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Frustrated Friday July 24, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Politics, Presidential Politics, Sexism, Women's Issues.
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screamEarlier this week, I read a piece in The American Prospect by Courtney E. Martin  about the lessons that Sarah Palin’s rise and candidacy can teach feminists.  One of Martin’s main points is that “women across the country are hungry for their strength to be acknowledged, without sacrificing their femininity”. 

That may be – but is a woman’s femininity actually defined by the ability to “flex their muscles while painting their fingernails”, as Martin says in her article?  Sarah Palin is, undoubtedly, an attractive woman.  Can only an attractive woman wearing an updo and stilettos be considered feminine?  Answering this question then leads us to the next – can only “feminine” women be viable candidates for public office? 

The last election cycle was rampant with sexism.  On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was vilified for her pantsuits and steely character.  Her appearance and apparent “lack of femininity” was a frequent talking point as well as the basis for many late-night comics jokes.   Remember when Hillary teared up in New Hampshire?  I and many of my female friends were appalled – there is no circumstance where any serious woman will cry at work – but we were further horrified by the reaction to it.  Hillary showed she was human!  Hillary “softened up” and let us see the “real” person behind that facade!  Then, Hillary won the primary, reinforcing the stereotype that only a “womanly woman” could capture our attention. 

On the Republican side, there was Sarah Palin.   As a party not known for it’s equal opportunity for women and minorities, Republicans saw the hunger in American women for a female on the ticket and in what could have been a brilliant political move, picked a woman for number two.  But instead of reaching into the pool of Republican women with actual experience and gravitas (Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Susan Collins, Kay Granger, or Olympia Snowe), the party went with Sarah Palin. 

Sarah Palin was placed on the ticket as the “anti-Hillary”.  As Amanda Hess explains in her July 22 blog post  in the Washington City Paper, “Palin’s femininity wasn’t just tolerated—it was magnified, obsessed over, and valued above her qualifications. Palin’s femininity wasn’t respected as a personal choice—it was practically a prerequisite for her position.”  When Palin’s lack of knowledge and experience started becoming widely known, the party yelled “sexism” every time she was criticized.  What was lost on her loyal cadre of supporters, however, was that the Republican party made a sexist move by placing her on the ticket above so many more well-qualified women.

Last week, President Obama named Dr. Regina Benjamin as Surgeon General.  Benjamin is an Alabama family-practice physician who founded a clinic in Bayou La Batre, LA and has rebuilt it twice after hurricanes and fire.  She now operates the clinic out of a rented house and, in a town where about 40 percent of residents are without health insurance, she won’t turn any patient away for inability to pay.  Benjamin has also served as the first black woman to head the State of Alabama Medical Association and was associate dean for rural health at the University of South Alabama’s College of Medicine.benjamin

So, has the news about Dr. Benjamin focused on her selfless service to medicine and the medically under-served populations of the rural south?  Has all the reporting on her appointment focused on her excellent qualifications?  Of course not!  It seems as though the biggest news about Dr. Regina Benjamin is that she “appears to be about 40 pounds overweight” and is not an appropriate choice to lead the nation’s public health program. 

Despite the fact that many studies have shown that being overweight does not necessarily equal poor health, the anti-fat bias machine got to work right away.  “Obesity kills over 400,000 Americans per year,” said public health “expert” and Anti-Gym owner Michael Karolchyk said on Fox News while dressed in his classy “No Chubbies” t-shirt.  As an article in Harvard Health Policy Review reported in 2003: “The major problem with this ‘obesity kills’ statistic is the lack of compelling evidence to substantiate it.” 

But let’s not get overburdened with these pesky facts here.  Regina Benjamin is a woman, and no matter what her accomplishments and resume say, she has committed the cardinal sin for all women – being overweight.  Poor Dr. Benjamin.  She is facing the triple whammy of discrimination – racial minority, female, and – horror of all horrors – overweight.  Dr. C. Everett Koop was no skinny-Minny, but he was never attacked for his somewhat substantial girth.

nutri-system-press-2008_0003-312x425For women, this emphasis on looks is deeply ingrained in the popular culture.  It drives me to absolute distraction every night when I’m watching The Situation Room to see Jillian Barberie Reynolds (Fox NFL sports reporter and Nutri-System success story) tossing a football to Dan Marino – all while dressed in her skimpy bikini.  When do I get to see Marino in a Speedo?  Just as Dan Marino in a Speedo has nothing to do with his career as a football player, why does Reynold’s football reporting career hinge on how good she looks in an orange bikini?

During the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, the (white and male) Republican Senators made much of the New Haven firefighter case whereby some white and male applicants for promotion were denied when the city decided to throw out the promotional exam.  There was a lot of sympathy on the right – and some on the left –  that these poor guys should have just been judged on their qualifications – not their ethnicities or skin colors.  Why can’t women get the same?


Single Parent = Poor Child? March 18, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Abortion, Contraception, Economy, Politics, popular culture, Women's Issues.
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Bristol Palin and Child
Bristol Palin and Child

The other day Bristol Palin, America’s most famous teen-aged mother, announced that she and Levi Johnston will not be marrying as planned.  Johnston, the father of Palin’s child,  said that “he is just not mature enough” to be married and a father.  Though I would have guessed that anyone who only a year ago  identified himself as a “fuckin’ redneck”  on Myspace did not have great gifts for introspection, I give Johnston credit for recognizing his shortcomings. 

At least Bristol will be able to raise her child at her parents’ home where she will undoubtedly receive lots of help and support.  Her mother, Sarah Palin – Governor of Alaska and Republican VP nominee – can help Bristol parent her child with good old red state values including abstinence-only sex education.  They can discuss all the choices that Bristol had and has that they are unwilling to offer other teenage and unwed moms around the country.

The reason I began thinking of Bristol, Levi, Sarah, and baby Tripp was an AP article I just read.  There were a record number of children born in the U.S. last year and the rate of births to unwed mothers reached 40% – an all time high.  About  75% of the unwed births were to women older than 20 years of age – reflecting the shifting cultural mores of women in their 30’s and 40’s unwilling to wait for marriage to have children.  Studies also show that the U.S. abortion rate is down to its lowest levels in decades – also an indicator that the social stigma of single parenthood is fading.

But is that necessarily a good thing – the best thing – for the children and their mothers?

A 2003 study in Social Problems found that women who were single when they had their first child are between 2 and 2.7 times more likely to live in poverty, even after controlling for race, family background, age, education and employment status.  Many other studies show that a child growing up in a single-parent household, especially if the household is headed by a woman, is statistically more likely to grow up in poverty.   In 2008, the U.S. Census bureau estimated that a parent with one child would need to earn a minimum of $14,291 per year just to get by.  That is the official poverty line – about $7.00 per hour for 40 hours per week.  No sick days.  No vacation.  According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, however, the real amount to stay out of poverty is $28,582 per year, or about twice what the U.S. Census bureau advises.  This amount makes the parent “working poor.”

Because the official poverty index is so unrealistic and income limits are too low, there are families all across America who do not make enough to pay for housing, food, transportation, and medical care — but who earn “too much” to qualify for government assistance.  Approximately 67% of single-parent homes fall into the “poor” or “working poor” classification.  Only 26% of two-parent families find themselves so situated.  When the growth in child-poverty is compared against the growth in single-parent households, the correlation is visible and stunning. 

Just as important to this issue is the ability of the child raised in poverty to escape his or her poverty.  Because of the rising economic inequality in the United States, the Horatio Alger “rags to riches” story is largely becoming a myth.  If rich is defined as the top 5% of earners, then that would be about $250,000 per year in the U.S.  A child born in the bottom 95% has a LESS THAN 1% change of ever making it into the wealthy class.  If you are born poor, that is in the lowest 5% of the income scale, there is a 47% chance that you and your children will remain in that quintile.  If you’re African-American, your chances of remaining poor rise to 63%.  The United States had one of the lowest levels of inter-generational mobility in the wealthy world, on a par with Britain but way behind most of Europe.  In Britain, 30% of all children are now born into poverty.

There are many things that the United States can do to mitigate child poverty and wealth mobility.   We could raise  limits for income assistance, provide good day-care, increase food assistance, increase education assistance, and provide more affordable housing.  That would certainly help some single parents to focus on their educations and own mobility to be able to provide more for their children. 

All of that , however, does not address single parenthood.   Though nobody is eager to return to the bad old days of shame and ostracism for single parents, we need to do more as a nation to discourage it.  We need to provide comprehensive sex education – including contraception and condoms – to all school children before they become sexually active.    According to the AP, single women are much less savvy about birth control than they think. Nearly half of survey respondents said they don’t seek out information on preventing pregnancy because they know enough already. Yet when the National Campaign tested the same group on their knowledge, women scored 6 out of 11 on average and men a dismal 4.7. Why no urgent need to be informed? Researchers found that women are often passive or ambivalent about getting pregnant, with more than one in four saying, “If it happens, it happens” or “It would be no big deal.”

We need to emphasize two-parent families as the optimum for raising children, not with an emphasis on a Palin-style shotgun marriage – but with the emphasis on not getting pregnant before one is ready to be in a stable relationship.