Category Archives: Gender and Sexuality

Young Parents, Old Parents, and Children

My grandmother gave birth to my father when she was 19-years old, and I've been especially lucky, well into adulthood, to have a close relationship with healthy, young-at-heart, active grandparents. Yesterday they sent my boyfriend and me John F. Kennedy chocolate gelt for Channukah, which was pretty cool. But my grandparents, who are wonderfully creative and intellectually curious people, never went to college; between them, they worked in retail, at banks, in medical offices, and doing childcare, though they could have thrived as artists, as teachers, or in many other professions. My grandfather is an expert photographer and is passionate about history, and my grandmother paints and cooks beautifully, in addition to being one of the warmest people most of her family and friends have ever met. When our clan gathered at my aunt's house for Thanksgiving this year, I thought a lot about the shape of my grandparents' lives. Their three kids all went to college and graduate school, and waited until their mid or late-thrities to reproduce. Today the joy of three children and four grandchildren is overwhelming, and my grandparents may someday meet their great-grandchildren, as well. Yet they have never been rich, or been their own boss, or achieved the financial stability they would have liked. I'll have far fewer years with my descendents than they have had with theirs, but I'll also have an intellectually challenging career, more money, and fancier vacations, too. Life is full of trade-offs. 

So I was really moved by Judith Shulevitz's New Republic cover story on the health and social effects of delaying parenthood. Now that it looks like advanced paternal age is correlated with autism spectrum disorders and certain mental illnesses in children, men might finally join women in the anxiety Olympics over how to fit education, career, the search for true love, and reproduction into the ever-shrinking window of opportunity before one's 35th birthday. As Shulevitz states, we'll "have to stop thinking of work-life balance as a women’s problem, and reframe it as a basic human right." Correct. Similarly, it's refreshing to read about the potentially problematic breeding practices not of young, unwed single moms, but of some of the affluent, hyper-educated married couples who delay childrearing into their forties or even beyond, and who will be well into senior citizenship by the time their children are fully "launched" into the adult world.

But. The risk is that by focusing on the genetic and epigenetic ways in which disabled, differently-abled, or simply complex children come into the world, we blame parents for their kids' disabilities, or begin to see conditions like autism and schitzophrenia as the "fault" of parents who could have made a different set of choices. In part, this is already happening with Down syndrome. The risk for Down syndrome goes up significantly when an expectant mother reaches 35, but 80 percent of children born with Down syndrome are delivered by women younger than 35. Because these mothers are not in the highest-risk group, they are often counseled to forgo more invasive and riskier Down syndrome tests. When I reported on Down syndrome screening in 2010, I talked to several mothers who had been pained by strangers' assumptions that because they had a child with Down syndrome, they had somehow failed to undergo basic prenatal medical care. The truth is that although 90 percent of parents who receive a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis choose to abort, there are no failsafe tests, and most parents are surprised when a child is diagnosed with Down syndrome or any other disability. Other parents actively choose to carry atypical pregnancies to term, for religious or other personal reasons. 

Prenatal testing for Down syndrome and other disabilities will become more sophisiticated and safer. Someday there may be a prenatal screening for autism. But there will always be differently-abled children, like Shulevitz's son, and I know she would agree that once they are with us in the world, we ought to focus more on how to best meet their needs than on the supposed reproductive failures of their parents. (The same goes for poor children, by the way, born to single moms.) Better genetic science may mean more social pressure on both men and women to reproduce in their twenties and early thirties, but I hope it never means we lose our compassion for the disabled children of older parents, or for the adults who wait for romantic or financial stability before having children. 

Susan Rice, Obama, the Clintons, and the Tragedy in the Congo

The decade-long conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, mostly over control of mineral deposits, is the deadliest the planet has seen since World War II, with an estimated 3 million people killed and 500,000 women and girls brutally raped. Every expert agrees that the governments of neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, which receive hundreds of millions of dollars in American military aid each year, have enabled the militias that perpetrate much of the violence in the Congo. We also know that multinational mining and tech corporations, many of which have deep political influence in the United States, are dependent upon the minerals dug up in rebel-controlled Congolese mines. These materials are used to build cell phones and other small electronic devices.

UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s history of consulting for the autocratic Paul Kagame regime in Rwanda should certainly be on the table as the president, Congress, and public weigh her candidacy for secretary of state. But it is crucial to note that in her repeated attempts to downplay the role of the Rwandan government in the systematic mass killing, rape, and torture of Congolese civilians, as well as in the recruitment of child soldiers, Rice is serving not as a lone actor, but in absolute concert with the Obama administration’s overall Africa policy. Under Hillary Clinton, the State Department committed $17 million to alleviating sexual violence in the region. Most of the money was spent on treating rape survivors, which, while absolutely crucial, did not address the political and economic root causes of the conflict. That’s a problem because no matter how hard health and development organizations work to rehabilitate rape victims and former child soldiers, as long as the conflict continues, these survivors risk being re-victimized once they return to violence-torn communities. That is why so many Congolese women and girls are raped multiple times.

As I reported in 2010:

Obama has long been interested in Africa, both personally and politically. As a freshman senator in 2005, he sponsored legislation, later signed into law by President Bush, empowering the secretary of state to withhold aid from neighboring countries that play a role in destabilizing Congo.

But that prerogative was never exercised, under either Bush or Obama, even as both Sweden and the Netherlands de-funded Rwanda because of its support for armed rebel groups active inside Congo.

In its dealings with Rwanda, the U.S. is “paralyzed,” argued Mvemba Dizolele, a native of Congo and Africa policy expert associated with the Hoover Institution and Johns Hopkins University. “We lost our moral authority in 1994 when the genocide happened, and we allowed [Rwandan President] Paul Kagame”—the leader who ended the genocide—“to become the authority in the region and go into Congo.”

As a veteran of the Clinton administration, Rice is part of the group of policy-makers who deeply regretted America’s inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide, and who greeted Kagame’s rise to power with relief. In 2009, Bill Clinton presented Kagame with a Global Citizenship Award at his annual Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York. In 2010 I asked President Clinton about UN reports holding Kagame’s administration partially responsible for violence in the Congo. Clinton replied:

“The U.N. said what it did about what happened after the [Rwandan] genocide, in Congo. … Kagame strongly disputes it. Right now I’m not going to pre-judge him because there’s this huge debate about what happened in the Congo and why, and I don’t know.”

In reality, Kagame’s culpability has been broadly documented for years, by the United Nations, by Human Rights Watch, and by Africa scholars and advocates. It’s fine to hold Susan Rice accountable on this, but we have to reach higher, too, into the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the Oval Office.

Mitt Romney on Female Poverty, Single Motherhood, and Head Start

I'm often asked what one education reform I think would make the biggest impact on American students' achievement. I don't like this question. The real answer–vastly decrease poverty–isn't going to happen anytime soon, and given the options on the table, I'm optimistic about a wide array of school reforms.

That said, if someone held a gun to my head and asked me to choose just one education priority, I'd probably focus on the months and years from a baby's birth to age 5. Only about half of American children in this age group are enrolled in any organized educational activity, yet we know early vocabularly-building and social-emotional learning are among the biggest factors that contribute to lifelong success, both within and outside of school. I go over all the research in this article, and discuss it further in this episode of WNYC's Brian Lehrer show (segment begins at minute 25).

So it's been intersting to see, over the last several weeks, how the Romney campaign has zeroed in on Head Start as a supposedly prime example of wasteful federal spending, even as, in last night's debate, the candidate vowed to help the very same "women in poverty" who rely on the program for childcare and early education.

Romney's statements last night in favor of two-parent households (a good thing, I agree!) and against single motherhood (supposedly a major cause of gun violence?) are all part and parcel of his ongoing rhetoric about the private family being a sufficient substitute for all the many public programs a Romney administration would be likely to devolve to the states,  from Medicaid to food stamps to Head Start. And devolving to the states would mean, in many cases, major budget cuts and decreases in services.

Over at Slate, I go into more detail

Bringing German-Style Apprenticeships to the U.S.

My new piece at Slate explains why it’s a good idea to replace the concept of an “internship” with that of an “apprenticeship” — and how community colleges and employers are working together in Tennessee, Maine, and North Carolina to do just that. This model could be applied to many industries, but here I report on training workers to manage the computer-programmed, robotic assembly lines that manufacture cars, turbines, generators, and other huge metal things. 

One shortcoming is that most of these factory-based apprenticeship programs remain heavily male. Since we know so many low and mid-skill female workers are stuck in low-wage, pink collar jobs, it is crucial that companies experimenting with apprenticeships make extra efforts to recruit women.

The Chicago Strike and the History of American Teachers’ Unions

 

 Haley
Margaret Haley, the "lady labor slugger" of Chicago. She was one of the nation's first teachers' union organizers.

 

It has been difficult to discern what specific details are left on the table in the Chicago teachers’ negotiations. Broadly, we know the union leadership resents Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s enthusiasm for non-unionized charter schools and neighborhood school closings. It is also clear that professional evaluation is a big issue, as it is in states and cities across the country. To what extent should teachers be judged by their students’ test scores, as opposed to by more holistic measures? Job security, especially for teachers in schools that will be shut down, has been eroding, which the CTU sees as a calamity, yet many reformers applaud. And of course, there is pay. Is it fair for teachers to demand regular raises when unemployment is so high, and budgets at every level of government are strapped?

I’m not going to pronounce on these questions today, but I do want to offer a quick history of teacher unionism to keep things in perspective. The modern teachers’ union movement began in Chicago in 1897, and many of the problems back then — from low school budgets to testing to debates over classroom autonomy — remain more than salient today.

In 1800, 90 percent of American schoolteachers were men; by 1900, three-quarters were women. The feminization of teaching—a job once filled primarily by transient young men, often saving up to finance a legal or medical education—was, in large part, why education became one of the few white-collar unionized professions in the United States. Here’s how it happened, and why it happened in Chicago.

Around 1830, the American political, business, and intellectual elite began to come to a consensus that state governments should guarantee all children a free, basic education. Businesses wanted literate workers, and there was the idea that education would reduce social ills like intemperance and crime. But more than that, Common Schools reformers believed the young nation’s tenuous experiment in popular democracy required informed citizens, voters able to balance competing claims, judge the character of candidates for political office, and generally put the long term common good above short term, individual gain.  (Like today’s education reformers, Common Schoolers were an idealistic group.)

The inescapable reality, however, was that schools were expensive, and Americans, then as now, didn’t like high taxes. So in order to rapidly open many more schools, states, cities, and towns made the conscious choice to hire mostly female teachers, who were cheaper to employ. To sell that idea to a public wary of women working outside the home, and accustomed to corporal punishment and other stereotypically masculine ways of retaining control over a classroom, Common School reformers like Horace Mann, the Whig politician, and Catharine Beecher, the public intellectual, wrote and spoke ad nauseam about women’s moral superiority. As a schoolteacher, Mann lectured, a woman would be like an angel, “her head encircled with a halo of heavenly light, her feet sweetening the earth on which she treads, and the celestial radiance of her benignity making vice begin its work of repentance through very envy of the beauty of virtue!” Male teachers, Beecher liked to say, were “low, vulgar, obscene, intemperate, and utterly incompetent.”

This bracing rhetoric covered up an ugly reality of pay discrimination. Most female teachers earned just half the salary of a male teacher, and their jobs were getting harder and harder each day. In turn of the century Chicago, classrooms housed 60 students, many of them new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe who couldn’t speak English. Yet teacher pay had been frozen for 30 years at $875 annually (about $23,000 adjusted for inflation), less than a skilled manual laborer could earn.

The nation’s first teachers’-only union, the Chicago Teachers Federation, was founded by two pissed off lady educators, Margaret Haley and Catherine Goggin. They split the CTF from the administrator-dominated National Education Association in 1897. Haley, a sixth-grade teacher, became a national political force after she launched an investigation into the school system’s budget. She found that major Chicago corporations, including the Chicago Tribune and the city’s railroad, gas, and electrical utilities, had been issued 100-year “leases” of land owned by the Chicago public schools for far-below the market rate, and were paying no taxes whatsoever on the land. Haley’s successful lawsuit against Chicago’s leading corporations, and her decision to ally the Chicago Teachers’ Federation with the blue-collar AFL-CIO Chicago Federation of Labor established teacher unionism as a potent force in American urban politics, and earned her the ire of the conservative elite. One businessman called her “a nasty, unladylike woman.” But Haley knew that because female teachers couldn’t vote, they needed the muscle of the male-dominated labor movement to back them up in their efforts to win higher pay and more say over how schools were run.

Amid these tensions, in November 1902, the Andrew Jackson School on Chicago’s West Side hosted the nation’s first ever teachers’ strike.  Superintendent Edwin Cooley had replaced a popular female principal at the school with a man sent from the central district office. On Halloween, Janice McKeon, a longtime teacher with deep ties to the predominantly Irish neighborhood, booted a student from her 55-person class for using profanity against another child. When the new principal sent the offender back to class—and McKeon refused to let him enter the room—she was suspended without pay for 30 days. A week later, on Nov. 7, 400 students, parents, and teachers protested outside the school in support of McKeon, giving a boost to the newly formed CTF.

Political reformers of this period looked at the chaos of urban school systems and concluded that young, non-college educated women weren’t tough, ambitious, or intellectual enough to be effective teachers. Men like Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, Columbia University president and standardized testing-enthusiast Nicholas Murray Butler, and Harvard president Charles William Eliot vowed to once again attract a higher-class (read: male) professional to the K-12 classroom, and to turn education into a “science” governed by standardized teaching practices and measured by test scores. Margaret Haley, however, saw female educators not as the problem with poverty-stricken schools, but as part of the solution. She wanted to try a different way of running schools, one that increased budgets, but also relied less on technocratic centralization and more on the instincts of individual educators with ties to the communities in which they worked.

For awhile, the early CTF found a partner in Chicago schools superintendent Ella Flagg Young, a fiercely intellectual high school teacher who earned a Ph.D at the University of Chicago and became a disciple of John Dewey, the founding philosopher of American progressive education. Young led the Chicago system from 1909 to 1915, and worked with the teachers’ union to institute a pedagogy based on theories of the whole child, which emphasized a broad curriculum and project-based learning. She allowed “teacher councils” within each school to set priorities, arguing that empowering teachers would help students achieve joy in learning. “In order that teachers may delight in awakening the spirits of children, they must themselves be awake,” Young said. She also resisted attempts by business leaders to direct working class children to a narrowly conceived version of vocational education, and she continuously fought corporate efforts to pay lower school taxes. Ultimately, business interests on the school board succeeded in pushing Young out of office.

There are some obvious parallels between the teacher labor battles of the past and those of today. First, teaching remains an overwhelmingly female profession, one that is often understood more as a romantic calling than as a career like any other, in which pay, autonomy, and working conditions matter. Second, raising taxes is typically a political nonstarter; in a system serving an extremely needy population, there is perpetually the need to do more with far less than would be ideal.

But there are also clear differences. Today’s teachers, though they earn less than other college-educated workers, do make a stable, middle-class salary. They are working within a knowledge economy that rewards worker flexibility and lifelong learning; it would be counterproductive, both for students and for the strength of organized labor, for local teachers’ unions to hang on to old notions of rigid job security and near nonexistent teacher evaluation. (Many teachers’ unions do have their own proposals for how to evaluate teachers, through processes like peer evaluation and portfolios of students' work. There are also good ideas from other quarters, like much more rigorous classroom observations.) And while large class sizes remain a problem, many high-poverty schools in cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles are actually experiencing rapid declines in enrollment, in part because of competition from charters. This help explains the push for school closures and teacher workforce reductions.

Teachers’ unions are among the most controversial institutions in American public life. I hope to demystify them in my upcoming book. There is much more to say, but for now I will stop here.

Recommended reading:

Citizen Teacher: The Life and Leadership of Margaret Haley by Kate Rousmaniere

Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980 by Marjorie Murphy

The Rape Debate is the Abortion Debate

Much of this conversation about "legitimate" or "forcible" rape is really about abortion: trying to convince women that they should never terminate a pregnancy — even if that pregnancy is the result of non-consensual sex — and trying to actually redefine "rape" legally to decrease the number of women eligible for rape exceptions to abortion bans. 

For a window into this worldview, check out what Mike Huckabee said on his radio program yesterday, to which he had invited Todd Akin in an effort to rehabilitate the Senate candidate. The L.A. Times reports:

The former Arkansas governor and onetime GOP presidential contender suggested a couple of cases in which he suggested that rapes, though “horrible tragedies,” had produced admirable human beings.

“Ethel Waters, for example, was the result of a forcible rape,” Huckabee said of the late American gospel singer. One-time presidential candidate Huckabee added: “I used to work for James Robison back in the 1970s, he leads a large Christian organization. He, himself, was the result of a forcible rape. And so I know it happens, and yet even from those horrible, horrible tragedies of rape, which are inexcusable and indefensible, life has come and sometimes, you know, those people are able to do extraordinary things.”

So here we had Todd Akin at first suggesting women can't get pregnant from rape, and Mike Huckabee responding by basically saying Of course rape victims can get pregnant, but hey, we can all agree that doesn't make abortion okay! This sort of thinking is far outside the mainstream. When pollsters report that most Americans believe abortion should be available in "some" cases, these are among the cases folks are thinking about. 

In my view, women ought to have the choice of whether or not to carry any pregnancy to term. But certainly, the existence of admirable people conceived through rape does not negate any individual's choice about whether or not to bear her rapist's child. To suggest it does reveals an extreme position that is very much alive within the GOP, despite party leader's efforts to distance themselves from Akin.

On Akin, Assange, and How the Body Reacts to Sexual Assault

Embattled U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin claimed yesterday that "legitimate rape" somehow turns off the female body's reproductive capabilities. As I demonstrate below, that is absurd. But it is important to note that Akin's ideology is part of a broader set of misconceptions about how the body reacts to sexual assault.

There's nothing new about the idea that vaginal lubrication, orgasm, and pregnancy can occur only during a wanted sexual encounter. None of this is true. A 2004 paper from the Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine addresses some of these misconceptions. The authors, Roy Levin and Willy van Berlo, considered reports from doctors, nurses, and therapists who work with rape survivors. Many of the clinicians had experienced distraught victims asking why they felt lubrication or even orgasm during rape.

One British nurse-therapist reported the following:

"Approximately 1 in 20 women who come to the clinic for treatment because of sexual abuse report that they have had an orgasm from previous unsolicited sexual arousal. It is not detailed in the [professional] literature because the victims usually do not want to tell/talk about it because they feel guilty, as people will think that if it happened they must have enjoyed it. The victims often say, 'My body let me down.' Some, however, cannot summon the courage to say even that."

Heartbreaking. Levin and van Berlo found that victims report physical evidence of arousal in as many as 21 percent of rape cases, even when they also report violence and high levels of fear and mental distress. Why? The researchers note that many rapes are comitted by acquaintances or romantic partners of the victims; initial familiarity or even attraction might be supplanted by terror as an encounter becomes coercive. This is relevant, I think, to the charges against Julian Assange, who is accused of sexual assault for refusing to wear a condom with female partners who had earlier consented to sex. If that occured, it is still rape: Physical force was used to violate the initial, consensual terms of the encounter. 

Then there is the simple fact, obvious to most women, that the vagina can become lubricated during sex as a defense mechanism against tearing and pain, regardless of one's level of enthusiasm or emotional buy-in.

And it isn't just women who can experience these confusing sensations. In men, Levin and van Berlo actually found some links between "anxiety-inducing threats" and increased blood flood flow to the penis. 

All of this is really hard to write and talk about it, because it exists in the murky area between what we desire and what we fear. Yes, force can provoke arousal, but that doesn't condone the non-consensual use of force. The authors conclude:

"A perpertrator's defence against the alleged assault built solely on the evidence that genital arousal or orgasm in the victim proves consent has no intrinsic validity and should be disregarded."

One of the many problems with Romney/Ryan-like rape exceptions to broad abortion bans is that they encourage anti-choicers to draw a thousand false distinctions between worthy and less worthy rape victims, which is what Akin was really attempting to do. What he cares about is saving as many fetuses as possible, regardless of what calamity befell the women forced to bear them. For example, if you were raped by an ex-husband or ex-boyfriend, is your fetus as unwanted as that of a woman raped by a stranger? If you were raped by a man with whom you were drinking, do you deserve that free pass abortion? Non-consensual sex is non-consensual sex. It exerts unwanted control over a woman's body — as does forced pregnancy. 

What You Need to Know About Rape-Related Pregnancy

Dear Todd Akin et al,

  • there are about 683,000 rapes in the United States each year
  • about 5 percent of those rapes result in pregnancy
  • rapes cause about 32,000 unwanted pregnancies in the United States annually
  • victims received post-assault medical care (within one month) in less than a quarter of these cases
  • half of all rape-related pregnancies occur in girls aged 12-17
  • rape-related pregnancy is highly correlated with domestic violence and incest
  • the false idea that "real" rape cannot result in pregnancy dates back to the Middle Ages

Sources: The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology; The Guttmacher Institute; The Guardian

 

Talking Health Care and Julian Assange on MSNBC

I've really enjoyed my past few appearances on MSNBC. Folks like Chris Hayes, Melissa Harris-Perry, Ezra Klein, and today Ari Melber, who guest hosted "Now with Alex Wagner," are doing substantive television. We talked health care, and I was glad we got to make the point that Paul Ryan's proposed cuts would affect not only seniors, but also children, single mothers, and the disabled. As usual, *love* E.J. Dionne.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I also learned a lot from my co-panelists in this segment about Julian Assange. For more on the sexual assault charges he faces, read Amanda Marcotte.

Why Helen Gurley Brown Was A Lot Like Hugh Hefner

To commemorate the death of the iconic and controversial Cosmo editor, I thought I'd pull this article from my archives, which is a joint review of Jennifer Scanlon's biography of Gurley Brown and Masters of Sex by Thomas Maier, about the sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. 

In an adoring new biography, Bad Girls Go Everywhere, Jennifer Scanlon reopens the old debate about whether Gurley Brown can really be considered a feminist. That, of course, depends on one's definition of feminism. Undoubtedly, through her books and in the pages of Cosmopolitan, Gurley Brown encouraged young women to enjoy sex and to embrace, at least during their twenties, the single life. Her frank discussion of sexually active dating was offensive to many early-1960s readers and certainly pushed the culture toward accepting that even "good girls" engage in premarital sex. Considering Gurley Brown's influence, Scanlon, who previously wrote a cultural history of Ladies Home Journal, the staid magazine for housewives, goes to great lengths to portray Gurley Brown as a proto-second-wave feminist — a sort of libertarian Betty Friedan, more concerned with fun than with whining about women's "victimization."

But it is only after immersing oneself in the back catalog of Ladies Home Journal that one could really mistake Cosmopolitan as radically feminist. Like Hugh Hefner, Gurley Brown was not just a magazine editor but the purveyor of a fantasy-lifestyle brand. The product Gurley Brown sold didn't purport to fix, or even address, the real economic and career anxieties facing midcentury American women. Rather, Cosmo proffered an escapist alternate reality in which every woman could distract herself with a work-related dating life as glamorous as the one Gurley Brown experienced in the Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s. For Gurley Brown, Scanlon writes, the office was "a decidedly sexy environment," not the site of daily humiliations for women relegated to serving as "office wives," making coffee and picking up laundry for frequently lewd, condescending male bosses. Knowing that Gurley Brown experienced these privations in her own career only makes her wildly optimistic view of the intersection of sex and work seem more peculiar.

Read the whole piece.