Monthly Archives: October 2007

Names Go For a Sex Change

If you thought it was crazy when Hugo Chavez announced he wanted to limit legal Venezuelan names to a list of 100, strictly divided by gender, you’ll be interested to know he’s not alone: The Finnish government also maintains a list of legal names from which parents must choose, with no overlap between male and female varietals.

Here in the United States, we’ve had a tradition of name sex-changes over the past several decades. Male names in particular have been feminized; in the New York Times Magazine, Sam Kean suggests that might be because parents want their daughters to be as confident and strong as the stereotypical male, and not to feel limited by gender. Over time, male names embraced by parents of girls come to be understood as feminine. After generations of male "Shirelys" or "Ashleys," families cease passing on those names to their sons. The reverse doesn’t happen; traditionally female names remain that way, suggesting that parents are reluctant to imbue their sons with feminine characteristics.

Names that have undergone a male-to-female sex change include Taylor, Kim, Peyton, Leslie, and even my own name. But after an initial period of androgyny, most American baby names are coded as clearly pink or blue.

cross posted at TAPPED

The Pain Game

As I’ve mentioned from time to time before, I am a chronic migraine sufferer. It’s been a lifelong problem for me; my parents tell me that before I could speak, I’d scream myself to sleep in my crib clutching my tiny head, and then mysteriously, be perfectly alright the next morning. Although migraines run in the family on my mother’s side, you don’t hear of many babies who suffer from the disorder. But I’ve dealt with debilitating migraines for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother sitting by my bedside in the dark and soaking a washcloth in a bowl of ice water, applying and reapplying it to my forehead. She recently told me she doesn’t remember this, but she would read to me by flashlight on those nights until I fell asleep.

Late in adolescence, my migraines became much worse. Instead of happening once or twice a month, they came two, three, or even four times a week. For the first time, I’d go to sleep with a migraine and awake still feeling the pain. My sleeping and eating schedule became something I had to plan rather carefully, or I’d risk bringing on an attack: Eat every four hours. Don’t sleep too late on weekends. Indeed, hunger and exhaustion took on new characteristics inside my body; no longer were they confined to the stomach or a feeling of light-headedness. They caused a dull pain to emerge in the area around my left eye, a pain that would sharpen over time if not treated, eventually causing intense nausea.

Doctors tell me it’s normal for women to experience a worsening of their migraine condition during the most fertile reproductive years of their lives. In that case, menopause might have a silver lining for me.

So I was fascinated this morning when a friend who suffers from occasional migraines pointed out to me Judith Warner‘s New York Times column on her failed attempt to wean herself off migraine drugs through denying herself many foods that act as triggers.  I’ve been on a variety of medications that supposedly treat migraines: Barbiturates that dull the pain without addressing the underlying swelling of the blood vessels in the head; the anti-anxiety drug Paxil; the daily blood pressure medicine Atenolol, which is supposed to decrease the likelihood of said blood vessels swelling; and Imitrex, part of the triptan group of drugs that can halt a migraine completely if taken early in the attack, but which cause "rebound headaches," mini-migraines that are like aftershocks from an earthquake. I regularly talk to my doctors about how often I should be taking these drugs, and in what combinations. I’ve also switched birth control pills multiple times in order to find a hormonal treatment that can decrease the frequency of my migraines.

Sure, there are triggers to migraines that can be avoided. But unlike Judith, I’ll never stop eating cheese or chocolate, not even for a little while, to curtail migraines. I enjoy those things, they don’t generally cause migraines for me,  and there are simply too many other triggers I can’t control (the stresses of work and, um, life) to obsess over those few. I think Judith diagnoses perfectly why so many women seek to take themselves off medication that helps them function: "And, once I got used to it, I came to almost enjoy being on my diet, exploring my capacity for hunger and self-abnegation, obsessing over what foods I could eat, and how, and when. At the very least, the diet made my friends happy. Renouncing food, renouncing pills, is so often, in our time, seen as the right and righteous, pure and wholesome thing to do."

I’ve struggled against the desire to not take my migraine meds my entire life. As a child, I would press my head up against the cold school bus window to numb the pain, instead of treating it with drugs. I wanted to be in control, not to feel woozy or cotton-tongued. Imitrex, when it appeared on the market, was a godsend for me because it worked quickly and had relatively few side effects. But its effectiveness has decreased somewhat overtime as my reliance on it has increased.

All I know is that I am a more effective and compassionate person when I don’t have a migraine. And in over two decades of dealing with migraines, I’ve found only one non-medicinal treatment that actually works, one that Warner doesn’t mention. It’s called biofeedback. Using this technique during a migraine attack, I can sometimes fall asleep with a cold compress on my head, delaying the decision on whether to take strong drugs until the morning. Learn more about biofeedback here — it can work for other types of pain, as well. Although initial consultation with a biofeedback therapist can entail hooking you up to a machine that measures your blood flow, I use biofeedback as a completely free, equipment-less meditation technique that redirects blood flow in my body away from the inflamed area. I close my eyes and imagine dipping my fingers and toes into warm sand at the beach. With focus, this, believe it or not, can draw the pain away from the head.

I ♥ “Ugly Betty”

Here is a cute profile of Michael Urie and Becky Newton, the pitch-perfect comedic team who play Marc St. James and Amanda Tanen on my absolute favorite television show, "Ugly Betty." From immigration, to transgender rights, to growing up gay, to health care woes, "Ugly Betty" is one of the most progressive shows on TV. And you can watch it all for free online! I’m thinking of writing a whole piece about the show’s politics. Wonder if any editor would be interested in that….

“Gender Republicans”

I just finished reading Katha Pollitt‘s excellent new book of essays, Learning to Drive. It’s a moving exploration of the times when our personal lives and politics meet, often in confusing, combustive ways. In this Guardian America interview with Pollitt, my TAP colleague Ann Friedman zeroes in on one of the most interesting phrases in the book, "gender Republicans." This, Pollitt writes, is what many well-meaning lefties (including herself and former husband) become once they have kids, and they’re forced to decide how to divy up childcare and other domestic work. Here’s the exchange:

The phrase "gender Republicans," from the chapter about the birth of your daughter, really gets at the heart of the feminism’s unfinished business in the domestic, personal sphere.

What struck me so forcefully about having a baby as an experience was my feeling that I had just done this incredible thing, and it’s so great, and it’s such an intense and joyful experience, so different than other things I had done. But having a baby is a moment when the latent gender expectations of the couple are revealed. Not just the expectations psychologically, but, more importantly, they realize they have put themselves on a path that makes certain outcomes rational. That’s when it turns out to matter who’s got health insurance, or who’s the freelancer, or who’s the free spirit who is not on such a straight and narrow path. And there I think the free spirit often loses out.

Of course, it doens’t always take a child to become a "gender Republican." Many feminists I know feel that in any romantic relationship with a man, they’re constantly fighting such expectations.

The Progressive Case for Public School Choice

Ezra has encouraged me to jump in to what has become an energetic debate on vouchers for poor urban public schools, so here I go. Quick run-down: Megan McCardle seethes with rage over rich liberals who essentially practice "school choice" by picking up and moving to expensive suburbs, but who don’t support vouchers so poor parents can also get their kids out of bad schools. Ezra responds that vouchers aren’t the answer, because they won’t do away with concentrated poverty, which he considers the root of educational inequality. Kevin Carey swings in to say they’re both wrong: Schools that educate poor kids can be great schools in spite of concentrated poverty, and school choice is okay when choice is confined to the public system. Carey also takes a jab at The American Prospect for prioritizing longterm poverty fixes and downplaying the importance of education reform. To this, I’d only respond that there is a variety of opinions on education at TAP, and that I, for one, have argued again and again for serious attention to be paid to our schools as engines of equality, and will continue to do so.

But back to the issue at hand. Kevin is right that private vouchers aren’t a systemic fix for urban education. As he writes, "Voucherizing a whole city like DC wouldn’t work. There aren’t enough good private schools to teach all those students in the short run, and–more importantly–there wouldn’t be enough in the long run." Nor is busing city kids en masse to the suburbs a great solution, since that would be unworkable politically and logistically. Poor kids certainly do deserve top-flight schools within their own communities. And although it’s not necessary for those school buildings to be race and class integrated for children to receive a good education within them, it would be preferable if they were. Integrated schools do a better job of readying children for the workforce, tend to have more resources at their disposal in terms of money and parental investment, and perhaps most importantly, teach kids tolerance and comfort around people different from themselves.

What I would like to see is public school choice that regionalizes education in such a way as to encourage kids from more affluent families to attend high quality public magnet and public charter schools in nearby poorer neighborhoods or cities. This provides a good, close-to-home education for poor kids and integrates schools without having to wait for concentrated poverty and wealth to be wiped off the map. It also encourages average or under-performing urban schools to catch up with better specimens within their system, and provides them with models for success. Alongside suburban transfers into the city could be a program of voluntary urban transfers to the suburbs, with extra funding for the schools that take on the city kids. John Edwards has proposed basically this plan.

In a city like D.C., with many wealthy, close-in suburbs, this could be a workable model. In New York City, whose geography is much more complicated, public school choice has successfully brought many hundreds of middle and upper middle class families into the system who in not-so-distant times would have almost certainly moved to the suburbs or rented out their basements for private school tuition. We shouldn’t be afraid of educational choices, but we should ensure that they bolster the public system and are equally available to everyone. That’s difficult to do, since the most stable families are the first to figure out how to game the system and get their kids into the best public magnets or charters. Lotteries are a good work-around. To sum up, there’s so much that can be done to make public schools better without resorting to sending kids to private schools. So let’s not give up.

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You

For all the kind, supportive words I’ve received about my CNN appearance. It really means a lot, especially after hearing from conservative bloggers about how I sounded "like a middle schooler." Ugh. And then the commenters over here at The Guardian totally missing my tone of deliberate hyperbole. I intend to get back to reporting the next few days, since all this punditry is really raising my blood pressure. I’m currently working on a print feature about schools and the achievement gap. And as always, blogging daily at TAPPED.

As for all the strangers who suggested we go out on a date or who referenced sex in messages to me after I appeared on CNN…um, not so appreciated. It’s hard enough putting oneself out there without fielding comments like that. Don’t be icky.

The Wife as Mother

Broadsheet features an interview with Deborah Merrill, a Cornell sociologist who has published a book on the relationships between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law.

Why do you think that the archetype of the interfering mother-in-law is so pervasive?

It’s the result of the fact that the mother-in-law has always been her child’s main caregiver. It is hard to turn that mothering role off just because a child gets married. The continued concern and drive to advise is seen as interference, though, once a child marries and has their own family. Relinquishing one’s role can cause resentment on the part of the mother-in-law, particularly if this has been an important source of her identity.

What makes these in-law relationships hard?


The marriage of a son is a life course transition for which many families are not prepared. This results in conflict early on in the relationship that in-laws are never quite able to overcome. When a son marries, a new and separate family is created. While the daughter-in-law is trying to create her own family, her mother-in-law is trying to maintain relationships in her family as they have always been.

What strikes me here is the underlying assumption — which I am sure is borne out by Merrill’s interviews — that wives act as replacement mothers for their husbands. Of course, part of establishing a longterm relationship is replacing one’s childhood support system with an adult family you create yourself. But the myth of the "Monster in Law" seems predicated on the idea that wives have a special responsibility to infantalize their husbands in the domestic sphere, and that mothers-in-law are filled with jealousy when they see another woman taking on their role.

Tensions between sons-in-law and fathers-in-law are equally tied up in traditional gender expectations, and while portrayed less frequently in popular culture, often revolve in books and movies around a father being angry about a son-in-law’s infidelity or job prospects.

In real life, of course, in-laws get along or don’t based on every conceivable personality trait or issue.

Yeah Yeah, I Was On TV Last Night

I participated in a left/right bloggers debate over Ann Coulter and Al Gore last night on CNN. The host was Tony Harris and my counterpart was Mary Katherine Ham from, both of whom were a lot of fun. Only regrets: I feel like I wasn’t quite looking in the correct place, and also, that I made some wacky facial expressions. But all in all, I’m pleased with my first real TV appearance.

Jenna’s Story

My post here Sunday on some of the unexpectedly progressive statements coming out of Jenna Bush‘s mouth during her book tour has led to a full-length Prospect column. I think I may be the only journalist who wrote about the book to have actually read the entire thing. And as my editor Ann Friedman points out, this article is where Wonky McWonkster feminist liberal journalism meets Us Weekly. So if that appeals to you, I hope you’ll check it out:

Like the vast majority of Americans in their mid-twenties, Jenna Bush believes condoms effectively prevent the spread of HIV, comprehensive sex education helps young people make healthy choices, and sex between two mutually loving people is okay — even if they aren’t married.

None of that is surprising. But given that Jenna Bush is the daughter of a deeply conservative president, one whose administration has in part been defined by retrograde sexual politics, it’s rather extraordinary that Jenna has written a book advocating a practical, social justice stance toward the problems of poverty, AIDS, child abuse, sexual abuse, and teenage motherhood in Latin America.

“White Men Matter Most”

That’s "the most durable reality of American politics," according to David Paul Kuhn writing in the Politico today. Kuhn argues — antithetically to Tom Schaller, who bid "So Long, White Boy" in Salon last month — that there can be no Democratic presidential victory without special attempts to woo white male swing voters by appealing to their "masculinity."

Kuhn’s new book on the subject is entitled The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma. Many of us will find the assertion that white men are "neglected" by any element of the American political process laughable, if not downright offensive. Indeed, the article is filled with questionable rhetoric aimed at whipping up panic over the strong possiblity of Hillary Clinton becoming the Democratic nominee. Kuhn approvingly quotes LBJ advisor Harry McPherson, who wrote in 1972:

Democratic primaries and conventions often rocked with the language of rebuke. Very like, it has occurred to me, the language many wives use in speaking to their husbands, particularly toward the end of marriages. You never think of the children, or of my mother, or of me; only of yourself. Substitute the ignored disadvantaged, the homeless, people trapped downtown. The reaction among husbands, for whom read ‘white male voters,’ is what is normally provoked by attempts to burden people with a sense of guilt.

Kuhn also nods toward Harvard University social psychologist William Pollack, author of Real Boys, a 1999 book widely (dis)credited with stirring up a national sense of "crisis" about the fates of middle-class white boys, when in fact, the boys who are truly struggling are African American and Latino. "Liberals didn’t realize they had a whole constituency of disenfranchised people without rights who were called standard masculine men,” Pollack tells Kuhn. Huh? In what America are white men "disenfranchised?"

But let’s also look at the numbers. Kuhn is correct that since 1980, "Democrats never won more than 38 of every 100 white men who voted." But he doesn’t grapple at all with the two main counterarguments to his claim that this is a major electoral problem for the Dems: First, Bill Clinton didn’t win substantially more of the white male vote than losers John Kerry and Al Gore. And second, to put this bluntly, white men are demographic losers. As John Judis and Ruy Teixeira demonstrate in their June 2007 Prospect article on the re-emerging Democratic majority, every demographic group that supports Democrats will increase in prominence over the coming decades:

Minorities made up 15 percent of the electorate in 1990; they are 21 percent today and are expected to be 25 percent in 2015. Their weight will be much higher in key states like California, Florida, and Texas. In 1970 single women made up 38 percent of adult women; today they are a majority. College-educated women have more than tripled as a percentage of women 25 and older since then, going from 8 percent to 27 percent. Professionals were 7 percent of the workforce in the 1950s; they are 17 percent today and are expected to be 19 percent in 2015.

I look forward to reading Kuhn’s entire book to see if it makes any more sense than this Politico teaser. Maybe he’s found a way to stop time so that white men remain the only constituency politicians should appeal to? Other than that, I’m stumped.

cross-posted at TAPPED