18.7 percent is not enough

Deodonne Bhattarai, Resident Blogger (’12, Northeastern University School of Law)

This month marks the start of the second session of the 113th Congress — the most diverse Congress in U.S. history.   My own home state of New Hampshire played a big role in this distinction having sent the only ever all female delegation to Washington, D.C.  Hawaii is a close second, having sent three women as part of its four-member delegation. However, with eighty-one House members and twenty Senators, women still account for only 18.7% of Congressional members.[1]

Despite their comparatively low numbers, women have increasingly gained recognition for their leadership on a variety of issues.  Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Susan Collins (R-ME), Kelley Ayotte (R-NH) and others garnered attention for their role in last year’s budget negotiations and are largely credited for saving our country from the dreaded fiscal cliff.  Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) became the voice for family unity and women’s equality during the immigration debate introducing a number of amendments including one to allocate 30,000 residency cards for traditionally female employment, employment that goes largely unrecognized in our current system.

The Shaheen amendment, passed late in 2012, and named for Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), ended the decades long ban on insurance coverage for abortion services for military rape survivors. The attention to sexual violence in the military has only grown over the past year thanks to the efforts of Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO).  Although not always in agreement – only eighteen of the twenty female Senators are pro-choice – the women serving in Congress are a force in their own right.  A recent study found that regardless of their party, women are “thirty-one percent more effective than men at advancing legislation.”

As we embark on the second session of this historic Congress, it is tempered by the fact that half of all states have never elected a woman to the Senate and in the words of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), “Imagine what they could do if there were 50 of them.”

[1] https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42964.pdf

The Whole Picture: The 50’s weren’t “romantic” for everyone

Elisabeth Smith, Resident Blogger (’14, University of Washington School of Law)

Over Christmas my cousins and I were watching television and we just kept flipping channels until we got to TLC and saw some women dressed up in 1950s garb turn from black and white to full color. Heard of Wives with Beehives? The show is basically a Real Housewives variant, but all the women live a “vintage lifestyle”. Other people have talked about the show, but I want to highlight something besides its antiquated notions of gender roles.

All of the women go on and on about the magic of the 1950s.  Dollie calls the 50s “a very romantic period. It’s romantic to have a husband [who] you love, and beautiful children [who] you take care of and a beautiful home you take pride in.”  Here’s where I take issue with this show. Traditional gender roles aren’t my cup of tea, but a show about 4 white women mooning over the romance of the 50s without any recognition that the decade wasn’t all moonbeams and starbursts for everyone is gross.

Let’s start in reverse order. The home.  After World War II, “FHA underwriters warned that the presence of even one or two non-white families could undermine real estate values in the new suburbs. These government guidelines were widely adopted by private industry.” [Click here @ 1:30:55]  So if you were a white GI you could take advance of the GI Bill and get a home in the new suburbs. A GI of color had far fewer options. As Dalton Conley, a sociologist, a points out “basically, the whites moving to the suburbs were being subsidized in the accumulation of wealth, while blacks were being divested.” If a beautiful home is one component of the magical 50s, it was out of reach for many people.

Okay, two: beautiful children with whom you spend your time. In the 1950s, African American women worked outside the home in large numbers so they if they spent their day with children, those children probably weren’t their own.   Another statement made by one the “Wives with Beehives” underscores this reality. When the women discuss whether any of them have dishwashers, one replies “I don’t need a dishwasher, I have Maria.”  Wow. So living a vintage lifestyle also includes vintage racism!

Yikes, people, yikes. I get that these women have chosen to make the 50s their thing, but seriously, what we say on tv does have effects.


Cross-Cutting Collaboration with CAP

Last weekend I was grabbing drinks with a friend who used to work “in the movement” and she asked me, “So what’s going on with our reproductive rights? Are we doing anything about this?” As I started to explain the important work advocates are doing and my optimism about the fate of reproductive justice policy in the long-term, I found myself recounting many of the experiences I had during my fellowship year.

I was placed with the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress (CAP). CAP is a think tank that develops new policy ideas, critiques policy that stems from conservative values, and challenges the media to cover the issues that truly matter and shape the national debate. The Women’s Health and Rights Program incorporates a reproductive justice framework into this work.

My fellowship year has been filled with invaluable opportunities for learning and growth thanks to the Director of the Women’s Health & Rights Program, Jessica Arons, and Senior Fellow Shira Saperstein, who are incredibly smart, quick, thoughtful, and creative (hence my aforementioned optimism).  But one of the most significant takeaways from my year at CAP is about the importance of collaboration.

It seems obvious, right? It is, especially since I’m not new to the DC machine. Yet CAP’s unique organizational structure – various teams and sub-teams divided by policy area, each with experts in the given field – gave me a lesson in how to strategically collaborate with seemingly un-usual suspects.

One example of this type of cross-cutting collaboration was on the issue of access to abortion for women in the military. Much has been done by reproductive rights and justice advocates to argue that servicewomen deserve coverage for the full range of reproductive health services. Congress gets it – the “women’s rights-ers” don’t like military health care. Perhaps we could use an additional messenger.

Enter Lawrence Korb, a Senior Fellow for CAP’s national security team and seasoned military expert.  Among other things, Korb served as Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan Administration. He also thinks the military’s health care for servicewomen is inadequate. Thanks to this connection, the unlikely voice of a former Department of Defense official is speaking out about the DoD’s unfair reproductive health policy. (Read Korb’s op-ed here).

I was able to collaborate with many other teams at CAP on reproductive justice issues – not only broadening the available expertise, but also broadening the audience. Every little bit helps in this town. I am grateful to Jessica and Shira and LSRJ for showing me that although issues may appear siloed, there are opportunities for strategic collaborations!

Alex Walden (’10 University of San Francisco School of Law)

2010-2011 RJ Fellow at the Center for American Progress

Protecting the Women Who Protect Our Freedoms: Reproductive Rights in the Military

When a friend of mine got married a few years ago, we joked that she and her new husband should take every opportunity available to consummate their new marriage.  Our goal?  For her not to have to be deployed to Iraq.  As a member of the armed forces, we knew that if she got pregnant, she wouldn’t have to go and wouldn’t be placed in harm’s way.  What we didn’t consider was what getting pregnant would have cost her in advancing her military career.

Getting pregnant in the military is a difficult situation for our servicewomen for a multitude of reasons.  First, her pregnancy could get her court-marshaled and possibly discharged, depending on her commander’s policy, as evidenced by Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo’s policy in northern Iraq.  At the very least, she risks her ability to move up the ranks in a military system that is already difficult for women to ascend.  One of the options not currently available to a servicewoman is the ability to safely terminate her pregnancy while she is on a military base, either within the US borders, where abortions are legal, or in other countries, where access to abortion may be restricted by that country’s laws.  Because of restrictions in U.S. law, servicewomen are unable to go to military hospitals and have an abortion performed safely, even if it’s with their own money.  Until recently, these women even had difficulty with getting consistent access to emergency contraception, which had not been previously considered a medication important enough to be carried at all military facilities.  In essence, the very citizens protecting our freedoms against those who oppose the freedoms enjoyed by Americans, are unable to exercise a right they risk their lives to protect.

While there is currently new legislation being proposed that would allow for privately-funded abortions at military facilities, this situation is a reminder that access to abortion is only part of a larger framework of reproductive justice.

Continue reading