The XX Factor
What Women Really Think

July 14 2015 3:18 PM

Lena Dunham Enters the Celebrity Newsletter Game

The world of celebrity newsletters has become crowded in recent years. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, the oldest and most iconic celebrity newsletter, has brought us $995 cashmere throws and and “conscious uncoupling.” Plebeians wishing to emulate the lifestyles of the rich and famous can also subscribe to regular emails from Blake Lively’s Preserve and Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James. These publications are, to varying extents, glorified shopping portals that monetize a celebrity’s reputation for having good taste.

Enter Lena Dunham, who today announced that she and Girls producer Jenni Konner will launch their own newsletter, Lenny, this fall. Lenny will cover “feminism, style, health, politics, friendship and everything else,” and it, too, will make money by recommending products and taking a small cut of their sales. Dunham told BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Peterson that the newsletter is intended for “an army of like-minded intellectually curious women and the people who love them, who want to bring change but also want to know, like, where to buy the best tube top for summer that isn’t going to cost your entire paycheck.”

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July 14 2015 11:54 AM

For Hillary Clinton, Feminism and Economic Policy Go Hand in Hand

This presidential cycle, leftier-than-thou liberals wary of Hillary Clinton are at least backing decent human being Bernie Sanders instead of nutty Ralph Nader, the left turn of yore. As Jonathan Allen at Vox explains, the strike against Clinton is that “she'll eventually tack toward a ‘third way’ like President Bill Clinton”—which is to say that she'll embrace neoliberalism and outright conservatism.

But her speech Monday at the New School sent an important signal about Clinton's liberalism. As Matt Yglesias lays out (also in Vox), Clinton's economic agenda tacks well to the left of her husband's and of Barack Obama's: She “is less inclined to favor a market-oriented approach than a left-wing approach, a real change from the past quarter century of Democratic Party economic policymaking.” Clinton is making organized labor a central component of her policy agenda, with aggressive policies aimed at increasing wages and an economic philosophy that, as Yglesias writes, “sets Clinton up for a much more vigorous regulatory approach than either the Obama or (especially) Clinton administrations took.”

What tends to get overlooked is that Clinton has something else on offer for liberals: She's a strong feminist who takes advocacy for women and girls very seriously. Clinton injected feminism into her speech on Monday, noting the loss of female participation in the labor market and how we should strive to get more women working. “The United States used to rank seventh out of 24 advanced countries in women’s labor force participation,” Clinton explained. “By 2013, we’d dropped to 19th. That represents a lot of unused potential for our economy and American families.”

What makes the Clinton campaign especially interesting is that she pushes the narrative that women's issues are inseparable from economic concerns. Sex discrimination, reproductive rights, equal pay, affordable child care, universal pre-K: All of these issues are fundamentally about the economic well-being and contributions of half the population—or much more than half, actually, since the policies that benefit women also benefit their male partners and families. As Clinton noted in her speech, “We can’t afford to leave talent on the sidelines.” Putting feminism at the center of your campaign is a brave move, but also an economically rational one.

July 13 2015 1:12 PM

Could Scott Walker Steal Female Voters From Hillary Clinton? 

While Donald Trump continues to delight the conservative base with his downward spiral into racist idiocy, someone who is a genuine threat to Hillary Clinton has stepped into the presidential race: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Right now, the narrative in much of the political press is that Walker has a gaffe problem that might hurt him. Walker may seem kind of doofy, but if he goes up against Clinton in the general election, he could give her a real run for her money. That's because Walker does a much better job than most of the Republican field at lulling low-information voters into thinking he's a moderate.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the issue of reproductive choice. Walker is a hardline anti-choice ideologue with a zero percent rating from NARAL and a 100 percent rating from Wisconsin Right to Life. Walker made restricting abortion access a major priority of his administration, signing a law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital—a standard ruse that exploits fears about women's safety as a front to eliminate legal abortion. Walker is on record supporting a total ban on abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest. He also takes a dim view on contraception, and has undermined access to birth control by defunding Planned Parenthood and refusing to enforce a state law requiring insurance companies to cover contraception. 

Despite his radical views, Walker ran a 2014 campaign ad which implied he's pro-choice, arguing that his attempt to legislate legal abortion out of existence "leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor." But the decision isn't left to you and your doctor if the doctor is not allowed to work with you. When asked by a reporter about his attacks on birth control, Walker dodged: "It all depends on what you define as birth control." He added, "We've got a limited amount of time, and I would think people would want to hear about the issues that matter most to them." Virtually all women use birth control at some point in their lives, and 62 percent of women of reproductive age are currently using birth control. But women aren't people, and people do indeed want to hear about the issues that matter most to them.

Walker is also good at acting like a swell guy who's just trying to help out. When asked by a conservative pundit about his support for mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, he acted like he is just trying to do the ladies a favor. ""I think about—my sons are 19 and 20, you know, we still have their first ultrasound picture," he said. "It's just a cool thing out there." What's especially cool about it is that doctors under his law are required to drag out the uncomfortable procedure as long as possible and lecture the patient about the embryo's development.

Walker's ability to shrug and pretend that he's barely interested in this issue at all could work to make him seem like less of a threat to reproductive rights—and that could make him a formidable threat to Clinton. For Clinton to win, she has to get female and young voters fired up to vote, and such voters definitely get fired up by the war on women. If they don't realize that Walker is a scary woman-basher, they might not mobilize in the numbers Clinton needs. That's something Walker will be counting on.

July 13 2015 12:06 PM

Female Tennis Players Are Still Bullied for Looking Strong

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a piece by Ben Rothenberg about the struggle of female tennis players to maintain a positive body image in a society that thinks musculature on women is unfeminine. Rothenberg describes athletes struggling—even going through therapy—just to find peace with the muscles that they use to excel at their sport. Overall, the piece demonstrates how ridiculous beauty standards are—that objectively healthy and strong women are made to feel bad for not looking frail enough.

At least one prominent reader, however, walked away from Rothenberg's article feeling like women should feel bad about being muscular. Former Bush speechwriter and Atlantic senior editor David Frum took to Twitter to shame Wimbledon champion and women's No. 1 Serena Williams in particular. 

He then unleashed a series of tweets claiming that he wasn't trying to “allege against Serena”; he was, you know, just asking questions

The fact that someone such as Frum can't imagine that a woman can build major muscle by being the greatest athlete her sport has ever seen shows how much social pressures really do serve to distort basic realities about the female body.

If Frum had read the Times piece more closely, he'd have realized that elite women's tennis players don't struggle to bulk up—they struggle instead against their natural tendency to develop muscle in training. (That struggle may or may not relate to the desire to cultivate the good opinion of David Frum.) As Rothenberg points out, Maria Sharapova “has been the highest-paid female athlete for more than a decade because of her lucrative endorsements,” in no small part because of her lithe figure, even though Williams is clearly the greater athlete. Sharapova told him, “I can’t handle lifting more than five pounds,” a line that might have seemed too broad for an Amy Schumer skit.

It's a relief that several of the athletes in the Times piece don't fret about men who might be cowed by their bicep definition. “I actually like looking strong,” Heather Watson said. “I find strong, fit women a lot more attractive than lanky no-shape ones.”

There is nothing inevitable about women feeling like they have to be waif-like. Consider this year's ESPN Body issue, in which, without commentary or hedging, female athletes are celebrated for their strength in exactly the same light as their male counterparts. These women are beautiful not despite their muscles, but because of them. 

July 10 2015 9:05 AM

Key & Peele’s Latest Season Has a Feminist Bent

In the past two years, Comedy Central has become a kind of haven for funny women being funny about lot of things, most notably about being women. This past season alone, Amy Schumer has had viral sketches about actresses’ “last fuckable day,” booty anthems, and football rape culture—and that was just in the first episode. There are also the ladies of Broad City who have brought a female-centric perspective to the stoner-buddy comedy, a genre that’s typically dominated by men.

It seems like the men might be catching on, Key & Peele included. Last year, Indiewire’s Sara Stewart wrote about what she called the show’s “lady problem”: Like most critics, she glowingly praised their race-based comedy and their straight-up silliness, in this case to highlight how terrible their sketches about women are in comparison. (On the flip side, Schumer has been lambasted for her “shockingly large blind spot about race.”) Meegan, Key & Peele's cartoonishly needy girlfriend, and the viral “I Said Bitch” sketch, about men who are scared of their girlfriends, both feel stale—appearing to laugh at women more than with them.

But based on the first three episodes of Key & Peele’s fifth season, which premiered Wednesday night, the show’s writers seem to be thinking about its lady problem as well. Episode 1 introduced an anger translator for Hillary Clinton—a counterpart to President Obama’s anger translator, Luther, who is so popular he made an appearance with the real Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Later in the episode, a pirate shanty that starts out sounding like it’s about pirates raping women turns into a shanty about women’s rights—the refrain is “We say yo-ho, but we don’t say ho, because ho is disrespectful yo.” It’s a simple conceit, and each song is short and delightful. The sketch feels so much like something Amy Schumer might do that when the captain turned out to be a woman, I half-expected it to be her.

The second episode (spoiler alert—it doesn’t air until next week) features a TED–like conference with a session on “menstruation orientation,” about how men should deal with their women when they have their period. Blood flowing from a woman’s vagina is likened to locusts swarming out of a man’s penis: “That’s some biblical shit.” The sketch comfortably straddles the line between making fun of clueless men (there’s a demo on how tampons work) and familiar “this is how you handle women” comedy. (Episode 3, alas, brings the return of Meegan.)

Key and Peele are so scathing and thoughtful about race that it hardly seems as though they should always have to hit it out of the park on women. No comedian can be all things to all people—nor should he or she have to be. But the truly talented ones seem to be learning from their mistakes.

July 10 2015 8:15 AM

The EACH Woman Act Is Reasonable, Necessary, and Doesn’t Have Much of a Chance

For years, pro-choice advocates have been playing a game of whack-a-mole with anti-abortion legislation popping up in states with GOP-controlled legislatures, from TRAP laws to 20-week abortion bans to the dissemination of anti-choice propaganda. Combined with the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to tackle the abortion issue, women have vastly varying abortion access from state to state.

New legislation introduced in Congress this week signals a pushback from Democrats. Representatives Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) have introduced the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act, or the EACH Woman Act. According to RH Reality Check, the EACH Woman Act “would ensure that anyone who has health care or health insurance through the federal government also has coverage of abortion care.” While the bill has 70 co-sponsors, it’s unlikely to pass in a Republican-controlled House.

The bill would prohibit states from restricting insurance coverage of abortion, which is currently allowed by the Affordable Care Act. Significantly, 25 states currently have laws in place that do not allow private insurers to cover abortion.

This legislation is a direct challenge to the Hyde amendment, which Congress passed in 1976, only three years after Roe v. Wade. Although the amendment has changed slightly over the years, the ACLU reports, the “federal Medicaid program mandates abortion funding [only] in cases of rape or incest, as well as when a pregnant woman's life is endangered by a physical disorder, illness, or injury.”

Rep. Henry Hyde originally said of the bill, “I would certainly like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion: a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman.”

But his legislation has disproportionately affected lower-income women and women of color. As the report by the Center for American Progress explains, “women of color are more likely to rely on government health programs,” while the Guttmacher Institute found that “approximately one-fourth of women who would have Medicaid-funded abortions instead give birth when this funding is unavailable.”

In 1980, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the amendment in Harris v. McRae but ultimately upheld it. Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in his dissent that it was “designed to deprive poor and minority women of the constitutional right to choose abortion. That purpose is not constitutionally permitted under Roe v. Wade.”

RH Reality Check itemizes the would-be impact of the bill. It “would affect millions of women who receive health coverage through the federal government, including the one in six women who are enrolled in Medicaid; about one million female federal employees; women in the military or in the Peace Corps; young women under age 19 who are insured through the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP); Native American women covered under Indian Health Services; and women covered under these programs through a spouse or a parent.”

Since the Supreme Court found the amendment constitutional in 1980, and President Obama’s executive order in 2010 brought the ACA in line with the current federal funding policy on abortion, the bill doesn't have much of a chance. But feminist organizations are rallying around the most recent effort by Reps. Lee, Schakowsky, and DeGette to make abortion access more than a random game of appearing and disappearing rights.

July 8 2015 4:26 PM

$1.4 Billion in Birth Control Savings Is Just the Beginning

In 2012, the birth control pill accounted for an average of 44 percent of American women’s out-of-pocket health spending. Now, the average has dropped to 22 percent. For many women, it’s dropped to zero. 

This dramatic transformation is thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, according to a new study in the journal Health Affairs. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania surveyed the spending habits of nearly 800,000 women between the ages of 13 and 45 from January 2008 to June 2013.

The numbers they report are striking: Since 2012, women have saved $1.4 billion on birth control pills alone. That’s almost three times the only other estimate researchers could locate, a report by IMS Health that found savings of $483 million back in 2013. The average savings per user was $255; the average prescription cost fell from $32.74 to $20.37.

Researchers also found dramatic savings for other forms of contraception. For instance, a woman with an intrauterine device, which can cost upward of $1,000, saved about $248. “$1,000 might not blow you away, but a drop of 25 percent is likely to be significant for that woman,” says Nora Becker, a Ph.D. candidate at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author on the study. “For many of these women, contraception is their No. 1 health need.”

“It turns out the law is doing exactly what the law said would happen,” Becker adds. “We are seeing a dramatic and immediate drop in out-of-pocket spending.”

Next, Becker hopes to examine how the new birth control coverage impacts which type of birth control women choose. For instance, if cost isn’t a factor, many women may opt for a longer-lasting and potentially more effective method, such as an IUD. That choice could in turn have an impact on the birth rate down the road.

Post-Obamacare, private insurance now covers a range of preventive women’s health services, including Pap smears, cancer screenings, diabetes screenings, and prenatal care. Many argue that women in the U.S. shouldn’t have any out-of-pocket expenses for their birth control services and education in the Affordable Care Act era. So why isn’t the number zero instead of 22 percent?

One reason is that the mandate is required to cover at least one brand of birth control in every category, but certainly not all. Another is that the ACA is still being implemented. Right now, any health plan that hasn’t changed its cost-sharing benefits since 2010 is considered “grandfathered,” or exempt, from the mandate; about a third of the women in the study were on grandfathered plans. “A significant minority of women are still paying a lot for their contraception,” Becker says. Fortunately, grandfathered plans are phasing out over the next few years, meaning affordable contraception will be accessible to all in the near future.

July 8 2015 1:23 PM

The System for Establishing a Father’s Rights Hurts Both Men And Women

Kevin Noble Maillard has written a fascinating piece for the Atlantic about Christopher Emanuel, a South Carolina man who struggled to gain custody of his daughter after her mother gave her up for adoption without telling him about it. The story exposes some major flaws in the adoption system that stem, in large part, from the knotty question of how to find balance between father's rights and the well-being of children in a world where many fathers refuse to take responsibility. 

The story is a deeply sympathetic one. Emanuel, who is black, was dating a white woman when she became pregnant. Things went well for them at first—as their texting history shows—until her family found out. At this point, according to Emanuel, her openly racist parents—they called him, to his face, the N-word—started wedging him out of the picture and pushing her to give up the baby. She gave birth without telling him and gave the baby up for adoption before he knew she was born. 

It's not entirely unreasonable to give women this right, despite the awfulness of Emanuel's dilemma. A major concern is that a man can impregnate a woman and then just disappear, making it impossible for the woman to give the baby up for adoption without the man's say-so.

Still, fathers have rights. As Maillard details, if a man can demonstrate that he did stick around and try to provide for the woman and child, then he has earned parental rights. Additionally, many states have a putative-father registry that a man can use to declare himself before the baby is born; the state is then required to inform him if the mother tries to give the baby up for adoption. The problem is that many fathers don't know about the registry; in practice, it exists mostly to provide cover for adoptive families.

Emanuel did register, which helped his case. What really cinched it, though, was his text-messaging history, which showed everything from his great excitement about welcoming his daughter to the world to his concern about the mother's day-by-day blood-sugar levels. He won custody, but only after demonstrating that he had the means to provide for his daughter as well as an emotional investment. As Maillard writes:

“Even though we’ve had progress in the active role that men take in their children’s lives, the state still defines breadwinning as the definitive component of fatherhood,” said Deborah Dinner, an associate professor of family law at Washington University. Staying in good standing can mean as little as an automated direct deposit, but anything less than an actual offer of money is considered by law to be “vague and conditional.” Even if the woman disappears or issues a restraining order, the man’s potential support must be tangible and ready, like escrow. 

Men can gain paternal rights, Maillard adds, by being “persistent, aggressive, and proactive in offering money even when the mother rejects it or refuses contact.”

The system makes life hard for good men like Emanuel, and it has real dangers for women as well. If a woman is trying to get away from an abusive man and is considering adoption to cut ties completely, it seems that all her abuser has to do is give her money—or try to—and potentially gain a foothold back in her life. If a man can use money to block the adoption, it will make it that much easier to stay in her life or even guilt her back into a relationship.

The system clearly needs major reform. We could start by finding a better way to define what it means to be an involved father. 

July 7 2015 3:10 PM

Free IUD Programs Work. Why Are Conservatives Opposed To Them?

On Monday, the New York Times published a lengthy report on the smashing success of a six-year plan to offer long-acting contraception, such as implants or the IUD, free of charge to any low-income woman or teen who wanted them. Funded by outside donors, the program has been a tremendous success, lowering the teen birth rate by 40 percent between 2009 to 2013. The abortion rate for teenagers fell by 42 percent.

“There was a similar decline in births for another group particularly vulnerable to unplanned pregnancies: unmarried women under 25 who have not finished high school,” Sabrina Tavernise writes. The program is credited with helping a huge number of young women wait until they're a little older to have children, giving them time to finish their education and get a foothold in the working world first. 

I've been touting this program for awhile now, but unfortunately, the money has run out. The hope was that the state legislature would help the young women of Colorado to live better, more economically successful lives by voting to fund the program itself. However, the Republican-run legislature decided against it. The official reason: The program is redundant now that Obamacare offers “free” birth control.

That excuse has some holes in it, starting with the fact that Obamacare does not offer free birth control. Obamacare requires that insurance plans cover birth control without a copay, but you either have to buy the insurance or earn it as an employment benefit in order to get that coverage. A lot of the women and girls who are eligible for the Colorado program don't have insurance. There are additional obstacles for teens who want the IUD. “Advocates also worry that teenagers — who can get the devices at clinics confidentially — may be less likely to get the devices through their parents’ insurance,” Tavernise writes. 

The real issue here is that opponents of accessible birth control want to keep sex dangerous, in the hope that danger will discourage girls and women from having sex. This was clear in the debate over the program's funding. “I hear the stories of young girls who are engaged, very prematurely, in sexual activity, and I see firsthand the devastation that happens to them,” Republican state Rep. Kathleen Conti argued. “I'm not accrediting this directly to this program, but I'm saying, while we may be preventing an unwanted pregnancy, at the same time, what are the emotional consequences that could be coming up on the other side?”

Colorado isn't the only state where people are anxious that IUDs might be just too good at preventing teen pregnancy. As Media Matters reported today, controversy is flaring over a Seattle program that allows teen girls to get IUDs and implants from a school-based health center. Fox News' coverage called long-acting contraception “invasive birth control” while host Jedediah Bila called it “an overreach in schools.” Breitbart scared readers about “serious side effects” and warned that the IUDs are “free of charge and free of parental consent.”

Interestingly, a talking point in both the Townhall and Fox News coverage was that it's outrageous that kids can't buy sodas at school but they can get IUDs. What is this world coming to when we try to help our kids avoid sugary crap and unwanted pregnancies? Next you're going to tell me that we also want them to wash their hands and wear seatbelts. 

July 7 2015 12:57 PM

How Right-Wing Politicians Use Their Wives as Human Shields

Republican would-be presidential candidates are stuck in a precarious position when it comes to gay rights. On one hand, the public at large is increasingly supportive of gay rights. On the other hand, the Republican base is increasingly hysterical about the issue. Keeping your base placated while showing a more moderate side to the general public is a tricky needle to thread. So it's not surprising that Scott Walker's wife, Tonette Walker, is talking about her sons' support of same-sex marriage—and implying she tends to agree with them. 

“It’s hard for me because I have a cousin who I love dearly—she is like a sister to me—who is married to a woman, her partner of 18 years,” Tonette Walker told the Washington Post, after describing her efforts to reconcile her pro-gay sons to her anti-gay husband. The Walker family falls right in line with national trends that show women support gay marriage more than men and that young Republicans support same-sex marriage while their elders reject it

The Republican Party has a long tradition of candidates showcasing their more liberal wives as a way to soften their image on social issues. The pro-choice wife is a particularly useful weapon. Anita Perry “accidentally” suggested pro-choice leanings when Rick Perry was getting negative press for his support of severe abortion restrictions. Both of the Presidents Bush have sent out the pro-choice wives to portray the abortion question as a minor disagreement among family members as opposed to an actual policy position that the person in power—that would be the husband—would push regardless of his wife's opinion. Eric Cantor revealed a pro-choice wife in the midst of his 2008 efforts to “rehabilitate” the GOP by making it less ideological. Not that Diana Cantor's opinion mattered—her husband later pushed hard on anti-choice legislation

Back in '08, Diana Cantor also revealed support for same-sex marriage, but the precedent set by the pro-choice wives of anti-choice politicians should give us a clue as to how much Tonette Walker or Diana Cantor's opinion on marriage equality matters when it comes to actual policy. All they do is provide their partners with a pleasant façade for the benefit of low-information voters.