Ms. Magazine

The Tragic Pattern Of Abuse of Women in Prison

A landmark study conducted for the Illinois Department of Correction released last month found that the state’s female prisoners are treated too harshly —often called names like “crazy” and “worthless” by prison staffers —and disciplined unreasonably. Not coincidentally, the same study also found that women’s rate of recidivism was 50 percent, higher than Illinois’ overall rate.

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Meet the Wichita Women Standing Up to Anti-Abortion Extremists

The following was originally published in Ms. Magazine's Summer 2013 issue

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The Shocking Ways California Catholic Church Officials Protected a Priest Who Molested 26 Kids

Confidential letters between Los Angeles Catholic church officials that had been withheld for decades–despite long efforts by victims to obtain them and stonewalling by the Church–were released Monday after becoming part of a civil court case against a priest accused of molesting 26 Los Angeles children in the 1980s.

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Right-Wing Christian Pregnancy Centers Linked to Violence

This past January, when Scott Roeder stood trial for the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, he described his preparations for the crime.

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Is the Catholic Leadership Trying to Silence Nuns?

Over the past year, the Vatican has initiated two chilling investigations of American nuns’ communities. Nuns are not singing “hallelujah.”

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Untested Rape Kits Sit in Cold Storage

Three new rape victims arrive each day at the Rape Crisis Treatment Center in Santa Monica, Calif., where, besides being given comfort and medical care, victims are offered a forensic examination that could help identify and prosecute their attackers. Seeing the pain of the victims is hard enough, but for the center's director, Gail Abarbanel, one of the worst parts of her job is wondering whether rapes could have been prevented had the evidence so painstakingly collected ever been tested.

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In Praise of Baadasssss Supermamas

Shades of the summer of 1973!

That was the season of the supermama: kickass black women such as Grier and Tamara Dobson, who starred in big-screen "blaxploitation" action films. Grier played Coffy, a working-class, gun-wielding nurse who takes vigilante justice against drug dealers, pimps and mobsters. Dobson played Cleopatra Jones, a U.S. special agent fighting drug lords with martial-arts moves and her gun.

I've still got a poster in my bedroom of 6-foot-2-inch Dobson in her Cleopatra Jones garb, rocking her 'fro, wearing a short rabbit-fur jacket and red-striped bell-bottoms, with an Uzi slung over one shoulder. For a black woman like me, Cleopatra and Coffy were fantasies come true: beautiful, tough blackwomen tackling real-life problems such as racism, economic oppression and abusive men without relying on anyone but themselves.

Grier herself has often identified her characters in Coffy and the following year's sexy-but-revenge-minded Foxy Brown ("the meanest chick in town") as signs of the burgeoning feminist movement. They were women who didn't accept victimization, and would rather fight than surrender. And Dobson's Cleopatra even took on a greater mission beyond personal empowerment: She wanted to rid the world of drugs, which were causing destruction in the sort of neighborhoods where she grew up. While Cleopatra Jones, Coffy and Foxy Brown played up the feminist-era persona of a bold modern woman who refused to stay in her place, the characters' Afro hairdos and funky outfits also referenced the Afrocentrism of the concurrent Black Power movement. Indeed, the villains were often ego-tripping white women.

Despite problems with the representations of black women, the supermama films made money at the box office. Yet, what Hendry once called "the black renaissance," with its rare women heroes, would disappear within just a few years amid the controversy over the black stereotypes (pimps, drug users) celebrated by blaxploitation.

But the cultural nostalgia for blaxploitation has never really died. The hype surged again in the '90s as hip-hop music videos recycled '70s pop culture. One of hip-hop's top women rappers took on the name Foxy Brown. And in the 1996 film "Set It Off", four black women who need cash set out to rob banks, led by super-baadasssss Queen Latifah in the role of Cleopatra (!) Sims. Then came the supermama's fullest resurrection, in director Quentin Tarantino's 1997 blaxploitation-esque "Jackie Brown" -- starring none other than Pam Grier herself.

Watered-down Foxy and Cleopatra imitations have also become staples in a bevy of comedies. Indeed, the '60s-spy-show and blaxploitation spoof Austin Powers in "Goldmember" featured Beyonce as "Foxxy Cleopatra," lifting the names, fashions and sexiness but leaving out the supermamas' toughness and political motivation. But two recent action blockbusters that featured black women characters -- "Pirates of the Caribbean 3" and "X-Men: The Last Stand" -- were particularly disappointing. Naomie Harris played Calypso in "Pirates" -- goddess, damned lover and ultimate darkfemme fatale -- but unfortunately Calypso paralleled that scary image of the "fecund" primitive African woman in Joseph Conrad's 1899 novel Heart of Darkness. And in "X-Men", Halle Berry wasn't given a chance to translate more of the power and dignity of weather-changing Storm from the comic-book version to film. But the fact that Berry's been able to play two action heroes, Catwoman and Storm, and reportedly is interested in remaking Foxy Brown, suggests that she, too, yearns for the supermama.

Yet my hope for new supermamas survives, especially when I look at that poster of Dobson, who passed away last fall. Cleopatra and Coffy and Foxy fought against systems that beat up on everyday folk. Imagine what they would do in the 21st century.

Today's supermama wouldn't necessarily sling Uzis or wear prostitute disguises, but she could still kick ass with her street smarts or corporate savvy. She would not wait for permission to stop political corruption or environmental genocide or police brutality. She could be a mom, a daughter, a working-class woman or a big-shot career woman. She would rarely see violence as the solution to problems -- after all, Grier's character Kit on "The L Word" did not pull the trigger. No matter what, today's supermama would be about a mission bigger than just her baadasssss self.

The full text of this article appears in the Summer issue of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands or by joining the Ms. community at

Pregnancy Resource Centers Try to Scare Students into Keeping the Baby

When Nina Lopez, 19, a student at Santa Monica College in California, learned that her school routinely referred students concerned about possible pregnancies to a "pregnancy resource center," or "crisis pregnancy center" (CPC), she was concerned.

She knew basically what these centers are all about: They offer only limited options to pregnant women while purveying a strong anti-abortion message, although this mission is not always clearly disclosed in their advertising or by their names. According to an investigative report on federally funded pregnancy resource centers prepared for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), they are "virtually always pro-life [anti-abortion] organizations whose goal is to persuade teenagers and women with unplanned pregnancies to choose motherhood or adoption. They do not offer abortions or referrals to abortion providers." Yet, as the Waxman report pointed out, these centers -- there are an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 in the U.S., many affiliated with evangelical Christian ministries -- often mask their mission with tactics such as advertising under "abortion services" in the yellow pages or representing in their ads that they provide pregnant women with all of their options.

Lopez, a member of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA) on her campus, decided to check out herself whether one particular center recommended by her school was actually offering a full range of choices to young women. So she went for a pregnancy test at the center, which promises "informed pregnancy and sexual health choices" in its brochure and which, according to its website, has medically trained staff and offers medical consultation.

"Even before I found out I wasn't pregnant, the counselor said I should abstain from sex," says Lopez. She was given a fact sheet on "post-abortion stress" and asked to fill out a form that sought nonmedical information about her family and her religious beliefs. And then, when her urine test revealed not a pregnancy but a possible urinary tract infection, the center did not offer her any medical treatment or refer her elsewhere.

An untold number of college-age women find themselves in Lopez's position for real, because their colleges regularly refer students to CPCs. A survey conducted this past summer by the Feminist Majority Foundation, publisher of Ms., found that of 398 campus health centers at four-year colleges that responded to a questionnaire, 48 percent routinely refer women who think they might be pregnant to CPCs. Although 81 percent also refer women to full-service health clinics, some campus centers say they want to give students "all of the options," as one health-center director put it.

But the ramifications to women's health and reproductive rights couldn't be more serious. "Any attempt to delay care and try and scare a woman into keeping an unwanted pregnancy only serves to put her at higher risk -- especially if she has an ectopic pregnancy," says Beth Jordan, M.D., an internist who is the medical director of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "As a doctor, it's shocking to me that health centers at academic institutions would refer women to these CPCs that blatantly misinform women of health risks in an attempt to scare them into keeping the pregnancy."

Despite the falsehoods many promulgate, CPCs increasingly compete with comprehensive health-care clinics for market share, [aided by] nearly $14 million in funding from the government's abstinence-only-until-marriage funding pools in 2007. "They have been exceedingly skillful at getting money," says Bill Smith of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). "They are even trying to get Title X family-planning money."

Some states have taken action to bring accountability to CPCs and slow their growth. Several state legislatures are considering bills that would require CPCs to state that they are not medical centers and do not provide factual medical information. Bills currently on hold in the U.S. House and Senate would prevent CPCs from using deceptive advertising. But the most important piece of action, says Smith of SIECUS, will be ending the "gravy train" of federal money that has been funneled into CPCs under the Bush administration.

The full text of this article appears in the Fall issue of Ms., available on newsstands or by joining the Ms. community.

Check out additional resources: – Campaign to Expose Fake Clinics

Fighting the Pathologizing of PMS

Are you unhappy? Bloated? Is it hard to concentrate? Do you have food cravings? Breast tenderness?

If you read the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, you will find your symptoms listed under "premenstrual dysphoric disorder" (PMDD). In other words, because of those symptoms, a therapist or doctor could label you as having a mental disorder.

The DSM is the bible of psychiatric diagnosis, used by nearly every hospital, clinic, doctor and insurance company, as well as Medicare and Medicaid. Since PMDD first was mentioned in the DSM in 1987, people have received the mistaken impression that it's real and that it's a mental illness. With the manual's fifth edition currently in preparation, that notion seems likely to be strengthened rather than discouraged.

Contrary to popular opinion, the creation and use of psychiatric categories is rarely based on solid science, as I learned when I served on two DSM committees. The absence of science leaves a void into which every conceivable kind of bias has been found to flow -- including sexism. The DSM's own PMDD committee reviewed more than 500 studies for the 1994 edition and concluded that no high-quality research supported the existence of PMDD, yet PMDD was placed in the manual anyway.

Do some women report feeling worse before their periods than at other times of the month? Certainly, although in some countries and cultures more than others. Premenstrual discomforts are also more often reported by women who were sexually abused as children, are struggling with abuse or harassment, or are just plain overburdened. But that is worlds away from a mental illness.

Two powerful DSM authors proposed adding PMDD in the mid-1980s and proposed adding it to the next edition of the manual. It would represent an extreme form of PMS -- the popularly accepted "syndrome" of physical and emotional symptoms between ovulation and menstruation. To qualify, it would have to include five familiar PMS-type symptoms, at least one of them a "mood disorder" such as feeling hopeless, "on edge," self-deprecating, irritable, angry or tearful. No one keeps comprehensive records of how often a PMDD diagnosis is given, but based on PMDD committee estimates, approximately half a million American women could be given the PMDD label.

Hundreds of researchers have tried unsuccessfully to prove that women are more likely to have mood problems premenstrually than at other times. University of British Columbia researcher Christine Hitchcock says, "Something like half of women say they have premenstrual problems, but when you ask them to keep daily ratings of their moods, the data don't reflect that." Another study showed that men identified PMDD symptoms in themselves as commonly as women did.

Despite this, when Eli Lilly and Company's patent on antidepressant Prozac was about to expire, the pharmaceutical giant successfully asked the Food and Drug Administration to approve it to treat PMDD, providing a patent extension worth millions. Eli Lilly repackaged Prozac in pink and purple and rechristened it the feminine-sounding "Sarafem." Other drug companies rushed to market similar products. They deliberately listed physical problems associated with menstruation for some women, such as breast tenderness or bloating, and added a list of mood problems from the PMDD list that virtually every human being experiences.

The PMDD mood symptoms are also listed for menopause, although they are supposedly caused at menopause by deficiency in the hormones whose increase supposedly causes PMDD. I half-jokingly predicted that we would soon hear about premenarcheal dysphoric disorder between a baby girl's birth and her first period, thus pathologizing women's moods from birth to death.

Women should be wary of believing claims that high-tech research has now proven that PMDD is real. We should also advocate a national conversation -- even congressional hearings -- about the often hidden, devastating consequences of simply being given diagnostic labels such as PMDD. Finally, we should stop pathologizing ourselves and other women and help each other look at what's really behind our feelings.

The full text of this article appears in the Summer issue of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands or by joining the Ms. community at

Behind the Cloak of Polygamy

The full text of this article appears in the Summer issue of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands and by subscription from

In 1953, Gov. John Howard Pyle of Arizona tried to rescue 263 children living in the fundamentalist Mormon polygamist community of Short Creek, near the Utah border of Arizona. His effort failed, as the press and public sentiment turned against him. Children who had been removed from their families were returned, and the governor's political career effectively ended.

In the 55 years since the abortive Short Creek incident, politicians in Arizona and Utah have been reluctant to challenge the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a polygamy-practicing group that broke away from the Mormon Church (formally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). But in early April, a similar sort of child-rescue effort took place, this time at the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas -- reportedly the new headquarters of the FLDS. Texas child-welfare authorities, acting on an abuse complaint from an anonymous caller, eventually removed more than 450 children from the property and put them in foster care.

The women of the Yearning for Zion Ranch quickly became subjects of empathy, even if their long, high-necked prairie dresses and sky-high bouffant hairdos were disconcerting. No one is immune to the grief of a parent having her child wrenched away, or can fail to be moved by the sight of children taken from what seems to be their safe maternal haven.

And the FLDS knows this. The group immediately launched a public relations campaign -- complete with photo ops of the sad-looking mothers -- accusing Texas Child Protective Services of violating their parental rights and for targeting them on account of religion. But my own research, which includes interviews with dozens of women, adolescents, children and men who formerly lived or are currently living in fundamentalist Mormon and polygamous Christian families, shows the very dark reality of these communities. It uncovers how claims of religious and parental rights can be a cloak for abusive and criminal behavior. And it suggests that deference to religion and parental rights must sometimes be overweighed in favor of protecting the safety and human rights of women and children.

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