Second Look

 August already? The summer has sped by. Each time a new atrocity hits the airwaves—anti-voting legislation, another police shooting of an unarmed black citizen, new measures to curtail access to women’s reproductive health care—I pause. What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said by others as sick at heart as I am? So many eloquent voices have been raised and yet new assaults on citizens’ rights continue.

Ninety-five years ago this month women won the right to vote. Fifty years ago, August 6, 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act . Those of us who witnessed the passage of the 1965 legislation hoped that finally we had a way to overcome many of the barriers racism had built. Racism remained virulent, as the Watts riots—the very same August of 1965—revealed. But with more equal voting rights, I along with many others, hoped further progress could be made. Often people speak as if the 19th amendment was ‘for women’ and the Voting Rights Act was for ‘minorities’ as if Black and Hispanic women aren’t hampered by racism every bit as much as they are by sexism.

And during the last fifty years we made progress on a second critical aspect of the struggle for women’s equality—the right to control our own bodies. Without access and choice in matters of birth control and reproductive health, even the right to vote leaves women caught in a world where biology too often equals destiny. The birth control pill was a major breakthrough—by the mid 1960s more than five million American women were using ‘the Pill’. And by 1972 the Supreme Court had overturned state laws prohibiting the use of contraceptives by unmarried people . The 1973 Court decision in Roe v Wade protected a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy at any point during the first 20 weeks.

But the path forward for women’s equality and reproductive rights soon twisted. Opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) which had seemed headed for passage in the 1970s, stalled and although the deadline for ratification by the required thirty-eight states was extended to from 1979 to 1982, the Constitutional amendment failed.

Today’s reality is shaped by decades of work by anti choice activists with little concern for the health and self-determination of women. They have campaigned relentlessly to overturn Roe v. Wade. They threaten abortion providers; even murder staff and doctors. And they spread all manner of false information on the ‘terrible consequences’ and ‘life long regrets’ of abortion procedures. All this goes along with strengthened opposition to sensible sex education.

Today women, especially poor women without the financial resources to travel and to pay for medical advice and assistance, are no longer able to count on controlling our own bodies. Under the guise of saving unborn babies, and ‘protecting’ the health of women, conservative legislators are proposing and passing wildly expanded restrictions on access to sound reproductive health care. Programs such as Colorado’s that clearly lower rates for teen pregnancy and abortion by providing access to effective birth control are denied public funds. Using misleading data and heavily edited videos they demand the defunding of Planned Parenthood and the critical health services the organization provides.

It is no coincidence that these campaigns often go along with opposition to equal pay legislation and increases in the minimum wage, opposition that keeps the poor, poor. Meanwhile, the conservative agenda has muted potential pro-choice advocates. Many choose to ignore the threats to women’s rights, convincing themselves that they are not personally affected.

Reproductive rights can never be separated from the struggle for women’s equality. They are a central component. So let’s get busy and understand what’s at stake. In a recent New York Times opinion piece Katha Pollitt said it best:

“[The stakes are] about whether Americans will let anti-abortion extremists control the discourse…Silence, fear, shame, stigma. That’s what they’re counting on. Will enough of us come forward to win back the ground we’ve been losing?”

I hope so. I am not the only woman who helped friends when they needed an abortion. I am not the only parent whose developmentally challenged daughter would require an abortion if she were to become pregnant. I am far from alone in my outrage and disgust with the current climate, and I am certainly not the only one speaking out.

But there are more women and men still to be heard from. The stakes are high. We need every voice, every personal story that can deepen understanding of the costs to women, their children and families that result when reproductive freedom is curtailed. Impersonal facts alone carry so little of the truth that matters, the truths that touch and sometimes change hearts and minds.   Now is the time to speak up—in public as well as private conversations; to write heartfelt letters; to send a larger-than-usual donation to organizations battling for reproductive rights. Action is required—and it is required now.

Recently I’ve been researching the life of my childhood friend, Miss Georgiana Fulton. It’s been a welcome distraction from news filled with stories of urban protests against police violence and continued assaults on women’s reproductive rights. Battles once considered fought and won are again bitterly contentious. The 1967 Kerner Report on the despair inducing conditions prevalent in many cities reads as if written weeks, rather than decades, ago.   State and national legislators propose—and pass—all manner of legislation that eats away at women’s freedom to make decisions about our own bodies.

Miss Fulton’s life spanned nearly a century. She was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1869 and died near Mystic, Connecticut in 1967. Research on her life underlines the significant progress women have made in the past century and a half. It also reveals continuing gender bias throughout our society. Miss Fulton was an artist—a painter and illustrator. Looking at her life highlights challenges women confront in the world of visual arts, reminds us that no profession, no institution is free from gender related segregation and hierarchy.

From time to time here at Second Look I’ve mentioned Miss Fulton, the example of she set of an independent woman, the lessons in the struggle for women’s suffrage she insisted I learn and not forget:

“Don’t you ever let anyone say women were given the vote, child. Women fought for that right!”

“Not everyone will agree with you when you speak your mind, girl. Remember that. Be prepared; keep your facts straight.”

“If you want to do something and you’ve thought it through, do it, child. But be ready for all the consequences, you hear me? Sometimes things don’t end up the way you plan.”

All good advice for anyone of any age—but especially good for a girl growing up in small-town Connecticut during the 1950s. The social rules were clear: be polite, smile, help others—and wear a hat to church. When, at age twelve, I decided not to join the Congregational Church my family attended because I wasn’t sure what I believed, most people were puzzled. Everyone else my age was going to stand up on Sunday morning and become a church member. And after all, hadn’t I been the angel in the Christmas pageants every year? Miss Fulton nodded when I told her. “Well, girl, you’ll ruffle a few feathers, I suspect, but it’s fine to do that now and then. Good practice.”

Practice for what I wasn’t quite sure. My parents were as puzzled as everyone else but agreed—it was my choice to make.   I can’t recall if I ever did decide to join the church. What I do remember is that with Miss Fulton’s help I had questioned something I’d been wondering about. The only significant consequence was the chance to say out loud thoughts I’d been keeping in my head and my diary. It was good practice for all sorts of future situations, even if I had to relearn the lesson more than once. Speaking up for what you believe isn’t always as easy as it can seem.

Miss Fulton left Shreveport to attend Wesleyan Female Institute in Virginia, graduated at sixteen, went on to study art, train as a teacher and received a graduate certificate from the Women’s Art School at Cooper Union in 1899. She sailed for Paris in the summer of 1900.

In the decades before the First World War, Paris was the destination of choice for American art students. But studying in Paris was more difficult for young women than for their male colleagues. Women weren’t admitted to some schools and were often charged higher fees for the classes they could take. Living expenses were also higher. Women encountered issues of propriety and safety few men ever considered. The Art Student in Paris published in 1887 noted that “while there are twenty cheap restaurants that men can go to, there is but one for women.”

The most blatant of these societal barriers fell years ago, but concerns about safety are as pressing for young women today as they were in 1900. The latest statistics on violence against women indicate that 1 woman out of 5 will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. Comments about how foolish a woman is to walk down such and such street alone or to dress in such and such a manner are still commonplace. And what about the art profession?  Today more than fifty percent of students graduating from art school are women, but women head only a quarter of major art museums, those with budgets of over fifteen million dollars. Women are under represented in solo gallery exhibits and in museum collections. We are far from the equality Miss Fulton hoped for when she told me, “Well, there’s no real equality yet, child, not in art, not anywhere. But the day will come,” Then she added, ”But it will take energy, lots of energy.”

Reflecting on Miss Fulton’s life, immersing myself in census data and old newspapers, talking with archivists at institutions where she may have studied is fun. But in the end my explorations bring me back to the challenges still in front of us. Stereotypical views linger, gender violence is rampant, and while feminists have worked to pass the Equal Rights Amendment for almost a century, the ERA is not yet the law of the land.

We’ve struggled and pushed ahead. We’ve seen important progress. But women and men are still working and waiting for Miss Fulton’s ‘real equality’.



“Fighting for women’s equality is an arduous but necessary process, ploddingly pursued by dedicated women and men who refuse to accept a lesser role for women in society.” Jean Hardisty (1945-2015)

      March is Women’s History Month, but the history being made in the US is far from uplifting. Women continue to be an easy batting ball for political impasses. We continue to struggle for basics readily available in most other developed nations: e.g. paid family and sick leave, adequate childcarehealth and reproductive rights. As an antidote to setbacks in this country—where we seem to be in the two-steps-back phase of the old ‘three steps forward, two steps back’ adage—I’ve looked at reports released in conjunction with this month’s 59th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). There are some encouraging signs. But progress is slow, uneven; the struggle for women’s rights and equality is far from over. Nevertheless, celebrating positive accomplishments can provide motivation needed to keep us all plodding ahead, no matter how soggy the road. Jean Hardisty knew better than anyone how critical plodding along is. For all of us around the country—and in various corners of the world— who knew Jean as a beloved colleague, mentor and leader in the battle for human rights and justice, there is no better way to honor her life and her work than to keep on plodding.

So, some good news gleaned from reports on progress for women since the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing:

  • The global rate of maternal deaths in childbirth has dropped by over forty percent;
  • Adolescent births have fallen by more than thirty percent;
  • Many countries have made significant gains in girls’ education, particularly at the primary school level;
  • And people everywhere are paying more attention to gender gaps in access and opportunities on everything from health services and education to leadership, employment and earnings.

Sadly, for almost every positive statement one can make, there is a ‘but’. And some ‘buts’ are so overwhelming it seems pointless to mention the positive. For example, awareness of violence against women has grown, but the violence itself has not lessened. One third of the world’s women have experienced physical or sexual violence. It is estimated that the number girls among trafficking victims has increased by more than ten percent in the past seven years.

The Beijing meetings two decades ago were electrifying. A total of 17,000 women and men from 189 countries attended the official Fourth United Nations Conference on Women. Another 30,000 took part in the parallel NGO Forum held outside the capital in Huairou. We returned to our homes around the globe committed to doing whatever we could, both individually and collectively, to implement the Beijing Platform for Action. Many of those unable to attend the meetings in China were eager partners. In country after country, women and men worked together to ensure the ‘full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life.’

But the transformative promise of the Beijing Platform for Action has not yet been fulfilled. The Platform was a call for a change in focus from women to gender. A call for recognizing that the structure of society and relationships between women and men must be rethought if women are to be fully empowered as equal partners with men. The Platform affirmed that women’s rights are human rights, that gender equality benefits everyone. In retrospect these called for changes in thinking and action were exceedingly ambitious given the ten-year time frame originally stated. Even after twenty years we have not succeeded. But ambitious goals generate ambitious plans, and ambitious plans are required to sustain commitment, passion, and determined action.

As the Women’s Rights Caucus stated last week in response to the draft declaration from CSW: “At a time when urgent action is needed to fully realize gender equality, the human rights and empowerment of women and girls, we need renewed commitment, a heightened level of ambition, real resources, and accountability.” Some UN member states may not share this perspective. Nations that do must speak loudly. Within a few days over seven hundred and fifty organizations had signed the caucus statement. NGOs representing women from all parts of the world and all strata of society must push, and push hard to ensure that the spirit as well as the letter of the Beijing Platform is carried forward.

None of this work is easy. Much of it is unpopular in certain circles. But we have pushed and plodded our way this far. A forty percent decline in maternal morbidity is a major step forward. The progress in access to primary education for girls is impressive. Many more huge steps await. We have done it before; we can do it again. And again, and again, and again!


Once again coverage of rape and sexual assault has devolved into a debate over numbers. Discussions of new studies that claim to disprove previous statistics, disagreements about the size of the respondent pool or other aspects of research methodology, the veracity of a particular incident and, of course, the old saw that victims are simply ‘making it up’ crowd the news media.

And no matter how many times researchers explain that many of these comparisons are of the apples-to-oranges variety — that studies vary in the ways they define rape, in what they consider instances of sexual assault, that even relatively small samples can give important clues about attitudes, we continue on the numbers track. Too often prevalence becomes the central issue. The crime itself takes a back seat. As Jennifer Rothchild did here at Girl w/Pen! last month, activists and researchers repeatedly point out that even one rape is one rape too many. These voices seem lost in the news swirl. For many it is easier to debate the extent of the problem than hunker down and take concrete measures to address it. This has been particularly true on many university campuses. A year ago President Obama announced an initiative to address sexual assault on college campuses and by October 2014 over 80 institutions of higher education were under investigation for possible violations of Title IX related to sexual assaults.

The stories of rape victims who have reported their attackers to college authorities and the lack serious consequences these perpetrators faced are astounding. Such responses further victimize the young women–and men–brave enough to speak up. Many survivors leave school rather than run the risk of encountering their rapists on campus. The lesson is obvious. Speaking up is dangerous. Think carefully before you jump from the proverbial fire into the frying pan. It is not surprising that the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that while sexual assault is a serious problem for all women between the ages of 18 and 24, young women attending institutions of higher education are less likely to report sexual assaults than those not in college.

Debates on the prevalence of sexual assault help most when they lead to better data collection efforts. This week I had an opportunity to talk with Jessica Ladd, the founder of Sexual Health Innovations, about procedures to address sexual assaults on campuses. Sexual Health Innovations develops technology to advance sexual health and wellbeing in the US. Their latest effort, Callisto, recently received seed funding from the Google Impact Awards program. Callisto is designed to provide a more transparent, empowering and confidential reporting mechanism for college sexual assault survivors. The website states:

“Callisto allows sexual assault survivors to complete an incident report online, receive a clear explanation of their reporting options, and then either directly submit the report to their chosen authority or save it as a time-stamped record. Survivors saving a record can log back in at any time to officially report their assault or can choose to have their report automatically submitted to the authorities if someone else reports the same assailant.”

The development of Callisto began by listening to the voices of those most involved and affected. The system is based on interviews, focus groups, and surveys with over 50 survivors of campus sexual assaults. Respondents shared their perspectives and the difficulties they experienced in reporting rape. Ladd noted that a critical component of addressing sexual assault adequately is enabling survivors to report their experiences in a timely manner, while also giving them more control and choice in the decision to report as well as in the timing of their reporting. Given the many possible consequences involved in reporting and the traumatic nature of the crime, it is not always a decision that can be made quickly. At the same time, investigators may see waiting to report as a sign of doubt concerning the seriousness and/or the facts of the incident.

A time-stamped, third party sexual assault reporting system such as Callisto provides a confidential record of the attack. Such a report is less likely to be dismissed as a second thought or a reinterpretation of events even if the decision to report is made weeks later. Furthermore, in order for colleges and universities to develop effective policies on sexual assault they must understand the problems on their own campuses. Collecting campus specific information is key.

Better data can foster more effective procedures, but neither data nor policies can ensure redress and justice for students. Ladd points out that Callisto is an aid in the first two steps of what she sees as a five-step process:

  1. Recording and preserving evidence
  2. Reporting the assault
  3. Investigating the incident reported
  4. Adjudicating the case
  5. And finally, reaching a resolution.

Ideally every educational institution would have an advocate available for sexual assault survivors to turn to for confidential information, advice and support. But this advocate would not be responsible for investigating a rape when and if it is reported. Effective support and advocacy require different skills and entail different responsibilities than those of investigation or adjudication. Investigations should be thorough and professional; evidence needs to be considered carefully by administrators who grasp the seriousness of the crime and who are without personal ties to the survivor or the accused. Furthermore, once an investigation is undertaken, a different university staff member may be needed to advise the accused.

These procedures are needed to ensure justice for every student. Institutionalizing them may be complicated. Justice is seldom as simple as we’d like it to be. But fair and just treatment is the only way to assure survivors they will be heard and heeded. The only way to prevent attackers from assuming they will ‘get away’ with no more than a slap on the wrist. Once in place, these five steps can go a long way toward making our nation’s campuses safer for all students.


Hanukkah, then Christmas next week, followed by the start of a new year—a time of hope and beginnings. Why doesn’t it feel that way? For the past several days I’ve been searching for the bright spots. The ones that can provide the energy we need in the midst of so much darkness. Not an easy task. Each day new horrors erupt: the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre and still no reasonable national gun control legislation; free passes for racial biases and deadly police brutality; the sickening slaughter of school children in Pakistan; ongoing revelations of rape in the US military and on university campuses. Negative news can so easily obliterate positive signs in the struggles for equal rights.

But all around us there is tangible evidence of the many ways feminist work contributes to positive progress for everyone. The 2014 successes range from long overdue firsts ( the Fields Medal in Mathematics went to Maryam Mirzakhani) to innovative group actions led and powered by women (the National Coalition of Nuns support for women’s right to contraceptives; the creation of the hash tag #YesAllWomen and the responses of millions of women following the deadly rampage in Santa Barbara by a man angered when women turned down his advances). These examples are familiar to many, but countless other stories of women’s efforts are less well known:

  • Women around the globe rose up in protest against those who blame the victim in cases of rape. Young US activists like Wagatwe Wanjuki worked with Congressional leaders to address how colleges handle sexual assault cases. Nana Queiroz in Brazil initiated a photo campaign on Facebook in response to a survey where sixty–five percent of the respondents agreed “…that if dressed provocatively, women deserve to be attacked and raped.” And in Kenya women took to the streets wearing mini skirts to protest the rape of a woman who was stripped and raped in public because she was wearing a short skirt. Conversations about rape are no longer hidden, ignored or silenced; they are public, viral and loud.
  • President Obama selected Vanita Gupta to head of Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. She will be at the forefront of the Department’s investigation in Ferguson, Missouri and as well as the federal lawsuits in North Carolina and Texas on voter ID legislation. Women with law degrees were few and far between forty years ago. Today Gupta’s gender is a non-issue.
  • Olive Bowers, a thirteen-year old surfing enthusiast in Australia took on Tracks magazine for their treatment of women.  Her letter read in part:  “I clicked on your web page titled “Girls” hoping I might find some women surfers and what they were up to, but it entered into pages and pages of semi-naked, non-surfing girls. These images create a culture in which boys, men and even girls reading your magazine will think that all girls are valued for is their appearance.” Her words may still illicit backlash, but they’re more common sense than radical in today’s world.
  • And as an example of an innovative effort to ensure that women’s work is not lost, women across the US and Canada took part in the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a thon. The Edit-a thon addressed gender bias by bringing together volunteers to add more, and more accurate, information to Wikipedia. In 1980 women in California noted that only 3 percent of history textbook content included women. They founded the National Women’s History Project. Much has been accomplished, but the Edit-a thon is evidence of work still needed.

Each of these stories is about things only dreamed of by feminists who entered the US struggle for equality under the banner of women’s liberation back in the 1970’s. Most reasonable people now take for granted that women belong in schools of law, medicine and business; in every field of academic inquiry and artistic endeavor; and in every type of occupation and employment. There’s a long way to go but women understand persistence, know how to organize and innovate, and have no intention of withdrawing from the struggle for a better, safer, more just world.

Yes, there will be set backs. Some are frightened by expanding equality, challenging patriarchy and questioning traditional concepts of gender. But I am certain that a year from now old binaries will have loosened a bit more. There will be feminist progress to celebrate. That is, I am certain of this if we each take a deep breath and dig into the work ahead.


As Deborah Siegel points on in her latest post here at Girl w/Pen, there’s an abundance of not very helpful ‘noise’ in the media these days about feminists and feminism. My vote for the most unhelpful contribution to a serious discussion of feminist goals is last week’s inclusion of ‘feminist’ in Time magazine’s 2015 annual online poll “Which Word Should Be Banished”.

Reaction to the poll was swift. Time quickly apologized in the wake of protests from groups and individuals proud to identify with the rich history and ongoing work of feminists. (see a few examples here, here and here) Time also published a thoughtful, powerful essay by Robin Morgan, “Feminism is a 21st Century Word”. Morgan discussed the history and definition of feminism, noting the simplicity of the dictionary wording: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.”

Time’s apology for the inclusion of ‘feminist’ in their poll included the following statement, “While we meant to invite debate about some ways the word was used this year, that nuance was lost, and we regret that its inclusion has become a distraction from the important debate over equality and justice.”

So, end of kerfuffle, on to the next news cycle, right?   Not so fast. Aside from the fact that Time apologized but didn’t actually remove ‘feminist’ from the list, anyone who thinks the episode was an isolated, unimportant case of poor judgment runs the risk of engaging in wishful thinking. The poll “…meant to invite debate about the ways the word was used this year” did nothing of the sort. Yes, it was an opportunity for feminists to speak clearly and publicly about the legacy and the work of feminists. But reasoned debate that included those outside the feminist community? Not so much. Rather, the poll provided a revealing glimpse of the depth of misogyny embedded in our culture.  Too many still think it’s fine to denigrate women and to dismiss objections to the trivialization of  ‘feminist’ as ‘humorless’, or angry man hating, or the knee jerk reactions of rigid ideologues.

I’m disheartened that the experienced journalists at Time were unable to foresee the impact of their word choice. But, then again, power can be a blindfold. The inclusion of ‘feminist’ among trivial phrases such as “ I can’t even’, and ‘sorry not sorry’ and words like ‘kale’ and ‘influencer’ fostered ridicule rather than thoughtful debate. The list was a perfect opportunity for those who troll the Internet with snarky remarks about anyone who is not a white heterosexual male. The ones who attempt to disguise hatred as humor and fool no one.

And yes, I know, I get it, this is the tone of many discussions these days: take no prisoners, relentlessly ridicule anyone you disagree with, and never allow data or conflicting evidence to creep into a viewpoint. In such an environment, the idea that feminism is not women against men, but a complex belief in the equality of women and men is lost. Those in the ‘be sure, hang tough, any disagreement is a personal attack’ crowd rarely see the worth of a discussion in which various perspectives are heard, viewpoints are expanded and mutual learning takes place. Forgetting the full range of responses generated by the poll  and what they reveal about our current cultural divides is dangerous.

My father liked to quote “sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you” in advising his children to ignore the teasing of friends. I’m not so sure. Words can hurt. Either/or dialogue kills discussion, shuts off communication, amplifies disagreement, and obscures commonalities. Without thoughtful dialogue, dialogue that includes respect for differing perspectives and experiences as well as a tolerance for ambiguity, I fear we will never achieve the just and equitable world so many of us envision.













Last week Harvard’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice sponsored a screening of the film Anita: Speaking Truth to Power.For me the afternoon was an emotional roller coaster, a visceral reminder of the power and the risks of speaking out.

The film tells the story of Anita Hill’s testimony during the October 1991 US Senate hearings for President George H. W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. Hill’s testimony, carried on live television, reverberated throughout the country. Never before had the sexism and racism of the overwhelmingly white male majority of the US Congress been so publically exposed. The all white, all male Senate Committee quizzed the young University of Oklahoma Law School professor relentlessly. They repeatedly asked her to re-state the precise details of the sexual harassment Clarence Thomas had engaged in when Hill worked for him at the EEOC and the US Department of Education. To a man, the Committee simply ‘didn’t get it’. Across the nation tempers flared, women were energized and far too many men joined the Senators as members of ‘ Club Clueless’.

One of the most moving lines in the film is Hill’s recollection of her mother’s proud words of support, “You know who you are.” The movie ends on a hopeful note– scenes of Hill working with young women, helping them find their own voices.

I was still lost in renewed anger as the film ended and a distinguished panel took the stage. Watching members of the Senate Committee asking whether anyone else had witnessed the exchanges, implying that Hill’s word could not be trusted, hearing Senators dismiss Thomas’s behavior as ‘only words’ was infuriating. I found myself seething as Senators harped on the fact that Hill had not immediately reported the harassment—as if doing so were the easiest thing in the world.

It all should have felt like old history. It didn’t.

Ignorance of the reality and impact of sexual harassment might not play out on televised Senate hearing in 2014, but the same lack of understanding surrounds us today. It’s in the entertainment media, in the comments from professional sports spokesmen and military commanders, in the judgments of school and university officials, in the denials of work place supervisors. After all, the response too often goes, ‘its just words, or horseplay or something the girl/woman provoked.’

Jill Abramson, former editor of the New York Times and author of the book Strange Justice: the Selling of Clarence Thomas, introduced the panelists: Anita Hill, now a professor at Brandies University, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, the only African American man to step up in 1991to join Hill’s advisory team, and Nan Stein, a senior researcher at the Wellesley Centers for Women who has focused on in sexual harassment in K-12 education since 1979. Their discussion focused on public discourse around issues of gender violence—where we were in 1991 and where we are now.

We’ve made progress. Private conversations have turned into public ones, but as Hill pointed out, the past twenty-three years have been replete with brief moments of public engagement with the issue that then fade, only to be repeated when a new outrage occurs. We haven’t yet found a way to move beyond sporadic points of awareness to more sustained, effective action. Stein noted that with all forms of gendered violence increasing in severity and occurring at younger ages educators cannot hide behind the term ‘bullying’. Bullying is not illegal under federal law, but sexual harassment is. We owe it to our children to name the offense clearly in order to provide appropriate avenues of redress.

Some say, “Well, verbal harassment isn’t the same as rape or battering.” But while words may leave less physical damage, they leave lasting scars, can effect careers and stunt emotional and intellectual growth. Ignoring or belittling any form of sexual abuse provides fertile ground for the escalating gender violence all round us. More than 60 colleges and universities are under investigation for their handling of campus sexual assaults. This week the Huffington Post reported that less than 30% of students found guilty are expelled.

Hill addressed another aspect of the hearings: the extent to which progress in public discussion and understanding of acts of gender based harassment and violence has not been matched by similar progress in discussions of gender and race. No one watching the original hearings or viewing the film can forget the words with which Clarence Thomas stopped the Senate Committee in its tracks, effectively intimidating them from calling other women waiting to testify about Thomas’s behavior. Categorically denying all charges, Thomas called the hearings a ‘high tech lynching”. The Committee backed off.

In popular parlance, only black men are lynched. The Committee feared being labeled racist, but never seemed to consider their behavior toward Hill. And yet part of the reason they could bagger, doubt and ignore Anita Hill was exactly because she was black. If a young, white female lawyer had given the same testimony would the Committee have found it as easy to dismiss?  I doubt it.

By changing the discourse, Thomas succeeded. The Senate confirmed his appointment 52 to 48. Pundits labeled the hearings a case of ‘he said, she said’—-something no one could unravel.

But the outrage and the conversations continued and grew. In Hill’s words, “It was the wisdom of women rather the opinions of pundits that proved to be correct.” It was not that no one had addressed sexual harassment and gender violence before the Senate hearings. Stein noted that in Minnesota in 1991 high school student Katie Lyle had finally won some measure of redress for the savage sexual harassment she had endured at her school. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence had formed in 1978. But Anita Hill’s courageous, clear words in front of some of the most powerful men in the country had been witnessed across the nation. The hearings galvanized women.Female candidates ran for office at every level; several won.

October marks the 23rd anniversary of the 1991 Senate hearings. It is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. New White House initiatives and public service ads addressing gender violence are underway. We cannot let these initiatives be simply one more ‘point of engagement’ that flares, then fades.

Charles Ogletree concluded his remarks by reminding the audience that in 1991, ‘Women stood up.” There is more work to do. It is again time for women and men to stand up and speak out. To sit silently is to condone behaviors no one should endure.

Unknown  August 26th is Women’s Equality Day. It will mark the 94th anniversary of the final ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women in the United States the right to vote. Lately anti-woman political rhetoric, the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision and various state and national legislative proposals that would turn back the clock on women’s rights have left me pretty glum.

Even the awarding of the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize in mathematics, to a woman for the first time in the entire 78 years the Medal has been given has me grumbling. We should be well past ‘firsts’ of this kind. And what about the fact that the first woman to win the Medal, Maryam Mirzakhani, now a professor at Stanford University, received all her early encouragement and education in Iran before coming to Harvard for graduate work? Are we doing enough to encourage and inspire young women in this country to pursue mathematics? No. The data still show that women in the U.S. are far less likely than men to hold professorships in the field. Old dated stereotypes continue to pervade K-12 and even college level environments. As Field Medalist Sir Tim Groves noted “I am thrilled that this day has finally come…I hope that the existence of a female medalist…will put to bed many myths about women and mathematics, and encourage more young women to think of mathematical research as a possible career.” Yes, me, too. But it sure is a long time coming.

I’ve been so grumpy that a friend recently suggested I take a break and get a grip. “It’s not as bleak as you feel, Susan. Think back to when women couldn’t even vote.”

And of course, she’s right. Her remark reminded me of my father quoting the old adage, ‘don’t let the bastards get you down’ when attempting to cajole me out of an adolescent funk because girls weren’t allowed to try out for track. It would take more than decade before Title IX began to change sports opportunities for girls, but it did happen.

Women have made major steps toward equality since the passage of the 19th Amendment. But my gloom is not entirely misplaced. Progress is not inevitable; backsliding surrounds us. The depth of inequality confronting Black Americans highlighted by events in Ferguson, Missouri is but one example of how far our nation has to go before achieving equality for all. Women and girls from every socio-economic level and racial/ethnic background are part of the continuing struggle for full civil and human rights. We can’t forget this. But the anniversary of the 19th amendment is a good time to recall progress, even if we seem smack dab in the middle of a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ phase of the struggle.

Too many women and men, girls and boys have no knowledge of the days when women were denied credit cards; few realize that 2014 marks the fortieth anniversary of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act giving women the right to credit cards in our own names. Nor are most people aware of a time when dozens of states prevented women from serving on juries. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, while focused primarily on racial discrimination, guaranteed every woman the right to serve on federal juries, but it wasn’t until 1973 that all fifty states permitted women to serve on state juries.

Job listings ‘for men’ and ‘for women’ and the illegality of birth control are often considered the ‘the stuff of feminist urban legends’ as one twenty year old recently informed me. And the very real threats to women’s reproductive rights strike some as far-fetched. After all, the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion long ago, way back in 1973. Yet today’s reality is that this right is being increasingly curtailed by state actions. Even current attempts to limit access to the voting booth are less understood than they should be.

So let’s celebrate and educate. Let’s celebrate Maryam Mirzakhani and the many other women ‘firsts’ who provide young women important role models in a wide range of fields. But let’s also be sure we remember legislative victories, the struggles involved, the decades required. Sometimes grumbling is both appropriate and necessary, but celebrations are important, too. There’s a long road ahead.

Abigail_AdamsToday is the 4th of July, Independence Day. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.“

These stirring words, drafted in June 1776 by Thomas Jefferson, the principal writer of a committee of five— John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman were the others—have inspired Americans for more than 200 years. Most people today assume the term ’men’ means all citizens. “Most” apparently doesn’t include five of the male members of the U.S. Supreme Court. Their June 30th majority opinion gave many  U. S. companies the right to dictate, based on the religious beliefs of their owners, the types of contraceptive coverage female employees can access under their health insurance.  The dissenting minority included the three female members of the court as well as Justice Stephen Bryer. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a forceful, thirty five-page dissent calling the decision one “of startling breadth”. As Virginia Rutter wrote here at Girl W/Pen, June 30th was “a terrible, horrible, lousy day.”

Things haven’t gotten any better. Yesterday Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a blistering dissent to the Court’s temporary order allowing Wheaton College a religious exemption to filing a required form under the Affordable Care Act.  Women, who understand the role of reproductive rights, including the right to use the method of contraception they and their physicians consider best for them as individuals, see through the careless reasoning of the five conservative male members of the Court. Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Justice Sotomayor who wrote that the order was at odds with the June 30th Hobby Lobby decision. “Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today. After expressly relying on the availability of the religious-nonprofit accommodation, ….the Court now, as the dissent in Hobby Lobby feared it might, retreats from that position.”

Clearly if women thought we had gained full equality, the Supreme Court decisions of the last few days have put that fantasy to rest.

Political historians have long pointed out that the terms ‘man’ and ‘citizen’ were often considered synonymous, meaning, in fact, only men and only certain men. In the newly formed United States, women were citizens, but citizens who could not vote and whose first loyalties were not to the nation or the community, but to their husbands and fathers. Abigail Adams’ plea to her husband John in March 1776 as he worked to shape the new government, “…remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could” fell on deaf ears . Historian Linda Kerber has pointed out that the “revolutionary generation of men who so radically transgressed inherited understandings of the relationship between kings and men, fathers and sons, nevertheless refused to revise inherited understandings of the relationship between men and women, husbands and wives, mothers and children. They continued to assert patriarchal privilege as heads of households and as civic actors” (Kerber, 1998, No Constitutional right to be Ladies).

Women eventually organized, just as Abigail Adams had warned her husband. “If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have not voice, or Representation.” It took another 140 years before the 19th Amendment guaranteed women’s right to vote in 1920; but the women and men who fought for women’s suffrage eventually won the battle. In 1923 Alice Paul, a leader of the suffrage movement, drafted the Equal Rights Amendment.  She saw the ERA as another step necessary to assure equal justice under the law for all citizens. The wording is brief, clear: “Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

In 1876, referring to the U. S. Constitution, signed only a few months after the July 4th Declaration, Susan B. Anthony noted “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet, we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union.”

It’s an old feminist adage that ‘feminism is the radical notion that women are people.’ (see here and here)  Fighting for the passage of the ERA, ratified by only 35 of the 38 states needed before the 1982 deadline imposed by Congress, may seem far too quixotic an undertaking in the current political climate. But let’s remember the long battles for the right to vote, the continuing struggle for racial equality, the ongoing battle for equal rights for members of the LGBT community. The struggle for human rights and dignity takes lifetimes, set backs hit hard. But human rights are truly lost only when we give up, give in, surrender.

Sometimes I’m tempted. But not today, not on the 4th of July, not with Abigail Adams and those who followed in her footsteps to inspire us.



Last week while discussing Equal Pay Day with a friend, she commented, “Why all these special designations? Black History Month, then Women’s History Month, now a day for Equal Pay. I don’t see the point.  Do you?”  Many share her perspective, but I am not among them.

This year Equal Pay Day fell on April 8th.  All month the airwaves, print media  and blogosphere have been filled with commentary of one sort or another: Data documenting the continuing wage gap for female and minority workers; analyses disputing the size of the gaps, conservatives insisting they support equal pay but not government regulations; advice for women on speaking up on our own behalf, often as if women’s lack of negotiating skills were the root of the gender wage gap.  For me, this heightened coverage is exactly the point.

Special months, weeks or days provide “news hooks”, important opportunities to recall forgotten history and celebrate hard won gains.  They are also reminders of how much work remains undone in the struggle for equity and justice.  Forty years ago as one of the thousands who wore little green ‘59 cents’ buttons, I understood it would take years before equal pay for equal work was a reality.  I recall telling friends we needed to be realistic. After all, we’d need good childcare, shared household responsibilities and more career options for women in addition to fair pay laws. It might take thirty years to do away with unfair wage disparities.

How foolishly optimistic of me!

The White House cites U.S. Census Bureau figures on full time workers revealing that on average women are paid 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. In the Wall Street Journal economists Mark Perry and Andrew Biggs argued that this gender wage gap is a myth when variables such as career choice, marital status and education are factored in. Disagreements over the size of female/male earnings differentials can obscure the debate but they cannot deny reality. No amount of disaggregation of the data by region, race, education or occupation changes the basic picture. The wage gap differs depending on the variables used in each analysis, but economists at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research report that women in almost every line of work are paid less than their male colleagues.

Those who insist the wage gap is tiny and that a few cents on the dollar is of no major importance live in a protected world of savings accounts and salaries that leave extra dollars at the end of each pay period.  It is a world unknown to most of those in households struggling to shelter, clothe, feed and educate families with earnings at or below the median annual income of  $50,000; And it is a world unimaginable to the  one quarter of U.S. households with annual incomes below $25,000.

But what about governmental regulation so feared by those opposing the Paycheck Fairness Act?  The Act, first introduced in  2009, would require employers to show that wage differences are based on factors other than sex and contains a provision prohibiting retaliation against employees who discuss their salaries with co-workers.  But how can anyone determine whether she or he is being paid equitably without knowing the compensation others in similar positions receive?  Shouldn’t each of us be able to speak freely about our own salaries without fear of retribution?  Isn’t that called freedom of speech?

We’ve made progress.  Pay gaps have narrowed. But we’re already a decade beyond my 1970s estimate of the years it might take to achieve full pay equity.   We need effective legal redress for employees whose paychecks are unfairly shortchanged. But as Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times this past Sunday, and many feminists have argued for decades, legislation on equal pay is necessary but not sufficient.  Gendered expectations influence women and men, employers and employees. A broader and more widespread understanding of the ways gender roles and status differentials are maintained and reproduced is essential if women from all socio economic levels are to move forward.  (See for example the analysis in  C.J. Pascoe and Tristan Bridges recent Girl w/Pen post.)

Carrie Chapman Catt, an important strategist in the movement for suffrage and women’s rights once noted,  “No written law has ever been more binding than unwritten custom supported by public opinion.”  Public opinion polls show significant changes in the views of both men and women on a wide range of gender roles, including the importance of pay equity. But for the moment, ‘unwritten custom’ holds sway much of the time.

Equal Pay Day is not simply a single day.  Attention to the wage gap continues throughout the month, spreads across a wide range of media outlets and seeds conversations around the country. Widening the audience, increasing public awareness and broadening debate on issues of equity and justice help to shift, shape and strengthen public opinion.  Equal Pay Day is well worth the bother.