one so keen to linger over the outcome of Election Day, to pick at old grudges, and dress down old opponents than Trump. No one, some prominent Democrats would have you believe, other than Hillary Clinton.

“I love Hillary,” Sen. Al Franken recently told Yahoo News. “I think she has a right to analyze what happened. But we do have to move on.” On the Late Show, Sen. Bernie Sanders reminded Clinton that she “ran against the most unpopular candidate in the history of this country” and still couldn’t eke out a win. “She was upset about it and I understand that,” Sanders said. “But our job is not to go backward. ... I think it’s a little bit silly to keep talking about 2016.”

Given that 2016 saw an unprecedented electoral upset that resulted in the least-qualified president in U.S. history, nine months seems an awfully short grace period for acceptable discourse on the outcome. And Clinton isn’t just talking about the worst setback of her professional life—she’s selling it. What Happened, her highly anticipated 494-page postmortem on her last campaign, hits bookstores on Tuesday, ensuring that the conversation some Democrats don’t want to have will continue for at least as long as Clinton’s book tour.

Early reviews take issue with the book’s right to exist as much as the quality of its contents. “Was this book necessary?” asks Doyle McManus in the lede of his Los Angeles Times review, suggesting that Clinton should have shoved her manuscript into a desk drawer rather than offer it up for public consumption. Doug Schoen, a former Clinton ally, told the failed candidate in a Hill piece that it is “time to exit the stage” and stop doing harm to her political party by simply showing up. “Friends don’t let friends read Hillary Clinton’s new book,” wrote a critic at the Week who refused to even crack it open before making her judgment. “Whatever you want to read this book for, chances are, there’s something else that does it better.”

Conservative media outlets show particular glee in their reporting that Clinton’s book will ravage the Democratic Party and her own future in politics. The world is “sick of hearing from her,” writes Katherine Timpf at the National Review, calling it a feat of “self-indulgent dead-horse-beating” and the product of a “selfish urge to present as many excuses as you can to absolve yourself of any blame for your embarrassing defeat.” In the Washington Times, Ben Wolfgang argues that “the American people simply don’t want to hear from [Clinton],” quoting a poli-sci professor who believes Clinton should have “not written a book and been quiet for another eight months.”

That Washington Times piece calls What Happened a “blame book”—and certainly, most assessments of the tome are preoccupied with the question of blame. The juiciest excerpts so far are those that find Clinton casting shade on Sanders (he emboldened Trump’s attacks and promised every American a free pony), James Comey (he “shivved” her and “badly overstepped his bounds”), the New York Times (it dragged her over her emails but glossed over Trump–Russia connections during the campaign). But the bigger question with which critics are grappling is whether or not Clinton claims enough blame for her own unexpected loss. “Despite seemingly suggesting the fault is hers alone, Clinton also clearly believes that a lot of other people are responsible, too,” writes Bess Levin in her Vanity Fair roundup of “People Clinton Blames for Her Election Loss.” Another Washington Times piece reported that What Happened is “yet another campaign to blame everybody she can for her crushing loss.” Schoen wrote that “the only person [Clinton] does not seem to blame is herself.” Even the Associated Press claimed in a straight news piece about the book that Clinton “has a reputation for avoiding blame for her failures.” It seems that these critics, unsatisfied with Clinton’s concession speech, are holding out for a full-blown apology.

But Clinton could hardly have been more explicit about where the buck stopped in her campaign. “I go back over my own shortcomings and the mistakes we made,” she writes in one oft-quoted excerpt. “I take responsibility for all of them. You can blame the data, blame the message, blame anything you want—but I was the candidate. It was my campaign. Those were my decisions.” There it is: Clinton blaming herself for her loss. If that’s where her critics would have rather she stopped, What Happened would have been a PR statement, not a book.

It's true that the democracy-defying 2016 election merits more than a five-sentence mea culpa from the woman who lost. Clinton as a bad candidate is just one sliver of the rancid pie that caused America to vomit up President Trump. Even the election analyses most critical of Clinton don’t dare place all the blame on her Wall Street speeches, email-management missteps, or comments about putting coal companies out of business. The additional facts she offers as contributing factors to her loss—Sanders’ “attacks caused lasting damage”; sexism helped make her “a lightning rod for fury”—are measured and probably true. They’re nothing readers haven’t encountered before in the thousands of thinkpieces they devoured in the months after the election. Almost nobody thinks Hillary Clinton alone is responsible for the defeat that shocked the entire world.

When Clinton acknowledges that truth, as she does in What Happened, critics portray her as a petty shirker of accountability. Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman of California told Politico that Clinton is forcing the party to endure endless “media cycles about the blame game, and the excuses.” In a recent Morning Consult poll, 39 percent of 2,000 respondents said Hillary Clinton should cease all influence on the Democratic Party. Just 40 percent said it would be OK for her to write books. That the public was asked to weigh in on the seemliness of Clinton’s post-election plans is itself a marker of how personally the country takes her every move, as if she were not a politician but a despised national mascot.

What if, just like much of the rest of the electorate, she’s simply looking to make meaning out of an event that shattered her illusions about the country she calls home? The 2016 election was unlike any other: Nearly a year after the election, conversations with my friends and colleagues still occasionally end up in “what happened?” territory. Ordinary people are still piecing the 2016 narrative together. It’s no surprise that they might want to hear the loser’s perspective, even if members of her party don’t.

Sept. 8 2017 5:55 PM

Finally, a New Policy We Know Trump Truly Believes in: Protections for Sexual Assaulters

Betsy DeVos gave credence to the fears of anti-rape activists on Thursday when she finally did the thing they’ve expected her to do since her confirmation. In a speech at George Mason University, the secretary of education announced her intention to roll back Obama-era guidance that forced universities that receive federal funding to take more aggressive action against campus sexual assault.

DeVos accused the federal government of using “intimidation and coercion” to make schools comply with stricter Department of Education directives that came down in 2011. The “Dear Colleague” letter, as it is commonly known, required universities to complete expedient investigations of accusations, lower the standard of evidence needed to hold an accused student responsible, prevent harassment of victims on campus, and stop making victims sign nondisclosure agreements. DeVos took issue with the new guidance’s more comprehensive definitions of assault and harassment. “If everything is harassment, then nothing is,” she said, claiming that students and teachers had been punished for Title IX offenses simply for “speaking their minds.”

The other telltale sign that the “Dear Colleague” guidance was not long for this world was the person sitting in the Oval Office. Donald Trump has given his rancid imprimatur to all manner of causes and policies about which he seems to know or care very little. He once identified as “pro-choice”; now he advances anti-abortion policies more punishing than those of his right-wing predecessors, even as he slips up on the anti-abortion talking points. While Trump was busy absorbing his twice-daily lathering of positive cable news chyrons, Steve Bannon, back when he was still oozing about the White House, could whisper a few epithets into the president’s ear and we'd all wake up the next morning to a nuclear clash of civilizations.

Sexual assault, on the other hand, is a cause near and dear to Trump, the rare political matter in which he actually has some experience. More than a dozen women have given public accounts of his various alleged sex crimes, giving him valuable insight into the plight of the accused. On this issue, his mind holds two mutually exclusive principles to be simultaneously true: that women are lying when they allege sexual assault, and that the actions they describe did occur but don’t warrant any accountability from the perpetrator. Groping is flirting, and barging in on naked beauty queens is a purchasable privilege of rich men. But also, the women who claim those things happened are liars out for fame and money, and plus, they’re too ugly to assault. Trump has convinced himself that he’s a victim of a witch hunt perpetrated by an inherently untrustworthy subclass—women—that’s trying to take down the good ol’ university boys, those original espousers of “locker room talk,” too.

The DeVos Department of Education echoes this paradigm through and through. When DeVos invited men’s rights groups to advise her on Title IX policy this summer, she included infamous trolls who claim that the “leading reason” for domestic abuse is “female initiation of partner violence” and dox women who accuse men of rape. Candice Jackson, who DeVos tapped to lead the department’s Office for Civil Rights, recently scoffed to the New York Times that a full 90 percent of campus sexual assault allegations “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’”

Imagine the college student who has endured a sexual assault and looks online for her avenues of recourse, only to find that the woman charged with addressing all federal claims of harassment and discrimination believes nearly every college student with the courage to file an official rape allegation is full of shit. The chilling effect the DeVos Department of Education will have on sexual assault reports will certainly please Trump. But his larger goal is to send a message to women that the government is not on their side. Nearly every policy shift Trump makes that rallies his base without any real legislative accomplishment—the transgender military ban, the decision to cease data collection on race- and gender- based wage disparities, the ending of DACA—serves the general purpose of demoralizing marginalized populations by letting them know the country stands with their oppressors.

To accomplish this goal, Trump must manage some pretty impressive feats of intellectual dissonance. Police officers should rough up the suspects they arrest, but universities should go easy on accused rapists. Honor killings by immigrant men are a threat to American women, but grants to prevent violence against women are bogus. Sifting through the president’s actions, it can be hard to find any kernel of conviction. At the root of his few true impulses is identity politics—namely, his identity as a white man and his desire to protect the same. There’s one other identity at play, and he shares it with the accused sexual assailants DeVos championed on Thursday. That makes her rollback of Title IX protections one of Trump’s most honest moves yet.

Sept. 8 2017 2:53 PM

A U.K. Store Will Stop Labeling Its Kids Clothes as “Boys” and “Girls.” But It’s Not About the Kids.

The venerable British department store chain John Lewis announced last weekend that it would remove “boys” and “girls” labels from its brand of children’s clothing. Instead, the store will label its clothes, including dresses and skirts, as “Girls & Boys” or “Boys & Girls.” “We do not want to reinforce gender stereotypes within our John Lewis collections and instead want to provide greater choice and variety to our customers, so that the parent or child can choose what they would like to wear,” the brand’s head of children’s wear told reporters. The store also plans to stop marking separate sections for girls’ and boys’ clothes.

Sept. 6 2017 3:29 PM

Thinx Founder Wore Breast Pumps Around Burning Man and Shared Milk With Burners

Like burners everywhere, Agrawal has a thing for ill-proportioned hats.
Like burners everywhere, Miki Agrawal has a thing for ill-proportioned hats.

Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Glamour

Now that the gyrating hordes have returned from Burning Man, it’s time to catch up on all the beautiful acts of intention and community and MDMA they committed on the playa. This year’s star is Miki Agrawal, former purveyor of Thinx period underwear and living, breathing TED talk. In an Instagram slideshow Agrawal posted on Tuesday, the new mother described pumping breast milk for her three days at the annual dust bowl.

“So many people told me that they had no idea that I had to keep pumping every three hours because they didn’t know that breasts would become engorged and super painful if they were not pumped,” Agrawal wrote, “nature's way of keeping mama and baby working together :-)”

A post shared by mikiagrawal (@mikiagrawal) on

Because Burning Man encourages an ethos of gift-giving, Agrawal didn’t keep her nutritious secretions to herself. She gave most of it away to consenting adults, who apparently couldn’t get enough. “Some people downed a whole four ounces hoping for a hangover cure,” Agrawal wrote on Instagram. “Some wanted it for their coffee to make lattes. So many were excited and curious to try it. I drank some too when I ran out of water, it tastes like sweet coconut milk!” Apparently this is common practice on the playa: Other breast-feeding commenters on the post wrote that they “loved sharing all the wonders of breastmilk” with other burners and served it to patrons at a Burning Man diner.

This endorsement of public breast milk consumption, accompanied by several photos of Agrawal wearing her breast pumps around the playa, is truly the ne plus ultra of posts about breast-feeding shaming. Not only is Agrawal proudly asserting her need and right to pump in a place that doesn’t look particularly hospitable to pumping, but she is passing the pump tube to another burner like she’s administering a beer bong. Women have said in their social media accounts of breast-feeding and pumping in public that it is natural, necessary, and a perfectly OK thing to do around strangers. To that, Agrawal adds: a fantastic source of party refreshments.

Agrawal is pretty much the personification of Burning Man, making her the perfect vessel for this peak–Burning Man performance of radical self-reliance. She digs startup wordplay—she called herself the “She-E-O” of Thinx and is writing a book called Disrupt-Her—and peppers her personal website with identifiers like “social entrepreneur,” “impact investor,” “dreamer,” and “societal-norm-busting-millennial.” She considers herself a capitalist revolutionary, wrote a book called Do Cool Shit, and has a fetish for ill-proportioned hats. She sometimes plays the DJ at parties for the organization her sister founded: Daybreaker, which, like Burning Man, is a gathering of forced profundity where people wear lamé and, you know, connect.

She also loves talking about bodily fluids. In addition to the period underwear, Agrawal has launched a line of underwear for urinary incontinence and a portable bidet called Tushy. A former Thinx employee filed a sexual harassment complaint against Agrawal for, among other inappropriate office behaviors, FaceTime-ing employees from the toilet. One wonders if Agrawal’s “got breastmilk?” post is a low-key ad for some forthcoming venture centered on a better breast pump—or as is Agrawal’s shtick, subverting the taboos around breast pumping. “Every human has been birthed and raised somehow and yet even the smartest people have no idea what this process looks like,” she wrote on her Instagram slideshow. “Nobody learns how to become a parent, let alone a good one. Time to change this! Great parenting can change the world! More conversations about this soon!” Soon.

But if Agrawal’s breast-milk bistro—“Miki’s Milk Bar,” an Instagram commenter said it was called—was a promotion scheme for some future innovation around her new favorite secretion, it would violate one of Burning Man’s core principles: decommodification, which forbids sponsorships and advertising. “Breast milk” would also screw up the pneumonic device of her current brand, the four Ps: pee, poop, periods, and pizza. That incongruous last entry refers to a gluten-free pizza chain she started in New York. No word on where they get their cheese.

Sept. 5 2017 5:44 PM

Texan Survivors of Harvey Can Get Free Abortion Care, With Travel Costs Covered

Whole Woman’s Health, a group of clinics that provide abortion care and other health services, announced on Friday that it will offer free abortions to women impacted by the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Noting that women in the Houston area and elsewhere in southeast Texas may have had to miss abortion appointments during the storm, a blog post on the Whole Woman’s Health website promised to help affected women get to one of the organization’s four Texas locations for abortion care at no cost.

“During Hurricane Harvey, many of the clinics in Houston had to close temporarily, leaving women with very few options,” the post read. “Continued political attacks on abortion access make an unwanted pregnancy particularly stressful in Texas—add that to the stress of dealing with hurricane aftermath.”

Natural disasters exacerbate existing logistical and financial barriers to women’s health care access. Women on Medicaid can’t use their insurance to cover or subsidize abortion care, and low-income women may save for weeks to afford the procedure, only to find that they’re too far along to get a cheaper medical abortion or to get a legal abortion at all in the state. After losing property or wages to a hurricane, even more women may find it difficult to pay for an abortion. Where it was once merely difficult to afford child care and time off work to accommodate an abortion appointment, after a natural disaster, it can be nearly impossible. And since women are usually the default caretakers of their families, they face the bulk of the extra responsibilities that come after a tragedy, including making arrangements for relief, organizing relocation, and caring for the young and old. This further diminishes the reserves of time and resources available for their own health care.

For the month of September, Whole Woman’s Health—the successful plaintiff in last summer’s landmark Supreme Court case on abortion restrictions—will cover both travel and housing costs for Harvey-affected women who need help getting to the organization’s outposts in Austin, Fort Worth, McAllen, or San Antonio. The group will draw from its own abortion fund, the Stigma Relief Fund, as well as the Lilith Fund, a Texas-specific abortion-funding organization that has established an emergency fund for care for Harvey survivors. Slate recommended donating to abortion funds after Donald Trump’s election because they support people who, by virtue of their class, geographic location, or immigration status, can’t access abortion care, a right wealthier women will almost always be able to enjoy. It’s for this same reason—that they empower the most marginalized people exercise autonomy over their own bodies—that abortion funds are essential resources in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

All over the world, in all kinds of crisis situations, women’s sexual and reproductive health care is one of the first basic needs to fall through the cracks of disaster relief. Rates of sexual assault rise in crisis zones, and distraught survivors are more likely to engage in sexual behaviors that put them at risk for unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. At the same time, agencies focused on food, shelter, and first aid often neglect sexual health needs that don’t go away when disaster strikes. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that emergency health care providers stock up on emergency contraception, preventive contraception, and condoms when they help communities recover from a natural disaster. These are resources no one’s sending in their donation boxes of diapers and canned food.

Abortion care is even trickier to ensure in the wake of a crisis, since federal funds can’t be spent on abortions and politicians may be reluctant to single out a controversial medical procedure as a critical need during a time of recovery. Abortion funds in Texas are filling in the gaps of Harvey relief, because that’s what abortion funds are designed to do.

Sept. 5 2017 2:50 PM

Kate Middleton and Japan’s Princess Mako Showcase Two Different Gendered Models of Royal Succession

The imperial family of Japan is facing a looming succession crisis. Current law forbids female family members and their children from ascending to the throne, meaning only male children of male family members may become emperor someday.

But of the 19 people in the Japanese royal family, just five are men, including 83-year-old Emperor Akihito, who plans to abdicate his position next year. He’ll pass the throne to his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito. Naruhito has no sons, so he’ll pass it to his younger brother Akishino. Akishino’s only son and Akihito’s only male grandchild, 10-year-old Hisahito, is next in line. If he doesn’t have any sons, there will be no one left to take his place.

The fast-approaching end of Akihito’s reign isn’t the only cause for concern among those invested in the future of Japanese monarchy. On Sunday morning, Princess Mako, Akihito’s oldest grandchild and Akishino’s oldest child, announced her engagement to a commoner. Japanese law dictates that male royals can marry outside the imperial family and retain their status, but women cannot. When 25-year-old Mako marries legal assistant Kei Komuro, her college boyfriend, she’ll finally get the right to vote but forfeit her allowance from the government, her title, and her last name.

A large majority of Japanese residents—86 percent, according to a May 2017 poll—believe that women should be eligible for the throne, and 59 percent think the children of female family members should also count in the line of succession. Sixty-one percent want princesses to be able to stay in the imperial family after their marriages to commoners, helping to expand the family tree as those couples grew their own branches of descendants. Now, Japanese legislators must decide which is more important: the continued existence of a dwindling imperial bloodline or its strict patrilineal heritage.

The country’s parliament is already in the midst of shaking up the imperial rules. Over the summer, legislators passed a popular bill allowing Akihito to abdicate the throne as per his wishes, an option that was previously forbidden to monarchs who had to serve for life. More conservative members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party worried that considering such a bill would force them to open debate on the female succession issue, which is governed by the same 1947 law. Abe shut down these nascent debates earlier this year, suggesting that some former “collateral” branches of the imperial family, which were cut off with that 1947 law, be let back in or have their sons adopted by current princes to expand the pool of potential heirs. The largest opposition party in Japan, the Democratic Party, is advocating for a legal shift that would let women already in the family to reign instead.

By some accounts, even Emperor Akihito supports such a change. Empresses are not unheard of in Japan: Though emperors used to have concubines to increase the likelihood of producing male heirs, eight women in the family have sat on the throne in the 125 recorded generations of the imperial family. They were largely considered stand-ins until patrilineal successors could take over. There are few good arguments beside tradition for the endurance of government-supported monarchs, and even fewer for the restriction of the throne to men. Mako could just as easily perform the duties of an empress, minimal as they are, as her grandfather, and imperial genes will persist in her future children as much as they will in her brother’s. There’s another word for a tradition that would rather reintegrate families who have been commoners for generations into the imperial line than treat women as equally valued members: sexism.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is about to see a recent measure for monarchical gender equality finally come into play. Kensington Palace announced early Monday morning that Kate Middleton is pregnant with her third child, adding another heir to Prince William’s growing lineup. In previous generations, a new baby boy would have taken the place of older sister Charlotte, baby No. 2, in the line of succession. But a law passed soon after Middleton joined the family in 2011 ensured that any daughter of a U.K. monarch would have an equal shot at ascending to the throne as a son would. Royal families are indefensible mooches on the government, but as long as they exist, a Charlotte or a Mako shouldn’t have to see her rightful place on the throne usurped by an annoying younger brother.

Sept. 1 2017 2:25 PM

Women Are Taking the Economic Hit From America’s Child Care Deserts

In a speech on tax reform in Missouri this week, Donald Trump praised daughter Ivanka for her efforts to get Congress on board with a set of proposed tax credits for child care. “It’s one of her real big beliefs,” Trump said, calling for legislation that helps “parents afford child care and the cost of raising a family.”

The Trump plan, which would give families with child care expenses a few hundred dollars off their income tax bill each spring, would do far more for wealthy families able to pay for child care out of pocket than those struggling to afford the bills that come every week or month. But even families that don’t blink at the exorbitant cost of child care in the U.S. can find themselves in a tough spot when it comes time to choose a provider. About half of Americans live in what the Center for American Progress calls “child care deserts”: neighborhoods with at least 50 children under 5 and either no licensed child care options at all or more than three children for every available child care slot.

According to a new CAP report that analyzed almost 150,000 child care providers in 22 states, 58 percent of rural census tracts, 55 percent of urban tracts, and 44 percent of suburban tracts are child care deserts. Of the states CAP studied, California and New York have the highest proportion of residents living in child care deserts—62 and 61 percent, respectively—while Iowa, with 24 percent of its population in child care deserts, has the lowest. The data includes child care centers, family-based child care providers, Head Start centers, and preschools in each of the 22 states, which account for about two-thirds of the U.S. population.

Those who live in neighborhoods with a dearth of child care providers are disproportionately low-income, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native. Rural areas with mean incomes below the national average have the highest rate of child care deserts (63 percent), followed by low-income urban areas, high-income rural areas, and high-income urban areas, all of which count more than half their share of census tracts as child care deserts.

The report offers a troubling picture of the child care crisis in America, matching numbers to the anecdotes about the nightmare of finding quality, affordable child care that arise in any circle of parents. It also raises important questions for future scholars to consider—namely, how do families in child care deserts make life with young children work? For most, the answer probably lies in stay-at-home parenting, private nannies or nanny-shares, or some patchwork of part-time work and help from extended family. Sometimes, the few child-care slots available in such child care deserts go to those with money to buy their way in. In a piece on a 2016 poll that found two-thirds of parents saying they had limited “realistic” choices for child care, NPR’s Jessica Deahl reported that one family spent more than $1,000 on wait-list fees at booked-up child care centers, many of which never contacted the parents again after taking their money.

When paired with the extraordinary cost of child care in the U.S., which is higher than the average in-state college tuition and costs more than rent in many towns, the proliferation of child care deserts incentivizes parents to leave the workforce for full-time parenting. For several interrelated reasons—social conditioning, the wage gap, the probability that a baby’s first primary caretaker becomes its permanent one, gender norms that shunt men into higher-paying fields and gender discrimination that privileges them for promotions—in families with two working parents of different genders, the woman will usually be the one to quit her job. In the short term, this seems like it makes sense, and for some families, it’s necessary: A 2014 Pew study found that 34 percent of stay-at-home mothers are living in poverty, compared with 12 percent of working mothers. Nearly half of stay-at-home mothers have a high-school diploma or less, limiting their potential career path. Since the end of the recession, child care costs have grown at nearly twice the inflation rate, making it impossible for many lower-income parents to afford.

But a parent leaving the workforce can have compounding financial drawbacks that stick around long after the kids are out of day care and into school. Studies have shown that a woman’s earnings fall 10 percent for every two years she’s out of a job, a consequence that follows her for the rest of her working life. Unaffordable and unavailable child care preserves structures of income inequality by incentivizing cash-strapped women to stay home, then punishing them when they do.

Trump has proposed loosening regulations on day cares to encourage entrepreneurial-minded people to open more child care centers and relieve the shortage. That is a preposterous solution based on an inaccurate characterization of the industry: Child care facilities are already underregulated in some places, such as Alabama, where day cares are using religious loopholes to evade child-endangerment charges for putting kids in dangerous, undersupervised settings. Save for a few extreme examples like Washington, D.C.’s absurd requirement that child care workers have college degrees, child care regulations aren’t bits of bureaucratic nonsense that hamper business earnings for no good reason—for children, they’re a matter of life or death. The problem of child care deserts could be better tackled through subsidies that allow child care workers to earn a living wage without pricing out parents, making it a more desirable career path. That strategy comes with a bonus: If subsidies helped more people comfortably afford child care, they might choose to stay at work and use it.

Sept. 1 2017 12:41 PM

School Supply Lists Have Gotten Ridiculously Long and Expensive. Here’s Why.

If you’re not a parent, you may remember shopping for school supplies as an enjoyably quaint activity: a quick trip to the store to pick out a new Trapper Keeper, and some shiny folders, along with a few boxes of crayons, pencils, and a bright pink eraser.

When I asked parents on Facebook to share their children’s lists, my inbox started filling up immediately with exasperated responses. One mother who has two kids in public school outside Dallas said she spent $180 fulfilling their “ridiculous” lists this year. Her third-grader’s extensive list includes six plastic pocket folders with brads (specifically: red, blue, yellow, orange, green, and purple), Fiskars-brand scissors (sharp point), a four-pack of Expo markers, and 48 No. 2 pencils. As the lists have become cumbersome to fulfill, PTAs and online services have stepped in to bundle supplies for a fee. (Many parents who contributed to this story asked that their names not be used to avoid upsetting their children’s teachers and school administrators.)

Today, many parents describe it differently. School-supply lists are now often shockingly long, requesting dozens of specific and sometimes expensive items. They include particular brands: Prang watercolors, Ticonderoga pencils, Elmer’s glue sticks. “Pens” are no longer good enough; only “Black Papermate Flair Porous-Point Medium-Point Pens” will do. And the definition of “school supplies” has expanded to include items like tissues, sanitizing wipes, locker shelves, and plastic baggies. The requests are the stuff of parody in parenting magazines and laments on private Facebook pages. Comedian Dana Blizzard’s response to the belly-aching was passed around widely on Facebook this week. “I’ve been noticing lately, when people are doing their back to school shopping, everybody’s complaining,” she tells the camera, tossing microwaves and jugs of glue into her cart as she wheels through Target. “My thing is: Listen. It’s the end of August. I will give you anything to take my kids.”

170825_xx_schoollists_samples_4th
This is not a drill.

Holly Allen

The lists vary widely between classrooms and schools, even within the same city. One single working mother whose daughter is starting kindergarten on the Upper East Side of Manhattan estimates that fulfilling the detailed 38-item list will cost her $300. The list includes foaming hand-soap (Babyganics or Method brand), four rolls of Bounty Select-a-Size paper towels, and Staples white shipping labels (2”-by-4”). “I think it’s absurd,” the mother told me. No working parent “has this kind of money or leisure time to surf Amazon Prime for this crap.” Meanwhile, the father of a second-grader in Park Slope, Brooklyn, got a note asking for just $20 to cover four simple items that the teacher will purchase for the students. “Over the years I have felt that school supply lists have become expensive and specific,” the teacher wrote to parents. “It is my hope that by eliminating the expense of exhaustive supply lists, budgets might be freed up for your family and field trip admission over the course of the school year.”

The short explanation for supply inflation is that as education budgets shrink so, too, do schools’ stores of basic items. Teachers routinely spend hundreds of dollars of their own money on classroom supplies, especially in poor areas. Jane Steffler, who recently retired as a kindergarten teacher outside Chicago, had free access to a well-stocked supply room when she taught at a wealthy district in the 1970s. At the low-income district she worked for in the late 1980s, supplies were kept in a locked closet but could still be freely requested. Later, the supply room closed for good, and teachers were given a small fixed budget for their classrooms—forced to spend their own money or make requests for parents if they ran out of supplies during the school year. “We really tried to not ask more of the parents than we thought we needed,” she said. “I don’t know a teacher who hasn’t paid for everything in their room.” Another teacher told me she usually spends about $500 a year on stocking her classroom. Some teachers now set up Amazon wish-lists or otherwise let parents know how they can contribute beyond basic supplies.

Long lists aren’t strictly a public school phenomenon, but that seems to be where the most public parental umbrage is focused. One teacher told me that at his wealthy private school, spare lockers were stuffed to the brim with leftover supplies, and yet some classroom’s annual lists cost parents $150 to fulfill. Complaints were rare. At the low-income public school at which he taught before that, teachers worked hard to keep supply lists sparse, but they had to account for the fact that only about half of the students would arrive in September with all the requested items. When he wanted to make sure that every child in the classroom had access to certain items, he simply bought them himself.

Paltry budgets explain why many lists are so long—though I admit it’s hard for me to peruse the Upper East Side kindergarten’s list and wonder if kids really need six different Crayola marker packs to succeed. (In case you’re curious: thin “classic,” thin “bold,” thick “classic,” thick “bold,” thick “tropical,” and “multicultural.”) But why do teachers request such specific brands and sizes? In many cases, they pool all the supplies together in order to help families who can’t afford to contribute supplies. It is not uncommon in low-income districts for some children to show up with no supplies from home. And quality really does vary widely, teachers told me: Cheap pencils snap frequently and sharpen unevenly; no-name watercolors are more like useless plastic pods than paint. Most teachers do factor in the cost for parents when making their lists. “One year some parents got together and made a large push for all eco-friendly supplies,” described one teacher, who declined the request due to cost. “While their hearts were in the right place, they were very out of touch with the population of the families at the school since roughly 60 percent fall below the poverty line."

The cost of all these pens, pencils, and Fiskars Blunt-Tip Safety Scissors is obvious. Less obvious is who is paying the price. When I asked parents on Facebook for feedback on their children’s lists, I got more than 40 responses. Two were from men replying in their capacity as teachers, and two of them were from fathers with information about their children’s supply lists. The rest were from mothers. Many of the women sent along homemade spreadsheets and described detailed plans to visit multiple stores to save money; they keep track of local sales, and devise systems for consolidating leftover supplies at the end of the school year and preparing them for next year’s requests. Meanwhile, women make up about three-quarters of public school teachers—the ones spending hundreds of dollars of their own salaries to stock their classrooms. As education budgets shrivel so dramatically that Kleenex have become luxury items, it’s women who are spending the time and money to keep schools running.

Aug. 31 2017 6:22 PM

Laura Ingraham Has Deep Ties to an Anti-Feminist Group That Pooh-Poohs Claims of Sexual Harassment

Seven current and former employees of LifeZette, the news website founded by right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham, have accused the site’s CEO and co-founder of using their workplace as his private sexual water cooler. According to sources interviewed by Daily Beast reporters, Peter Anthony made repeated sexual remarks about his female colleagues both behind their backs and when they were close enough to hear him.

Anthony allegedly loved “talking about other women’s boobs, butts” and how he wanted to have sex with women in the office, a former IT employee said. Another former worker said Anthony wondered aloud “Is it just me or are [female co-worker’s] tits getting bigger?” and said another colleague looked like “a bitch” who would be “sexier” if she smiled. Others said Anthony would talk to a senior editor in the office, loudly enough so that others could hear, about the body parts of young women in the office.

These allegations shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s followed Ingraham’s career. Two decades before she supported a serial sexual harasser for president, she cut her teeth at the Independent Women’s Forum, a nonprofit that grew out of a committee formed to support Clarence Thomas when Anita Hill testified that the then–Supreme Court nominee had subjected her to persistent sexual harassment. The group sought to discredit Hill, arguing that she was making it all up. Since then, the IWF has taken a vocal anti-feminist stance on almost every social and fiscal issue—and Ingraham, as a member and one-time spokeswoman, has amplified the group’s message.

The IWF worldview holds that women who allege harassment, sexual assault, sex discrimination, and domestic violence are often exaggerating and making themselves into victims when they should be taking responsibility for their own roles in the harm that’s come to them. University efforts to combat campus rape are causing boys to die by suicide, IWF worries. Efforts to prevent wage discrimination are unfair to men who are just plain better than women at their jobs. Sexual harassment training is “harmful” because it leads to “people assuming the worst of each other and forcing everyone to walk on eggshells lest they offend someone else,” the IWF contended in 2016, arguing that women encourage a double standard—they love sexual advances from hot guys, but cry harassment when the advances come from less desirable men. The IWF has called National Pay Inequity Awareness Day a “hoax…designed to brainwash girls and young women into believing they are victims.” The IWF’s Elizabeth Larson has written extensively on the supposedly trumped-up nature of sexual harassment charges, claiming that women now think “a wink or a leer can be money in the bank” and, inspired by Anita Hill, find it more profitable to litigate than to work.”

Ingraham herself was vocally opposed to the Violence Against Women Act, a bill she called “pork” with a “tear-jerker” of a title. In a 1996 op-ed, buoyed by her IWF membership, she encouraged then–presidential candidate Bob Dole to “point out what domestic abuse advocates often ignore: that women who are married are safer than women who are not. Seventy-two percent of domestic abuse fatalities occur at the hands of boyfriends, not husbands.” Women, in other words, could avoid domestic abuse if they’d only make honest men out of their partners.

It’s easy to imagine how someone who believes that the systemic ills women complain about are overblown, fake, or partially their fault could preside over a workplace that allows a committed harasser to thrive. The Daily Beast writes that some of its sources said Ingraham was probably too busy with her radio show and other career obligations to keep track of whether or not her company’s CEO was sexually harassing the women who worked there. (Anthony, for his part, refutes the allegations.) But Anthony is Ingraham’s “longtime friend and business partner,” the Daily Beast reports, and she trusted him enough to found a website with him. A person who talks incessantly about young female colleagues’ bodies, even to co-workers who want nothing to do with the conversation, does not start up out of the blue. If Ingraham is oblivious to the specific anecdotes described in the allegations published Thursday, she certainly isn’t ignorant of Anthony’s disposition.

The LifeZette work environment calls to mind another right-wing media outlet full of predatory men, and Ingraham may be on her way there. The host is reportedly in talks with Fox News— whose late abusive founder she mourned as her friend—about taking on a primetime slot. When it costs tens of millions of dollars to oust the sexual harassers from a company, it’s probably a lot cheaper to hire someone who won’t take issue with the status quo.

Aug. 31 2017 4:04 PM

Sofía Vergara’s Ex Might Finally Be Out of Luck in His Battle for Custody of Their Frozen Embyros

After years of battling ex-fiancée Sofía Vergara in court for custody of a pair of frozen embryos they once made together, condiment entrepreneur Nick Loeb might finally be out of luck. Last week, a federal judge in Louisiana dismissed Loeb’s suit, saying that the embryos are “citizens of California,” where Vergara and Loeb conceived and froze them. Thus, the judge ruled, embryos have no legal standing to sue in Louisiana, the only state that gives embryos the right to sue and be sued.

Embryos are frozen when they are just clumps of a few dozen cells, equivalent to a vaginally inseminated egg that would still take another week to become embedded in the uterine wall. Louisiana law deems these cells “juridical persons”—not quite human beings, but deserving of legal rights. In Louisiana, embryos are not merely property of the two people who made them, so any legal disputes must meet “the best interest of the in vitro fertilized ovum.”

That’s the most likely reason why Loeb sued Vergara in Louisiana despite the fact that neither party maintains a residence there.* (Loeb says he chose the state because the couple broke up there; he dropped an earlier California suit because he didn’t want to name his previous girlfriends who’d had abortions.) Actually, Loeb didn’t exactly sue Vergara—the embryos, “Emma” and “Isabella,” did. “Plaintiff EMMA is a female human being at the embryonic stage of life, five days old developmentally,” the “right to live” suit read, claiming that Vergara had “effectively abandoned and chronically neglected” her children by keeping them frozen in a medical tank since 2013. Though Vergara and Loeb had signed a contract when they were together agreeing that the embryos would never be implanted anywhere without both parties’ consent, Loeb wanted to nullify the agreement and implant them in a surrogate.

Over the past couple of years, the Vergara–Loeb embryo battle has become a proxy fight for anti-abortion advocates who think frozen embryos should be treated like people. Anti-abortion groups have funded or filed amicus briefs in the embryo disputes of split-up couples, including the case of a Missouri woman named Jalesia McQueen. In the middle of her own court battle over two frozen embryos (“Noah” and “Genesis”) with an ex-husband who wanted to dispose of them, McQueen founded an organization called Embryo Defense to advocate for all excess embryos in legal limbo. She aggregates news on the Vergara–Loeb case and uses their photos in images made for sharing on social media. The graphics say things like “Sofia says it’s ‘selfish’ to let the embryos be born without both parents being in a loving relationship. Shouldn’t both parents just love the child?” and “Please pray for Sofia Vergara and those she called her ‘frozen babies,’ that she’d open her heart so they could be a blessing in her life.” One pairs a picture of Loeb’s face with the question “what about a father’s right to choose?”

The concept of “a father’s right” to procreate without input from the woman whose egg created the embryo is a favorite rallying cry of the embryo-protector set. Loeb himself made this argument in a 2015 New York Times op-ed with the magnificent headline “Sofía Vergara’s Ex-Fiancé: Our Frozen Embryos Have a Right to Live.” “A woman is entitled to bring a pregnancy to term even if the man objects,” Loeb wrote. “Shouldn’t a man who is willing to take on all parental responsibilities be similarly entitled to bring his embryos to term even if the woman objects?”

The federal judge’s decision against Loeb is only the latest in a string of disappointing court losses for those who believe embryos should be treated like people. When Barack Obama lifted a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in 2009, he was hit with a lawsuit from one Mary Scott Doe, a “frozen embryo symbolizing all existing frozen embryos.” A federal appeals court ruled that Doe had no standing as an “amorphous” class that could not prove any actual harm. In 2015, a California Superior Court judge ruled that a contract a divorced couple signed at the medical center where they created the embryo prevented either party from taking unilateral custody of the embryos unless one of the parties died. Even McQueen, the founder of Embryo Defense, lost her suit late last year when a St. Louis court ruled that embryos are “marital property of a special character,” not human beings with unalienable rights.

That St. Louis case might be the most promising decision yet for those who believe that no person should be able to incubate an embryo without the consent of the other person whose genetic material it carries. The others, which rest on the tenets of contract law, legal standing, and jurisdiction, say more about how the suits were filed than what rights adults have to the embryos they create. Still, Loeb’s loss could set a welcome precedent in these kinds of cases: Jurisdiction-shopping embryo protectors might find Louisiana to be a less hospitable home for a lawsuit than they’d imagined. 

*Correction, August 31, 2017: This piece originally referred to “the most likely reason why Loeb sued Vergara in California, despite the fact that neither party maintains a residence there.” It should have said Louisiana.

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