Martha Burk

Madness: In America, Your Boss Can Cite a Religious Objection to Your Health Care

When Obamacare — aka, the Affordable Care Act — became law in 2010, it mandated coverage of birth control without co-payments.

Keep reading... Show less

How the Trans-Pacific Partnership Sells Out America’s Women

President Barack Obama has insisted up and down that he’s willing to work with the Republicans who are taking over the Senate.

Keep reading... Show less

Why It's Time to Challenge the Chicken Industry

Darn. I missed the official celebration in September — bet you did too. But even if we’re a little late, we still have time to mark National Chicken Month. Websites are giving us myriad ways to observe the bird. Eat more chicken! Do the chicken dance! Read Chicken Little!

Keep reading... Show less

Making It Easier for Doctors to Get Away with Malpractice Is an Insane Way to Cut the Deficit

It was just a lone sentence tacked on to the very end of a long New York Times article. The story focused on a recent report from President Obama's bipartisan commission on reducing the national debt. "Panel Seeks Cuts in Social Security and Higher Taxes" was indeed about cuts in Social Security and proposed tax increases -- the things most pundits jump on. But the last sentence caught my eye: "[The commission plan] would limit malpractice awards, long a Republican goal."

Keep reading... Show less

Women Have the Voting Power to Control This Election

(The full text of this article appears in the Spring issue of Ms. Magazine, available on newsstands and by subscription from www.msmagazine.com.)

Too often an election will be dramatically characterized as the "election of the century," or "the most important election in our lifetime." But this time it may be true.

In the past eight years, the U.S. has gone from record surpluses to record deficits. We are at war in two countries with no end in sight. Gasoline prices have doubled since 2000. Our country has been flooded with contaminated consumer products, including the toys our children play with, and our food supply is becoming less safe. Climate change is threatening the planet, yet the government is unresponsive. Women's rights, for which we fought so hard in the 20th century, have been steadily eroded since 2001.

There are many pressing national issues we don't normally think about as women's issues, but that is indeed what they are. The economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the health care crisis, tax policies -- all affect women in different ways than they affect men, and all are growing concerns.

Women are 32 percent more likely to be targeted for subprime loans than men. If this sounds like a doomsday scenario, it's not -- though it is a challenge. Women have the numbers and the voting power to control any election, and we have the numbers to affect the national agenda after elections are over. The gender gap first identified in the 1980 elections -- the difference between women and men in their levels of support for a given candidate or issue -- has never gone away, and neither has women's majority in the ranks of voters. That's why women-generated change is possible.

Since he took office in 2001, President Bush has had one solution to virtually every economic problem: tax cuts primarily benefiting the wealthy, predominately white men. His philosophy is a simple-minded version of conservative arguments in general -- if corporations and the wealthy individuals who fund them through investments pay lower taxes, they will invest those tax savings in ways that will create jobs, such as building new plants, acquiring new subsidiaries or expanding product lines. This theory has been generally referred to as "trickle-down," or "supply side economics," meaning change made at the top of the wealth pile eventually makes its way to workers at the bottom.

This theory sounds pretty good -- if you believe the tax savings really will be spent on creating jobs instead of multimillion-dollar bonuses for CEOs, fines and legal judgments for various corporate abuses or fatter dividends for stockholders. As for expanding facilities and building new plants, that might work as advertised -- unless the facilities are already in China and the new plants will be in Mexico.

Progressives believe that putting money in the hands of those who actually need it to live on is a better plan to keep the economy going, because they spend more of what they have instead of just adding it to stock and bond accounts. Very-low-income people, disproportionately women of color, have to spend it all, every month, just to buy the basics. Progressives also believe that the government can have a positive influence on economic growth through spending tax dollars, and that in a recession money should be injected into the economy as fast as possible. They would create some jobs by repairing infrastructure such as roads and bridges, funding green energy research and development and restoring government services that have been cut.

Whether the economy improves in the short run or not, women must hold candidates and elected officials accountable for long-term solutions. Read their records. Go to town hall meetings and confront them. Call in when you hear them on the radio. If they don't mention women, ask why not. Spread the word when they say something about our issues, good or bad. Email. Blog. Raise hell. Forget fancy speeches and red-hot rhetoric: Arm yourself with knowledge and vote your own interests.

How the Income Tax System Shortchanges Women

A longer version of this piece appears in the Spring issue of Ms. Magazine.

What comes to mind when we think of income taxes? Probably dread. Do we ever think women's issue? Not likely -- but we should. Taxes are something women and men face with unequal pain, let alone gain.

For example, a married couple faces a "marriage penalty" if their two incomes are similar and they file a joint return, since the second income (usually the wife's) is taxed at a significantly higher marginal rate than if she filed as an individual. But if a couple forgoes the wife's second income (or if one person's income is appreciably lower), they may pay less as joint filers than they would have as singles (the marriage "bonus"). Both situations can reduce the incentive for a married woman to work outside the home.

While business interests and churches have long had armies of lobbyists to influence tax policy, feminist influence has been minimal. That needs to change, and here are some recommendations:

Keep reading... Show less

Will Women Ever Get Paid What They Deserve?

We're coming up on Equal Pay Day again. That's the day in April every year -- this year the 24th -- when women's earnings finally catch up with what men made by Dec. 31 of the previous year. Women's groups, led by the National Committee on Pay Equity, will rally on Capitol Hill to call attention to the issue.

The pay gap is still a stubborn problem, with women who work full time year-round making 76 cents to a man's dollar. Though it consistently polls No. 1 with female voters in election years, politicians don't seem motivated to do much about it.

Some people say pay disparities between women and men are an illusion -- women just like to choose jobs that pay less because they're not as risky or have shorter hours. But the data don't back up these claims. Even when researchers take into account such factors as part-time work or time out of the work force to care for kids, the numbers show that men make more. Another problem that just won't go away is that so-called "men's jobs," like plumbing, pay more than "women's jobs," like nursing. That tells us something about what we value as a society, and it's not women's work.

The Fair Pay Act, a bill that would help narrow the gap, has grown old bouncing around Capitol Hill since the early 1990s, never receiving as much as a hearing. If the FPA ever passed, it would require employers to rate their jobs on skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions, and equalize pay for comparable jobs even if the job titles and duties are different. Employers naturally resist this, citing loss of "competitive advantage," but women's advocates suspect the real reason is that the numbers would be too damning. Women might even get big ideas like suing their employers for sex discrimination in pay and promotion, as female workers at Wal-Mart have done in the largest class-action suit in history.

A new book released this month from The Feminist Press -- "Taking On the Big Boys" by Ellen Bravo, longtime CEO of 9 to 5, an advocacy organization for working women -- attacks the pay equity issue head on. Bravo enlightens the reader in a no-nonsense way on deep-seated workplace attitudes and practices that hinder women's progress on the pay front. More importantly, she shows us how public policy is influenced through a variety of tactics used by opponents. One such tactic is catastrophizing, meaning predicting the downfall of capitalism as we know it if women catch up with men in earnings. Poster boy for this tactic is Chief Justice John Roberts, who dismissed the concept in the FPA as a "pernicious" redistribution of wealth, saying, "Their slogan may as well be 'From each according to his ability, to each according to her gender.'" Pretty scary stuff for the women of Wal-Mart, should their case, now on appeal, reach the Supremes.

"Taking On the Big Boys" shows us how continued monitoring and enforcement will be necessary, even for companies that want to do better. The FPA also contains a provision that would require companies to report earnings by race and gender in each job category -- not anybody's salary on a bulletin board, but just overall statistics, so women could see how they were faring compared to the guys in the company overall.

While there's no law now that says companies have to disclose how they pay and promote their workers, there's no law that says they can't. Wal-Mart agreed last year under stockholder pressure to post its EEO-1 form online, showing broad job categories by race and gender (the form does not include pay data). Some disclosure is better than none, but all companies should go a step further and release pay data for women and men by job category, as Ben & Jerry's has done for years. If pay scales are equitable, there should be nothing to hide. Women could see right up front if the company is fair. It would eliminate the need for lawsuits and create tremendous employee loyalty and customer good will. That ought to be worth 24 extra cents in the pay envelope.

Women Own The Democratic Party

November 2006 is shaping up to be a very good month for women in politics on both sides of the Atlantic. In what The Christian Science Monitor dubbed another French revolution, Socialist Ségolène Royal trounced her male competitors last week in France's presidential primary. For the first time, a woman has a realistic chance of becoming that country's head of state. Add that to the unprecedented number of female candidates and winners in the U.S. elections, topped off by the first female speaker of the house, and the trend is clear: Women are now flexing political muscle like never before.

What is the lesson going forward from November here at home? Women won, but not just the candidates or the new speaker. Female voters triumphed, too. This year women's votes determined the outcome in virtually all the seats that turned over. The gender gap is back after the Democrats squandered it in 2004 when men voted for Bush in greater numbers than women went for Kerry. More importantly, women's concerns will not only lead the way in the post-election debates about direction in the new Congress, but will continue to decide who gets elected in the first place.

That's the message out of two major polls just released. Ms. Magazine commissioned an election eve survey to evaluate any possible gender gap in post-election priorities, and Lifetime TV teamed with Redbook Magazine to poll women and men on how they actually voted. Though questions were different, the message was the same: Women are tired of not being able to trust their leaders, they want change and that change should include more females in leadership positions. Lifetime/Redbook found that women are perceived as three times more trustworthy than men, and four in 10 voters overall thought men were more likely to be the subject of a scandal. Ms. looked at the gender breakdown on this one, considering no female faces have been seen peeking out from behind pedophile curtains, nor smiling with Abramoff or being led away in handcuffs for taking bribes. Not surprisingly, women say electing more women would have an impact on the culture of corruption in Washington -- a 9 point gender gap with men on the subject.

Buried in the Ms. results is a loud warning bell for Republicans. While all voters rated Iraq number 1 in importance, there were differences between the genders on this question. Republican women are more intense about ending the war than any other group, with 73 percent of them rating it as a very high priority. They're ahead of even their Democratic sisters on this one.

The Ms. poll, conducted by Lake Research Partners, measured what might be called the "intensity factor" on the issues. Gender gaps were most evident on the domestic agenda, including child care and education. But the widest divergence with the men came on the minimum wage -- a 17 percent gap between female support for an increase and male support for it. This isn't surprising given that most minimum wage workers are adult women. But politicians should take note: Women also fueled the passage of all six minimum wage initiatives. Jobs and the economy were the second highest concern for independent female voters -- that's the group both parties need to swing things their way in 2008.

On the question of female leadership, Lifetime's poll shows advances for women are no fluke, and are part of a dramatic new acceptance of and support for women's political leadership -- on the part of men as well as women. Roughly one third of voters said they were more likely to vote in an election with a female candidate, more likely to believe a female candidate and more likely to pay attention to her political ads.

Changes here and abroad add up to increasing political viability for women as political leaders -- all the way to the top of the ticket. If Ségolène Royal is elected, a woman will preside over the world's sixth largest economy, and head a country with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. That will go a long way toward making female leadership at the highest levels "normal."

In the two years since Lifetime's last poll the percentage of adults who think a woman will be elected U.S. president in 2008 has nearly doubled. With the high probability that the Democrats will choose Hillary Clinton as the standard bearer, and the clout of females at the polls, the U.S. could be on the cusp of a female political revolution of its own.

Women on the Hill

Four days before the election, The New York Times ran a front page story declaring that female voters held the key to the Senate race in Virginia between George Allen and James Webb. That women control the majority of votes in this country is not new, nor is the fact that there has long been a gender gap, with women generally favoring Democrats. What was new about this race was that neither candidate was a particular friend of the women who held the balance of power in the electorate.

Allen is a redneck good-ol'-boy anti-choicer, and Webb is a white male women-don't-belong-in-the-military warrior who came late to the Democratic Party because he opposed Bush on Iraq. While his website says he "supports Roe v. Wade" without spelling out what that means (more restrictions? more anti-choice judges?), he campaigned almost exclusively with men at his side, and he defined "women's issues"; in terms of kids and families. So while women clearly went for Webb, according to exit polls, if his winning total holds up in an expected recount it's unclear what women actually won.

Female voters faced the same non-choice in Pennsylvania, where the Democratic party forced women's-rights supporter former State Treasurer Barbara Hafer out of the race early, clearing the field for anti-abortion Bob Casey. Casey defeated mad-dog Rick Santorum, but will women really be better off? With both candidates against abortion rights, the race may have looked like a wash for women. But I'd call it a net loss, because the Casey victory will embolden the boys in charge of the Democratic party to field more anti-abortion candidates in the future. Even if the Democrats control the Senate, with friends like Casey, and another Supreme Court vacancy likely before President Bush leaves office, do women need enemies?

Some good news for women is that new female Democrats will be joining the male majority on Capitol Hill. In the House of Representatives, among the 47 most competitive House races this year, 18 featured female candidates. Democrats are also celebrating the addition of two more female Senators: Amy Klobuchar, who won the seat held by retiring Democrat Mark Dayton in Minnesota, and Claire McCaskill's unseating of Republican Senator Jim Talent in Missouri. This means that there will be 16 women in the Senate come January, a new record. Historically, Democratic women have been more inclined to hold the line in keeping both chambers from the worst excesses on funding cuts for programs benefiting women and children.

But did women win anything besides staving off more cuts in the next Congress? Yes and no.

Even with the turnover and the first woman in history as speaker, Democratic men will still be firmly in control of all major committee chairs in the House, so a few extra female troops won't hurt in setting priorities. Working women will benefit from a federal raise in the minimum wage, sure to pass now that Democrats are in control. With Bush bazooked by the election results, his major domestic priority -- privatizing Social Security, the backbone of women's retirement -- will be off the table. But equal pay, which has been near the top of women's lists of concerns for years, was mentioned by few if any candidates this year, and won't likely see the light of day even with a phalanx of new Democrats. A handful did express support for family and medical leave where their opponents had voted against it in the first place, but stepping across the line and advocating for paid leave such as that found in Europe was too much of a challenge.

According to a recent poll by the National Council for Research on Women, candidates who favored bringing the troops home from Iraq had a nearly three to one advantage among women voters than candidates who favored keeping the troops deployed (59 percent to 21 percent). In close Senate races in Arizona, Connecticut, Missouri, Montana, Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia, there was a clear choice between the killing fields and getting out of Iraq. Pro-war candidates won three of those races, producing a mixed bag for female voters. A number of House contests also turned on the war. In one of the most hard-fought contests, pro-war, pro-Bush New Mexico incumbent Heather Wilson was in a deadlock with challenger Patricia Madrid, who hammered her opponent with ads in the last days showing Wilson repeating "stay the course" over and over. Madrid was within 1,300 votes of defeating Wilson early Wednesday. But in the Illinois contest to replace retiring ultra-conservative Henry Hyde, Iraq veteran Tammy Duckworth was defeated by about two percentage points.

Looking at ballot initiatives affecting women most directly, there were clear gains on the minimum wage; a loss in Michigan, where voters banned affirmative action, and a huge victory on abortion rights in South Dakota. The majority of minimum wage workers are adult females, and hikes in state minimums were on the ballot in six states (Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio). All of them passed. That will create additional pressure for the federal hike the Democrats have promised sooner rather than later.

The South Dakota vote striking down the state's draconian abortion ban -- no exceptions for rape, incest or health of the woman -- has implications far beyond its borders, and will have repercussions for years to come. Had the South Dakota law stood up, anti-choice majorities with governors on their side in 18 additional states likely would have been emboldened to follow suit. An additional nine states have pre-Roe bans on the books that will now be held off a little longer.

The final scorecard? As they say in football, you win some, you lose some. Overall, Tuesday was a win. But how the game is played on progress for women in the next two years will tell the tale.

A Crude Awakening for Women

This article is excerpted from the summer 2006 issue of Ms. Magazine, available on newsstands now.

When the Taliban, the most anti-woman militia in Afghanistan's civil war, took over the country in 1996, it immediately forced women to leave their jobs, banned work outside the home, prohibited females from attending school and put women under house arrest, unable to go out in public unless accompanied by a close male relative and wearing a head-to-toe burqa. Women who violated Taliban decrees were beaten, imprisoned, even killed.

Despite this, the U.S. government was on the fast track to recognize this unelected, oppressive regime as Afghanistan's official government and to prop up the militia with millions of taxpayer dollars.

Why? In a word: oil.

Unocal Corp. of California (now part of Chevron), in partnership with a Saudi consortium, was competing with an Argentine company to build an oil pipeline through Afghanistan to the coast of Pakistan. The U.S. government wanted to secure the project for Unocal.

The Clinton State Department announced that it would establish relations with the Taliban by sending a diplomat to Kabul, and several envoys were dispatched to woo the Taliban for the pipeline rights. State Department spokesperson Glyn Davies said the United States found "nothing objectionable" in the steps taken by the Taliban to impose Islamic law. Only a concentrated effort by the Feminist Majority, NOW and allied groups around the world prevented the Taliban from being recognized as the official government of Afghanistan, and kept the United States from sanctioning the abolishment of women's most basic human rights in service of the petroleum industry.

This is perhaps the starkest example of why the politics of oil is a feminist issue. Whether supporting gender apartheid abroad, or sacrificing feeding programs for U.S. women and children so that ExxonMobil can get a tax break, or simply standing by while the company reaps record profits at the expense of poor women who must drive to work and heat their houses, U.S. priorities are consistent: Oil wins over women's rights hands down.

Many believe oil was the principal, if not the only, reason for the Iraq war. A top-secret 2001 National Security Council document, written before 9/11 and two years prior to military action in Iraq, directed staff to cooperate fully with Vice President Cheney's secretive Energy Task Force as it considered the "melding" of two seemingly unrelated areas of policy: "the review of operational policies towards rogue states," such as Iraq, and "actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields." The State Department's "Oil and Energy Working Group" reached a consensus that Iraq's oil "should be opened to international oil companies as quickly as possible after the war."

Whether or not this blood-for-oil scenario is the whole story, the new Iraqi Constitution and laws already passed contain far stronger guarantees for major U.S. oil interests than they do for the women of Iraq. Women's rights deteriorated rapidly after the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein sold them out to religious fundamentalists in order to consolidate power. The United States had the opportunity to restore much of what was lost after the 2003 invasion. But in the period leading up to the election of the National Assembly, our government failed the women of Iraq in many ways.

The postwar constitution now declares Islam as the official religion of the state and the fundamental source of legislation. Even though the document gives a nod to equal rights for all, no laws have been passed regarding women's rights to work, equal pay, pregnancy leave or child care -- all guaranteed in the previous constitution. According to Human Rights Watch, the failure of occupation authorities to provide public security in Iraq's capital lies at the root of a widespread fear of rape and abduction among women and their families, preventing many women from working and doing business in public.

In contrast, Big Oil is well-protected in the constitution and new laws. The constitution guarantees the reform of the Iraqi economy in accordance with "modern economic principles" to "ensure … the development of the private sector"-- essentially abolishing Iraqi state dominion over its petroleum reserves. Corollary laws guarantee that foreign companies will have control over at least 64 percent of Iraq's oil, and possibly as much as 84 percent.

The black-shrouded women in Iraq are unfortunately not alone in being sacrificed to the politics of oil. Oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia get a pass on women's rights because of the black gold beneath the ground they traverse on foot, or in a car driven by someone else because they are not allowed behind the wheel. From Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 to mainstream media reports, it's well-documented that the U.S. government has long been cozy, if not outright deferential, to the Saudis.

Juan Cole, a Middle East expert, sums up the U.S.-Saudi bargain this way: "Since Saudi Arabia produces something on the order of 9 million barrels a day … enormous amounts of U.S. capital are going into the Gulf. So as to not bankrupt the U.S. economy, the Saudis recycle the funds into U.S. investments. … [Former President George H.W.] Bush and Cheney were pressing the new King Abdullah [in a 2005 trip to Riyadh] to keep that sweet deal going, whereby they sell us petroleum, and then they take the money that we give them and reinvest it in the United States."

This "sweet deal" to protect light sweet crude means the United States not only turns a blind eye to the denial of basic rights to Saudi women by their own government, but has imposed Saudi-style oppression on American military women watching over oil reserves in the kingdom. U.S. servicewomen have been compelled by U.S. military policy to wear restrictive Muslim garb -- a black robe and head scarf called an abaya --and to sit in the backseat of service vehicles driven by male subordinates when off base. When one sued Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2001 for violating her rights, the military tried to keep the requirements in place. Congress was forced to intervene, voting unanimously to prohibit the Defense Department from requiring servicewomen to wear the abaya.

Next up on the U.S. war-plan stage is Iran -- with the second-largest pool of untapped oil in the world. Although the ostensible reason for a U.S.-led invasion of Iran will once again be weapons of mass destruction, the politics of oil are peeking out from behind the WMD curtain. If Iran realizes its alleged goal of becoming the dominant center of Middle East oil commerce through a new oil exchange (the Iranian Oil Bourse) the currency would be the euro, not the dollar. Some analysts say that if petrodollars become petroeuros it could lead to a huge drop in value for American currency, potentially putting the U.S. economy in its greatest crisis since the 1930s.

William Clark, an American security expert, says that another manufactured war or some type of covert operation is inevitable under President Bush, and that the neoconservatives are quietly planning for this second petrodollar war. Far-fetched? Maybe. But it is interesting to note that right before Iraq was invaded, Saddam had refused to accept dollars in the Oil For Food program, insisting on euros instead.

Any military action against Iran will almost certainly be delayed until after the 2006 midterm elections. Women, the population segment most economically vulnerable to skyrocketing fuel prices at home, are also the majority of U.S. voters -- and the majority of those against another potential war.

According to a poll commissioned by Ms. Magazine and reported in the summer issue, women not only want out of Iraq now, they are strongly opposed to a preemptive invasion of Iran. Women are the vanguard in a sea of change in attitudes toward the president and his handling of the war in Iraq, and it could definitely spell trouble at the polls for Republicans in November if a second war, with Iran, seems inevitable.

Meanwhile, four years after the U.S.-led war to remove the Taliban, the group is on the rise again in Afghanistan, under the nose of the U.S.-backed government. Women who criticize local rulers or who are merely active in public life as political candidates, journalists, teachers or NGO workers face increasing threats and violence. Many women are still in the burqa, afraid to take it off because of the returning Taliban and the lack of security. Violence against women and girls remains rampant, and according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, over 300 girls' schools have been burned or bombed. In five southern Afghan provinces, at least 90 percent of school-age girls do not attend classes.

And a new pipeline deal has been signed, with construction to begin this year. Of course, American companies want part of the action. The oil drumbeat goes on.
BRAND NEW STORIES

Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.