Tag Archives: women’s rights

A Female Perspective

I was asked to make a (Zoom)presentation to a group of O’Neill women students, focused on “women and politics.” This is what I said.
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I think I have always been a “political” person, in the sense that the question that has always fascinated me is a question that most women wrestle with in one way or another: how should people live together? What sort of social and political arrangements are most likely to nourish our humanity and promote—in Aristotle’s term—human flourishing? If the old African proverb is right, if it “takes a village to raise a child,” what should that village look like, and how should its inhabitants behave? How do we build that kind of village? Politics is the process of turning our answers to those questions into policy—and since women’s answers have been shaped by our life experiences, it is important that women’s voices be part of the policy process.

You have asked me to share my experiences as a professional and political woman, so let me get the biography out of the way. I was born in 1941, and I am very much a product of the 1950s, way before any of you were born. It was a time when women went to college to find a husband, a time when we were expected to be decorative and submissive—or at the very least, quiet. (You can see why I had a problem.)

I grew up in Anderson, Indiana, where being Jewish was at best exotic and at worst, Satanic, and where I was usually the only Jew my classmates had ever encountered. Those experiences undoubtedly deepened my interest in social divisions and the effects of marginalization. They also kindled an ongoing fascination with the ways in which religions shape our worldviews.

I left Anderson for college when I was 16. I wanted to major in liberal arts, but my father insisted that I get a teaching degree, because if my eventual husband died, I would need something to fall back on. At the time, educated women were secretaries, teachers or nurses; I couldn’t type and the sight of blood made me queasy. That left teaching. Because I was so young, my parents sent me to Stephens College for Women, a two-year school that took very seriously its obligation to act in loco parentis. After Stephens, I briefly attended the University of North Carolina, where the most indelible lesson I learned was that when you pay Full Professors 3000/year, you get what you pay for. (Even in the 1950s, 3000 wasn’t much.) I transferred to IU Bloomington to finish my undergraduate degree, got married and divorced, and later did a semester at Butler, pursuing an MA in literature that I never finished.

I married a second time and took my first job (well, first if you don’t count the summer I worked for my father’s friend at his—no kidding—Cadillac-Rambler agency, where I was billed as Anderson’s first female used car salesman.) I began my adult work life as a high school English teacher. When I became pregnant with my first child, however, I could no longer teach—Even though I was married, those days, once women teachers “showed,” we could no longer be in the classroom. The theory evidently was that the kids would know what we’d been up to…

I went to law school when I was 30 and had three small children (four if you count the husband I had at the time). There were very few women in law school then, and my most important epiphany revolved around the need for potty parity… the few women’s restrooms were for the secretarial staff and inconvenient for students. After graduating law school, I was the first female lawyer hired at what was then Baker and Daniels.

To give you a flavor of the time—serial interviews with prospective associates were conducted by several of the partners, and I was in conversation with two who were being very careful not to ask improper questions—this was barely ten years after creation of the EEOC. Since I had three children, I thought it reasonable to volunteer my childcare arrangements. One of the partners was so obviously relieved that I wasn’t acting like some sort of radical bra-burning feminist, he blurted out: “It isn’t that there’s anything wrong with being a woman. We hired a man with a glass eye once!”

I practiced corporate law for three years, until Bill Hudnut asked me to take charge of the City’s legal department. I was the first woman to serve as Corporation Counsel in Indianapolis–or, to the best of my knowledge, in any major metropolitan area. At the time, Indianapolis had two newspapers. The afternoon paper, the Indianapolis News, had a front-page “gossip” blurb, and I still recall its juicy little item after my appointment was announced: “What high-ranking city official appointed his most recent honey to a prominent position…” I guess it was inconceivable that I’d been appointed because I was a decent lawyer, or even because I represented a constituency Bill was reaching out to. Gotta sell papers…

I left City Hall to be the Republican candidate for Congress in 1980, running against Andy Jacobs, Jr., in what was then Indiana’s 11th Congressional district. That was back when Republicans were still rational, and political campaigns less toxic. I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights, and I won a Republican primary. The worst name I called Andy was Democrat. My youngest son later served as his Congressional page, and after Andy retired, he and I would occasionally have lunch. As I say, things were different then….
I also remarried during that campaign and I’m happy to report that the third time was the charm—it’s been 41 years and counting.

After losing the election, I practiced law, started a Real Estate Development Company that went broke during the recession of the late 1980s, and served six years as the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU. I joined IUPUI’s faculty in 1998.

I’ve lived through the women’s movement, the Civil Rights movement, the 60s, the sexual revolution (I missed it by 6 years!), the gay rights movement, the decades of religious zealotry that a friend calls “America’s most recent Great Awakening,” and a dizzying explosion of new technologies. As George Burns once said, I’m so old I remember when the air was clean and sex was dirty.

I became politically active at nineteen, as a Republican. I was persuaded—and remain persuaded—by what has been called the “libertarian principle,” the belief that the best society is one in which individuals are free to set and pursue our own life goals, determine our own telos, so long as we don’t harm the person or property of a non-consenting other, and so long as we are willing to grant an equal right to others. Back then, with some notable exceptions, the GOP understood the importance of “so long as” in those last two caveats. Times, obviously, have changed. The political party to which I belonged no longer exists, except in name.

For those who begin with the libertarian principle as I just shared it, good faith political arguments tend to revolve around the nature and severity of the “harms” that government can legitimately prohibit or regulate, and the extent of government’s obligation to provide a physical and social infrastructure to be paid for through citizens’ “dues,” called taxes. Needless to say, we are not having those good faith arguments today—instead, we are in a culture war– what may well be an existential struggle between science and reason on the one hand, and a variety of fundamentalisms on the other.

Women do not do well in culture wars.

Of the nine books I’ve written, the two that taught me the most—the ones that required the “deepest dives” into our philosophy of government and suggested some answers to Aristotle’s question—were God and Country: America in Red and Blue and my small textbook Talking Politics? What You Need to Know Before You Open Your Mouth.

The research I did for God and Country provided me with a lens through which I’ve come to understand so much of our current political environment. Policymaking has become a power struggle between Puritans who believe government should make the rest of us live “godly” lives, based upon their particular version of what’s godly, and those of us who demand that government act on what John Rawls called “public reasons,” based upon logical persuasion and scientific and empirical understandings. Contemporary Puritans remain deeply antagonistic to the Enlightenment and to secular ways of knowing—especially science—and they utterly reject the notion that each of us gets to define our own morality. Scroll down a Facebook page, or read the comments section of an online newspaper, and you’ll come across posts from fundamentalists of various stripes who wrap themselves in victimhood whenever government fails to impose their preferred worldviews on everyone else. And as most women understand, those preferred worldviews almost always include a “biblically-mandated” submission of women.

Another example is the effort—in Indiana and elsewhere—to exempt so-called “bible-believing Christians” from compliance with otherwise applicable civil rights laws. In our system, religious citizens have absolute liberty to believe whatever they want—that’s the individual rights pole of the continuum. But religious or political beliefs, no matter how sincere, don’t entitle people to sacrifice newborns or bomb abortion clinics, and they don’t entitle them to engage in behavior that is contrary to America’s cultural and legal commitment to civic equality. That’s the public good end of the continuum. There’s no religious privilege to behave in ways that we collectively deem destructive to America’s social health.

Let me just share a final observation: Social justice is a term we don’t hear very often these days. Social justice is aspirational, and its elements are subject to debate, but at its heart, the concept is concerned with mutual obligation and the common good. In its broadest outlines, a just society is one that meets the basic human needs of its members, without regard to their identities, genders or social status—a society that doesn’t draw invidious distinctions between male and female, black and white, gay and straight, religious and atheist, Republican and Democrat, or any of the other categories into which we like to sort our fellow humans. It is a society that recognizes and respects the inherent dignity and value of each person.

We should want to make our society more just for many reasons, practical as well as moral: for one thing, a more equitable society is in the long-term best interests of even those people who don’t feel any obligation to feed hungry children or find jobs for ex-offenders or make health care accessible to poor people. That’s because in order to remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to make use of all its talent. Social systems that prevent people from contributing their talents cost all of us in lost opportunities and unrealized promise.

I’m painfully aware that cultural institutions, folkways and intellectual paradigms influence people far more than logic and reason, and I also know that culture is incredibly difficult to change. Systemic barriers and ingrained privilege don’t disappear without significant upheavals or outright revolutions.

Even more daunting, when I look at today’s politics, I’m reminded of a 1999 movie called “The Sixth Sense.” The young boy in that movie saw dead people. I see crazy people.

If I had to guess why so many of our fellow-citizens appear to have gone off the deep end—why they are trying to stockpile guns, roll back women’s rights, put gays back in the closet, stigmatize African-Americans and stereotype Muslims—I think the answer is fear. Change is creating a very different world from the one most of us grew up in, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. As a result, we have a lot of bewildered and disoriented people who find themselves in an increasingly ambiguous world; they are frantic for bright lines, clear rules, simple answers to complicated issues, and especially, for someone to blame. People who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives evidently need to attribute their problems and disappointments to some nefarious “other.” Black and brown people and “uppity women” are obvious targets.

I have hopes that your generation will be able to reverse this retreat into anti-intellectualism, bigotry and various kinds of fundamentalism. We humans flourish through constant learning, by opening ourselves to new perspectives, by reaching out and learning from those who are different.

And women only flourish in a society that understands that.

 

Can The Arts Save Us?

Indianapolis, like many cities, has experienced an explosion of arts over the past ten to fifteen years: theater companies, art galleries, dance venues…all have proliferated. Even more significantly, the quality of those venues has dramatically improved.

Last weekend, my husband and I had tickets to two plays and a cabaret performance. (It was an unusually busy weekend for folks in our age cohort.) The cabaret performance was wonderful (Indianapolis has one of the very few Broadway-caliber cabaret theaters in the U.S.) but I really want to focus on the two plays we were privileged to see, because that experience illustrated why theater, especially, contributes to a culture of inclusion.

In times like these, when Americans are so divided, theatrical performance becomes particularly important, because it is through stories that we advance human understanding and self-awareness. (It was recognition of the importance of stories and how they are told that led to the establishment of Summit Performance, a new, woman-centered theater company in Indianapolis that endeavors to tell universal stories through a female lens.)

Last weekend, we saw two truly riveting performances: The Agitators and The Cake.

The Agitators, at the Phoenix Theatre, explored the long and often-fraught friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas–a friendship of which I had been totally unaware. It may be comforting to believe that representatives of different marginalized groups fighting for equal rights will do so in solidarity, but of course, reality is much more nuanced. The play–superbly acted–probed uncomfortable questions about uneven progress toward equality and our inescapably parochial perspectives–questions that we tend to gloss over.

The Cake, at the Fonseca Theater, defied my expectations. Part of the Fonseca’s stated mission is to be a forum for “pressing conversations.” The Cake was described as a play about a same-sex wedding and a bakery, so I expected a theatrical presentation of the legal challenges that have been in the news–the baker who refuses to lend his craft to an event he considers inconsistent with his religious beliefs, and the clash between civil rights and claims of religious liberty.

What I saw, instead, was a deeply affecting story about good people who were–inescapably– products of their upbringing, and how they reacted when forced to respond to a changing world, especially when people they dearly love are part of that change. No legal arguments, just people trying to reconcile their own contending beliefs.

Both performances reminded me that the arts are important, not just as outlets for human creativity and communication, but as necessary “threads” that very different people use to stitch together a social fabric. Plays, movies, well-done television presentations and the like allow us to travel to places we otherwise wouldn’t visit –some geographic, but others interior and highly personal–and to understand the issues that divide us in new and more nuanced ways.

In the program notes accompanying The Cake, Brian Fonseca quoted a patron saying “We sit together in the dark to know how to love each other in the light.”  I don’t think it is accidental that so many artists–actors, painters, dancers, whatever–are among the more compassionate and accepting people I know.

Readers of this blog who are in Indianapolis or surrounding areas really should try to see both of these productions.

 

Trumpers And The Culture War

I love it when research confirms my suspicions.

A few days ago, I posted a rant about the hollowness of claims that de-funding Planned Parenthood was “pro life.” The assault on Planned Parenthood, which provides needed medical care to poor women, and the increasing efforts to limit access to birth control, struck me as far more “anti woman” than “pro life.”

Then I saw this column in The Guardian, reporting on recent survey results that support my thesis.

According to self-identified “pro-life” advocates, the fundamental divide between those who want to outlaw abortion and those who want to keep it legal comes down to one question: when does life begin? Anti-abortion advocacy pushes the view that life begins at conception; the name of their movement carefully centers the conceit that opposition to abortion rights is simply about wanting to save human lives.

A new poll shows that’s a lie. The “pro-life” movement is fundamentally about misogyny.

A Supermajority/PerryUndem survey released this week divides respondents by their position on abortion, and then tracks their answers to 10 questions on gender equality more generally. On every question, anti-abortion voters were significantly more hostile to gender equity than pro-choice voters.

More than half of the “pro life” survey respondents opined that men make better political leaders than women. More than half didn’t want to see equal numbers of men and women in positions of power. (Eighty percent of pro-choice respondents did want to see power shared equally.) “Pro life” respondents disapproved of the #MeToo movement. They disagreed with the proposition that diminished access to birth control has an impact on gender equality. And they didn’t believe that sexism or the way women are treated is an important issue.

That misogyny fits with what social science has found in the wake of the 2016 election.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, mostly white pundits wondered if Donald Trump’s white male base was motivated by “economic anxiety”. We heard this over and over: Trump voters aren’t the racist deplorables the liberal media (of which those same pundits were a part) makes them out to be. They’re decent people who have been hurt by free trade agreements, increasing Chinese economic dominance, the decimation of unions, a thinning social safety net, and stagnating wages. (Why those same people would then turn around and vote for a party that kills unions, tears up the safety net and blocks minimum wage raises while cutting taxes for CEOs went unexplained.)

Then came the social scientists – and whaddaya know? Trump voters weren’t motivated by economic anxiety as much as fear of “cultural displacement”. White Christian men (and many of their wives) were so used to their cultural, political and economic dominance that they perceived the ascension of other groups as a threat.

To put it in more straightforward terms, they were racist (and sexist), and saw in Trump a kindred spirit who would work for their interests – their primary interest being a symbolic reassertion of their cultural dominance.

The author reminds us that the American anti-abortion movement invented political gaslighting.  (As religious historian Randall Ballmer has documented, Evangelicals hadn’t thought much about abortion until defending their segregated schools became a harder political rallying point.)

Around the same time, women’s social roles were rapidly changing. The birth control pill brought with it an avalanche of opportunities and freedoms, and women, finally fully able to have sex for fun and prevent pregnancy, took full advantage. The ability to delay a pregnancy – and later, the ability to legally end one – meant that women didn’t have to choose between romance and ambition (and it meant women could be choosier about romance, making a more considered decision about who and whether to marry).

The survey confirmed the connection between “pro-life” and “anti-woman”.

More than three-quarters of anti-abortion respondents agreed that women “are too easily offended”. More than 70% of them agreed that women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist. Only 34% of them–as opposed to 82% of pro-choice respondents– said the country would be better off with more women in political office.

It’s hard to disagree with the author’s conclusion:

It’s not about “life.” It’s about the fact that abortion is inexorably tied to women’s freedoms and female power.

It’s about sexism.

Meanwhile, Behind The Scenes…

While most of our media is caught up in “Mueller frenzy,” and Trump continues to suck all the oxygen out of the room, I thought I’d just share some underreported information about what our disgraceful federal government has been doing largely out of public view.

The Guardian is one of the few publications that seems to be following the day-to-day efforts of the Trump Administration to thwart global environmental efforts.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have hamstrung global efforts to scrutinise climate geoengineering in order to benefit their fossil fuel industries, according to multiple sources at the United Nationsenvironment assembly, taking place this week in Nairobi.

The world’s two biggest oil producers reportedly led opposition against plans to examine the risks of climate-manipulating technology such as sucking carbon out of the air, reflective mirrors in space, seeding the oceans and injecting particulates into the atmosphere.

Geoengineering is the name given to technical efforts to stop or reverse climate change; as scientists have proposed various methods, concerns over the potential for dangerously negative global effects have increased. Assessing the risks of proposed massive environmental interventions would certainly seem prudent–but the fossil fuel industry has seized on these proposals as a way to justify further expansion of their industries, and they aren’t interested in risk assessments that might cast doubt on that expansion. Full steam ahead.

Add that to the administration’s other efforts to sabotage environmental measures.

This was not the only agenda item in Nairobi that Trump administration diplomats were accused of watering down; they were also accused of undermining efforts to ensure strong environmental governance. “They are trying to remove all targets and timelines,” said one senior delegate.

An ambitious Indian resolution to phase out single-use plastics by 2025 has been diluted to resolving to “significantly reduce” them by 2030, said another delegate. The US was supported by Brazil and at least four other countries in pushing back the deadline and making the language more vague.

On marine waste, a Norwegian proposal to build an effective global strategy for dealing with plastics that enter the oceans has also met with resistance from the US. “They want to postpone measures so they can protect their industry,” said an ambassador from a large developing country.

In yet another example of being on the wrong side of history, there is the administration’s push-back against women’s rights. 

US officials in New York are attempting to water down language and remove the word “gender” from documents being negotiated at the UN, in what is being seen as a threat to international agreements on women’s rights.

In negotiations at the Commission on the Status of Women(CSW), which resume at UN headquarters this week, the US wants to replace “gender” in the forum’s outcome document with references only to women and girls.

The move follows similar attempts by the US last year to change languagein documents before the UN human rights council.

In draft documents, seen by the Guardian, the US is taking a step further at CSW by refusing to reaffirm the country’s commitment to the landmark Beijing declaration and platform for action, agreed at the fourth world conference of women held in 1995.

After all, why would practitioners of “locker room talk” and predatory sexual behavior want to empower women?

Under the Trump administration, US negotiators have found themselves more aligned with countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia than European nations. These countries consistently seek to undermine agreements on women’s rights at the UN, specifically around reproductive health and rights. This year’s US delegation includes Valerie Huber, a proponent of abstinence-only sex education and now a senior policy advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services, and Bethany Kozma, an anti-choice activist and senior advisor for women’s empowerment at the US Agency for International Development.

Just file these “factoids” in the growing category “why the world no longer looks up to the United States.”

 

 

Grassley’s Inadvertent Revelation

In the introduction to her important book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander admitted that, even as an ACLU lawyer, she had always been skeptical of claims that the war on drugs was intentionally crafted to target blacks. She’d recognized its discriminatory effects, of course, but only when she did her “deep dive” into the research did she recognize the extent to which drug policy was a product of intentional racism.

In much the same way, I have always discounted rhetoric about a “war on women.”Of course I recognize that cultural changes empowering women make a lot of men uncomfortable; I certainly notice (and object to) the arrogance of male legislators who are unwilling to allow women the same autonomy over our lives and bodies that they claim for themselves. And it has always been hard to ignore the prevalence of come-ons from the various boors and outright sexual predators. But I’ve also known and appreciated the large number of “good guys” who welcome culture change, respect women’s autonomy and understand and observe sexual boundaries.

I still think the individual “jerk quotient” of some men shouldn’t be used to label the entire gender. But I no longer dismiss the notion that a number of men are indeed waging a “war on women,” and I no longer underestimate the prevalence of misogyny, especially in the GOP.

This, for example, was infuriating. The Wall Street Journal reported that, during a conversation with its reporters, Senator Grassley was asked why the Republican Party has never put a single woman on the Judiciary committee. His response: women don’t want to  do that much work.

Really, Senator Grassley? How do you explain the fact that Democratic women serve on the committee, and seem to be handling the work? Is it just Republican women who are lazy? Or is it–as Amanda Marcotte suggests in Salon–that misogyny is at the very heart of your right-wing politics?

It’s long been frowned upon to acknowledge this fundamental truth: Misogyny is at the heart of right-wing politics. Pointing out that hatred of women and a desire to keep them under the boot is an animating force of Republican politics is sure to draw pained expressions from many liberal men, certain that the feminists are being hysterical again. Surely feminists don’t think it’s quite as simple as that, right? Surely we understand that anti-abortion views are about a sincere belief that life begins at conception and anyway, Republicans aren’t serious when they say they’re going to ban abortion. That’s just something they say to rile up the rubes, to trick them into voting for the real agenda, which is about economics and taxes. Certainly you women can’t think you are important enough that oppressing you is a major priority for Republicans, right?

Marcotte marshals her evidence: the party’s ongoing support of a President who boasted of grabbing women’s genitals and who has paid several women to keep quiet about his behaviors;  its support for Kavanaugh, despite credible accusations of sexual assault; and especially the tone-deaf, belittling and revealing responses to women’s protests by Grassley and others.

I want to make it clear we’re not going to be intimidated by these people,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the protesters“Harassing members at their homes, crowding the halls with people acting horribly, the effort to humiliate us really helped me unify my conference,” McConnell told the New York Times. “So I want to thank these clowns for all the help they provided.”

“When you grow up, I’ll be glad to [speak to you],” Sen. Orrin Hatch snapped at a group of protesters, equating grown women with children who need a scolding.

“You needed to go to the cops,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told another protester when she confronted him about her own history of rape, implying that he —  with no information about her situation — understood her options better than she did.

Sen. Ben Sasse dismissed the protests by women against Kavanaugh as “hysteria” three times during the original confirmation hearing, when the focus was primarily on reproductive rights and before sexual assault became an issue.

Donald Trump, of course, is screeching on Twitter about how the protesters are “paid” and funded by “Soros,” because it is impossible for him imagine that women might actually have minds of their own.

Wonder why there’s a gender gap? I think I can clue you in.