“The Hill We Climb”: Inaugural Poet Amanda Gorman Makes Her Mark

Millions of Americans were inspired by Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony, at which the first Black, Asian and female vice president took her oath of office. But perhaps equally moving was the contribution of 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, the youngest poet to ever speak at a presidential inauguration—demonstrating the strength of a new generation at this crucial turning point in American history.

The sixth poet to recite at a presidential inauguration, Gorman follows in the footsteps of distinguished poets such as Maya Angelou and Robert Frost. In her poem, titled “The Hill We Climb,” Gorman struck a chord of unity, bridging pain of the past with hope for a better future.

“In my poem, I’m not going to in any way gloss over what we’ve seen over the past few weeks and, dare I say, the past few years. But what I really aspire to do in the poem is to be able to use my words to envision a way in which our country can still come together and can still heal,” she told the New York Times, ahead of her performance. “It’s doing that in a way that is not erasing or neglecting the harsh truths I think America needs to reconcile with.”

Gorman, a Los Angeles native, has been a growing force for several years. She became the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles at age 16, and the first National Youth Poet Laureate in history soon after.

As a high school student at New Roads School in Santa Monica, she worked Feminist Majority Foundation’s Girls Learn International program, empowering fellow young women to pursue educational opportunities. (Feminist Majority Foundation is the publisher of Ms.) Gorman graduated from Harvard University with a degree in sociology last year.

She acknowledged the historical significance of her selection within “The Hill We Climb,” describing “a country and a time where a skinny [B]lack girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.”

Gorman has also battled a speech impediment, similar to President Joe Biden, which she says drew her to poetry as a child.

“Having an arena in which I could express my thoughts freely was just so liberating that I fell head over heels, you know, when I was barely a toddler,” she said. “Maya Angelou was mute growing up as a child and she grew up to deliver the inaugural poem for President Bill Clinton. … So I think there is a real history of orators who have had to struggle with a type of imposed voicelessness, you know, having that stage in the inauguration.”

“The writing process is its own excruciating form, but as someone with a speech impediment, speaking in front of millions of people presents its own type of terror,” Gorman added.

Though a daunting task, she managed to blow listeners away with her five-minute recitation, soon reaching an even wider audience on social media. Her poem was met with high praise by public figures, from President Barack Obama to Oprah to Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“The Hill We Climb” reads, in part:

We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

And this effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed,

It can never be permanently defeated.

In this truth, in this faith, we trust.

For while we have our eyes on the future,

history has its eyes on us.

Gorman had begun writing her inaugural poem prior to Wednesday, Jan. 6, when insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, launching an attack on American democracy. But she completed the second half of her poem—including the above excerpt—in response.

Her message sows the seeds of unity while upholding accountability and reconciliation:

“We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation. Our blunders become their burdens.

“But one thing is certain, if we merge mercy with might and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.”

“We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful,” Gorman concluded. “When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Biden Recruits Veteran Policy Adviser Susan Rice: “We All Rise or Fall Together”


President-Elect Joe Biden appointed Ambassador Susan Rice to serve as director of the Domestic Policy Council in his administration, alongside four other domestic nominees, on Friday, Dec. 11.

Rice, who has served in policy roles under multiple administrations, spoke alongside Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris to accept her nomination.

“Today we confront a profoundly connected set of crises: a relentless pandemic, a struggling economy, urgent demands for racial equity and justice, a climate in need of healing, a democracy in need to repair, and a world in need of renewed American leadership. In the 21st century, our foreign economic and domestic imperatives are deeply intertwined,” Rice began. “Tackling these challenges is personal to me. I am a descendant of immigrants and the enslaved, and service is in our blood.”

Rice discussed her paternal family’s journey from slaves to soldiers, and her maternal grandmother’s immigration to the U.S. from Jamaica.

“But today, for far too many, the American dream has become an empty promise, a cruel mockery of lives held back by barriers, new and old. That is not good enough for any American. But we know that, throughout our history, Americans have forged opportunity out of crisis,” Rice said. “Now, at the foot of yet another bridge between crisis and opportunity, I’m honored and excited to take on this role… I profoundly believe that we all rise or fall together. Absolutely all of us.”

Under the Obama administration, Rice held the position of national security adviser, as well as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, she was U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, among other key national security roles.

Prior to the beginning of Biden’s administration, Rice was co-chair of D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser’s Reopen D.C. Advisory Commission, working to oversee Washington D.C.’s safe reopening in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In introducing Rice on Friday, Biden admitted that he “spent some time convincing this wonderful public servant,” but is ecstatic for her to return to the federal government come Jan. 20, 2021.

“A granddaughter of immigrants, a descendant of enslaved people, Susan will be an effective and tireless champion for all Americans,” Biden said. “And she knows I’m really thrilled she was willing to come back, be at my side in the White House.”

Katherine Tai Appointed as U.S. Trade Rep.: “I Am Very Proud to Be an Advocate For American Workers”

12/16/2020 by SOPHIE DORF-KAMIENNY for msmagazine.com

President-Elect Joe Biden is nominating and appointing a record number of diverse women to hold leadership roles in the Biden-Harris administration. Allow Ms. to introduce you to all the women appointed to join this historic administration.

President-Elect Joe Biden appointed Katherine Tai to serve as United States Trade Representative (USTR) in his administration, alongside four other domestic nominees, on Friday, Dec. 11.

Tai, who would be the first Asian American and first woman of color to serve in this capacity, accepted her appointment in a moving speech, reflecting on her childhood as the daughter of immigrants:

“Trade is like any other tool in our domestic or foreign policy. It is not an end in itself. It is a means to create more hope and opportunity for people. And it only succeeds when the humanity and dignity of every American and of all people lie at the heart of our approach,” Tai said.

“I am proud to join with leaders who instill their policy with purpose and who never lose sight of the humanity and dignity, the opportunity and hope that make trade a force for good in our nation and the world. I am very proud to be an advocate for American workers, to stand up for their ingenuity and their innovation and for America’s interests across the globe.”

As chief trade counsel, Tai currently serves as the House Ways and Means Committee’s chief lawyer. She previously held the titles of Associate General Counsel and Chief Counsel for China Trade Enforcement in the USTR’s Office of the General Counsel.

She was the first of her family to be born in America, and went on to attend Yale University and Harvard Law School. However, she also worked in Guangzhou, China teaching English in the late 90s, eventually becoming a Yale-China Fellow. Tai is deeply experienced in matters of U.S.-China trade relations, having litigated such disputes for the U.S. at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In her remarks on Friday, Tai recalled representing the U.S. in a lawsuit against China with a USTR colleague, who happened to be the daughter of South Indian immigrants.

“Two daughters of immigrants, there to serve, to fight for and to reflect the nation that had opened doors of hope and opportunity to our families,” Tai said. “Those memories fill me with gratitude for being an American and for what America is at our best and they remind me of the extraordinary responsibilities that come with the honor as we navigate our relationships with the world.”

Biden expressed confidence in his pick for the position, praising Tai’s pristine record in public service.

“[Tai] earned praise for both lawmakers and both political parties and from both labor and business as well. Now that’s a feat across the board,” Biden said. “But all kidding aside, I’ve gotten more calls complimenting me on your appointment than you can imagine.”

Dr. Rochelle Walensky Appointed CDC Director

In a series of nominations for health leaders in his administration, President-Elect Joe Biden tapped Dr. Rochelle Walensky to head up the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as director.

“I never anticipated I would take on a role helping lead our national response, and government service was never part of my plan. But every doctor knows that when a patient is coding, your plans don’t matter. You answer the code. And when the nation is coding, if you are called to serve, you serve,” Walensky said. 

“You run to take care of people, to stop the bleeding, to stabilize, to give them hope and a fighting chance to come back stronger. That’s what doctors do. I’m honored to work with an administration that understands that leading with science is the only way to deliver breakthroughs, to deliver hope, and to bring our nation back to full strength.”

Walensky spoke of her background confronting the AIDS pandemic, beginning as a medical student at Johns Hopkins University. She went on to be a leader in HIV/AIDS research and screening, from the U.S. to South Africa and even at the United Nations.

“As a medical student, I saw firsthand how the virus ravaged bodies and communities. Inside the hospital, I witnessed people lose strength and hope. While outside the hospital, I witnessed those same patients, mostly gay men and members of vulnerable communities, be stigmatized and marginalized by their nation and many of its leaders,” Walensky said. “Now, a new virus is ravaging us. It’s striking hardest, once again, at the most vulnerable, the marginalized, the underserved.” 

She is currently chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, in addition to teaching at Harvard Medical School. 

Her experience with the HIV/AIDS response expanded her knowledge of widespread testing, which she intends to apply to the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden also spoke of her research on vaccine delivery, especially in marginalized communities.

“She’s uniquely qualified to restore morale and public trust,” Biden said.

Georgians Unite to Make “Good Trouble” in Marches and Votercades Across the State

On Monday, Dec. 14, Black and Brown voters in cities across Georgia are joined community organizers for John Lewis “Good Trouble” marches and votercades.

Black and Brown voters in cities across Georgia are joined the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, the Transformative Justice Coalition, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and community organizers for John Lewis “Good Trouble” Marches and Votercades—festive celebrations of voting rights that led voters to the polls for early voting for the U.S. Senate runoffs and Public Service Commission race on Jan 5, 2021.

“We want to bring awareness to the fact that early voting started and encourage people along the route to join us to get into some ‘Good Trouble’ and vote,” said Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda.

“The Votercades create a level of excitement that inspires Black and Brown people to vote in the special election despite tactics like the unjust purging of 200,000 Georgia voters, intentional misinformation, and efforts by Georgia legislators to impose more restrictions on absentee ballots that will affect the runoffs,” said Barbara Arnwine, founder and president of the Transformative Justice Coalition.

The John Lewis March and Caravan was designed to capture the spirit of the late Congressman’s legacy of getting into “Good Trouble.” There will be subsequent Marches held during the month to continue to bring attention to the urgent need for voters to finish the job they started by voting.

Rep. Marcia Fudge to Head Housing and Urban Development: “We Will Help People Believe Once Again”

In a recent series of nominations, President-Elect Joe Biden chose Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) to join his Cabinet as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. She will be the second Black woman to hold the position, and first in the past 40 years.

“When I think about the enormity of the task ahead of us, I am reminded of the book of Matthew, where it is written, ‘Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head,’” Fudge said. “There is dignity and there is grace within every woman, every man, and every child in this nation, including those who live on the outskirts of hope, those who work hard but still struggle to make it work and those who have no place to lay their head. It is one of the highest responsibilities of our government to see them, to see their dignity and to lift them up.”

Fudge has served in Congress since 2008, and has experience on the Committees on House Administration, Agriculture, and Education and Labor, in addition to being former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Before coming to Capitol Hill, she was the first woman mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio. 

She is expected to continue advancing affordable housing efforts along with other components of a strong safety net, especially given the devastating impacts of the pandemic.

“Perhaps most importantly of all, we will help people believe once again, that their government cares about them no matter who they are. That we understand their problems. As the president-elect often recalls his father’s words, I am honored to have this chance to help restore the people’s faith, to deliver for them and make them proud and to build back better alongside this dedicated team,” Fudge said.

Fudge also previously served as national president of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, composed of predominantly Black female college students and alumni.

“I know from this day how powerful the Deltas are. You think I’m kidding, I’m not,” Biden teased.

“I might add, you could do many jobs beyond the one I’m asking you to do,” Biden said when introducing Fudge. “But I think the job I’m asking you to do, Congresswoman, is critically important to everything that the vice president and I believe is how we’re going to build back better.”

As Kamala Harris Becomes Vice President, Feminists Urge Gov. Newsom to #AppointABlackWoman in Her Place

“Our representative democracy is supposed to represent us,” urges a joint letter—part of a recent push from a coalition of notable feminists to convince California Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace Vice President-Elect Harris’s Senate seat with another Black woman.

Presently, the number of Black women in the Senate totals just one—Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris.

And while feminists continue to celebrate Harris’s ceiling-shattering victory as an incredible milestone, her leaving the legislative branch of the Senate to join the executive branch as second-in-command will drop the number of Black women in the Senate down to zero—that is, unless a recent push from a diverse group of feminists can convince California Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace Harris with another Black woman.

Newsom is the focus of multiple efforts urging him to appoint a Black woman to fill the remainder of Harris’s term, including a joint letter from over 200 women leaders, philanthropists and activists.

In a press conference on Thursday, signatories of the letter—including Dolores Huerta; Aimee Allison, founder of She the People; Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza; Alfre Woodard, actor and activist; Women’s Foundation California CEO Surina Khan; Kathy Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms.; Susan Pritzker, philanthropist and Women’s Foundation board member; and others—underscored their message.

In the Senate’s 231 years, only five women of color have served, according to the Center for American Women and Politics: Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), a Black woman, was the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Senate, serving from 1993 to 1999; and at present, Kamala Harris serves alongside three other women of color: Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii); Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.); and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).

“Women know exactly what it feels like to be passed over and looked over—even though they are qualified for positions of power,” said Garza, at Thursday’s press conference, hosted by the Feminist Majority Foundation, Women’s Foundation California, Dolores Huerta and She the People. “For too long in this country, we have had our lives governed by people who don’t live our lives. … We must make sure we break this trend.”

“There is a long list of very qualified, ready-to-go Black women here in California who would both honor the legacy [of Kamala Harris] and provide us with the representation we all deserve and desperately need right now,” said Pritzker.

But who?

The coalition of feminist leaders has rallied around two Black women replacements in particular. The first is Rep. Barbara Lee of California’s 13th congressional district, which includes Oakland. The only African American woman in Democratic Leadership (serving as co-chair of the Policy and Steering Committee), Lee has advocated for legislation aimed at fighting poverty and hunger, ending HIV/AIDS, and providing legislative oversight.

The second woman being considered for Harris’s seat is Rep. Karen Bass of California’s 37th district, which encompasses a large portion of Los Angeles County. Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bass boasts legislative priorities like restoring voting rights, protecting and strengthening health care access, and enforcing criminal justice reform.

Californians elected Kamala Harris—and she should be replaced with someone who looks and thinks like her, argued Woodard during Thursday’s press conference: “That person would be a woman of color, and in particular, a Black woman. … an advocate, an activator. In Congresswomen Karen Bass and Barbara Lee, we have a duo that fills those shoes perfectly without breaking stride.”

Reports say Newsom is also eyeing Secretary of State Alex Padilla to finish out the last two years of Harris’s six-year term, ending in 2022. At the same time women’s groups have upped the pressure on the governor to pick a woman of color, so too have Latino organizations and legislators who advocate for Padilla. But advocates of the #AppointABlackWoman movement say increasing the number of Black women in political leadership is long overdue.

“Women’s voices are desperately needed—but Black women’s voices are particularly needed in this time of history,” said Huerta, when asked by a reporter why not a Latino/a replacement. “As a Latina, I do believe that at this unique moment in history to represent us all … it will be a giant step toward political equality and representation.”

“The fact that today represents a multiracial force of women calling Governor Newsom to appoint a Black woman should speak volumes,” said Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, an Oakland-based organization. “We cannot backslide: Senator Harris cannot be the only woman of color at the table from our state.”

If you too want to speak up about the need for Newsom to appoint a woman of color to Kamala Harris’s seat, you can write to the governor’s chief of staff, Ann O’Leary (ann.oleary@gov.ca.gov), to tell her why you believe appointing a woman of color to the Senate is what’s best for the U.S.

Know Your November Ballot: Reproductive Rights

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, Ms. will be outlining state ballot initiatives and referenda of major significance to women.

I know what you’re (wishfully) thinking: By 2012, American women should already have easy access to, and public funding for, abortions—with the most minimal-to-nonexistent restrictions.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true: In state legislatures across the nation, more and more women are being stripped of access to safe and legal abortions.

2011 and 2012 saw a rise in unnecessary laws, including mandated counseling, 24- to 72-hour waiting periods, increased funding to crisis pregnancy centers, and the Most Hated Anti-Choice Law winner: forced ultrasounds (knocked down a notch from forced transvaginal ultrasounds).

Don’t forget—you can’t even say the word “vagina” in mixed company in Michigan!

At the state level, these restrictions continue to be introduced at an alarming rate. And since it wouldn’t be a presidential election without attacks on abortion rights, several states are including constitutional amendments and referendums on their ballots in November—which is why pro-choice women need to be informed about the attacks on reproductive rights. If you live in one of these states, the power is now in your vote.

Florida: Amendment 6

Because of the Hyde Amendment, federal Medicaid funding cannot be used toward abortion procedures except in cases of rape, incest and the life of the woman. However, a number of states in the U.S. allow public funds to be used to cover abortions in certain cases (see graphic at right). Florida’s Amendment 6 will reverse its standing on the matter, amending its state constitution to prohibit the use of public funds for abortions and disallowing health insurance policies that cover abortions. Amendment 6 will also erase the state’s right-to-privacy provision, which says that individuals (including minors) are protected from governmental intrusion in their personal lives.

Florida’s right-to-privacy provision is one of the strongest in the nation; the Florida Supreme Court has even ruled that if Roe v. Wade were ever overturned, Florida would remain a pro-choice state. Amendment 6 not only makes it harder for women to pay for an abortion, but will certainly open the door to more intrusive abortion legislation.

Vote: NO


Montana: Legislative Referendum 120

Referendum 120 would mandate a doctor to notify a parent or legal guardian at least 48 hours prior to performing an abortion on a young woman under 16. If she wants to have an abortion without her parents knowing—perhaps because she is a victim of incest or has abusive parents—the only way out of this requirement is a waiver from a judge. Referendum 120 would also criminalize parents who coerce a girl to have an abortion, but not criminalize those who force a girl to carry a pregnancy to term against her will.



Colorado: Personhood Amendment

In the birthplace for Personhood USA, there’s still a last remaining chance for a personhood measure to be on a 2012 ballot. The Personhood Amendment would change the state’s constitution to define a “person” at “any stage of development,” meaning a fertilized egg would be granted full rights of an American citizen. The results could range from confounding (can you claim your fetus as a dependent on your taxes?) to frightening (criminalizing miscarriages and outlawing abortions, the morning-after pill and other forms of contraception).

Though grassroots personhood movements can be found now in nearly every state, every personhood ballot initiative has failed when open to statewide vote. In Colorado, this would have been the third time voters could decide whether or not fertilized eggs should be equal to actual people. Personhood advocates did not receive enough signatures on their petition by the ballot deadline, but Personhood Colorado is trying to sue the state, claiming it had enough non-fraudalent signatures.

If it qualifies, vote: NO

Blog by , originally posted on the Ms. blog.
Infographic designed by Lisa Huynh.

Photo at top from Flickr user InSapphoWeTrust under Creative Commons 3.0.

Why “Save Second Base” Shouldn’t Be Our Mantra

For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Ms. blog will be running a series of pieces devoted to the disease and activism around it.

It’s fun. It’s flirty. And it grabs a person’s eye. Shirts, baseball caps and rubber bracelets emblazoned with the slogans “Save the tatas,” “Save second base,” “I heart boobies.”

With each Breast Cancer Awareness Month that rolls around, the catchphrases seem to get more ubiquitous. Since this week kicked off another awareness month, I’ve been taking a harder look at the slogans that I once thought clever. They’re a cheeky way to get people, especially men, thinking about breast cancer, but they sacrifice the gravity of the epidemic and replace it with shallow sexual innuendo.

The whole “insert boob-related pun about breast cancer” trend reminds me of a similar obsession that overtook my Facebook newsfeed two years ago. Suddenly, all of my girlfriends’ status updates changed to “I like it on the kitchen counter” or “I like it on my desk” or some iteration of what they liked “it” on.

Eventually when the big secret hit my inbox, I realized they were naming places they liked to put their purses as a part of breast cancer awareness. The hope was that it would pique the interest of men, who would want to know what had caused the inundation of sexually provocative statuses. Though well intentioned, I didn’t see how it had anything to do with breast cancer or funding research.

These sexually colored awareness campaigns may get attention from men, but not in a way that translates to action. On top of that, they grossly underestimate men by assuming they need a sexualized gimmick to get them to care about a social cause. Men who have mothers, wives, sisters and daughters affected by the disease don’t require such tactics to make breast cancer worthy of their attention.

“Save the tatas” also reduces breasts to sexual objects instead of parts of a human being. “Save the women” should be enough to motivate people, but it doesn’t seem to have the same potential to go viral in an awareness campaign.

And let’s not forget, as E! host and breast cancer survivor Giuliana Rancic said before deciding to get a double mastectomy, “Sometimes you can’t ‘save the tatas.” In their battles against breast cancer, many women have to lose their breasts to keep their lives. Even if some opt to undergo reconstruction later on, the feeling is lost forever, which can deal a heavy emotional blow. In one of the first breast cancer memoirs of its kind, First You Cry, NBC correspondent Betty Rollin explored the devastation she felt after losing her breast to cancer and the impact it had on her sexuality. We shouldn’t forget women’s real feelings in our quest for catchy slogans.

How are women with mastectomies supposed to feel when they see these types of slogans? Are they supposed to think that they failed in some way because they couldn’t keep their breasts? Staying alive is the name of the game here, and these phrases overlook that. Not to mention that they exclude and are insensitive to men diagnosed with breast cancer, who definitely don’t have “tatas” to save.

It’s great to raise awareness, but the facts are that the number of women’s lives that breast cancer claims has not changed. It’s remained at 40,000 a year for more than a decade.

Breast cancer is not meant to be sexy. Marketing it as such trivializes it as well as stops people from understanding the disease and focusing on prevention and better treatments. The focus shouldn’t always be on “saving second base,” but on making it all the way to home plate by saving women’s lives.

Guest post by , originally posted on the Ms. blog.
Photo courtesy of ginashoots under Creative Commons 2.0.

Marriage at the Supreme Court

Are you or someone you love in a committed same-sex relationship, hoping to get married?

The national debate over marriage equality is about to enter a new phase, as multiple cases make their way to the United States Supreme Court. SCOTUS begins a new session next Monday, and today, in private conference, the Court will decide which new cases to review. The Proposition 8 case and several cases involving the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) are among those the Court may decide to take up, and their choices today—which could be announced as early as tomorrow but certainly by the start of the session on October 1—will have wide-reaching effects.

Take the Proposition 8 appeal. So far, California’s ban on same-sex marriage has not fared well in court and has been ruled unconstitutional, first by Judge Vaughn Walker, and then by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which  upheld his ruling. Proponents of marriage equality successfully argued that rights shouldn’t be put up to a vote, and that the marriage ban treats lesbians and gays as second-class citizens. Supporters of Prop 8 want the Supreme Court to re-affirm it, and in doing so keep marriage bans around the country intact. If the Court does decide to take the case, the decision could be quite narrow—only concerning California and, perhaps, only concerning situations in which marriage rights were granted prior to a public vote, or it could be a sweeping decision in one direction or the other.

What if the Court decides NOT to hear the Prop 8 case? That would be a disappointment to those on both sides who want to see the case set precedent, but the immediate effect would be hugely positive for same-sex couples eager to marry. Proposition 8 would be removed from the books, and marriage equality would then be legal in the most populous state in the union. Here come the bride-brides and the groom-grooms!

Given that there are other marriage equality cases the Court might take up, it seems likely that the justices will pass on Prop 8. Instead, they’re likely to take those cases concerning DOMA  (an overview may be found here) because DOMA involved an act of Congress and the federal government. The Obama administration has also declared DOMA to be unconstitutional, and in those cases the defense of DOMA will be argued by the House of Representative’s Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG).

At stake in the DOMA cases is the contradictory status of married lesbian and gay couples in states where same-sex marriage is legal. DOMA forces those states to divide citizens into two classes: married couples who can receive federal benefits and married couples who can’t, in effect discriminating against lesbian and gay employees. DOMA requires that employers determine the gender of employees’ spouses and enforces financial inequalities (for instance, benefits provided by employers to the same-sex spouses of employees are taxed as income, while those to opposite-sex employees are not).

The DOMA cases do not take up the question of whether states may prohibit marriages between same-sex couples, however, so a SCOTUS decision would not affect those living in states with same-sex marriage bans. If same-sex marriage becomes legal in California, however, the number of married same-sex couples will dramatically increase, and the issue of second-class citizenship will become even more urgent.

Keep an eye on the Court to see where marriage equality will go next. This is one cliffhanger with the promise of many happy endings!

Blog by Audrey Bilger, originally posted on the Ms. blog.
Photo of Supreme Court bench by Flickr user runJMrun under license from Creative Commons 2.0
. Photo of brides by Flickr user Capt’ Gorgeous under license from Creative Commons 2.0

Men’s Manifesto 2012

I’m proud to be a part of a growing movement—a multiracial, multicultural, global movement of men who are challenging male violence and outdated notions of masculinity.

I have been inspired by, taught by and befriended by men across the world who have dedicated their lives to reducing male violence. Men and boys around the world work for domestic violence programs and rape crisis centers. They donate and raise money for women’s groups. They organize and participate in community walks and wear White Ribbons. Men Can (and do) Stop Rape and Men (are) Stopping Violence. There is a growing Call to Men to become part of the solution.

We men have listened to and learned from women. We often forget to give women the credit they are due, and sometimes claim their ideas as our own. But the heart of this growing men’s movement rests in the intelligence, kindness, confrontation and love from the strong women in our lives.

We are men and boys who are proud to be working to stop male violence. We are proud to be men who welcome non-traditional expressions of what it means to be a man. We will be our own role models, applauding each non-traditional male role model who appears in film and television. As representations of manhood diversify, we will welcome the by-product of such diversity—acceptance and celebration of all varieties of manhood.

We are proud to be gay men and bisexual men. We are proud to be heterosexual men working to end homophobia.

We are proud to be transgender men.

We are proud to be African-American, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American men. We are proud to be white male allies against racism and sexism.

We are proud to have survived violence ourselves. We are rape and incest survivors, survivors of intimate partner violence at the hands of women and men.

We work to end all violence against all people, even as we work to end the epidemic of male violence against girls and women.

We love other men. We will boldly express our love of other men with hugs, tears, high-fives, handshakes, holding hands and kisses—sometimes with sex. We will sometimes choose a man as a beloved life partner.

We love women. Knowing that our gender perpetrates violence and sexism, we pledge to change ourselves and the world. Rather than riding in on a white horse, we will partner with women and support women’s leadership in stopping violence and sexism.

We love our families. Those of us who are fathers love our children. We reject the aloof father image. We realize that our children’s happiness depends on treating their mother with dignity, respect and love.

When a boy dresses like a princess, we will embrace him as we embrace the boy who hits a home run. We will embrace boys wearing skirts, boys wearing makeup, boys wearing black and boys with piercings.

When a boy cries, we will comfort him. We will cry with him.

We will celebrate boys with long hair and short hair—running boys and boys in wheelchairs—ballet dancing boys and cheerleader boys. We will celebrate shy boys, singing boys, kind boys and poet boys.

We will stand up against injustice. We will speak out against it, and will listen without defensiveness when it is pointed out in us. Strength as men will be measured not just by how many weights we can lift, but by how well we can listen.

We realize that in pledging to be part of the solution, we also must acknowledge that we have been (and still are) part of the problem.

We pledge to listen to women and learn from women.

We pledge to be accountable to women’s leadership in stopping men’s violence, and to be accountable to our own male privilege.

As the White Ribbon Campaign asks, we pledge to never commit, condone or remain silent about men’s violence against women. We choose to respect, seek equality with and share power with the girls and women in our lives. We encourage, demand and expect other men and boys to do the same.

By Ben Atherton-Zeman, originally posted on the Ms. blog.
Excerpted from
Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power, edited by Shira Tarrant
Images of UK White Ribbon Campaign posters from Flickr user kilcolman under license from Creative Commons 2.0

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: A Feminist Look at the Olympics (So Far)

With all of the TV coverage, print and digital news, Facebook updates, Twitter hashtags and blog posts about what’s happening in London, we’ve gathered our favorite (and not so favorite) feminist moments and commentaries from the 2012 Summer Games. Please to share your thoughts in the comments below!

 for British weightlifter Zoe Smith, who spoke out in a blog post against sexist criticism that she and her teammates shouldn’t have big muscles because they’re women. Here are a few of her best quotes:

The obvious choice of slander when talking about female weightlifting is ‘how unfeminine, girls shouldn’t be strong or have muscles, this is wrong’. And maybe they’re right … in the Victorian era. To think people still think like this is laughable, we’re in 2012!

What makes them think that we even WANT them to find us attractive?

[One man who made a hateful remark] came up with the original comeback that I should get back in the kitchen. I laughed.

 For the record number of openly gay and lesbian athletes at the Olympics! Karen Hultzer’s self-outing brings the number to 22, twice as many as the 11 in Athens and the 10 in Beijing.

 For U.S. beach volleyball stars Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. But …


 For media couture coverage. Despite their huge successes on the court, May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings just can’t seem to win when it comes to what they’re wearing. When the two declared their intentions to compete in bikinis (which, as U.S. teammate Jen Kessy insists, is what the women feel most comfortable in), they were called cheeky. Then, when the duo pulled on long-sleeved T-shirts to stay warm in the mid-60-degree London weather, they were criticized for not showing enough skin. To maker matters worse, photographers on the sidelines seem to have wandering eyes, as photos of the backsides of bikini-clad women volleyball players have been cluttering stock photo websites such as Getty Images. In a response to the degrading images—which often leave out the heads of the volleyball players—Metro.com suggestively cropped photos of male athletes to show what it would be like if all Olympic sports were captured in this objectifying way.

 For the coverage of the women gymnasts. Here are some ways these awesome athletes’ accomplishments have been trivialized:

  • Gabby Douglas’ Hair: Even though 16-year-old gymnast Gabby Douglas has qualified for the all-around competition and had an outstanding performance that helped the U.S. women’s team win the gold medal, some on the Internet criticized her hair rather than celebrating her achievements. Fortunately, bloggers such as Monisha Randolph on Sporty Afros responded  to Douglas’ critics by reminding them what’s really important about a woman athlete.
  • “Divas” and “Girls”: In an attempt to dramatize the Olympics further (as if the athletic performances weren’t enough!), NBC has taken to calling the Russian women gymnasts “divas.” The commentators also call the women gymnasts “girls” and emphasize their “girlish” behavior. These terms diminish and infantilize the young women’s strength and skills.
  • Team Rivalry: Throughout its coverage of women’s gymnastics, NBC has stuck with a narrative stressing the U.S. women’s “rivalry.” During the competition to earn one of two slots in the individual all-around finals, in which Jordyn Wieber was beaten out by her teammate Aly Raisman, NBC’s often showed the women in the same frame with Raisman grinning and Wieber crying, thus pitting them against each other (rather than against there own individual aspirations). There seems to be a disturbing trend of drama-centered Olympic coverage.

 For Michelle Obama, delegate for the U.S., who has been spotted at various Olympic events in support of the American athletes. But we want to especially thumbs-up the love she’s been showing to the female Olympians: This past Saturday the First Lady cheered on Serena Williams in her opening match against Jelena Jankovic and, when she met wrestler Elena Pirozhkova, allowed the athlete to show off her strength by picking the First Lady up.

 For Ye Shiwen’s gold medal finishes in the 200m and 400m individual medley. But …


 For the immediate accusations that her accomplishments were the result of doping. After the 16-year-old swimmer beat Ryan Lochte’s time in her last 50-meter freestyle split during the 400m individual medley on Saturday, U.S. swimmers, coaches and commentators alike hinted that her success may not be built on sweat and blood alone. Yes, the Chinese had a history of doping in the 1990s, but Shiwen trains with coaches in Australia. Unless tests prove otherwise, she should be celebrated for her prowess. The Olympic authorities defend Shiwen here.

 For Missy Franklin’s gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke Monday. Incredibly, she had less than 15 minutes  between the 200-meter freestyle semi-final and her gold medal swim.

Finally, we’re still in awe of the U.S. Women’s gymnastics team’s gold medal performance Tuesday night in the team final, and Gabby Douglas’ gold medal win in the all-around competition. Douglas is the first black woman to win the all-around title. You go, young women!

Compiled and written by Dana Shaker, Anna Diamond and Christine Parker.
Originally posted on the Ms. blog.

Photo of U.S. beach volleyball players Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor and featured photo of London 2012 logo under Wikimedia Commons.

High-Ranking Catholic Clergyman Convicted!

After a three-month trial, Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia has been found guilty of one count of endangering children in the archdiocese for which he served as secretary of clergy from 1992 to 2004. The jury was shown evidence that Lynn had concealed reports of alleged sexual abuse by priests and had not acted strongly to keep molesters away from children, nor did he report suspected abusers to criminal authorities. Lynn was acquitted of a second endangerment count and a third count, of conspiracy.

Lynn is now the first senior church official to be convicted of a cover-up in the priest sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church over the last 10 years. He faces 3 1/2 to 7 years in prison.

The monsignor was prosecuted along with Rev. James Brennan, but the jury deadlocked on a verdict and a mistrial was declared. Brennan was accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy.

Those who have worked hard to bring abusing priests to justice are heartened by the decision, and hope it empowers prosecutors in other locales to take action against church higher-ups who failed to stem sexual abuse. Barbara Dorris of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests), told The New York Times:

The guilty verdict sends a strong and clear message that shielding and enabling predator priests is a heinous crime that threatens families, communities and children, and must be punished as such.

For more on the case and its outcome, see here and here.

Photo of statue holding scales of justice, Adelaide, Australia, from Flickr user mikecogh under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Komen and the Dangers of Corporate-Funded Causes

By Mara Einstein

Breast-cancer charity Susan G. Komen’s decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood–an organization that provides subsidized breast cancer exams for lower-income women–leaves me scratching my head.

Komen claims to be withholding funds because of new criteria barring it from providing grants to organizations that are under investigation by local, state or federal authorities. In and of itself, that is odd. What is stranger, however, is the 2011 hiring of Karen Handel–who was openly anti-Planned Parenthood–to the position of Senior Vice President of Public Policy for the organization. And, adding to an already questionable management decision, Komen put her in the position to establish their foundation’s policy.

They must have had a reason for hiring her. I can’t imagine what it was, though.

However, the organization has been confronted with anti-abortion pressure before, but not given in. So why cave now? What’s different beyond change in management?

The likely answer: money.

Susan G. Komen is funded, as you probably know, through numerous relationships with consumer brand companies. Come October we are swathed in pink thanks to Komen’s partnerships with Coca Cola (its “Minute Maid Pink Lemonade”), Yoplait (“Save Lids Save Lives”) and dozens of other companies making everything from pink hand tools (who doesn’t love a powder pink power drill?) to Tory Burch puffer jackets. Their sponsors are multinational corporations who have tied in with Komen to show affinity with women—the primary purchasers of their products.

I suspect that not only anti-abortion factions, but also corporate sponsors, pressured Komen. Nothing causes a business to stop in its tracks faster than the fear of a) losing money, and b) bad publicity. It is not that anti-choicers have so much influence on Komen; it’s that they can have so much influence on Komen’s sponsors.

As I write in my forthcoming book, Compassion, Inc.: How Corporate America Blurs the Line Between What We By, Who We Are and Those We Help (University of California Press, April), corporate funding of social causes via product purchases has been increasing at a disquieting rate. Called cause marketing, cause-related marketing or sometimes “corporate social responsibility,” these campaigns allow corporations to back social issues from women’s health to education to sustainability.

While these campaigns can do good, there are also considerable downsides to using the consumer marketplace to fund nonprofits. Beyond making people feel that purchasing say, a pink product, can replace a direct donation, the wider concern is the impact on the system of nonprofit funding. For example, if a campaign does not work to drive sales, the corporate sponsor can drop one non-profit for another that might be more beneficial to its bottom line. Conversely, any negative press connected to a corporation can reflect badly on the charity and hurt its donations. Perhaps most disturbing is that corporations support “female friendly” non-controversial causes like education, poverty and homelessness, and health (heart health in the form of red dresses and breast cancer in the form of pink ribbons) while eschewing controversial ones (Planned Parenthood) or ones that can’t be made visually appealing (like Alzheimer’s disease). In this instance, corporations may have become concerned about Komen’s connection to Planned Parenthood. Anti-choicers have grown increasingly savvy in using online petitions and social media to warn corporations away from reproductive-rights causes.

Thankfully, social media works both ways. You, too, can tell corporate sponsors that you will pull your business if they support Komen’s decision. You can go to Credo and sign the petition. You can tweet and retweet support for funding of Planned Parenthood under the hashtags #standwithPP and #occupythecure. I assure you corporate sponsors will get the message.

In the end, this snafu should be filed under “unintended consequences” because Joan Walsh of Salon.com got it right: Komen has fundamentally hurt their brand—the heart and soul of their business. This might not be a brand mistake on the magnitude of New Coke—particularly if they reverse their decision—but it isn’t too far from it given the current activity on Twitter about Komen. If they don’t reverse course, I suspect there will a whole lot fewer Yoplait lids licked next fall.

Cross-posted from the Ms. Blog

Photo from Flickr user WeNews under Creative Commons 2.0.

Finally, Finally! FBI’s “Forcible Rape” Definition Is Officially History


By Annie Shields

Last month we reported that victory was in sight in our months-long Rape is Rape campaign. At a December Senate hearing, FBI Director Robert Mueller let slip that “sometime this spring” the agency would update its archaic definition of “forcible rape.”

Mueller’s prediction gave us reason for optimism, but an official announcement today from the Obama administration gave us reason to celebrate!

The AP reports:

In a press briefing, senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett called the change a “very, very important step” because it counts men and because it includes rapes of women other than by physical force.

In the FBI’s official statement, CJIS Assistant Director David Cuthbertson says that the update ensures that “the number of victims of this heinous crime will be more accurately reflected in national crime statistics.”

“Updating the FBI Uniform Crime Report definition of rape is a big win for women,” said FMF president Ellie Smeal. “We appreciate the support for this change from the Obama Administration, led by Vice President Joe Biden and by Lynn Rosenthal, White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, and Hon. Susan B. Carbon, director of the Office on Violence Against Women in the Department of Justice.”

“This is a major policy change and will dramatically impact the way rape is tracked and reported nationwide,” says Katherine Spillar, executive editor of Ms. “With a modern, broader definition, FBI Uniform Crime Report statistics will finally show the true breadth of this violence that affects so many women’s lives.”

If you’re a regular reader, chances are you’ve been following our campaign since its launch in our Spring 2011 issue, and are as relieved and satisfied as we are. Eight months may seem like a long campaign, but for a federal agency this change practically happened overnight. The speed with which the new definition was adopted was due in no small part to the more than 160,000 people who signed on to the campaign. Thanks to all those who participated in this revolutionary effort to make sure that all rapes are counted!

And if you’d like to take a minute to thank FBI Director Robert Mueller for finally taking the archaic “forcible rape” definition off the books and into the history books where it belongs, you can do so here.

Cross-posted with permission from the Ms. Blog.

So Sorry, Rachel, There Is Still Sexual Harassment

By Joan Grey

To my dear granddaughter Rachel,

At less than a year old, you are a bit young to hear this message. The immediate challenges ahead of you include walking and talking. But this is one of those topics that there is never really a good time to discuss. While I hope you never experience this, forewarned is forearmed. What I need to tell you about is harassment and violence, particularly against women and girls.

Harassment starts young. A recently released survey from the American Association of University Women (AAUW),Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, concludes that sexual harassment is commonplace in middle and high schools. Nearly half of students experienced some form of sexual harassment during the recent school year, with girls more likely than boys to be sexually harassed. Technology has extended harassment’s reach, with texting, email, and Facebook providing new ways to attack others.

More than half of students have viewed sexual harassment of others. Witnessing it is not as bad as being the target, but it makes school feel less safe.

So, what is harassment? Harassment is a form of hostility—sometimes subtle and other times blatant. It can run the gamut from teasing to physical contact. Often it entails offensive remarks about a person’s gender. Verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature may be sexual harassment, if the behavior is unwelcome. Unwelcome is the critical word.

I wish I could say that harassment will stop after you graduate school, especially since there are laws that are supposed to protect against workplace sexual harassment. But even so, and after years of high-profile discussions and education programs, workplace sexual harassment of women and men is sadly alive and well. The Business and Professional Women’s (BPW) Foundation report, From Gen Y Women to Employers: What They Want in the Workplace and Why it Matters for Business [PDF], lists the most prevalent forms of gender discrimination seen by young working women:

  • Stereotyping (63 percent)
  • Unequal compensation (60%)
  • Not being treated as an equal (58%)
  • Inequality of opportunities (52%)
  • Being held to a different standard (51%)
  • Sexist jokes and derogatory statements about women (38%)

So what can you do if you encounter a situation of sexual harassment? Say “no” clearly when you encounter a behavior that feels inappropriate. It may be something that you just sense is “not quite right”–honor that intuition. Second, report the encounter to a trusted person like your parents or a teacher. This is not a secret to keep to yourself, even if it feels scary or embarrassing to talk about. Let others help you decide what to do. Being prepared will make you more confident.

It breaks my heart to tell you that, despite all the strides women have made, you will likely still face harassment. At this time in your life, when you don’t even know about the difference between boys and girls, our intention is to raise you to think girls can do anything they want, while still trying to make the world more equitable for all. I can only hope that, with your help, tomorrow will be different.



Photo from Flickr user JonRawlinson under Creative Commons 2.0.

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.


Correct. Protect. Respect. Promoting Economic Security with Safe Workplaces

By Donna Addkison
Wider Opportunities for Women

Women work. A lot of women work, making up 47% of the American workforce today. Two out three do so to provide the sole or a substantial part of a household income.  Yet women in the workforce continue to be the targets of unwanted, unwelcome sexual harassment in the workplace.  While the EEOC  handles 10-12,000 cases every year, we know this is just the tip of the iceberg. Sexual harrassment threatens women’s ability to provide financial support and economic security for themselves and for their families.

Ever heard the story of the woman on the road as a corporate trainer who had company salesmen appear at her hotel door in the nude?  Or the one about the mid-level manager with a boss who continued to ask her out again and again and again in spite of her saying no?  And the one about the woman working in construction who was subjected to physical intimidation along with the more subtle forms like ‘pin-ups’ of naked and nearly naked women in the onsite office?  Probably not – estimates suggest that only 5-15% of incidents of sexual harassment are reported.

Why?  The answers are as simple as they are complex.  When your paycheck puts a roof over your family, food on the table, and gas in the car, how do you take on the bad behavior of those who have some level of authority over your work life?  Do women sacrifice their jobs or their dignity?  Or both?

While women struggle to get a strong foothold in industries and careers with good pay and benefits, they often face the specter of sexual harassment in the workplace.  How many women do you know who have their own stories to tell?  How many mothers, sisters, and daughters have faced or fallen victim to sexual harassment?  How many is enough?

Men and women – both bring value to the workforce.  Let’s create safe working environments where men and women are respected at work, protected from sexual harassment, and afforded opportunities to climb career ladders that lead to economic security for themselves and for those who depend on them.

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.

In Mississippi, and in Every State, We ARE a Pro-Choice, Pro-Birth Control Nation


By duVergne Gaines

I just returned from the front lines in Mississippi, where students on campuses across the state united and mobilized to defeat the so-called “personhood” amendment. In the beginning, many political pundits made it sound as though Initiative 26 was a fait accompli. From the day I landed in Jackson to stay at my Aunt Patsy’s house and began working with our national campus organizing team and student leaders to launch Students Voting No on 26, we were told Mississippi voters were different–more conservative, more religious, more anti-abortion. Polling data seemed to confirm this notion. Our student leaders, however, knew otherwise.

The Feminist Majority Foundation‘s national Choices Campus team divided up and fanned out across the state to work with hundreds of Mississippi student leaders, as well as the statewide coalition against Initiative 26, Mississippians for Healthy Families, and the only remaining clinic providing abortion services, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. A testament to our visibility was that our campaign signs and stickers, which read “Vote NO on 26, Save Women’s Lives” were featured in local and national news outlets, including The New York Times and the Mississippi Clarion Ledger.

Everywhere we traveled in Mississippi, from Alcorn to Columbus, from Oxford to Hattiesburg, students, faculty and community members grasped the terrible consequences of Initiative 26 and embraced our message. The campaign in Mississippi proves yet again that conservatives and liberals of all colors, young and old, know that women’s lives must and do come before fertilized eggs. Although the state elected a Republican governor and attorney general, the so-called “personhood” amendment was handily defeated by 58 percent to 42 percent.

A tremendous number of young people, in particular young women and African Americans, went to the polls to defeat the dangerous initiative. “We probably picked up more than 40 percent of the vote in the last two weeks,” says Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal. “Although we started from behind, as soon as the public learned of the harmful impact, we soared in the polls.”

Many say if we can win in Mississippi, we can win anywhere–especially with a campaign that mobilized to victory in three weeks. But there is another lesson to be learned here: Access to safe, legal abortion and birth control is universally and overwhelmingly supported in this country. No matter how much money organizations like the American Family Association are able to pump into completely inhumane and misogynist initiatives like 26, ultimately voters believe in birth control, fertility treatments, good medicine, abortion access and, yes, women’s lives.

If passed, Initiative 26, which proposed to give constitutional rights to a fertilized egg, would have banned emergency contraception, birth control pills, and IUDs as well as all abortions, even in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the woman or girl. The amendment would have even gone so far as to eliminate critical medical choices for women, including some cancer treatments and in vitro fertilization. Frighteningly, it could have allowed the state to investigate and even prosecute a woman for a miscarriage.

Anti-abortion and anti-birth control extremists indicate they intend to put similar measures on six state ballots in 2012. So far, reproductive-rights supporters have defeated personhood amendments twice in Colorado–in 2008 and 2010–and now in Mississippi in 2011. If necessary, I have no doubt we can and will defeat them again.

Photo of “No on 26” cookie box courtesy of the author.

The Women of “Women, War and Peace”


By Michele Kort

The remarkable five-part PBS series Women, War and Peace concludes on tonight (Tuesday, November 8th) with War Redefined, the capstone piece that brings together the issues brought up in the previous films about conflicts in Afghanistan, Colombia, Liberia and Bosnia. Narrated by Geena Davis, the film touches on, among other things, how the proliferation of small arms has changed the nature of international conflicts; how women have too-often in recent years become the targets and casualties of war; and how women are emerging as peacemakers. We hear testimony from no less than three former and current U.S. Secretaries of State—all women!—along with others such as Liberian 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, Clark University scholar Cynthia Enloe and Major General Patrick Cammaert, the commander of UN peacekeeping forces in the Congo.

The Ms. Blog spoke with the producers of the series—Abigail Disney, Gini Reticker and Pamela Hogan—about how the series came to be and what they hope viewers will learn from it.

Ms. Blog: What was your purpose in creating this series?

Pamela Hogan: As we were talking about [a possible film], I happened to go with my family to Paris and we spent the entire day at the war museum there. At the end of the day I turned to my son and said, “Do your realize that we haven’t seen a single image of a woman?” One of the things we’re trying to represent in the film is a shift not only to look at women’s experiences [in war] but to recognize them as strategically important.

Abigail Disney: There’s a long history of stories of war, which have changed very little and have included women very little—and that’s always been to women’s detriment. Women have been ignored even though they have had a role in war. Not just as victims, but as fighters sometimes, and certainly as sexual rewards, pieces of property to be traded or [conquered] on the behalf of men on each side.

So we’ve always kind of underestimated women’s importance [in war], but there was a shift at the end of the Cold War. Part of it involved the proliferation of small arms in black markets. Part of it involved the way that the stasis that had been enforced by the Cold War had been lifted, and so a lot of smaller, smoldering, difficult-to-solve conflicts between ethnic groups and political entities started to break out. Also, globalization made it a lot easier to trade the resources that were the heart of some of these wars.

All of that fed not just more war, but a style of war which included people who had not been trained, who were not well-versed in the Geneva Convention, who very often were under 18, under 16, even under 12 or 13. This has led to an environment that has been explosive and much more difficult for women than ever on record. And then add to it that you have climate change creating yet greater pressure on land than we’ve ever had, and so many of these wars are about just taking populations and moving them to other parts of land. So you have massive population dislocation, and sometimes 75 or or 90 percent of these displaced populations are women and children. Again, an extraordinarily heavy level of the burden is placed on a woman’s shoulders.

The important thing [in making the film] was to stop telling the story as though women were just objects being acted upon. Shift the frame of reference and make sure that we spoke about them as subjects. How do they figure in the way these wars are fought, and how do they figure in politically viable, sustainable ways to get out of conflict?

And that’s where you get into issues like impunity. Does it matter if a person has been raped in wartime? Was that rape inevitable? Is someone accountable for that rape? And if those rapes are never prosecuted and there’s never any kind of justice for them, is it possible to rebuild a sustainable peace in a culture? I suspect that it’s not. So a woman’s involvement in post-conflict [resolution] starts to seem incredibly important as you build out of these incredibly ferocious  conflicts that go on for, sometimes, generations.

Gini Reticker: In Pray the Devil Back to Hell, one of the most remarkable things that the women in Liberia did was actually maintain the peace. The mothers knew which of their sons were fighting in the war and where the guns were. They got a copy of the peace agreement and made sure every day that whatever was supposed to happen, did happen.

PH: The UN has now recognized that what happens to women in war is actually a security issue, not a humanitarian issue. It’s a small but very important shift.

How will that shift change policy?

AD: For instance, if you’re with the UN and you walk into a refugee camp, [you can] set up your job with an understanding that women have already probably gone about the business of answering the questions of, “Where is the water? Where is the firewood? What shall we do with the children?” There’s already a government in exile in almost every refugee camp in the world, made up of women. If the international community were to understand women as subjects, not objects, it would come in and work with that government in exile and perhaps be more effective and less prone to waste. That’s just one way of thinking about how things shift when you put women in the foreground.

GR: Patrick Cammeaert, who was with UN Special Forces in Bosnia and then again in Congo, says that so often the standard approach to conflict resolution is to try to lure men off the battlefield with promises of money—they turn in their guns, they get money. But then the men who [were in battle] are being rewarded, while the rest of the community is getting nothing. Instead, if you took that same amount of money and gave it to the women (granted, you may have to pay off the male elders  because that’s just the way the world works) to decide what that community needed to rebuild and how that money would be best spent, they would take care of the ex-combatants and also be sure that everyone who had been wronged in that community  would be taken care of. That would be a tremendous policy shift. There’s not one single war that’s going on today where there are two standing armies of different nations fighting each other; we’re really talking about a different kind of warfare. So who do you negotiate with at the barganining table? A lot of times thugs with guns get to set the terms of the peace. I think that policy will change in many ways if you include the voices of half the population.

If women had more power in their governments, would there be less war?

GR: Let’s give it a try! If women had 50 percent of the power, it’s hard to say what would happen, but it’s not something we’ve tried before. There are women in conflict zones all over the world who have perpetrated killing and genocide. But all of the research shows that when there are diverse decision makers, better decisions are made

AD: Wherever I go out with Pray the Devil Back to Hell, I’d always get the same type of pushback:“Are you trying to imply that women are peaceful, men are warlike?” No, that’s not the point. I can go through the Margaret Thatchers and Benazir Bhuttos and the Golda Meirs, but you can always count on people to name the same five, six or seven women. But look, hasn’t history given us a few hundred thousand men to name as opposed to these six women? While there are exceptions, there’s never been a human activity more gendered than war and aggression. To point at the handful of exceptions only proves the rule. While I’d never argue that women are better than men or more capable, inherently, than men, let’s not pretend that there isn’t this enormous millennia of history to show us the difference.

The other thing is, I don’t know a single woman peacemaker who is pushing to have a bargaining table made up strictly of women; they’re asking for their place. All different kinds of men aren’t at that table any more than women are. The bargaining table is made up of a very narrow strip of men who tend to use masculinity to reinforce their position. If we could push women in critical mass to these bargaining tables, what might they also make possible for men to be? What might they change in the way masculinity comes to be expressed around war and aggressing? It’s not that anybody is  pushing for women to run the world; they’re pushing for women to run the world side by side with all different kinds of men.

And how did you get three Secretaries of State—Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright—to be involved in the film?

PH: We told each of them that the other had said yes. [laughter]

The final segment of the Women, War and Peace series, War Redefined, airs Tuesday, November 8. Check your local PBS listings.

Photo from PBS.org; all rights reserved.

This post originally appeared on the Ms. Blog.

The Real Story of Margaret Sanger

By Ellen Chesler

Birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger is back in the news this week thanks to GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, who claimed on national television that Planned Parenthood, the visionary global movement she founded nearly a century ago, is really about one thing only: “preventing black babies from being born.” Cain’s outrageous and false accusation is actually an all too familiar canard—a willful repetition of scurrilous claims that have circulated for years despite detailed refutation by scholars who have examined the evidence and unveiled the distortions and misrepresentations on which they are based (for a recent example, see this rebuttal from The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler).

It’s an old tactic. Even in her own day, Sanger endured deliberate character assassination by opponents who believed they would gain more traction by impugning her character and her motives than by debating the merits of her ideas. But when a presidential candidate from a major U.S. political party is saying such things, a thoughtful response is necessary.

So what is Sanger’s story?

Born Margaret Louisa Higgins in 1879, the middle child of a large Irish Catholic family, Sanger grew into a follower of labor organizers, free thinkers, and bohemians. Married to William Sanger, an itinerant architect and painter, she helped support three young children by working as a visiting nurse on New York’s Lower East Side. Following the death of a patient from a then all-too-common illegal abortion, she vowed to abandon palliative work and instead overturn obscenity laws that prevented legal access to safe contraception.

Sanger’s fundamental heresy was in claiming every woman’s right to experience her sexuality freely and bear only the number of children she desires. Following a first generation of educated women who had proudly forgone marriage in order to seek fulfillment outside the home, she offered birth control as a necessary condition to the resolution of a broad range of personal and professional frustrations.

The hardest challenge in introducing Sanger to modern audiences, who take this idea for granted, is to explain how absolutely destabilizing it seemed in her own time. As a result of largely private arrangements and a healthy trade in condoms, douches, and various contraptions sold under the subterfuge of feminine hygiene, birth rates had already begun to decline. But contraception remained a clandestine and delicate subject, legally banned under obscenity statutes, and women were still largely denied identities or rights independent of their relationships with men, including the right to vote.

By inventing the term “birth control,” Sanger brought the practice — and by implication, women’s entitlement to sexual pleasure — out into the open and gave them essential currency. She went to jail in 1917 for opening a clinic to distribute primitive diaphragms to immigrant women in Brooklyn, New York, and appeal of her conviction led to a medical exception that licensed doctors to prescribe contraception for reasons of health. Under these constraints she built a network of independent local women’s health centers that eventually came together under the banner of Planned Parenthood. She also lobbied for the repeal of federal obscenity statutes that prevented the legal transport of contraception by physicians across state lines, which were struck down in federal court in 1936.

Sanger sought and won scientific validation for various contraceptive methods, including the birth control pill, whose development she supported and found the money to fund. In so doing, she helped lift the religious shroud that had long encased reproduction and secured the endorsement of contraception by physicians and social scientists. From this singular accomplishment, which some still consider heretical, a continuing controversy has ensued.

Sanger always remained a wildly polarizing figure, which clarifies the logic of her decision after World War I to jettison “birth control” and adopt the more socially resonant term “family planning.” This move was particularly inventive but in no way cynical, especially when the Great Depression brought attention to collective needs and the New Deal created a blueprint for bold public endeavors.

Some have falsely charged that Sanger defined family planning as a right of the privileged but a duty or obligation of the poor. To the contrary, she showed considerable foresight in lobbying to include universal voluntary family planning programs among public investments in social security. Had the New Deal incorporated basic public health and access to contraception, as most European countries were then doing, protracted conflicts over welfare and health care policy in the U.S. might well have been avoided.

Having long enjoyed the friendship and support of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Sanger also had ample reason to believe the New Dealers would fully legalize and endorse contraception as a necessary first step to her long-term goal of transferring responsibility and accountability for voluntary clinics to the public health sector. What she failed to anticipate was the force of opposition family planning continued to generate from a coalition of religious conservatives, including urban Catholics and rural fundamentalist Protestants, that held Roosevelt Democrats captive much as today’s evangelicals have captured the GOP.

The U.S. government would not overcome cultural and religious objections to public support of family planning through its domestic anti-poverty and international development programs until the late 1960s, after the Supreme Court protected contraceptive use under the privacy doctrine created in Griswold v. Connecticut. At this time, Planned Parenthood clinics became major government contractors, since there were few alternative primary health care centers serving the poor. Today, one in four American women funds her contraception through government programs, many of them still run by Planned Parenthood—a number likely to rise under the Affordable Care Act.

Sanger’s eagerness to mainstream her movement explains her engagement with eugenics, a then widely popular intellectual movement that addressed the manner in which human intelligence and opportunity is determined by biological as well as environmental factors. Hard as it is to believe, eugenics was considered far more respectable than birth control. Like many well-intentioned reformers of this era, Sanger took away from Charles Darwin the essentially optimistic lesson that humanity’s evolution within the animal kingdom makes us all capable of improvement if only we apply the right tools. University presidents, physicians, scientists, and public officials all embraced eugenics, in part because it held the promise that merit would replace fate—or birthright and social status—as the standard for mobility in a democratic society.

But eugenics also has some damning and today unfathomable legacies, such as a series of state laws upheld in 1927 by an eight-to-one progressive majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, including Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis. Their landmark decision in Buck v. Bell authorized the compulsory sterilization of a poor young white woman with an illegitimate child on grounds of feeble mindedness that were never clearly established. This decision, incidentally, was endorsed by civil libertarians such as Roger Baldwin of the ACLU and W.E.B. Dubois of the NAACP, both of whom Sanger counted among her supporters and friends.

For Sanger, eugenics was meant to begin with the voluntary use of birth control, which many still opposed on the grounds that the middle class should be encouraged to have more babies. She countered by disdaining what she called a “cradle competition” of class, race or ethnicity. She publicly opposed immigration restrictions and framed poverty as a matter of differential access to resources like birth control, not as the immutable consequence of low inherent ability or character.

As a nurse, Sanger also understood the adverse impacts of poor nutrition, drugs, and alcohol on fetal development and encouraged government support of maternal and infant health. She argued for broad social safety nets and proudly marshaled clinical data to demonstrate that most women, even among the poorest and least educated populations, eagerly embraced and used birth control successfully when it is was provided.

At the same time, Sanger did on many occasions engage in shrill rhetoric about the growing burden of large families of low intelligence and defective heredity—language with no intended racial or ethnic content. She always argued that all women are better off with fewer children, but unfortunate language about “creating a race of thoroughbreds” and other such phrases have in recent years been lifted out of context and used to sully her reputation. Moreover, in endorsing Buck v. Bell and on several occasions the payment of pensions or bonuses to poor women who agreed to limit their childbearing (many of whom enjoyed no other health care coverage), Sanger quite clearly failed to consider fundamental human rights questions raised by such practices. Living in an era indifferent to the obligation to respect and protect individuals whose behaviors do not always conform to prevailing mores, she did not always fulfill it.

The challenge as Sanger’s biographer has been to reconcile apparent contradictions in her beliefs. She actually held unusually advanced views on race relations for her day and on many occasions condemned discrimination and encouraged reconciliation between blacks and whites. Though most birth control facilities conformed to the segregation mores of the day, she opened an integrated clinic in Harlem in the early 1930s. Later, she facilitated birth control and maternal health programs for rural black women in the south, when local white health officials there denied them access to any New Deal-funded services.

Sanger worked on this last project with the behind-the-scenes support of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council for Negro Women and then a Roosevelt administration official. Their progressive views on race were well known, if controversial, but their support for birth control was silenced by Franklin’s political handlers—at least until he was safely ensconced in the White House for a third term, when the government rushed to provide condoms to World War II soldiers.

Sanger’s so-called Negro Project has been a source of controversy first raised by black nationalists and some feminist scholars in the 1970s and later by anti-abortion foes. Respecting the importance of self-determination among users of contraception, she recruited prominent black leaders to endorse the goal, especially ministers who held sway over the faithful. In that context, she wrote an unfortunate sentence in a private letter about needing to clarify the ideals and goals of the birth control movement because “we do not want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.”  The sentence may have been thoughtlessly composed, but it is perfectly clear that she was not endorsing genocide.

America’s intensely complicated politics of race and gender has long ensnarled Sanger and all others who have sought to discipline reproduction. As many scholars of the subject in recent years have observed, much of the controversy proceeds from the plain fact that reproduction is by its very nature experienced individually and socially at the same time. In claiming women’s fundamental right to control their own bodies, Sanger remained mindful of the dense fabric of cultural, political, and economic relationships in which those rights are exercised.

In most instances the policies Sanger advocated were intended to observe the necessary obligation of social policy to balance individual rights of self-expression with the sometimes contrary desire to promulgate and enforce common mores and laws. She may have failed to get the balance quite right, but there is nothing in the record to poison her reputation or discredit her noble cause. Quite the contrary.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. may have put it best in 1966, when he accepted Planned Parenthood’s prestigious Margaret Sanger Award and spoke eloquently of the “kinship” between the civil rights and family planning movements. Here is what he said, since it bears repeating:

There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist — a nonviolent resister… She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions. Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision; for without them there would have been no beginning.

This piece originally appeared at New Deal 2.o.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.