How the Shutdown is Hurting Victims of Domestic Violence

The level of uncertainty for domestic violence victims and the programs that serve them is increasing as the federal government shutdown drags on with no end in sight.

Volunteers sort donations for a local domestic violence shelter. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jason Schaap)

The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) has recently learned that the federal offices funding domestic violence shelters and programs will remain open until March 1, 2019, despite the federal shutdown that is currently dragging on with no end in sight.

“All of the calls and emails, and the breadth of media coverage, have centered this issue for lawmakers,” said Kim Gandy, President and CEO at NNEDV. “The new March 1 deadline gives local programs some breathing room, but is in no way a long-term solution.”

Advocates at domestic violence programs are at high risk of being furloughed if the shutdown continues beyond the end of February, which may mean that no one will answer the call when victims reach out for help. Survivors of domestic violence rely on government-funded programs to maintain their safety and economic stability in times of crisis. In addition, many victims depend on safety net benefits, like housing and food assistance, which are threatened by this government shutdown.NNEDV continues to urge the President and Congress to work together to reopen the government and pass a spending bill that doesn’t harm survivors at home or those seeking safety in the United States. “It’s great to get a six-week reprieve,” Cindy Southworth, Executive Vice President at NNEDV, told USA TODAY, “but that’s not a budget. Let’s get spending bills passed, and victim advocates back to survivor safety and not worrying about having to stay afloat.”A government shutdown with no end in sight is destabilizing for victims of domestic violence, who may fear that no one will be there when they need help. Even when the government is open, more than 11,000 requests for services from victims can go unmet in a single day. It is unconscionable for such programs to be thrown into their own crisis by a government shutdown.

“If you don’t have anywhere to go, you’re going to go back,” Southworth told HLN. “I would hate for any victim to make that choice to go back to a dangerous partner because of the government shutdown.”

The National Network to End Domestic Violence is dedicated to creating a social, political and economic environment in which violence against women no longer exists. Click here to sign up for updates from NNEDV about the shutdown.

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What Losing Roe Would Mean for Women of Color

Today marks the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade as settled law—and it comes after a whirlwind year of attacks on women’s health care, from the states to the Supreme Court.

women holding signs reading KEEP ABORTION LEGAL and KEEP CLINICS OPEN stand outside the supreme court.

The appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court—and the Trump administration’s anti-woman agenda—have unique consequences for women of color. (Victoria Pickering / Creative Commons)

Despite the hostile climate facing them, feminists are not backing down. On Capitol Hill, Nancy Pelosi has reclaimed her gavel as House Speaker, and a record-breaking number of women have been elected and sworn in to Congress. And across the country, abortion rights advocates are doubling down on fighting for our health care and reproductive rights: Planned Parenthood has announced plans to expand reproductive health services, despite the relentless attacks and hostility to birth control and abortion that continue from the Trump administration; NARAL is also digging in their heels, shifting focus from fighting their opponents to advancing policy to protect women’s rights.

The shift in focus comes from renewed urgency around the issue. Just one day after the election, the Trump administration announced two policy changes that would allow employers to deny women no-cost birth control based on their religious and “moral” beliefs. These attacks on the women’s health provisions in the Affordable Care Act came on the heels of major proposed changes to Title X, the nation’s family planning funding program—which could stop women from being able to access care at Planned Parenthood, the nation’s most trusted family planning center, forcing them instead to see less experienced providers who wouldn’t even so much as mention abortion when reviewing their full range of reproductive health care options.

If the Trump administration wants us to believe that these proposals will change women’s minds about abortion, they’re going to need better data to prove it. Studies show that making reproductive healthcare and contraception harder to access increases rates of unintended pregnancy, leading to greater demand for abortion access. Further research has also shown that limiting abortion care leads to poorer health outcomes for all women. Plus, abortion is already as limited as ever—in just my own state of North Carolina, 90 percent of counties had no abortion provider in 2014.

The Trump administration’s attempts to further attack abortion access present even more of an acute danger to women in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh would be the fifth vote necessary to overturn Roeopening the door to criminalizing women for the reproductive decisions they make (and the doctors who provide the care they need) after also denying them the health care and contraception they rely on to prevent pregnancy.

But the present danger to women in losing Roe isn’t limited to risks to their health—it would also mark a direct attack on their freedom. Advances in medical technology are replacing traditional methods of DIY abortion care with medical alternatives, which means that overturning the landmark decision could leave women facing handcuffs, not looking for coat hangers.

Right now, nearly half of all abortions are conducted not via surgery, but with FDA-approved medications. Studies show that medication abortion is incredibly safe, resulting in complications in fewer than 0.4 percent of cases—but terminating a pregnancy, even with a very safe method like medical abortion, could become a criminal act subject to legal punishment like incarceration without a legal framework guaranteeing women abortion rights.

Women of color face the greatest threat in this scenario. They already have limited access to contraception and affordable health care and collectively face the highest rates of unintended pregnancy. (This is especially true in the south, where very few states have implemented Medicaid expansion programs under the ACA to provide the health coverage that low-income women need.) Women are also the fastest growing population behind bars, particularly women of color, who are the most likely to lack the resources necessary to avoid incarceration, or to pay the fines and fees to get out of jail once they’re locked up.

Roe v. Wade ensures that women have the right to not have children, and it protects those who do have them. The decision provides basic protections to pregnant and parenting women, who are now facing increased criminalization for addiction to controlled substances during pregnancy, miscarriage or stillborn births due to the war on abortion being waged by lawmakers across the country.

Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman, was imprisoned for a stillborn birth. Pennsylvania resident Kasey Dischman was prosecuted for a premature delivery while addicted to opioids. These cases are examples of a growing trend that strips women of their civil rights if they are deemed a danger to unborn fetuses. Without the protection of Roe, that trend could accelerate—especially given the context of the anti-women agenda we see from politicians currently in power. In Alabama, voters recently passed a measure that endows fetus’ with “personhood” rights for the first time, potentially making any action that impacts a fetus a criminal behavior with potential for prosecution.

There’s no better time for women to follow the lead of Planned Parenthood and NARAL and step up, get off the sidelines and go on the offense to protect and expand on women’s basic abortion rights. The stakes could not be higher, and the time is now.

Naomi Randolph is the Senior Advisor of Action NC. 

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From Roe to Reproductive Justice

Today, as we mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and remember this momentous victory for reproductive health and rights, we must remain vigilant. We must continue fighting to broaden the framework of this movement to guarantee reproductive rights and health access for all people—regardless of their race, socioeconomic class or immigration status.

Oftentimes, a person’s reproductive agency, especially their decisions about abortion care, is largely viewed as an issue of personal privacy and individual rights—but it is so much more than that. True reproductive agency means having the fundamental freedom to make choices about what happens to our lives and our families. Women of color need so much more than legal abortion; we need actual access to reproductive care, including abortion. Addressing the issue of access means that we must consider other systemic issues that prevent people, especially low income women of color and immigrant women, from accessing the reproductive healthcare they need.

Women of color are beating the drum about why the legal protections of Roe don’t add up to full agency, and why we need to fight for abortion access, not just legalization. But we can’t do this alone. Our allies must also acknowledge the reality that reproductive rights alone are far from enough to secure agency over our lives and families. When young Asian immigrant women like Purvi Patel and Bei Bei Shuai are being criminalized for the outcomes of their pregnancies, all of us should be asking ourselves what more must be done to achieve reproductive justice, and not just secure our reproductive rights.

Young Asian immigrant women are being criminalized for the outcomes of their pregnancies—which is proof that we need to go beyond Roe to achieve reproductive justice. (Timothy Krause / Creative Commons)

Don’t get me wrong: Losing the legal protections afforded by Roe would be devastating, and women of color have the most to lose. But Roe only ensured a narrow spectrum of reproductive choices for women, and our vision of reproductive choices is limited when we only look at it from a perspective of one landmark decision. Most importantly, continuing to be caught in the defensive fight to protect only the legality of abortion alone has lost us ground. That fight alone isn’t enough to prevent AAPI women and other women of color from being at a higher risk for being prosecuted for their pregnancy outcomes.

In the same way that anti-abortion folks are fixated on abortion bans, without concern for the other circumstances of a person’s life that has led them to seek abortion care in the first place, the abortion rights movement can, at times, get stuck. We can get fixated on the legal right to have an abortion and lose sight of the larger picture of ensuring that all women, and especially vulnerable women of color, have the ability to thrive—which includes the power to be able to determine for themselves if, when and how they parent.

What’s worse, leaning in to the framework of Roe may actually further stigmatize abortion access. Continuing to zero in on privacy reinforces the notion that abortion is something no one should talk about, thus making it difficult to normalize. It’s true that everyone should have the right to privacy in terms of deciding what they will do with their body, but reproductive rights should go beyond that right. The theories underlying privacy also continue to frame abortion as a “hush hush” topic that is not fit for polite society—but abortion isn’t treated this way in many other countries where it is legal and accessible. The legal framework for the right to privacy is not how communities of color necessarily see or understand abortion.

What if we expanded beyond the privacy framework as the sole method of protecting abortion access and fought boldly for each person’s fundamental right for to be able to make their own choices about their lives and their families?

I spent my college years at a conservative private liberal arts college where shame was normalized as a way to coerce women into conforming to social norms. It is common in many Christian communities for individuals to utilize both shame and guilt to demonize people who seek abortion care, counter to the actual teachings of Jesus, and we were no exception. Women on my campus were made to think that we were worthless if we acted and behaved in ways that were shameful, despite the fact that men were engaging in same activities.

It was, of course, women in this environment who found themselves pregnant and then shamed—but the men involved in these situations were rarely mentioned, and were almost never made to suffer the same consequences. The anti-choice rhetoric at my college was centered around the logic that if women behaved in “godly” ways, they would not find themselves pregnant, so abortion should never have to be an option.

I hope there comes a day when we can move beyond the fight for our privacy rights and the legality of abortion—and engage wholeheartedly in the fight for a society in which all people have self-determination and are able to make choices about their lives without shame or guilt. I hope that my daughter, and the future generations after hers, grow up in communities that believe everyone should have agency over their own bodies, their lives and their families.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the nation’s only organization dedicated to building power with Asian American Pacific Islander women and girls. She is an Ordained Minister in the Presbyterian Church. You can follow her @schoimorrow.

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What Choice Means to Childfree Women

Today marks the anniversary of the historic 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion—and yet, the future of that decision has never felt more uncertain.

Brett Kavanaugh, who in 2017 claimed “the government has permissible interests in favoring fetal life,” is now sitting on the Supreme Court, tilting the scales in favor of overturning the mandate. And legislation like Ohio Senate Bill 145, which in late 2018 made the most common abortion procedure illegal; and Indiana Senate Bill 203, which allows women to be prosecuted for the loss—through abortion or miscarriage—of a fetus at any stage of development; make the climate described in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale feel less like fiction.

We are a childfree filmmaker and a childfree writer who each have a personal stake in the right to choose—and we know that those who believe that women should be allowed to choose when, whether and how they become mothers need to share their stories and speak up, for both themselves and for those who don’t have the same opportunity to be heard, now more than ever. Countless women we have interviewed in the course of our work do just that, and stress that their lives would no longer feel like their own should their ability to decide when or whether to become mothers be taken from them.

a protest sign bears the image of a uterus raising a clenched fist.

(Marc Nozell / Creative Commons)

Women, children and communities thrive when parenthood is a choice that is made freely, and not forcibly. In the making of her film To Kid or Not To Kid, both mothers and non-mothers open up to Maxine about their reproductive journeys. Their stories make clear that access to abortion is a fundamental right needed for all women, mothers or not. Some of the women shared that they had abortions when they were not yet ready to become parents, but that they later became mothers when the timing was right; others knew that motherhood was never a role they wished to play, and valued their right to make that decision for themselves.

Retaining the right to abortion is essential, but it is just one part of the story when it comes to what’s needed for women to enjoy true reproductive freedom. To Kid or Not To Kid also explores the life of one millennial who is certain she doesn’t want children, and suffers serious side effects from various methods of birth control. She seeks a more permanent solution through tubal ligation, but is denied surgery time and again throughout the film.

In Amy’s interviews with childfree women for her book Childfree by Choice, she discovered that for many women, complete reproductive autonomy is more an ideal than reality. Some women have difficulty accessing any form of birth control; others describe doctors who refuse to provide access to permanent solutions like sterilization unless women have previously given birth. (The U.K.’s own National Health Service indicates that “you may be more likely to be accepted for the operation if you’re over 30 and have had children.”) This means that many childfree women who wish to remain so are out of luck, so far as the most effective birth control method is concerned.

“The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity,” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously said in her 1993 confirmation hearing. “It is a decision she must make for herself. When Government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.” Today, those words ring as true as ever.

Until women are trusted to know and make the choices that are right for them as individuals, women will never be completely free.

Maxine Trump has directed documentaries for TV networks from Discovery to Sundance, and is author of The Documentary Filmmaker’s Roadmap. Her film Musicwood was a New York Times Critics’ Pick; a free screening of her film To Kid or Not To Kid that is open to the public is scheduled for Friday, February 1 at the University of Maine.

Amy Blackstone is professor in Sociology and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, where she studies the childfree choice, civic engagement and workplace harassment. She will serve on a panel discussion following the February screening of Maxine’s film. Her book Childfree by Choice comes out in June. 

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Marching On for Working Moms

Read more Ms. Marches posts here. Join the Ms. Marches Facebook group to find protests—and feminists!—near you.

This weekend, like millions of feminists across the U.S., I will once again be in the crowd at a Women’s March. I’m eager to participate in this march with a global perspective—one that is more critical in the U.S. for women now than ever.

Compared to other industrialized nations, the status of women in America is appalling. We are decades behind other countries—and issues like the lack of paid family leave and universal childcare are the major roadblocks to our equality. These issues need to be at the forefront of our movement.

Across Europe, universal healthcare has already been achieved and includes free labor, delivery and birth control. Most liberal democracies have a Department of Women’s Affairs to address complex issues of women in the workplace and gender equality. Some countries offer nursing hours to new mothers re-entering the workplace and require the employers to provide an onsite daycare center. Others provide part-time positions in the government to mothers of young children.

But women-friendly policies don’t just emerge in the “utopia” of Northern Europe. The countries that provide these benefits to mothers include Kuwait and Turkey, which offer these progressive policies with the aim of keeping young women in the workforce. These are not countries that are known for women’s equality—but they are countries where strong women have fought hard for improved employment conditions for working mothers.

There are only two countries in the world without paid family leave: the United States and Papua New Guinea. Here at home, the lack of paid family leave, coupled with expensive, hard-to-find childcare, has systematically decimated female leadership. Without structural reforms to our society, calls to promote increased female leadership will remain only lip-service.

(Paul and Cathy Becker / Creative Commons)

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed into law in the U.S. in 1993, but it only provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents—and given the stipulations of the law, the FMLA really only covers approximately 60 percent of workers.

Even as a diplomat with the State Department and a federal employee, I had zero days of paid maternity leave when I had my first child in 2009. Zero. My husband and I cobbled together sick days and vacation time to be home with our child, but we were neither sick nor taking a vacation. We were merely caring for our newborn child.

A recent study by the National Institutes of Health showed that just 41 percent of women in the U.S. receive paid maternity leave. Those that do are granted an average of 3.3 weeks off and make only 31 percent of their salary during that time. Just to our north, in Canada, new parents receive 52 weeks of maternity leave for an entire year after the birth of a child; across the ocean, most European nations hover around one year of paid leave.

Research shows that American working-class women, women of color and parents working for low-wage jobs are much less likely to have any paid time off with their children. The NIH survey demonstrates that “women from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to have access to paid leave, and can’t afford unpaid leave.” The same researchers recommend that “federal policy that supports paid leave may be one avenue to address such disparities and should be modified to reflect accepted international standards.”

The lack of paid family leave, as well as the absence of affordable childcare, is a death sentence to the careers of many brilliant young women—the very same women that we now advocate should be taking leadership roles throughout the country. When there is no paid family leave, women drop out of the workforce in their twenties and thirties in droves, partly due to unpaid leave and partly due to the astronomically high price of hard-to-find childcare.

In Seattle, it currently costs over $2,700 per month to put an infant in childcare; with two kids, young families pay a staggering $4,000 per month or more for care, a price tag that is often higher than the cost of a mortgage or monthly rent. I had my second child in Seattle, as a graduate student—and turned over 100 percent of my paltry salary to childcare.

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation and one of the only liberal democracies that does not subsidize or provide universal childcare, and that is a major factor in women’s work lives. It is shocking how many educated, bright women leave the labor force in the U.S.—but it is understandable why they do.

New in their careers when they start having children, these women have salaries that barely cover childcare. With the prospect of barely breaking even financially after they pay for childcare, or sometimes even losing money, mothers make the understandable choice to raise their own children and leave their careers. If their husbands or partners make more money, it is often an economic decision of which partner will quit working. Most often, it is the woman.

During this time, women who remain in the workforce lose critical job promotions, stop developing their professional expertise and miss foundational leadership experiences that could lead to achieving executive leadership positions later in their careers.

In countries such as France and Germany, childcare is subsidized; as a result, childcare is affordable and its quality is publicly accountable. For any parent who chooses to stay home, the German system provides a tax credit, but the lion’s share of working professionals choose to stay in the workplace after having children.

Can you imagine how our lives would be different if all new parents—regardless of race, class, religion or sexual orientation—had access to free, quality childcare? What talent are we losing in our country’s business, security or political leadership by forcing young women to make these impossible choices?

In 1971, Congress voted to fund free universal childcare, and then-President Nixon vetoed it. “If you are a woman who did not live through this era, you may not know that this ever happened,” Emily Badger wrote in the Washington Post. “The sudden realization of which somehow makes the disappointment all the more biting.”

Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, summed up this feeling in her book, Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, and Family. When it comes to American exceptionalism, she wrote, “the United States is largely exceptional for what it is not doing.”

Women fighting stateside for their equality can and should use the best practices of other nations as a blueprint for creating better basic rights and policies here at home. By examining the status of women in other countries, we can write our own playbook here in the U.S.—and craft a pragmatic vision of what true equality can look like.

We do not have to reinvent the wheel. While no society has achieved full gender equality, there are numerous superb policies in other countries that address the systemic inequality of all women in the workplace and society.

Dutch and Danish women, for example, have succeeded in gaining so many more rights than their American counterparts. In the Netherlands and Denmark, there are strong, enforceable anti-sexual harassment laws in the workplace and policies ensuring fair labor practices. Many nations in Northern Europe mandate that women have a 50 percent representation in political parties. This creates a measurable positive impact on women’s equality laws and policy reforms.

I am a long-time observer of Scandinavian politics, and I find it painful to witness how the U.S. still lacks many basic rights and policies for women’s equality adopted decades ago in these countries. A little-known benefit across Scandinavia is roughly translated as a government “child subsidy.” Across the region, parents receive a monthly check for 18 years to pay for their children’s needs. In Sweden, families are paid approximately $150 a month per child for clothing, food and school supplies until the child is 16, and Swedish parents are also entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave when a child is born or adopted.

How much would these types of subsidies help working families across the United States? It’s not a question of cost: We can afford it. (We’re the richest country in the world.) It’s a question of political will instead—and our own determination in demanding such policies.

In her book Agenda Setting, the UN, and NGOs: Gender Violence and Reproductive Rights, Jutta M. Joachim describes the urgent and critical stage for social movements in which they define their grievances, map out a plan to achieve their goals, unite members and delineate the limited financial and human resources they have on-hand. It’s time for all of us to ask these hard questions and come together to advance our equality—at work and in the culture at-large.

What is the women’s movement going to stand for in 2019? How will we create a roadmap for long-term systematic change for women? When we take to the streets tomorrow, we should be as ready as ever to answer these questions.

Dr. Elise Carlson-Rainer serves as Assistant Professor of International Relations and Doctoral Faculty Member in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Public University and is Affiliate Faculty with the Department of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington. She is a former U.S. diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor and also worked with the U.S. Mission to the UN and the United States Agency for International Development. Elise earned her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in the field of human rights and foreign policy.

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Supporting Survivors Must Matter—Even During a Government Shutdown

The Violence Against Women Act has expired in the midst of the ongoing federal government shutdown, creating anxiety and doubt about the future of programs that help survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence—and dealing another setback to the #MeToo movement.

Congress allowed VAWA to expire during a government shutdown staged by Donald Trump in a fight over a border wall. That sends a powerful message that violence against women is not a national priority. (Caroline Gunston / Creative Commons)

VAWA was a landmark: In addition to funding critical services for survivors, it symbolized a national recognition of the urgency to address an epidemic. The act has been expanded in the decades since it first became law to strengthen services for rural, LGBTQ and indigenous sexual violence victims and youth affected by domestic violence, and it also funds education and prevention work to prevent violence long-term and shift culture. It remains the most significant piece of federal legislation addressing the national crisis of sexual and interpersonal violence. 

Signed into law in 1994, it had been re-authorized three times before it was most recently set to expire, in September 2018, but Congress had enacted short-term extensions that allowed it to continue through December. Thanks to the longest shutdown in American history, that extension lies dormant.

The expiration of VAWA has serious potential programmatic implications. There are a number of organizations that may need to curb or even halt the provision of crucial, life-saving services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault—and others that provide vital options such as emergency housing, legal assistance and crisis hotlines. 

The lapse also has symbolic implications. Allowing VAWA to expire sends a message that the issues it addresses are not a national priority, and can for now serve as just more collateral damage from a standoff over a border wall. This builds upon the backlash against the #MeToo movement that we’ve seen in responses to the Kavanaugh hearings and even built in to the Education Department’s current proposal to reverse Obama-era guidance on Title IX that protected students affected by campus sexual violence.

When the #MeToo movement catapulted gender-based violence into the spotlight, many of us who work in the field were cautiously optimistic that the time had come for real, lasting change. Something felt different. The needle had actually moved. The nation watched as survivors collectively gained strength and their voice in calling out their assaulters, and people listened to and believed them. Numerous convicted or alleged abusers were finally removed from positions of power. I was holding my breath each day—waiting for the next story to break, incredulous that a time of reckoning had arrived.

We have made real progress. College campuses, workplaces, religious organizations and other institutions are working to create climates free from sexual harassment and violence. Service providers throughout the country have reported major increases in survivor utilization of resources—since the #MeToo movement exploded into public awareness, services provided by RAINN went from serving approximately 15,000 victims per month to 22,000; during the Kavanaugh hearings, calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline increased by 338 percent. But the expiration of VAWA makes it clear that we are not done moving forward—and that we must continue to fight to protect and advance the gains we’ve won.

Protecting services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault should be seen across the country and by lawmakers across party lines as an essential and non-negotiable responsibility. That responsibility shouldn’t come with an expiration date.

Sarah McMahon is the director of Rutgers University–New Brunswick’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children, an associate professor in the university’s School of Social Work and a chancellor’s scholar for violence prevention.

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Marching On for (Constitutional) Menstrual Equity

Read more Ms. Marches posts here. Join the Ms. Marches Facebook group to find protests—and feminists!—near you.

Though a robust national campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment conceded defeat in 1982, today’s vibrant era of activism—catalyzed by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements—has given new life to the fight for the ERA. We are now just one state away (Go, Virginia!) from the 38-state ratification threshold.   

Even with vast changes in American life and law since the 1980s, the ERA is still sorely needed. Enshrining gender equality in the Constitution goes beyond a matter of principle—it would also offer a host of legal remedies to gender-based disparities, including discrimination in the workplace and the injustices that face survivors in our rape culture. And it would be a major boon to the emerging movement for menstrual equity.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf and Jamia Wilson. Jennifer's Lingua Franca sweater reads "your voice matters." Jamia's tote reads "give a damn."

Ms. contributor and menstrual equity pioneer Jennifer Weiss-Wolf and Jamia Wilson, executive director of the Feminist Press, at the Brennan Center for Justice ERA convening at NYU School of Law. (© Kahn: Courtesy of NYU Photo Bureau)

On any given day, there are eight hundred million people on the planet menstruating, and at least five hundred million of them lack adequate resources for managing their periods like basic supplies, facilities, information and support. Stigma, often rooted in misogyny, drives the problem, and so does disproportionate poverty among women and girls. The result is the denial of key opportunities for equality—educational, economic and social—for menstruators. 

The United States is not immune to this problem. For the nearly one in five American teenagers who live in poverty, lack of menstrual products and support can lead to compromised health, lost classroom time and even disciplinary intervention. Those experiencing homelessness report isolation and/or infection caused by using tampons and pads for longer than recommended, or by improvising with items such as paper bags or newspapers. And incarcerated individuals and those held in detention or correction systems must too often beg or bargain for basic menstrual hygiene needs that may still may be denied to them—part of a degrading and dehumanizing power imbalance that permeates their time in prison.

But over the last three years policy, the movement for menstrual equity in the U.S. has gained extraordinary bipartisan traction. Laws mandating menstrual access and affordable products have been enacted in major cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles; in more than a dozen states; and even by the current U.S. Congress. Advocates crafting and advancing this agenda have succeeded in convincing lawmakers that menstrual policy is a critical component of gender equity and equal opportunity. 

Last summer, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) stepped up as the first lawmaker to put forth the proposal that disparities caused by menstruation be included in the ERA platform. Her announcement coincided with her release of a report showing that gender-based pricing remains prevalent in the U.S. “The ERA would mean that women would no longer have to fight the pink tax product by product, or fight the gender pay gap job by job or employer by employer,” Maloney noted, “and it would solve intractable problems that a piecemeal approach cannot.” 

The tampon tax is just one example of the insidious practice by which companies charge more for items marketed to women than similar gender-neutral products or those marketed to men—and it’s just one aspect of menstrual equity which would be addressed by the sweeping reach of the ERA. 

Back in 1978, in the height of ERA organizing, Gloria Steinem penned an essay for Ms. called “If Men Could Menstruate.” The brilliant turned the table on patriarchy and oppression: “What would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?” Steinem posited. “Menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event.”

Steinem goes on to describe all the ways society would normalize and celebrate menstruation: “Men would brag about how long and how much.” “Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.” “Generals, right-wing politicians and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (‘men-struation’) as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat (‘you have to give blood to take blood’), [or] occupy high political office (‘can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?’).”

Steinem’s “wish list” item for federally and publicly funded menstrual products is now real, and the ERA can help us further actualize it. The inclusion in the ERA of a full range of menstrual access issues will help achieve more uniform outcomes and raise the visibility of matters of bodily integrity, health and dignity in a way that fuels further innovation and intervention. Linking menstruation to the renewed fight for the ERA will ensure that this core need is addressed within the umbrella of protections that the Amendment would provide—and, in return, the popular and bipartisan nature of menstrual equity advocacy offers politically salient arguments to the campaign to ratify the ERA.

We’ve got a winning combination here, and a chance to fully acknowledge that we cannot achieve true gender equality without considering menstrual equity—both of which are necessary to advance economic equity, ensure educational and employment opportunities and accelerate the push for women’s agency and equality. That’s why this weekend and in the weeks, months and years to come, I’ll be marching on—for menstrual equity and for constitutional equality.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is an attorney, Ms. contributor and author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity.

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Speaking Up for Survivors in K-12 Schools

As the parent of a high school sexual assault survivor, I’ve seen how pervasive sexual harassment and assault in our K-12 schools can shake entire communities. That’s why I’m sounding the alarm about the Trump administration’s attempt to roll back Title IX guidelines for sexual misconduct.

a young girl holds a megaphone at a protest

The Trump administration’s proposed changes to Title IX only worsen the challenges facing survivors in K-12 schools and their families. (Fibonacci Blue / Creative Commons)

National surveys show that most students will experience some form of sexual harassment during their elementary and secondary school years—yet most K-12 schools are not well-prepared to respond appropriately when they learn that a student has sexually harassed or assaulted a peer, or that a teacher sexually abused a student. The Department of Education’s proposed changes to Title IX regulations will only make the problem worse, increasing barriers for students and families reporting sexual harassment and confuse school officials who already lack clear guidance on how to respond appropriately.

Until now, the Department followed court precedence—defining sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ proposed changes, however, require schools to take action only when harassment is “so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” that it denies a student access to the school’s educational program. (No guidance was offered as to what “severe” and “objectively offensive” harassment looks like in elementary, middle or high school.)

These new rules would force school districts to navigate competing definitions of sexual harassment from state law and existing district policies and complicate schools’ efforts to respond promptly and effectively to student complaints. This doesn’t just create obstacles for students and parents who want schools to take immediate action to remedy harassment—it allows schools to disregard sexual harassment complaints until they escalate to a subjective threshold, effectively empowering them to sweep inconvenient cases of harassment and assault under the rug indefinitely.

The proposed regulations also require schools to have “actual knowledge” of peer sexual harassment—meaning that misconduct must be reported to a Title IX Coordinator, teacher or unspecified school official who can take “corrective action.” That means that if a middle school student told a coach or school nurse that they were sexually assaulted by a peer, their administration would not be required to take Title IX action, because the “right” person wasn’t notified. Teachers would also have no authority to address a student’s report of sexual harassment by another teacher.

The new rules also reverse previous guidance that required schools to address the effects of off-campus sexual assault or cyber sexual harassment if and when they interfere with a student’s opportunity to an equal education—meaning that even if a student sexually assaulted by a peer at a friend’s house sees their assailant every day at school and endures taunts and threats from the perpetrator’s friends in person or electronically, the school could disregard the sexual harassment complaint because it didn’t take place on school grounds.

This creates potential complications in jurisdictions where all school staff are mandatory reporters. In these schools, the coach or nurse must notify either law enforcement or child welfare agency of possible child abuse, creating scenarios where the school does not officially recognize that sexual assault occurred, even while public safety organizations are put on notice of possible child endangerment.

Many K-12 students and parents complain that when they inform school officials about sexual harassment or assault, there’s no immediate response or action taken. Whereas previous guidance from the Department of Education recommended that schools complete their Title IX investigations within 60 days, the Trump administration’s new rules mandate only that such investigations be “reasonably prompt” and permit schools to postpone investigations until completion of “law enforcement activity,” which might extend for months. Meanwhile, as schools take no action, students reporting sexual harassment might continue to experience retaliation and other forms of revictimization that prevent them from keeping up academically and participating in school activities.

Although previous guidance considered mediation inappropriate, because it would likely retraumatize the reporting student, the Trump administration’s proposed Title IX changes would permit K-12 schools to resolve formal sexual harassment and assault complaints through alternative resolution procedures. Under the new rules, school officials could pressure a reporting student in elementary school to agree to an informal resolution, allowing a district to forgo its duty to conduct a Title IX investigation, and obligatory mediation could frighten young students from reporting sexual harassment by peers and school staff.

The Department of Education has attempted to justify these proposed changes to Title IX as clarifying regulations and saving schools money spent investigating complaints—insinuating that it is too burdensome and costly for schools to ensure students’ civil rights to an education free from sex discrimination, and that the solution is to make it easier for schools to deny and delay responding effectively. Yet even that excuse falls short. It’s not clear at all how much the proposed regulations would offer regulatory relief or cost savings, and schools would wrestle with untangling the new Title IX rules from state non-discrimination laws and existing district policies—which, for the most part are consistent with previous Title IX guidance. In the end, schools could still be sued for violating state non-discrimination statutes and tort laws.

Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration are taking precisely the wrong approach. The solution to K-12 schools mishandling sexual harassment complaints isn’t regulatory, but educational. The Department should offer school districts training and technical assistance, amplifying its 2001 guidance which addressed due process, freedom of speech, confidentiality and proactive measures as they apply to Title IX. Instead, they’re bailing administrators out of their responsibility to keep students safe in school.

It’s imperative that all school staff have training on fair and effective Title IX guidance so we can stop the cycle of sexual harassment and violence—in K-12 schools, colleges, the workplace and beyond.

The Department of Education’s comment period on the proposed Title IX regulations is open through January 28. Click here to learn more and speak up for survivors.

Joel Levin, Ph.D., is cofounder and Program Director of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, a nonprofit addressing rampant K-12 sexual harassment and assault.

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How to Get Your Message Across at the Women’s March

Read more Ms. Marches posts here. Join the Ms. Marches Facebook group to find protests—and feminists!—near you.

A wave of women’s voices will once again power the resistance and drive social change at the third annual Women’s Marches around the world this weekend. For the speakers taking to the stage to make themselves heard, standing before a gigantic crowd can be a simultaneously exhilarating and nerve-wracking experience.

I’ve been backstage coaching women leaders since the Million Mom March in 2000. Whether you’re speaking to the crowd or marching right along with it this year, these three tips will help you keep your head in the game so your message rings clear.

Protestors at the 2018 Women's March in Washington, D.C.

The power of the collective voice is undeniable. Taking steps to strengthen your individual voice will help ensure your message resonates far and wide. (Kelly Bell / Creative Commons)

#1: Support the Broader Cause.

Keep the big picture in mind. Previous marches have inspired massive action—including support for the #MeToo movement, women candidates and civic engagement. Ask yourself: How can my individual voice complement the broader message of empowering women?

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make it personal. Sharing your unique point of view can help more people understand what’s at stake. The daughter of Honduran immigrants, America Ferrera spoke eloquently about how it is a heart rendering time to be a woman and an immigrant. “Our character, our dignity, our rights have been under attack, but we are America,” she declared at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. “We are here to stay.” 

Even if you’re not a headliner, you can make a big impression. Ashley Bennett of New Jersey decided to run for office after a local official mocked marchers in a Facebook meme, asking if the women taking to the streets would be home in time to cook dinner. Bennett ran against him and won. Now she encourages others to rise up and speak up just the same.

“It’s because you marched that I found the courage to take the first step towards changing my own community,” she told the crowd at the New York City Women’s March last year. “If you wait until you feel ready, you many never take action. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be willing.” 

#2: Stay on Message.

A rally is not the time to detail a laundry list of policy initiatives, give an exhaustive history of your organization or grandstand. (Documentarian Michael Moore’s statement went on so long last year that Ashley Judd nearly had to rip the mic out of his hands to get him to stop talking. Not a good look!) 

A three-minute slot is plenty of time if you’ve organized your thoughts in advance. Aim to get on and off the stage quickly. Don’t waste time with a long introduction of yourself and don’t linger with multiple thank-yous. Don’t be upset if your speaking time is changed or shortened, either: the program agenda is an unwieldy beast the event producers wrestle to control. It’s likely not personal.

Most importantly, plan to be specific about what you want the audience to do, make the call to action easy and repeat it as much as you can. At the 2018 March for Our Lives, student activists who took to the stage shared a unified vision to prevent gun violence and reiterated a singular message: They called on politicians to pass sensible gun laws and asked voters to reject lawmakers who side with the NRA. The crowd was urged to take action by volunteering, signing petition sheets and calling legislators.

Don’t go rogue, either. Hateful commentators attempted to paint the 2016 Women’s March as a violent protest when Madonna said she had thought about “blowing up the White House.” An errant remark can detract from the goals and intentions of an event and eclipse its meaning, and an off-message comment can be fodder for conservative pundits who will attempt to demean and dismiss all marchers.

#3: Craft a Stage Presence.

Parkland survivor Samantha Fuentes famously threw up in the middle of her speech at the March for Our Lives, but when she regained her composure, the crowd of 500,000 roared its support.

Standing alone in front of a vast audience is not for the faint of heart—so do what you can to calm your nerves before walking out to greet them. Take a moment to steady yourself. Slow, deep breaths can help quell anxiety; simple head and shoulder rolls release tension and improve vocal quality.

Preparing for your remarks will ensure that you leave the stage with a sense of joy and accomplishment and ease anxiety in the moments before you’re slated to speak. Put your remarks on heavy stock notecards to withstand wind and drizzle. 

It can be difficult to hit the right pace and energy level in any speech, especially at the beginning. Resist the compulsion to shout to be heard above the din, or to over-gesticulate to be visible—instead, let the microphone and video screens do the projecting and direct your eye contact at the crowd without scanning side-to-side. (Don’t scream! It won’t help the crowd hear you, and it sounds terrible on the livestream and YouTube. And don’t be distracted if the crowd isn’t listening: thousands of smartphones and cameras are capturing your words.)

Vary your speaking pace to sound energetic, and stand tall with your head up and shoulders back. Look like you have something to say. What you wear can send a powerful signal, too, such as a feminist pink pussyhat or an all-white ensemble to evoke the suffragists. Along with statement clothing, be sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring weather-appropriate gear.

The power of the collective voice is undeniable—and taking steps to strengthen your individual voice will help ensure that your message resonates far and wide. 

Chris Jahnke is a speech coach. Her new book, The Well-Spoken Woman Speaks Out, offers more tips for events large and small.

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Dred Feminist Rant: This is a Women’s March Call-In

Read more Ms. Marches posts here. Join the Ms. Marches Facebook group to find protests—and feminists!—near you.

Dred Feminist Rant is a new series by Loretta Ross featuring her thoughts on the issues facing the feminist movement—and women around the country.

I’ve fought white supremacy, misogyny and anti-Semitism for what feels like most of my life. As a professional feminist, I monitored hate groups in the early 1990s, and began a deep dive into how anti-Semitism in medieval Europe became the template for anti-black racism in the U.S. As a college professor, I teach about white supremacy, anti-Semitism and human rights to young people eager for knowledge denied to them.

That’s why I’m calling out the charges of racism and anti-Semitism bedeviling the upcoming Women’s March and the Jewish community. As the country edges towards neo-fascist authoritarianism, divide-and-conquer tactics will not benefit us. On both sides, people seem to forget the urgency of uniting against a common foe: the corruption of the Trump Administration and his enablers in the Republican Party.

a protestor at a women's march holds up a sign that reads: QUEER POWER, WOMEN POWER, BLACK POWER, MUSLIM POWER, IMMIGRANT POWER, HUMAN POWER, SAY NO TO FACISM.

The women’s movement is more complex and more diverse than ever before. We’ve shown what we can do at the polls. Now we must show our determination to defend democracy from those who want to destroy it for profit. (Brad Hagan / Creative Commons)

Charges of racism and anti-Semitism are not news to those of us who have been in the women’s movement for decades. Since 1975, when the phrase “Zionism is Racism” marred the first World Conference for Women in Mexico City, our feminist movement was set on a collision course in which the Israeli/Palestinian conflict threatened to overwhelm every global discussion on human rights. 

Before the 1985 Nairobi World Conference for Women, I had to publicly speak up to Bella Abzug at a preparatory meeting at the American Association of University Women when they told participants that they had agreed to temporarily table this conflict so we could focus on the conference in Kenya. Intentionally, no one representing Palestinians was invited to the meeting, which was already a problematic back-channel decision—yet Bella broke protocol and used her platform to introduce a discussion about supporting Israel, and denouncing people on the other side. I loved Bella, but her legendary stature did not make what she did fair.

In 2001, at the World Conference Against Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, more carefully orchestrated charges of anti-Semitism by the U.S. government were used to thwart discussions and global demands for accountability and reparations for settler colonialism and the enslavement. In fact, NGOs never received a response to demands for an explanation for why anti-Semitism was not prominently included in the conference agenda organized by UNESCO, which felt like a set-up.

In preparatory meetings around the globe, this omission became a point of contention, and NGOs who had not made that decision were blamed. Those of us working to hold the U.S. and Europe accountable for settler colonialism and slavery were inevitably accused of anti-Semitism, whether we said anything about Palestinians or not—as if 35,000 people predominantly of African or Indigenous descent had nothing better to do with our ruminations than focus on Israel. The September 11th terrorist attacks occurred only days after the conference ended, sweeping any further discussion of the real agenda of the World Conference Against Racism off the table.

And now, as we’re approaching the third global Women’s March—a worldwide call for human rights against fascism and authoritarianism—people are flinging more charges of racism and anti-Semitism towards the women’s movement, and participating in derailing conversations that could unite us rather than divide us. I’m calling this behavior out because I can see who best benefits from our attacks on each other.

Whether one chooses to participate in the marches or not, I don’t believe that indulgence in the Oppression Olympics of competitive victimhood is unique or useful. Calling for people to resign from leadership, stay home, not run for office or get distracted from the overwhelming nature of the global neo-fascist threat exposes the dilettante nature of a simplistic analysis.

Our women’s movement is stronger than that—more complex and more diverse than ever before. We’ve shown what we can do at the polls, and now we must show our determination to defend democracy from those who want to destroy it for profit.

The Freedom Train for Human Rights has left the station, and we’re not stopping for those who are still debating whether to get on board for fear of sitting next to someone with whom they don’t perfectly agree. We’re a women’s movement, not a women’s cult.

Loretta Ross started her activist career in the 1970s—launching projects with the National Organization for Women; organizing with the National Black Women’s Health Project, the Center for Democratic Renewal / National Anti-Klan Network and the National Center for Human Rights Education; founding the D.C. Rape Crisis Center; and co-founding the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. She retired as an organizer in 2012 and is now a Visiting Associate Professor in Women’s Studies at various colleges. Loretta is the co-author of Reproductive Justice: An Introduction and was lead editor of Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundations, Theory, Practice, Critique. Her forthcoming book, Calling In the Calling Out Culture: Detoxing Our Movement, is due out in 2019.

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