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What Women Really Think

May 28 2015 3:07 PM

What Was the Worst State for Women This Week?

Fundamentalist perversity: It's not just for the stars of reality shows on TLC. The legal war on women gets downright bizarre in this edition of Worst State of the Week, which features a dumb lie, a weird lie, and a call for security. 

Second runner-up is Wisconsin, but the real honoree is Gov. Scott Walker. In a talk radio interview Walker gave Friday, he framed a bill he signed mandating ultrasounds for women seeking abortions as an awesome gift. "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." 


Walker has implied that pregnant women are somehow being prevented from accessing this technology, and his law simply remedies that. This is not true. Most abortion providers do them anyway, to help determine the best way to abort the pregnancy. What Walker's law would do is make the uncomfortable process last longer, by forcing providers to describe what's onscreen to patients, turning what should be a quick diagnostic test into a lengthy guilt trip. 

In second place is West Virginia, where anti-choice forces are trying to hunt down the next Kermit Gosnell. Pro-choicers in the state are demanding the removal of anti-choice activist Byron Calhoun from his job at West Virginia University’s Health Sciences Center because of the role he played in a nuisance lawsuit against the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia. The lawsuit, filed by the Family Policy Council of West Virginia on behalf of a woman named Itai Gravely, accused the Women's Health Center of leaving a fetal skull inside her body during an abortion. Dr. Calhoun did treat complications from Gravely's abortion—which was possibly exacerbated by her then-undisclosed heroin addiction—but the pathology report did not indicate that there was any fetal skull inside her uterus. 

RH Reality Check investigated and found that Gravely didn't even hear about this supposed skull until a year after her abortion, when Dr. Calhoun called her out of the blue to tell her about it and refer her to another anti-choice doctor who helped her sue the clinic. The lawsuit was dismissed this month, but this mysterious fetal skull—which was not recorded and which only Dr. Calhoun has laid eyes on—may have helped create the pretext for the attorney general to step up efforts to shut down clinics in the state. Getting an abortion is hard enough, but in West Virginia you apparently have to contend with right-wingers combing through your records hoping you're an easy mark for abusive legal practices. 

Moving up from last week's second-place showing to the winner's podium is Texas, where state legislators nearly came to blows over whether or not attacks on women's rights are coming hard and fast enough. Rep. Jonathan Stickland really wants women to lose insurance coverage for abortion, and claims that state house leadership promised him it would happen. But then the calendars committee decided that micromanaging America's vaginas wasn't a top priority for the moment, and the bill stalled out in committee.

Stickland, aggrieved, got into the face of Rep. Byron Cook, a fellow Republican, who Stickland blamed for the stall. According to Houston Chronicle reporter Brian Rosenthal, things nearly came to blows before the sergeants-at-arms dragged Stickland out of the room. Happily for him, though, the temper tantrum worked: Legislators pulled strings to get his ban out of committee. 

This is the second time Stickland has been kicked out of the capitol building for getting aggressive with fellow legislators, and he made headlines a few months ago for trying to hang a sign reading "Former Fetus" outside his office. Under the circumstances, the phrase "Overgrown Baby" would be more fitting. 

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May 27 2015 12:47 PM

If We Want to Help Working Mothers, We Could Start With Paid Paternity Leave

A utopia in which working parents can balance careers and kids can’t be achieved here on Earth, or at least not without some tradeoffs. That’s the conclusion some reached after the New York Times rounded up studies showing that policies such as longer paid maternity leaves and affordable child care can help working mothers but also hold them back in the workplace. Among all developed countries, the Times found, better maternity leaves and flexible work protections have led to more women entering the workforce but fewer women in leadership roles. Here in the U.S., even our paltry guarantee of unpaid maternity leave has made women less likely to get promotions.

But these studies, aren’t indictments of workplace policies such as paid leave and subsidized child care. They are indictments of crafting these policies under the false assumption that women are the only ones who need them.


For example, a law in Chile requiring employers to provide child care for children under the age of 2 only applies to those companies with a certain share of female employees. In Spain, there’s a law giving workers with young children the right to ask for fewer hours, but it’s almost entirely women who ask. American women are a third more likely to take unpaid leave than men. Many families can’t afford to have both parents out on unpaid leave or working fewer hours to be home with children at one time, and it’s the mother who is still nearly always the one who scales back.

Well-crafted policy can change all of that. One policy in particular could do an inordinate amount to shift culture and how we see working fathers: paid paternity leave, with a use-it-or-lose-it clause.

While American men are far less likely than women to take time off for the arrival of their children, there’s evidence that if they have access to paid leave, they use what they’re given. Only three states guarantee paid leave to both parents; in California, the first state to institute its program, the number of fathers taking leave doubled after it went into effect, and they took longer periods away from work.

This is great news, because paternity leave has lasting positive effects. Fathers who take two or more weeks off after their children are born end up more involved in their children’s care nine months later—feeding them, bathing them, changing diapers—compared with fathers who don’t take leave. Later in their children’s lives, men who took leave are still more committed and competent fathers. And when fathers are more involved in parenting, it means mothers have more time and energy to commit to paid work.

But the magic really starts to happen when paid leave policies are designed to push men into taking time off. A few years ago, Sweden redesigned its policy so that a father has to take at least two months off in order for his family to get any paid leave at all; after the change, 85 percent of fathers took leave. Meanwhile, Swedish mothers’ incomes rise 7 percent for every month of leave their husbands take.

Quebec has made a similar move, setting aside five weeks of paid leave that only fathers can take. Fathers who were eligible for the so-called “daddy quota” increased the time they spent doing household and child-rearing tasks by 23 percent, while mothers became more likely to be employed full time, worked longer hours, and earned higher incomes.

Paternity leave alone won’t completely change an economy that rewards working men for becoming fathers and penalizes women who become mothers. But it can change the way we see working fathers and how they see themselves. That also means we start to reevaluate parenthood at work, which benefits women who have always been assumed to be the default caretakers. We begin to assume that everyone can become a parent, and the importance of that shift can’t be understated.

May 27 2015 12:25 PM

Denver ComicCon Had an All-Male “Women in Comics” Panel

The past few years have seen a lot of discussion (and a lot of misogynist backlash) about improving women's experience of “geek” spaces such as video gaming, sci-fi conventions, and comics. So it was especially puzzling to see that Denver ComicCon, one of the biggest comic conventions in the country, convened a panel called Women in Comics that had no actual women sitting onstage. 

When Janelle Asselin of Comics Alliance asked about the omission, Denver ComicCon emphasized the historical aspects of the panel:

[I]t was a panel that took an historical view of women characters in comic books rather than the current role of women creators in the industry or diversity in comics — of which DCC has many with appropriately diverse panels. The Women in Comics panel was a submitted panel that featured respected academics on the subject.

There's a lot of connections between the sexist boys' club of the comics past and the sexist boys' club of comics present. Perhaps a woman might be able to employ a little personal experience to help draw those historical connections. Plenty of people happen to be history experts and female at the same time. As Asselin notes, one such woman—Trina Robbins, a preeminent historian of women in comics—was even at this year's convention. Well, at least there's a new submission for the endlessly funny “Congrats, you have an all male panel!” Tumblr. 

May 26 2015 11:52 AM

Fundamentalism Is a Competition, and the Duggars Won the Christian Right

The revelation that the eldest son of TLC's Duggar clan, Josh Duggar, had molested a number of underage girls—including his sisters—has created an explosion of attention and outrage. The fury has a sharp political edge to it, because the Duggars are important figures in the world of religious-right activism and Republican politics. 

Blogger Tbogg at Raw Story reminds us of the Duggars' standing in this realm with a series of pictures of Josh Duggar posing with Republican politicians. Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz: Posing for a picture with this guy is apparently a requirement to run in a Republican primary. Some of the more far-right Republicans used the Duggars to signal how down they are with the religious right. Rick Santorum, in particular, loved the clan and put them front and center in his campaign efforts


Duggar has this much access in part because he was the executive director, at the precocious age of 27, of the Family Research Council's FRC Action, a Christian-right lobbying group that fights against gay rights, reproductive rights, and even the Violence Against Women Act, calling it a “slush fund.” The FRC is a big deal in Christian-right circles, and therefore it's a big deal with Republicans. Rand Paul, Marco RubioCruz, Jindal, Perry, Bush—the Values Voter Summit, FRC's big annual shindig, is a veritable murderer's row of Republican politicians seeking religious-right votes. In many ways, FRC is the current face of the Christian right in America. Hiring a member of the Duggar family for such a major role in the organization sent a signal that the Duggar family's extremist views fit right into the larger Christian-right message. 

And extremist is the right word for it. While TLC's 19 Kids and Counting show spins them as a kooky but ultimately loving family, the reality is that they're part of a far-right Quiverfull slice of the already far-right cult of Christian patriarchy. A big part of their religion is the belief that a woman should, to be blunt, never exercise a moment of sexual agency in her entire life. Prior to marriage, she is not allowed to have sex or even kiss or hold hands with someone. After marriage, she is not allowed to decline sex if her husband wants it. She is not allowed birth control, even if giving birth will kill her. 

Now some Republicans are trying to protect the Duggars. Mike Huckabee defended Josh Duggar, accusing the press of “sensationalizing the story.” Now Arkansas state Sen. Bart Hester is demanding the firing of the police chief who leaked this information to the press. (Hester last made national headlines by trying to argue that it's somehow not discrimination for businesses to refuse service to gay people.) It would seem politically expedient just to cut the Duggars loose and, if possible, pretend never to have met them, but such is the love that the Duggars inspire in the Christian right that diehards are still out there going to bat for them. 

Such is the nature of culture-war politics. While most Christian conservatives reject the Quiverfull lifestyle for themselves, the Duggars' extremism elicited admiration and maybe a little envy among the ranks. Fundamentalism, regardless of the religion, always has a whiff of competition to it. Just as urban liberals compete to see who can eat the most organic food and libertarian types race to see who can have the most polluting truck, Christian conservatives compete to see who can deny women's autonomy the hardest. But perhaps now Republicans will learn a lesson about the dangers of embracing religious extremists. 

May 22 2015 1:44 PM

Duggar Revelations Are Just the Latest Sex Abuse Scandal to Rock Far-Right Fundamentalism

Score one for the tabloid press. Josh Duggar, the eldest son of the creepy super-fundamentalist clan at the center of the TLC show 19 Kids and Counting, has admitted to charges of molesting multiple underage girls when he was a teenager; he has since stepped down from his position as a sex scold for the Family Research Council. Duggar admitted to molesting five girls—some of them reportedly his sisters—and while the family claims to have addressed the situation, a timeline constructed by Gawker suggests he did not get counseling while managing to dodge any prosecution. 

The family's fame guarantees this story will stay in the public memory for awhile, but it's far from the first sex abuse scandal in the tight-knit world of far-right fundamentalism. As I wrote last year for Slate, Doug Phillips of the far-right group Vision Forum was forced to step down after admitting to "a lengthy, inappropriate relationship with a woman." The woman in question, Lourdes Torres-Manteufel, claims it was more than "inappropriate," noting that they met when she was 15 and that he "methodically groomed" by moving her into the house as a nanny and becoming "the pastor of her church, her boss, her landlord, and the controller of all aspects of her life" before pushing for sex. The Duggars were tight with Phillips and Vision Forum, which promoted a lot of Duggar-related material.


Another hardcore fundamentalist leader who had a mentorship relationship with the Duggars, Bill Gothard, was also caught up in a sex abuse scandal last year. Gothard was the leader of Institute in Basic Life Principles, an organization that promotes the "quiverfull" philosophy—particularly its emphasis on forsaking contraception and having as many children as possible. Gothard resigned after more than 30 women accused him of sexual harassment and abuse. Prior to this, Wire reports, the Duggars were "devotees of Gothard's Advanced Training Institute seminars. Until recently, the Duggars' official website called Gothard's Embassy Institute (which he also founded) their '#1 recommended resource' for families (that page now displays as blank)." 

Vision Forum, the Institute in Basic Life Principles, and the Duggar family are arguably the three most influential groups promoting the "Christian patriarchy" movement, which promotes homeschooling, wifely submission, extreme pre-marital chastity (no hand-hugging or kissing), no contraception, and the idea that women's only real role in life is as wives and mothers. Having all your major leadership eaten up by sex abuse scandals is no small thing. Even before the Duggar revelations, the head of Patrick Henry College, itself an extreme religious-right organization, was distancing himself from the Christian patriarchy movement. When even big-time fundamentalists are jumping ship, maybe it's time for TLC to consider cutting the Duggars loose

May 22 2015 12:25 PM

Cory Gardner Finally Found a Birth Control Bill He Likes

During the 2014 campaign, Republican Cory Gardner had to pivot from his long history as an anti-choice fanatic to appear more moderate on social issues—a necessary move to win the Colorado Senate race. The biggest obstacle was his long-standing support for a “personhood” law that would define life as beginning before pregnancy, when an egg is fertilized. (Medical experts agree that pregnancy begins at implantation.) Gardner claimed that his support for these bills was just about abortion, but many critics were skeptical, because abortion can only happen after a pregnancy begins, and personhood bills address the pre-pregnancy state. (Many anti-choice activists argue that the pill, emergency contraception, and the IUD are “abortion” and work by killing fertilized eggs. That's not true, since hormonal methods suppress ovulation, and the IUD basically makes sperm unable to move.)

Gardner's support for personhood laws, along with his hostility to the Affordable Care Act—including its requirement that insurance plans cover birth control—made the contraception question a vulnerable spot for a candidate running in a swing state such as Colorado. So Gardner tried an unusual move, arguing that he had an alternative to the ACA contraception coverage: make the pill over-the-counter. He didn't address paying for it, as the ACA does, and Congress has no power to make drugs over-the-counter anyway. Still, it was enough to prop up Gardner's claim that he wasn't anti-contraception, helping him to beat Democrat Mark Udall. 


Now Gardner has introduced a bill in the Senate that he claims is about making over-the-counter pills happen. As Gardner's website explains, the bill would fast-track any Food and Drug Administration applications from drug companies for over-the-counter status for birth control pills; it would also allow insurance companies to cover over-the counter drugs. 

In theory, it would be great if you could get OTC birth control pills and even have insurance cover it. But Gardner's bill won't do anything to make that happen—it's just a feint. Even on the slim chance it passes, it doesn't actually do anything. Drug companies that make the pill have never applied for OTC status, and there's zero reason to think they will start now just for a minor fee waiver and a promise that their applications will be read promptly. And insurance companies likely wouldn't pay for OTC pills if they don't have to. This bill is a lot of posturing to create the illusion of a pro-contraception stance. 

If Gardner actually wanted women to have contraception, he has plenty of better options. In his home state of Colorado, Republicans have waged war on a program that actually got contraception into women's hands, a program so effective that it lowered the teen birthrate in the state by 40 percent over five years and saved the state $42.5 million in health care expenditures. The program offered free IUDs to low-income teenagers and women who wanted them, but Republicans in the state killed it, at least partly over concerns that girls would see this as permission to have sex. “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,” state Rep. Kathleen Conti argued. There is no evidence, by the way, that IUD access increases sexual activity in teenagers. 

May 21 2015 2:46 PM

Trigger Warnings Do Politicize Mental Illness. So What?

For a certain kind of centrist liberal who is hypervigilant about the re-emergence of ’90s-era “political correctness,” the phrase trigger warning can be a little triggering. In theory, trigger warnings are merely little content notes for those who need a little more mental preparation for emotionally taxing material. But for some the phrase induces flashbacks and cold sweats, as if the P.C. police were about to forcibly convert you to spelling women as womyn.

Jeet Heer of the New Republic has an interesting rejoinder to those who are triggered every time a professor entertains the possibility of using trigger warnings in class. Trigger warnings, Heer argues, are less a product of “radical freaks” dominating academia and social media and more the result of “a thriving vernacular therapeutic culture, where ordinary citizens borrow concepts from psychology and use them as tools of self-improvement, often, in the process, forming distinct political and social identities.” Specifically, Heer argues, it's not knee-jerk political correctness but the widespread popular understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder that's at the root of this new enthusiasm for content warnings and safe spaces. 


PTSD first emerged with veterans suffering from recurrent flashbacks to war trauma. The diagnosis has expanded as scientific evidence on memory has backed up the idea that “for certain people the memory of a trauma always exists, lying just below the surface of consciousness, ready to be triggered.” There's also a growing belief—which surely needs more research—that even people who don't have PTSD diagnoses can still be “triggered” into unnecessary emotional suffering when unpleasant memories are dredged up. 

Trigger warnings, while imperfect, are usually attempts to reduce the chances of causing unnecessary pain to people with mental health issues. Many of the defenses of trigger warnings are persuasive. If your goal is for people to engage thoughtfully with emotionally challenging material, and that material causes a panic reaction, the lack of a trigger warning might actually be counterproductive to the ostensible goal of free discourse. Giving people a little mental space to prepare can make it easier for them to engage.

But while most of trigger warnings' proponents mean well, there's no scientific evidence to suggest that these warnings can prevent panic attacks or other manifestations of PTSD. As practiced in the real world, the trigger warning is less about preventive mental health care and more about social signaling of liberal credentials. You often see them being deployed online in feminist blog posts directly under a headline that has already told you what kind of material you're dealing with. (In fact, the headline itself may have needed its own trigger warning.) Telling your audience twice only serves to let them know you're a member of the trigger-warning tribe.

There is no doubt that the concept of trauma and triggers is being weaponized by some censorious lefties trying to score points. Everything from the Cancel Colbert dust-up to attempts to remove a silly statue from the Wellesley campus to the recent inchoate rage at Game of Thrones show that certain left-wingers will resort to insinuations of mass trauma if we don't give into their demands. 

On the other hand, none of it worked. Colbert got promoted. The Wellesley statue remains. Game of Thrones will continue to make bank for HBO. The P.C. police might irritate you, but they can't parlay trigger warnings into a serious threat of censorship. When cautioning others not to be oversensitive, make sure to check yourself first.

May 21 2015 11:46 AM

What Was the Worst State for Women This Week?

While the Internet debates the gender politics of Westeros, real-life state legislatures continue a war on women. Third place in DoubleX's latest Worst State of the Week honors goes to Pennsylvania, where Republican legislators backed a resolution to honor John Patrick Stanton for his many years of obsessively harassing women trying to enter abortion clinics. The resolution calls Stanton, who died in January, a “humanitarian, activist and founder of the pro-life movement in this Commonwealth.”

Most people who had to deal with him regularly held a different opinion. Sari Stevens, executive director of Planned Parenthood in Pennsylvania, sent a letter to lawmakers detailing Stanton's “humanitarian” harassment techniques. “He would use terms like ‘faggot’ and racial slurs—towards patients, staff, partners and even Rep. Brian Sims,” she explained, adding that he would wave “graphic, medically incorrect, and often racist signs around the facility targeting patients and staff.” His decades of hounding women “resulted in lawsuits, charges of harassment and trespassing, arrests and at least one incarceration,” noted. Sounds like a real prince, Pennsylvania!


Frequent nominee Texas gets second place, for adapting voter suppression techniques into strategies to keep abortion out of the hands of young and low-income women. The Texas House approved a bill that requires women seeking abortions to present valid government ID. The ostensible reason is to shut out underage girls from accessing abortion. (And by the way, why do conservatives treat abortion like it's an adult treat like booze or R-rated movies?) Undocumented immigrants would be most obviously affected, but as we see when it comes to voter ID laws, these restrictions shut out young adults and low-income women who move a lot or struggle to keep their driver's licenses up to date.

This week's winner is Louisiana, whose legislature gave into pressure from the National Rifle Association to water down a bill meant to keep convicted domestic abusers from getting guns. Under the NRA-approved version of the bill, you can beat up a woman you're dating and still procure firearms so long as you're not living with your victim. According to the Times-Picayune, gun-rights supporters worried that the original version of the bill could have applied "to someone who has been on a single date." God forbid that a man who attacks a woman on a first date be denied access to a gun!

Keeping a loophole that allows men to terrorize dating partners with legal guns is particularly disturbing when you consider that, according to a report by Everytown for Gun Safety, the number of domestic homicides committed by dating partners now exceeds those committed by spouses.

The bill also excluded stalking as a crime serious enough to lose you your gun rights, even though a history of stalking behavior is reported in nine out of every 10 attempted domestic murders. But for creepy dudes who resort to stalking if women reject them after one date, don't worry. Louisiana has your back.

May 20 2015 11:32 AM

Emma Sulkowicz Carries a Mattress at Columbia’s Graduation

Columbia student and performance artist Emma Sulkowicz added one more chapter to her now internationally famous piece “Carry That Weight” when she and a group of four friends lugged a mattress across the stage during Columbia’s commencement on Tuesday. The piece, described by art critic Jerry Saltz as “clear, to the point, insistent, adamant,” involved Sulkowicz carrying a mattress around campus every day to protest how Columbia handled her rape accusations against a fellow student, who was cleared of the charges. (Other students also complained about his abusive behavior.) Sulkowicz promised to shlep the mattress until her accused rapist was no longer a student at Columbia, so it makes sense that their graduation ceremony would be the grand finale of her piece.

As with much of performance art, it helps to actually see it with your own eyes before passing judgment. Luckily, the Columbia Spectator has video. As viewers can see, this performance isn't morose but triumphant. The audience applauds as Sulkowicz and her friends turn to them with nervous but winning smiles. 


Sulkowicz may not have persuaded Columbia to boot her alleged rapist off campus, but this piece has grown far beyond her case. Sadly, our culture is still saddled with the myth that being a rape victim somehow means you are weak or lacking agency, but Sulkowicz's performance powerfully rebuts that notion. It may have started as a piece protesting a perceived injustice, but it ended as a piece celebrating women's strength.  

May 19 2015 11:12 AM

Cannes Reportedly Turned Women Away for Not Wearing Heels

ScreenDaily reports that some female attendees at the Cannes Film Festival are being denied entrance to screenings because they were wearing, heaven forbid, flat shoes:

Multiple guests, some older with medical conditions, were denied access to the anticipated world-premiere screening for wearing rhinestone flats.
The festival declined to comment on the matter, but did confirm that it is obligatory for all women to wear high-heels to red-carpet screenings.

Documentary director Asif Kapadia tweeted to confirm the reports:

Although ScreenDaily reports that the festival dress code does require heels, Cannes director Thierry Fremaux tweeted that these reports are “unfounded.” 

Regardless of what exactly happened at Cannes, the story reveals how much sky-high heels have become standardized as the only appropriate footwear for women who want to look dressed up. The reporting from Cannes treats flat shoes as if they are medical devices instead of perfectly normal footwear. ScreenDaily quotes a festivalgoer: “I’ve heard this happening several times now, even to older women who can’t wear heels for medical reasons. It’s bulls***.” 

Women shouldn't feel like they need a doctor's note to wear shoes that don't make them want to chop off their feet in agony by the end of the night. This isn't like requiring men to wear ties or requiring everyone generally to wear formal clothing. Even if you don't have a medical condition, high heels might give you one. I like the look of high heels as well as anyone who has grown up in our culture, but just because they look cool doesn't justify making women imperil their health by wearing them. Smoking looks cool, too, but we would balk if Cannes required everyone to smoke to make the pictures look more French and glamorous.

High heels are orthopedic nightmares. At best, they should be opt-in and not opt-out. Ideally, they would go the way of corseting or petticoats. It's totally possible to make a shoe that looks dressed up without killing your feet. Just take the shoes women are already wearing, chop the heels off, and there you go. As far as oppressive social customs go, this one is maybe the easiest of all to fix.