Nation Topics - Gender Issues
News and Features
America is living in the blowback years.
When several soldiers killed their wives, an old problem was suddenly news.
A few years ago, an intellectual historian uncovered the story of Betty
Friedan's formative years as a Popular Front journalist and activist in
Shannon O'Brien had advantages going into the campaign for the
Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Massachusetts. As the state
treasurer, she'd won a statewide race.
In some parts of China, local officials keep track of women's menstrual periods. We haven't come to that, but anyone who thinks women's reproductive and sexual privacy is secure in America wasn't following the news this summer.
Bush's counterterrorism efforts neglect women.
America's rate of unwanted pregnancy is a huge public health scandal,
but five years after being approved by the FDA, emergency
contraception--the use of normal birth control pills to block pregnancy
within seventy-two hours of unprotected sex--has yet to fulfill its
potential. Part of the problem has to do with the difficulty of getting
EC in time; many doctors don't want the hassle of dealing with walk-in
patients, many clinics are closed on weekends and holidays (times of
peak demand) and some pharmacies, like Wal-Mart's, refuse to stock it.
That anti-choicers falsely liken EC to abortion and tar it as a
dangerous drug doesn't help.
The main barrier to EC use, though, is that most women don't know what
it is. To spread the word, Jennifer Baumgardner and I have written an
open letter explaining how EC works, how to get it and why women should
even consider acquiring it in advance. If every Nation
reader with access to the Internet forwards it to ten people and one
list, and those people do the same and on and on, it could reach
thousands, even millions of women. Like ads for Viagra, only not spam.
Activism doesn't get much easier than this!
An Open Letter About EC
The one thing that activists on every side of the abortion debate agree
on is that we should reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. There
are 3 million unintended pregnancies each year in the United States;
around 1.4 million of them end in abortion. Yet the best tool for
reducing unwanted pregnancies has only been used by 2 percent of all
adult women in the United States, and only 11 percent of us know enough
about it to be able to use it. No, we aren't talking about
abstinence--we mean something that works!
The tool is EC, which stands for Emergency Contraception (and is also
known as the Morning After Pill). For more than twenty-five years,
doctors have dispensed EC "off label" in the form of a handful of daily
birth control pills. Meanwhile, many women have taken matters into their
own hands by popping a handful themselves after one of those nights--you
know, when the condom broke or the diaphragm slipped or for whatever
reason you had unprotected sex.
Preven (on the market since 1998) and Plan B (approved in 1999), the
dedicated forms of EC, operate essentially as a higher-dose version of
the Pill. The first dose is taken within seventy-two hours after
unprotected sex, and a second pill is taken twelve hours later. EC is at
least 75 percent effective in preventing an unwanted pregnancy after sex
by interrupting ovulation, fertilization and implantation of the egg.
If you are sexually active, or even if you're not right now, you should
keep a dose of EC on hand. It's less anxiety-producing than waiting
around to see if you miss your period; much easier, cheaper and more
pleasant than having to arrange for a surgical abortion. To find an EC
provider in your area, see www.backupyourbirthcontrol.org,
www.not-2-late.com or ec.princeton.edu/providers/index.html.
Pass this on to anyone you think may not know about backing up their
birth control (or do your own thing and let us know about it). Let's
make sure we have access to our own hard-won sexual and reproductive
The Things You Need to Know About EC
EC is easy. A woman takes a dose of EC within seventy-two hours of
unprotected sex, followed by a second dose twelve hours later.
EC is legal.
EC is safe. It is FDA-approved and supported by the American College
of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
EC is not an abortion. Anti-choicers who call EC "the abortion
pill" or "chemical abortion" also believe contraceptive pills,
injections and IUDs are abortions. According to the FDA, EC pills "are
not effective if the woman is pregnant; they act primarily by delaying
or inhibiting ovulation, and/or by altering tubal transport of sperm
and/or ova (thereby inhibiting fertilization), and/or altering the
endometrium (thereby inhibiting implantation)."
EC has a long shelf life. You can keep your EC on hand for at least two
EC is for women who use birth control. You should back up your
birth control by keeping a dose of EC in your medicine cabinet or purse.
What You Can Do to Help
Forward this e-mail to everyone you know. Post it on lists, especially
those with lots of women and girls. Print out this information,
photocopy it to make instant leaflets and pass them around in your
community. Call your healthcare provider, clinic, or university health
service and ask if they provide EC. Spread the word if they do. Lobby
them (via petitions, meetings with the administrators, etc.) to offer EC
if they don't.
Make sure that your ER has EC on hand for rape victims and offers it to
them as a matter of policy. Many hospitals, including most Catholic
hospitals, do not dispense EC even to rape victims.
Get in touch with local organizations--Planned Parenthood, NOW, NARAL,
campus groups--and work with them to pressure hospitals to amend their
If you can't find a group, start your own. Submit an Op-Ed to your local
paper or send letters to the editor about EC.
Make sure your pharmacy fills EC prescriptions. Some states have
"conscience clauses" that exempt pharmacists from dispensing drugs that
have to do with women's reproductive freedom.
The recent news about the harmful effects of hormone replacement was
played in the media as a health story, but it is much more than that. In
fact, it may be the hot-flashiest corporate scandal to date: Let's call
If other corporate scandals have been about fudging figures, this one
is about fudging science--something that seems to have been surprisingly
easy to do. And such is the corporate culture that we have apparently
preferred to believe the drug companies rather than the women's health
advocates who have been lobbying for decades simply to get the
scientific evidence to back the companies' claims. The director of the
North American Menopause Society (NAMS), Dr. Wulf Utian, called the bad
news about hormones a bombshell, but it really isn't. Information has
been slowly accumulating about hormone replacement therapy's risks, even
as Wyeth and other manufacturers have been pushing their product as an
elixir for a widening group of symptoms. In recent years, this
potentially carcinogenic drug has been marketed with the nonchalance of
a vitamin pill: HRT advertising suggests that almost no woman over 50
couldn't benefit from it somehow.
Estron is the latest in a long line of scandals pitting women's health
against the interests of Big Pharma--scandals like the sale of faulty
Dalkon Shield contraceptives, which caused infertility, and medications
like DES, which caused severe illnesses in users and their children.
What all these cases have in common is that--like the manufacturers of
menopausal hormones--the drug companies, in their rush for profits,
insufficiently tested their wares before selling them to millions. What
these scandals suggest is that somewhere in the swampy landscape of
medical research funding, unhealthy relationships incubate between
medical practitioners and the drug-company reps who manage to dazzle
them with quasi science and quasi truths. The industry spends around $15
billion a year to promote its products--more than it spends to develop
them. Clearly, even those doctors who resisted the
luxury-cruise-lectures approach to sales found themselves suckered in.
The manipulation of HRT's scientific credentials began back in the
mid-1960s, when Wyeth paid gynecologist Dr. Robert Wilson to extol its
new wonder drug, estrogen replacement. In an evocatively named book,
Feminine Forever, Wilson declared that by replacing the estrogen
lost at menopause, women would remain attractive and easier to live
with. Over the decades since, Wyeth and other hormone manufacturers have
revised dosages and combinations to fit new medical revelations and
poured billions into sophisticated propaganda to get their message out.
The message is that menopause is not a natural life stage but a
disease--estrogen deficiency--and it will make you old. HRT is the cure,
and it will keep you young.
In recent years the manufacturers have claimed protective qualities for
HRT way beyond its original ambitions. First, it promised (and
delivered) relief from menopausal symptoms. Next came claims for
protection against heart disease in women already affected, and then in
healthy women. Then came its role as a treatment against osteoporosis,
which, manufacturers warned (falsely), becomes an instant risk at the
moment of menopause (it's a gradual risk over many years).
The truth is that the manufacturers didn't exactly know what HRT did or
didn't do, because they never ran a big, randomized national study
stringent enough to meet medical standards. For more than twenty years,
the companies used observational studies showing that women who took
hormones were healthier, but they didn't look at why: Was it that the
hormones themselves made women healthier, or that health-conscious women
were more likely to take hormones to begin with? There were many other
uncertainties. Yet calls to answer these questions, from women's health
groups and even from prominent politicians like Pat Schroeder and
Olympia Snowe, went unheeded.
For all the hype, there has been plenty of evidence, both scientific and
epidemiological, that estrogen, named a carcinogen by the FDA two years
ago, is not a wonder drug for everyone. Thirty percent of prescriptions
for estrogen remain unfilled, and the growing search for alternative
menopause products shows that increasing numbers of women are
uncomfortable with the prospect of a lifetime of swallowing synthesized
horse urine. And for all the spin, there has also been accumulating
evidence of serious side effects. As early as 1975 the FDA identified
links between estrogen and higher rates of uterine cancer. (Wyeth
responded by adding another product, progestin, to offset the risk.) In
1990 the Nurses Health Study reported that women on estrogen faced a 36
percent greater risk of breast cancer. That same year the FDA refused to
approve Premarin as a treatment to prevent heart disease, because the
company's evidence didn't convince them. The 2000 HERS study, actually
funded by Wyeth, found that hormone therapy increased risks in heart
disease patients in the first few years. (Wyeth countered that
long-term, it works.)
And people have been trying to warn us. As far back as the mid-1990s,
The Menopause Industry, by Australian reporter Sandra Coney,
presented heavily researched evidence of uterine bleeding, gallbladder
disease and increased cancer rates in hormone takers. In 1997 breast
cancer specialist Dr. Susan Love's Hormone Book returned to the
link between HRT and increased breast cancer risk and came under attack
for raising an alarm. Earlier this year Cindy Pearson, executive
director of the National Women's Health Network, published The Truth
About Hormone Replacement Therapy, outlining many other
discrepancies between hormone hype and science. The medical
establishment barely paid attention.
Finally, the scientific evidence that we have now, based on two large
randomized trials, is definitive, according to one of the study's
leaders, Dr. Deborah Grady. The trials have shown that not only does HRT
do more harm than good for women with existing heart disease, but it
doesn't protect healthy women either; in fact, during the trial it
increased incidence of heart attacks, breast cancer, strokes and blood
clots--enough to have caused the study to be abandoned three years
early. And yet belief in the hormone was so strong that researchers
feared it would be unethical to put women on placebos.
How is this possible? Dr. Utian of NAMS has admitted that many different
parties--from the drug companies to their paid researchers and
spokespeople to the prescribing gynecologists--have had a vested
interest in the success of hormone replacement, and for them, he told
the New York Times, the issue is about more than data. For them,
Utian said, truth is opinion. But that seems a risky precept for
physicians to work with. It sounds like something Arthur Andersen would
Hot media news: Women want hard-hitting reports on issues that affect them.
A half-century ago T.H. Marshall, British Labour Party social theorist,
offered a progressive, developmental theory for understanding the
history of what we have come to call citizenship. Taking the experience
of Englishmen to define the superior path, he postulated a hierarchy of
citizenships: civil rights, political rights and social rights. The last of these became the
category in which twentieth-century Europeans have understood claims on
the state to health, welfare, education and protection from avoidable
risk. They conceived of these citizenships as stages in an upward climb
toward an ever better democracy.
Marshall's schema looked only at European men. Feminists have pointed
out that women did not achieve citizenship in this order. In fact, women
often won some social rights--for example, protective legislation and
"welfare"--before achieving political ones such as the right to vote.
And women's individual civil rights were often overwhelmed and even
suppressed by legally imposed family obligations and moral sanctions.
(For example, a century ago courts generally interpreted the law of
marriage to mean that women were legally obligated to provide housework,
childcare and sexual services to husbands.) Equally problematic were
Marshall's obliviousness to British imperialism and what it meant for
Third World populations, including the fact that he conceived of the
British as civilizers rather than exploiters, and his apparent ignorance
of the conditions of second-class citizenship for racial/ethnic
subordinates within nation-states. In short, his historical hierarchy
was highly ideological.
But no one has yet done what Alice Kessler-Harris has in her newest
book, In Pursuit of Equity, reaching beyond Marshall and his
critics to suggest a new concept, economic citizenship. In this history
of how women have been treated in employment, tax and welfare policy,
Kessler-Harris--arguably the leading historian of women's labor in the
United States--synthesizes several decades of feminist analysis to
produce a holistic conception of what full citizenship for women might
entail. In lucid prose with vivid (and sometimes comic) illustrations of
the snarled thinking that results from conceiving of women as
dependents--rather than equal in heading families--she offers a vision
of how we can move toward greater democracy. In the process, she also
shows us what we are up against. Her book illustrates brilliantly how
assumptions about appropriate gender roles are built into all aspects of
She aims to resolve what is perhaps the central contradiction for
policy-makers and policy scholars who care about sex equality: the
contradiction between, on the one hand, valuing the unpaid caring work
still overwhelmingly performed by women and, on the other hand, enabling
women to achieve equality in wage labor and political power. Today, for
example, although all feminists oppose the punitive new requirements of
the policy that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children,
repealed in 1996, they are divided about what would constitute the right
kind of welfare system. Some find it appropriate that all adults,
including parents of young children, should be employed, assuming they
can get a living wage and good childcare. Others, often called
maternalists, believe a parent should have the right to choose full-time
parenting for young or particularly needy children. Behind this difference lie two different visions of
sex equality--one that emphasizes equal treatment of the sexes and individual rights
and responsibilities, another that seeks to make unpaid caring labor,
notably for the very young, the old and the ill, as honorable and valued
as waged labor.
Kessler-Harris would resolve this contradiction through a labor-centered
view of citizenship, a notion of economic citizenship based on equity,
or fairness, in the valuation of socially worthy labor. Previously, the
policy proposal closest to this principle of equity was "comparable
worth." Second-wave feminists saw that the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had failed to equalize male
and female wages. Because the labor force is so segregated, and female
jobs are so consistently undervalued, equal pay alone cannot produce
justice to women (or men of color). The comparable-worth strategy called
for equal wages for work of comparable expertise and value, even when
the jobs differed. For example, consider the wage gap between truck
drivers and childcare workers. Truck drivers earned much more even than
registered nurses, whose training and responsibility was so much
greater. The women's movement's challenge to inequality in jobs took off
in 1979, when Eleanor Holmes Norton, then head of the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission, called for evaluations of job skills to remedy
women's low wages. But her successor, Clarence Thomas, refused to
consider comparable-worth claims. Although some substantial victories
were achieved in state and union battles--for example, the American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) won wage
increases averaging 32 percent and back pay retroactive to 1979 for
Washington State employees, 35,000 of whom shared a $482 million
settlement--the comparable-worth campaigns faded in the 1980s.
But even had the comparable-worth strategy been adopted, it could not
have recognized the hours spent in caring for children, parents,
disabled relatives and friends, not to mention the work of volunteering
in underfunded schools, cooking for homeless shelters, running kids'
basketball teams. Kessler-Harris is arguing for a citizenship that
respects unpaid as well as paid labor.
She has worked out the arguments in this book systematically over many
years. Several years ago, an article of hers with the deceptively simple
title "Where Are All the Organized Women Workers?" enlarged the
understanding of gendered "interests" from an exclusive focus on women
to take in men as well. She demonstrated that so long as men dominate,
aspirations understood and characterized as class interests often
express gender interests equally strongly. She uncovered how unions
often operated as men's clubs, built around forms of male bonding that
excluded women, primarily unconsciously but often consciously, too. In
this new book she extends her analysis of men's gendered interests to
reveal how labor unionists' inability to stop defending the privileges
of masculinity have held back labor's achievements. One vivid example
was unions' opposition to state-funded welfare programs and
health-and-safety regulation, stemming from anxiety that they would
deprive workers of their manly independence. Of course, unionist
resistance to state control over workplace and work-centered programs
also derived from a defense of workers' control. But this vision of
workplace democracy was inextricably masculinist, and workingmen's
understanding of their dignity rested on distinguishing themselves from
In A Woman's Wage, Kessler-Harris showed that both Marxist and
neoclassical economics were mistaken in their joint assumption that the
wage was somehow a consistent, transparent token of the capital/labor
relation. By contrast, wage rates, wage systems, indeed the whole labor
market were constructed by gender interests and ideology as well as by
supply and demand or surplus value or the actual cost of subsistence. A
wonderful example from her new book: The Hawthorne experiments of the
late 1920s have been interpreted to show that women workers were more
tractable than men. In one study, a group of women workers adapted more
cooperatively and quickly to a speedup than did a group of male workers.
In seeking to explain this behavior, investigators examined the women's
home lives and even their menstrual cycles, while paying no particular
attention to the fact that the collective rather than individual wage
structure imposed on them was such that higher productivity could only
increase their total wages, while the men's piece-rate wage structure
offered no such guarantee--in fact, the men had reason to expect that
the piece rate would be lowered if they speeded up. We see here not a
"natural" gendered difference arising informally from culture and
socialization, but female and male workers responding rationally to a
gendered system imposed by employers.
In Pursuit of Equity argues that no one can enjoy civil and
political rights without social and economic citizenship. Marshall's
alleged gradual expansion of civil and political rights not only
excluded many others but actually strengthened women's exclusion from
citizenship. One fundamental premise of democratic capitalism--free
labor--was never fully extended to all women, whose labor was often
coercively regulated, not only by husbands but by the state.
Kessler-Harris shows how free labor developed in tandem with the "family
wage" ideal, that is, that husbands/fathers should earn for the entire
family and that women's destiny was domestic unpaid labor. The correlate
was that men "naturally" sought economic and social independence while
women "naturally" sought dependence. Ironically, most feminists of the
nineteenth century went along with this dichotomy and tried to root
women's citizenship in their essential family services rather than in
the free-labor definition of independence. That is, they argued for
rights on the basis of women's spiritual and material work in unpaid
The book demonstrates particularly effectively how the dominant modern
gender system--the family-wage norm--made it difficult for women to
become full citizens. In one closely documented section, Kessler-Harris
exposes the condescending and defensive assumptions of those who drafted
the Old Age Insurance program (which later became Social Security). The
drafters agreed, for example, that the widow of a covered man with young
children should be able to receive three-quarters of his pension until
she remarried or the children reached 18. A widow without children
lacked any rights to her husband's pension. But if this pension was her
husband's by right, as the designers insisted, then why were his heirs
not entitled to all of it as with all other parts of his property? If
the widow remarried, she would not have to give up the bank account or
house or car he had left her--why should she give up a Social Security
pension? One Social Security drafter argued that retaining such an
annuity after remarriage would make widows "a prize for the fellow that
has looked for it," assuming that women are entirely passive in marriage
decisions! The drafters were all convinced that "once a woman was no
longer dependent on the earnings of a particular male (dead or
alive)...his support for her should cease." In other words, his status
as breadwinner should continue even after his death. The drafters
rejected the idea of granting all widows of covered men an equal stipend
or one based on the number of children. It was important for her
benefits to be calibrated to his earnings so as to feed "the illusion
that families deprived of a father or husband would nevertheless
conceive him...as a continuing provider." "Why should you pay the widow
less than the individual himself gets if unmarried?" Because "she can
look after herself better than he can." Imagining women as less capable
of handling money than men, the designers removed the option of a
lump-sum benefit to widows, requiring them, unlike men, to receive
monthly stipends. To avoid "deathbed marriages," they allowed a widow to
collect only if she had been married and living with her husband for at
least a year before he died.
The concern with male status was reflected particularly comically in
discussions about the age at which a wife could start to receive her
share of her husband's benefits. Some argued for an earlier "retirement"
age for women because if both men and women were eligible at 65, this
would mean that men with younger wives--a common phenomenon--might not
get their full pension for a number of years after they retired. But
others argued that since men who married much younger women were more
likely to be those who had married more than once, granting women an
earlier retirement date might reward these men over single-marriage
Several decades ago economist Heidi Hartmann pointed out that patriarchy
was as much a system of power and hierarchy among men as a male-female
relation, and Kessler-Harris confirms that insight. For example, the
entire debate about whether married couples should be able to report
separate incomes for IRS purposes concerned the inequalities this would
create between men with employed wives and men with nonemployed wives.
Fairness to women was not a prominent concern. The fact that employed
women's old-age insurance benefits were restricted according to their
marital status while men's weren't "did not seem like sex discrimination
[to the Social Security designers] but rather like equity to men."
At the core of In Pursuit of Equity is the understanding that
what is "fair" is historically changing. The problem we face today is
not that men deliberately built policies to subordinate women but that
when our basic economic policies were established, men and women alike
tended to see male breadwinning and female domesticity as "fair." That
standard is far, far from reality today. One result is a double standard
in which supposedly ideal family life, requiring a full-time mother, is
a privilege of wives of high-earning husbands.
In the United States, the resultant damage is worse than in Europe,
because here many fundamental aspects of citizenship flow from the labor
market. "Independence" today is generally defined as earning one's
living through wages, despite the fact that the resulting dependence on
employers leaves workers as vulnerable, if not more vulnerable, than
dependence on government stipends. Social rights vital for survival,
such as medical insurance, retirement pensions and workers'
compensation, typically derive from employment in this country, in
contrast to most developed countries, which provide such help as a
matter of right to all citizens or residents. This is one way in which
American wage workers, as Kessler-Harris says, were "in a different
relationship to the constitution than those who did care-giving work."
As a result the development of democratic capitalism, even the growth of
working-class power in some ways failed to strengthen women's economic
citizenship, even weakened it. Indeed, she shows how victories against
sex discrimination in the labor force in the 1960s inadvertently
confirmed the assumption that all women could and should work for wages,
thereby contributing to the repeal of welfare without creating the
conditions that would make it possible for poor women to support
themselves through employment.
This gendered citizenship became more visible and more obnoxious to
women as wage-earning became the female norm and as "alternative
families" gained political clout. For example, if every individual was
entitled to an old-age pension and unemployment compensation, we
wouldn't have to struggle about the inheritance rights of gay partners
or stay-at-home parents' need for support. Even today, banning sex
discrimination is difficult because it is difficult to get agreement on
what constitutes discrimination. In a few cases division among feminists
has held back the struggle. Kessler-Harris ends the book with a brief
reprise of EEOC v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., a 1980s marker of
this division and a case in which she herself played a significant role.
Sears admitted that very few women held any of its well-paying
commission sales jobs but argued that women were not interested in these
jobs because the positions were competitive, pressured, demanding.
Another historian of women testified for Sears against the women
plaintiffs, using her expertise to argue that women's primary attachment
to unpaid domestic labor led them to want only jobs which did not
conflict with it. Her arguments illustrated vividly the continuing
influence of this emphasis on male/female difference, not necessarily as
"natural" or essential but nevertheless beyond the appropriate scope of
legal remedy. Sears won the case.
There is one pervasive absence in Kessler-Harris's book--race--and the
omission weakens the argument substantially. Her understanding of how
the family-wage ideal works would have to be substantially complicated
if she made African-American women more central, for they were rarely
able to adopt a male breadwinner/female housewife family model and often
rejected it, developing a culture that expects and honors women's
employment more than white culture. Mexican-American women's experience
did not fit the family-wage model either, despite their reputation as
traditional, because so many have participated in agricultural and
domestic wage labor throughout their lives in the United States. Equally
problematic to the argument, prosperous white women who accepted the
family-wage model often didn't do unpaid domestic labor because they
hired poor immigrants and women of color to do it for low wages. These
different histories must affect how we envisage a policy that recognizes
labor outside the wage system, and they need to be explored.
One aspect of Kessler-Harris's economic citizenship concept is being
expressed today by progressive feminists trying to influence the
reauthorization of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the
program for poor children and their parents that succeeded AFDC. We are
pushing a House bill that would recognize college education and
childcare as work under the new welfare work requirements. This book is
a sustained argument for that kind of approach and should help it become
part of the policy discussion. It probably won't win. Some will call it
unrealistic. But today's policies are already wildly unrealistic, if
realism has anything to do with actual life. If we don't begin now to
outline the programs that could actually create full citizenship for
women, we will never get there.
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