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.

Keep reading...Show less

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.

Keep reading...Show less

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.

Keep reading...Show less

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.”

Keep reading...Show less

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.

Keep reading...Show less

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 religiousbeliefs. 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.

What Women Voters Want in 2008

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

Beyond the preference for one candidate or another, what issues most concern women in this historic election year? How do women's concerns diverge from men's? And how are women -- who make up about 54 percent of the electorate in presidential years -- shaping the campaigns?

Recent public opinion research by our firm, Lake Research Partners, and others help shed some light on what women want, and what candidates will have to address to win their vote. Here are some things we have learned:

I. Women are fed up with the status quo.

Three-quarters of all women say the country is on the wrong track, compared to 67 percent of men. Those percentages are even higher among unmarried women (77 percent) and African American women (80 percent). These numbers suggest that a narrative promising change may energize such voters in the upcoming election. Women are also more likely to dislike President Bush (57 percent, compared to 51 percent of men) and disapprove of the job he is doing (62 percent of women, 55 percent of men), which suggests that most voters, regardless of their partisan preferences, are looking for a candidate who will take the country in a different direction.

II. Women and men agree that the economy is the No. 1 concern -- but women are especially concerned.

Women express their anxiety about the economy even more strongly than do men: Nearly 80 percent of women describe the current economic situation as either "fair" or "poor," compared to 68 percent of men.

Heightened anxiety about the direction of the country, and the economy in particular, lead to a sense among women -- even more so than among men -- that the American Dream is becoming increasingly difficult to attain. Women are much less optimistic about their children's future than are men: 44 percent of men say they think their children will be better off than their parents, while only 35 percent of women feel that way.

III. Rising health-care costs particularly concern women. While both women and men name rising health-care costs as their top economic concern, women feel it with greater intensity (27 percent, vs. 22 percent of men). Men, on the other hand, are twice as likely to worry about higher taxes than women, ranking it their second-highest concern as compared to fifth-highest for women.

IV. Women are concerned with national security, but favor a cooperative international approach.

Women do not think actions by the U.S. government have made us safer since 9/11; more than half of women voters report feeling less safe when thinking about terrorism and national security than they did in 2002. Only one in four women approves of Bush's handling of the so-called war on terror. Therefore, any candidate who argues that Bush's policies have made us safer may have trouble winning the majority of women's votes.

Two-thirds of women are in favor of cooperating with other countries as often as possible, even if that means the U.S. has to compromise on occasion. Women tend to believe that America should act alone only as a last resort.

Although women rank the threat of terrorism with other top-tier concerns, they don't let it solely guide their interests or votes. As one woman put it, "I go to the grocery store and I am not concerned about the threat of terrorism, but I am concerned with the high price of milk."

V. The gender gap is still critical.

Since 1980, women have consistently tended to vote more Democratic than men in presidential elections, with a Democratic-favoring gender gap of at least 13 points. (The only exception occurred in 1992, when Bill Clinton won the men's vote by 3 percentage points as well as the women's, by 8, for a gender gap of just 5 points.) The trend peaked in 2000, when women voted for Al Gore over George W. Bush by 11 percentage points, while men voted for Bush over Gore by 11 -- creating an overall gender gap of 22 percentage points.

Still, historical trends alone will not win the women's vote. Candidates will have to address domestic and international concerns in a compelling way, confront the pervasive worry that the country is on the wrong track, and provide a nuanced agenda aimed at getting the country back on the right course.

Gender Discrimination Has Its Day in Court

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

The first jury gave Lindy Vivas, the women's volleyball coach, $5.85 million. Diane Milutinovich, the associate athletic director, settled out of court for $3.5 million. And the third case ended with a head-spinning $19 million jury verdict for Stacy Johnson-Klein, the women's basketball coach.

All three women had complained about gender equity in the sports department at Fresno State University, situated in California's verdant Central Valley. All three lost their jobs. All three then sued for some combination of sex discrimination, retaliation and discrimination based on sexual orientation.

There have been many victories under Title IX -- the 1972 legislation that commanded federally funded educational institutions not to sex-discriminate in any area, including sports -- but the three cases that rocked Fresno State University's sports department last year stand out for their enormity.

The trials last fall were everyday news for months in Fresno, a town of 500,000 that's the gateway to Sierra mountain resorts such as Yosemite -- and the cases still haven't reached closure: Even after judges cut down the jury awards (to $4.52 million for Vivas and $6.62 million for Johnson-Klein, plus additional attorney's fees), the university appealed both. On top of that, Margie Wright, the school's legendary softball coach -- the only coach in Fresno State history to take a team to an NCAA national championship -- has hired legal counsel to deal with her longtime gender-equity complaints, whether by settlement or trial.

Meanwhile, an infuriated California state senator from the Fresno area, Dean Florez, has taken the university's president and the chancellor of the California State University (CSU) system to task during two hearings, and has threatened further action. "We were dumbfounded at the amount of insensitivity," says Florez, a Democrat. "We want the university to get it, and we don't think they get it yet."

The first to be let go was Milutinovich. In April, 2002, she was given three days to resign, retire, or move to a position outside of athletics. The reason for her termination? A supposed budget crunch. But subsequently, the athletic department added six positions and its budget increased nearly 5 percent.

"Isn't that a little obvious?" asks Milutinovich. "[They eliminated my position because] I asked too many questions and insisted on equity."

Vivas was next to be shown the door.

After having taken her team to the NCAA tournament in 2002 and being named coach of the year in her conference, she asked for a five-year contract similar to what the men's football and basketball coaches received but was offered only a two-year contract -- with performance clauses that no other coach, male or female, had to meet. When that contract was up, she wasn't offered a new one. "Which we all know in athletics means you're fired," she says.

Meanwhile, Stacy Johnson-Klein had been hired as women's basketball coach, and the glamorous six-foot-tall blonde was supposed to be the woman who made the men in Fresno State's athletic department more comfortable. The more jockish and outspoken Militunovich, Vivas and Wright -- women who didn't let any inequity go unnoticed -- obviously made them squirm.

"You'll be on our team, the 'home team,'" athletic director Scott Johnson told Johnson-Klein (no relation). "That was code for being straight," she explains.

The harassment began not long after Johnson-Klein came on board. First, Johnson made a pass at her while they were in a carwash. Then, the new associate athletic director allegedly began a running commentary on her clothing, telling her that her blouse was too low-cut, her pants too tight. Johnson-Klein also began to notice the same sort of gender inequities that grated on Vivas and Wright -- perks and monies offered to the men's teams but not hers. She started filing written complaints. In February 2005, she was put on leave without explanation, then fired -- and Fresno State, with shocking disregard for employee confidentiality, put up on its website a 380-page report of accusations against her.

"Of course no one complained of alleged improprieties at the time they occurred," says one of her lawyers, Dan Siegel (who also represents Milutinovic, Vivas and Wright). "It was only after she was suspended and they were looking for stuff to dump on her."

By the time the cases went to court, there was a new "home team": Johnson-Klein testified for Vivas, Vivas testified for Johnson-Klein and Milutinovich and Wright testified for both of them. "There was no way I was going to turn my back on somebody who was treated that way," says Wright. "I was going to stand up for her." "Now we're good friends," says Johnson-Klein.

Stung by the verdicts, Fresno State has now added two new women's sports and developed a five-year Gender Equity Plan. But Fresno State administrators remain in self-protect mode: Neither university President John Welty nor CSU chancellor Charles Reed have ever admitted any wrongdoing. State Sen. Florez has called for Welty's resignation to no avail, but has also set forth a bill that would create an independent office of gender equity under the state's attorney general.

"Handling this case opened my eyes," says Johnson-Klein's other lawyer, Warren Paboojian, a self-confessed former male chauvinist. "Women should have the same opportunity to compete in sports and get that enjoyment and benefit that men get, and they often don't. These women helped educate me."

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

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.

Too Poor to Parent?

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

When a recurrent plumbing problem in an upstairs unit caused raw sewage to seep into her New York City apartment, 22-year-old Lisa called social services for help. She had repeatedly asked her landlord to fix the problem, but he had been unresponsive. Now the smell was unbearable, and Lisa feared for the health and safety of her two young children.

When the caseworker arrived, she observed that the apartment had no lights and that food was spoiling in the refrigerator. Lisa explained that she did not have the money to pay her electric bill that month, but would have the money in a few weeks. She asked whether the caseworker could help get them into a family shelter. The caseworker promised she would help -- but left Lisa in the apartment and took the children, who were then placed in foster care.

Months later, the apartment is cleaned up. Lisa still does not have her children.

It is probably fair to say that most women with children worry about their ability as mothers. Are they spending enough time with them? Are they disciplining them correctly? Are they feeding them properly? When should they take them to the doctor, and when is something not that serious? But one thing most women in the United States do not worry about is the possibility of the state removing children from their care. For a sizable subset of women, though -- especially poor black mothers such as Lisa -- that possibility is very real.

Black children are the most overrepresented demographic in foster care nationwide. According to the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), blacks make up 34 percent of the foster-care population, but only 15 percent of the general child population. In 2004, black children were twice as likely to enter foster care as white children. Even among other minority groups, black mothers are more likely to lose their children to the state than Hispanics or Asians -- groups that are slightly underrepresented in foster care.

The reason for this disparity? Study after study reviewed by Stanford University law professor Dorothy Roberts in her book Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Books/Perseus, 2002) concludes that poverty is the leading cause of children landing in foster care. One study, for example, showed that poor families are up to 22 times more likely to be involved in the child-welfare system than wealthier families. And nationwide, blacks are four times more likely than other groups to live in poverty.

But when state child-welfare workers come to remove children from black mothers' homes, they rarely cite poverty as the factor putting a child at risk. Instead, these mothers are told that they neglected their children by failing to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, education or medical care. The failure is always personal, and these mothers and children are almost always made to suffer individually for the consequences of one of the United States' most pressing social problems.

The legal system often provides no haven for these parents. Based on even the flimsiest allegations, they are essentially presumed guilty and pressured to participate in various cookie-cutter services that often do not directly address the concerns that brought them to court. For example, after her children went into foster care, Lisa was asked to attend parenting classes, undergo a mental health evaluation, seek therapy and submit to random drug testing before her children could be returned. But child-welfare authorities did not assist her in repairing her home or finding a new apartment, nor have they gone after her landlord for allowing deplorable conditions.

Race and poverty should not be a barrier to raising one's children. But in order to prevent the entry of poor children into the foster care system, state and federal government must confront poverty-related issues. Until this country comes to terms with its culpability in allowing widespread poverty to exist, poor black mothers will continue to lose their children to the state. And we will continue to label these women "bad mothers" to assuage our own guilt.

Anti-Affirmative Action Crusaders Commit Voter Fraud

Ruthie Stevenson was on her way to the post office in Mt. Clemens, Mich., when she was asked to sign a petition to "make civil rights fairer for everybody." The circulator named the president of the local NAACP as a supporter. This would have been surprising, since the petition -- known euphemistically as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative -- sought to amend the Michigan constitution to eliminate all affirmative-action programs in the state. Moreover, Stevenson knew firsthand that fraud was afoot: She was the president of the local NAACP, and had certainly never lent her support.

Unfortunately, Stevenson was far from the only Michigan voter to have encountered trickery and deception in Ward Connerly's campaign to eliminate affirmative action. Hundreds of Michigan citizens, disproportionately African-American, testified before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and later in federal district court that Connerly's canvassers lied or otherwise misled them to secure their signatures.

The federal district court judge denounced what it called voter fraud, but ruled that the effort deceived blacks and whites equally, and thus did not violate the Voting Rights Act. The court noted, however, "If the proposal eventually passes, it will be stained by well-documented acts of fraud and deception that the defendants, as a matter of fact, have not credibly denied."

The proposal did pass, in November of 2006, Michigan thus becoming the third state to ratify such an initiative, with all three protracted and divisive campaigns fronted by Connerly. Yet the stain predicted by the court is barely visible to those who haven't witnessed the seamy underbelly of his supposedly highbrow efforts.

The most audacious dimension of Connerly's masquerade, which he now hopes to replicate in five other states in November, is his use of the language of civil rights as the Trojan horse to roll his reactionary agenda into the center of American politics. By selectively sampling from its martyr, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Connerly has appropriated the terminology, symbolism and moral authority of the Civil Rights movement to undo some of its most important victories. The millions of U.S. citizens who are primed to affirm any proposal framed as advancing civil rights are precisely those most at risk of being tricked into voting against their own interests. Women and black people were denied the vote in the past; today, they are deceived out of their votes.

Connerly's Civil Rights Initiative (CRI) campaigns use purposefully deceptive language to confuse some voters into repudiating policies they might otherwise support. Virtually all his campaigns purport to ban "discrimination or preference" on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity and national origin. Even those who read the language of his initiatives with caution will not necessarily recognize a ban on discrimination or preference as a vote to end affirmative action.

For many voters, "preference" does not equate with affirmative action. Instead, it captures the bevy of rewards afforded to those who have been historically advantaged in American society through nepotism, old-boy networks and discriminatory enclaves. These and other exclusionary practices function as built-in preferences that funnel a disproportionate share of resources and opportunities to whites and to men.

Voters who understand that dynamic may thus interpret preference as a way of describing discrimination -- and thus a vote for a CRI is a vote against entrenched and systemic exclusion. The obvious solution is for voters to be presented with clear language indicating that the real purpose of the initiatives is to eliminate affirmative-action programs for women and people of color.

But Connerly has repeatedly rejected this simple solution. Despite his claims that the majority of Americans stand with him in opposing affirmative action, he has refused to use plain language. And it's obvious why: As early as 1995, the distinguished pollster Louis Harris discovered that while Americans overwhelmingly oppose "racial preferences," a clear majority support "affirmative action." For some Americans, the word "preferences" triggers images of rigid quotas, reverse discrimination and unqualified minorities, while "affirmative action" has come to mean increasing opportunities for members of excluded or underrepresented groups. Harris thus concluded that how the question is worded on this issue is highly significant.

In fact, when the city of Houston changed the wording of a Connerly initiative in that city to pose a direct question to voters about whether affirmative-action policies should be banned, the initiative lost. But when elected officials and courts allowed him to use his deceptive language in California, Washington and Michigan, the initiatives passed.

It is helpful to recognize that the rallying cry of "special treatment" is not at all new: Virtually all efforts to integrate excluded groups into American institutions have been denounced in those terms. Similarly, efforts to integrate women into all-male institutions (such as private clubs) have been resisted as unnatural, unjustified and disruptive. But interestingly, as those male-dominated environments become suspect and eventually unacceptable, efforts to change the rules are no longer seen as special treatment but as perfectly reasonable policies to equalize opportunity.

The challenge for us in contemporary America is to capture this understanding across a range of modern institutions, where the presence of women and people of color remains a matter of controversy rather than a normal fact of life. If efforts to defend affirmative action are going to be successful, advocates are going to have to redirect the public's attention to the conditions of everyday life for women and minorities that are themselves unfair, and to which affirmative action is a modest but a very necessary solution.

For the full version of this article, see the Winter issue of Ms. magazine, now on newsstands or available as a membership benefit at

Has Artificial Beauty Become the New Feminism?

This spring, Sideways star Virginia Madsen became a spokesperson for Allergan Inc., the maker of Botox." Quoted in People magazine, Madsen asserts that she's made "a lot of choices" to keep herself "youthful and strong": "I work out. I eat good foods. And I also get injectables."

In celebrity promos such as Madsen's, the current pop-cultural acceptance of cosmetic medicine is clear -- and is borne out by the rising numbers of customers. Since 2000, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) reports a 48 percent increase in all cosmetic (elective) procedures, both surgical, such as breast augmentations, and minimally invasive, such as the injectable wrinkle-filler Botox.

Once considered clandestine and risky, cosmetic procedures are currently treated across a variety of media as if they were as benign and mundane as whitening your teeth. Advertisers, TV producers, publishers, PR personnel and even physicians themselves are touting it as an effortless, egalitarian way for women of all backgrounds to "enhance" their looks and "stay young."

Not only have cosmetic procedures become more acceptable, but they're being promoted in less sensationalized ways to whole new markets. Increasingly, reality TV's Cinderella tale of surgical transformation is being replaced with a smart woman's narrative of enlightened self-maintenance. While Extreme Makeover and its imitators shame and blame ugly-duck patients in order for prince-surgeons to rescue them and magically unlock their inner swans through "drastic plastic" (multiple surgeries), other media sources now compliment potential customers as mature women who are "smart," "talented" and "wise." Such women are supposedly savvy enough to appreciate their own wisdom -- but, then again, they should want to soften the telltale marks of how many years it took them to acquire it. "I am not using these injectables to look 25," Madsen insists. "I don't want to be 25. I just want to look like me."

Alex Kuczynski, a New York Times reporter and author of Beauty Junkies (Doubleday, 2006) calls these latest appeals "the new feminism, an activism of aesthetics." That ignores the work of feminists from Susan Faludi to Susan Bordo, who have argued for years against the global beauty industry and its misogynistic practices. Yet the cosmetic-surgery industry is doing exactly what the beauty industry has done for years: It's co-opting, repackaging and reselling the feminist call to empower women into what may be dubbed "consumer feminism." Under the dual slogans of possibility and choice, producers, promoters and providers are selling elective surgery as self-determination.

Moreover, much of the media covering cosmetic surgery centers on the idea of choice. Parallel to Madsen's insistence that using Botox is just another lifestyle choice with little difference from working out and eating well, Cosmetic Surgery for Dummies (For Dummies, 2005) promises that the reader will discover how to "decide whether surgery is right for you," "find a qualified surgeon," "set realistic expectations," "evaluate the cons," "make the surgical environment safe" and ultimately "make an informed choice." The word "choice" obviously plays on reproductive-rights connotations, so that consumers will trust that they are maintaining autonomy over their bodies. Yet one choice goes completely unmentioned: The choice not to consider cosmetic surgery at all.

These days, with consumers able to "choose" from among a dizzying array of procedures and providers, even the most minute areas of the female body are potential sites of worry and "intervention." Surgical procedures have been developed to reduce "bra fat," to make over belly-buttons, to "rejuvenate" vaginas after childbirth or to achieve the "Sex and the City effect" -- foot surgeries to shorten or even remove a toe in order for women to squeeze their feet into pointy shoes.

Few seem immune to the sell, no matter what their income. In fact, according to an ASPS-commissioned study, more than two-thirds of those who underwent cosmetic surgery in 2005 made $60,000 or less. Easy access to credit and the declining cost of procedures has brought even the working class into the market.

The most graphic consequences of these trends are the stretched, alien, expressionless faces worn by certain celebrities and increasing numbers of "everyday" women. There are also the disfigurements and deaths that can result from surgeries gone wrong.

At the end of Beauty Junkies, Kuczynski asserts that "looks are the new feminism." Yet it's feminists who have led the fight against silicone breast implants when research suggested they were dangerous. It's feminists who have pointed out that a branch of medicine formed to fix or replace broken, burned and diseased body parts has since become an industry serving often-misogynistic interests. And it's feminists who have emphatically and persistently shown that cosmetic medicine exists because sexism is powerfully linked with capitalism -- keeping a woman worried about her looks in order to stay attractive, keep a job or retain self-worth. To say that a preoccupation with looks is "feminist" is a cynical misreading; feminists must instead insist that a furrowed, "wise" brow -- minus the fillers -- is the empowered feminist face, both old and new.

This article is excerpted from a longer piece in Ms. Magazine. To get the whole story, pick up Ms. magazine on newsstands now.

Women Lead the Climate Change Fight

This is an excerpt from two longer reports in Ms. magazine. To get the whole story, visit for subscription information.

Just shy of the anniversary of Rachel Carson's 100th birthday, and almost 50 years after she wrote the book that helped launch the environmental movement -- Silent Spring -- U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced that polar bears might become extinct. But he didn't say why.

Film producer and climate-change leader Laurie David knows why the bears are endangered. So does the first woman to chair the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and so does the first woman Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi: It's global warming. These women also know that our fate is linked to the polar bear's. And the polar bear is in serious trouble.

The U.S. government under President George W. Bush has refused to acknowledge that human activities are causing global warming. The administration has bullied government scientists, limiting their ability to speak freely about climate change. That censorship policy came to the nation's attention when James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the country's top experts on climate change, fought back when the administration tried to muzzle him. Yet the administration's gag rule remains in effect.

Will a change in U.S. leadership -- led by powerful women -- begin to reverse the dire direction in which we're headed?

When Barbara Boxer took over as chair of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee in January 2007, she replaced Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who still calls the threat of catastrophic global warming "a hoax." Boxer, though, has made stopping global warming her top legislative priority. Among other efforts, she has cosponsored legislation with Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vt.) to cut emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This would be an important step toward averting climate change's most severe impacts. (The House has a similar bill, sponsored by California Rep. Henry Waxman.)

In the House, Boxer's efforts are mirrored by those of Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). One of the first things she did after becoming Speaker was to create the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which is holding hearings and jump-starting legislation on greenhouse gas emissions. The Energy and Commerce committee will then be asked to draft bills based on its recommendations.

"I am really glad Nancy is working to get a special committee to focus on this," said Boxer. "My plate is very full trying to get something done on the Senate side, where we have had a tremendous amount of hostility both from Senate colleagues and the Bush administration. ... But now we have a little wind at our back."

As the Senate and House work on global-warming legislation, climate-change activism has been growing. But will it ever be a mass movement? If it's up to Laurie David, it will. "This has to become the biggest movement this country has ever seen," says the coproducer of An Inconvenient Truth As part of her own movement-building efforts, she's taken a "Stop Global Warming College Tour" to campuses in 12 cities along with singer-activist Sheryl Crow.

"The critical thing is how long it is going to take," David continues. "There's a window closing on really doing meaningful things to slow down global warming. You don't have to do everything, but you do have to do something. Everyone has to do something."

Does flipping a light switch matter? David thinks so. "Turning off the light is a step to saving a polar bear. If everyone changed a lightbulb, choosing a compact fluorescent lightbulb over an incandescent one" -- thus releasing 150 fewer pounds of CO2 annually into the atmosphere -- "it would be significant."

But David recognizes that such individual efforts only work in the context of a much larger shift: "If everyone does one thing, they are likely to do two things, then three things. Then they are likely to influence friends and family, and that's how you build a movement. That's how change happens. Change the lightbulb."

While women are working to halt future catastrophes that could be caused by global warming, they are also leading the fight against the environmental calamities of today. Too often, those paying the greatest price for toxic contamination in the ground, air and water are people of color living in poor communities.

After Hurricane Katrina, all of us saw the effects of environmental racism in New Orleans. Another site in the struggle against this form of racism is the city of Syracuse, in Onondaga County, New York, where the poor -- the majority of whom are blacks, Latinos and First Nations peoples -- live in a very different world from that of the wealthy and privileged.

The civic leaders of Syracuse, like those in other places, put sewage and water-treatment plants, along with numerous other environmental hazards, within or very close to the city's poor communities. Not surprisingly, the health problems experienced by residents of those communities as a result of the pollutants are tremendous. To take just one measure, the asthma rate of the predominately African American community situated on the edge of Syracuse's industrialized area is 15 times higher than in the rest of Onondaga County. Women and children in particular bear the brunt of the health problems.

Syracuse also has the dubious distinction of being home to one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country, Onondaga Lake, along with a number of equally polluted streams, including Onondaga Creek. For almost a century, companies located on the lake's shore disposed of their waste either on the shore or directly in the lake.

"The population at risk from [a new sewage treatment plant currently being built in Syracuse] is one that government officials at all levels have historically never cared about," says Aggie Lane, a spokesperson for the Partnership for Onondaga Creek, a grassroots group that's part of a nationwide movement for environmental justice. "The extensive chlorination projected for use in this plant will do irreparable damage to the creek, the water and the south side [predominately African American] community."

Almost 50 years ago Rachel Carson taught us about the poisons with which our industrial cultures have sickened life. She questioned the "irresponsibility of an industrialized, technological society toward the natural world." She was viciously attacked by industry for these words, but she stood by them. Her 100th birthday would have been on May 27, 2007 -- a good time to remember (and heed) her powerful warning, "[We are] challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves." We need to build movements for environmental justice and to halt global warming now. To save the polar bears. To bring justice to poor communities. To save us all.

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

The Unkindest Cut

Female genital mutilation (FGM) has inflicted pain, illness and death for 2,000 years. Today, nearly 140 million women and girls globally have endured this so-called cultural tradition. The pain lasts, intensifies, recurs: at the cutting, at sexual contact, at childbirth. And that's if the woman doesn't die first, as 35 percent do, from such immediate- or long-term complications as fistulas. Those who survive suffer emotional trauma as drastic as the physical pain.

Sometimes euphemized as "female circumcision," FGM is defined by the World Health Organization as procedures removing the entirety or parts of the external female genitalia. Attributed to various faiths but transcending religious/social/ethnic traditions, FGM is prevalent in Somalia, where approximately 98 percent of women undergo cutting, often by untrained practitioners. It's also common in some other African countries, and sporadically practiced in the Middle East.

Less known is that FGM was common in the United States and United Kingdom until the 1950s, prescribed as a cure for such "female deviancies" as lesbianism, masturbation, nymphomania and even epilepsy. In 1996, after decades of feminist lobbying, Congress passed legislation making it a crime to perform FGM on a minor.

But some immigrant populations are reviving the practice. It's estimated that in one year, nearly 200,000 women in the U.S. will be cut, plus 22,000 in the U.K. Laws must be strengthened, and better enforced (in the U.S., those performing FGM can receive a maximum of five years' imprisonment and/or a fine). Furthermore, women in these communities sometimes defend the procedure, so there is need for support and education about FGM's health-destroying, even fatal, effects.

For decades, Ghanaian activist Efua Dorkenoo, founder of FORWARD (Foundation for Women's Health Research & Development), a London-based NGO, has campaigned to eradicate FGM. Awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1994, her greatest success has been in the U.K., where a law prohibits FGM and has greatly increased awareness among health professionals. Following Dorkenoo's lead, nurse ComfortMomoh -- chair of London's Black Women's Health and Family Support -- counsels survivors.

She warns that it is delicate, yet critical, to address immigrant communities about the procedure, while using language understood in their cultures. Momoh compiled Female Genital Mutilation, a book of information and personal stories. "[M]y friends ... said that they did not want to play with me because I was not done; or that I was unclean," wrote one anonymous Somali woman, "so I put pressure on my mother to have myself done."

Attitudes are changing about FGM, especially on the African continent. But there's a long way to go -- including in the U.S. This past November, Khalid Adem, an Ethiopian immigrant in Lawrenceville, Ga., was convicted of having scissored off his 2-year-old daughter's clitoris in 2001. Although federal law bans FGM, many states lack laws addressing it directly. Georgia legislators, prodded by the girl's mother and women's groups, passed an anti-mutilation law in 2005. But since that law hadn't existed when his daughter was cut, Adem was convicted of aggravated battery and cruelty to children, and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment. It is believed to be the first such criminal case in the United States.

Debunking Bush Administration Bull About Afghanistan

Dr. Sima Samar is a hero to Afghan women. Today, she heads the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and her longtime advocacy for human and women's rights continues to upset fundamentalists -- while drawing admiration from feminists worldwide. During a recent visit to the U.S., Samar sat down with Ms. executive editor Katherine Spillar to discuss the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.

Eds. Note: The full transcript of this interview is available in the Winter 2007 issue of Ms. Magazine.

Katherine Spillar: The Bush administration maintains that Afghanistan is a success and claims democracy and human rights have replaced terror. But what is the real situation?

Sima Samar: While there have been some positive steps in Afghanistan, there is still a long road ahead. We did adopt a new Afghan Constitution, and it includes an equal-rights provision for women and guarantees women's representation in the Afghan parliament.

The first presidential and parliamentary elections in three decades also were held, with fairly good participation by women, and women were elected to 25 percent of the seats in parliament. However, the elections were flawed. In some districts, only a few women were seen voting. In the parliamentary elections, many human-rights violators and warlords stood for election, and many won seats despite constitutional and regulatory requirements that should have disqualified them.

But the gains that we have made are in jeopardy. Over the last year there has been a significant increase in violence and terrorist attacks. Suicide bombers, who were never present in Afghanistan before, are now killing innocent people throughout the country, even in the streets of Kabul. These tactics of intimidation and outright violence prevent the social, economic and political participation of many Afghans, particularly women....

KS: There was so much hope and optimism in the beginning. What has gone wrong?

SS: People see very little change in their daily lives. They lack food, shelter and work, and this situation has changed little since 2001.

The judiciary also has been filled with corrupt and unqualified judges. People see there is no rule of law, and do not believe there is justice. Human rights problems in Afghanistan remain great: arbitrary arrest, torture, inhuman conditions of detention and the absence of due process.

Not enough Afghan soldiers and police have been trained and they are not paid enough in wages, so they can easily be bribed. Meanwhile, commanders with private armies still rule large sections of the country, even though the militias have been outlawed. The U.S. military entered into agreements with many of these militias, allowing them to remain intact. The commanders protect drug smugglers and extract bribes and illegal "taxes" from people. There are kidnappings and assassinations.

KS: So the U.S. decision to accommodate these regional warlords has contributed to the violence and lack of stability?

SS: Yes, these warlords used their connections to the Americans to commit human-rights violations. There was no monitoring and evaluation of their acts and behavior.

KS: What about progress for women and girls in regaining their rights?

SS: Although things are better today for women and girls than under the Taliban regime, violations of women's rights are still widespread, including forced marriage, child marriage, restrictions on movement, job discrimination and child abduction and trafficking. Domestic violence is very common in Afghanistan.

The women in Afghanistan have little access to law enforcement or the judiciary. Even if women reach the police or judiciary, they are treated as criminals, not as victims. The women who run away from abusive family male members end up in jail or are killed by a family member. The family is then immune from prosecution for this "honor" killing. In order to escape these situations, women try to commit suicide and burn themselves.

Even though women had victories in the parliamentary elections, today there are no women among the advisors to the president and there is now only one woman in the Cabinet (down from three before the parliamentary elections). If women are not part of decision-making, decisions will be made by men who do not understand women's problems, and those men will never address these problems.

KS: What can U.S. feminist groups do?

SS: If not for the intense pressure from women's-rights groups around the world when we were exposing the abuses of the Taliban, when we were developing the Bonn Agreement for a transitional Afghan government, and when we were debating our new Constitution, women would have been entirely omitted. We need solidarity to free women -- solidarity with women everywhere Women must support each other; we are our own class.

The Most Feared Woman on Capitol Hill

A longer version of this article appears in Ms. Magazine.

If you paid close attention to the media lately, you would have heard many of the politicians who've been drowning in scandal pinning the blame for their problems on one woman -- as if the mere mention of her name would somehow float them to safety.

Charged with taking payoffs from Jack Abramoff's clients? Blame Melanie Sloan. Under FBI investigation for steering government business to your daughter? Blame Melanie Sloan. Indicted for accepting bribes of millions of dollars, antique furniture, cars, boats and houses? Blame Melanie Sloan.

"It's ridiculous," says 41-year-old Melanie Sloan from her modest office in Washington, D.C. "I do not control the Justice Department. If you believe the right-wing media, I'm all-powerful."

While it's true that she doesn't control the FBI, Sloan's ability to influence the mood, and even the membership, of Congress is beyond dispute. If it weren't for her and the organization she directs -- Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) -- Tom DeLay (R-Texas) might never have faced the ethics charges as Majority Leader in the House of Representatives that began his rapid decent from the heights of political power. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) might still be enjoying his meals at the Capitol dining room instead of in a prison mess hall. Various other members of Congress might not be pacing the halls at night, worried about indictments yet to come. And of course, the Democrats might still be the minority party in the House and the Senate.

"Corruption was a top issue in the midterm elections, and CREW was critical to the Democrats' success," says longtime Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "The fact that they were bipartisan and had created this dirty-dozen list of corrupt politicians really helped people process that these politicians were acting well outside the norm."

CREW was started by Sloan in 2003 to undertake a job few seemed to be doing in Washington: using the legal system and media to expose, deter and litigate legal and ethical wrongdoing by members of Congress. In the past three years the nonprofit group has pursued legal actions against 26 members of Congress -- including a couple of Democrats -- resulting in four resignations (all Republicans). Eleven of those members who have been pursued by CREW are now under federal investigation and eight whom CREW investigated lost their seats in the midterm elections.

Ironically, it was the success of the ultraconservative Judicial Watch -- famous for its dogged pursuit of President Clinton over his alleged sexual harassment of Paula Jones -- that provided the impetus for CREW's beginning. A litigator Sloan knew, Norman Eisen, was seeking someone to start a group that would provide a balance to such right-wing legal watchdogs.

"We were looking for somebody smart enough and tough enough to single-handedly take on that mission," says Eisen. "And Melanie was the one." Judicial Watch was to be her model, with a slight, though significant, difference: She would focus on wrongdoing in the public sphere, rather than in the private lives of politicians.

Sloan, formerly an assistant U.S. attorney and a counsel for congressional committees, began the job sitting alone in a small office with the promise of one year's salary, a computer, a telephone and little more. As her first act, she aimed her legal slingshot at the most powerful politician in Washington, D.C.: Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. "I knew that getting rid of DeLay would improve the entire culture of the city," says Sloan.

In 2003, DeLay's stranglehold on Congress was so strong that it seemed he had hijacked the entire democratic process. "It was basically a pay-to-play system," says Sloan. "DeLay realized the way to consolidate power was to get more money; that's how you win elections. So he made sure the Republicans had a lot more money by telling those with business in Washington that not only did they have to cough up money to Republicans but they would be penalized if they gave money to Democrats."

Sloan filed complaints with the IRS and the Federal Election Commission asking for audits of DeLay's political action committee, ARMPAC -- resulting in the commission levying one of its largest fines ($115,000) and forcing ARMPAC to close its doors. CREW also brought to light the way DeLay twisted arms on the floor of the House, notably in a case in which DeLay purportedly offered a member of Congress financial support for his son's Congressional campaign in exchange for a vote on the Republican-backed Medicare bill.

Finally, CREW drafted an ethics complaint against DeLay and managed to find a Democratic Congress member who would file it. The outcome: DeLay was admonished by the ethics committee on two counts.

The steady drumbeat of scandal surrounding DeLay played no small part in the mounting public disgust against incumbent Republicans that culminated in midterm election losses. But that's not enough for Sloan. "I'll be done with Tom DeLay when he's in jail," she says. "I don't know if it's going to happen in Texas [where he has been indicted for conspiring to violate campaign finance laws] or not, but I think he's going to be indicted here [D.C.] in the [Jack] Abramoff scandal. He could be facing 10 years."

Today, Sloan's not alone any more: CREW has a staff of 13, six of them attorneys. And now that the Democrats are in control of the House and the Senate, Sloan is looking closely at how well that party's leaders keep their promise of routing out corruption. If the Democrats should sink into that inviting cesspool of political corruption, she promises that CREW will be there, calling for investigations.

"Corrupt politicians don't have a place in Congress," she says. "If they want to get rich, they need to find another job. The pay is public. People know what they're going to make when they get in that job, and if they don't like it they shouldn't take it. It's not a place to go to get rich or to live like you're rich and I think members of Congress have forgotten that."

For more information and updates on these and other congressional scandals, see

The Women Who Came Before Roe

The handwritten letters are wrenching.

-- I took my 15-year-old daughter to a doctor last Wednesday and found out that she was seven and a half weeks pregnant. ... The doctor said she could never go through this mentally, and neither can I.

-- Due to circumstances and my strong belief against forced marriage, I am unable to bear the child and give it a name.

-- I am almost two months pregnant and I don't know what to do. ... It is really disgraceful that in our great country it is illegal to do a five-minute operation under completely healthy conditions.

The letters filled two walls of the REDCAT art exhibition space in downtown Los Angeles last summer, displayed as photo blowups between squares of brightly patterned wallpaper. On a video screen in the gallery, various women and men, seated next to incongruously beautiful flower arrangements, recited the pleading missives -- bringing to life words written some 40 years ago by people desperate to locate doctors who could perform safe abortions.

All of the letters requested "The List" -- names of abortion providers in Puerto Rico, Japan and Mexican border towns -- compiled and distributed by activists Pat Maginnis, Rowena Gurner and Lana Clarke Phelan. At the time, in the mid-1960s, Roe v. Wade had not yet been decided, so U.S. abortions were either illegal or highly restricted, difficult to obtain, prohibitively expensive for many and often dangerous. The California activists -- later dubbed the Army of Three -- were so appalled by the situation that they risked imprisonment in order to educate women about their options, even teaching a method for self-inducing an abortion.

"It was pretty lonely out there. There was no one else," says Maginnis, 78, one of the two surviving Army members.

When artist Andrea Bowers, who created the exhibition (now at Artpace in San Antonio through January 28, then at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, April 27 through August 7, 2007) learned about the Army of Three, she felt compelled to honor their work through hers. "I realized I knew very little about Roe v. Wade," says Bowers, 41, an art professor at the University of California, Irvine, "so I bought every used book I could find on the subject. [I realized] we've taken for granted our freedoms."

She then began a meticulous creation of images that would not only be artistically sophisticated but communicate her passion for the subject matter. She decided to present the images in several ways -- collage, a bound book, video, drawings -- so that viewers could read, listen or both.

Bowers is a welcome throwback to 1970s feminist artists, who weren't above melding formalist technique with social justice concerns. "A lot of earlier feminist artists, and artists of color, have created space so that artists like Andrea can talk about content," says Eungie Joo, director and curator of REDCAT gallery, housed in a corner of L.A.'s iconic Disney Concert Hall. "The reason [art viewers] are afraid of what they deem as political is because they're afraid to be told what to think. When people encounter Andrea's work, they feel free to think what they already think -- but to think about it more."

Bowers grew up in Huron, Ohio, a small farm town west of Cleveland. As a kid, "I was loud and outspoken and had positions that I and people of color should be treated fairly," she says.

The infamous 1970 shooting of students by National Guardsmen at Kent State occurred near her Ohio home, but Bowers says few of her peers talked about what happened there. "I'm from the generation of nihilism -- extensive partying, a sense of hopelessness that no individual person can change anything," she says.

She began to believe otherwise at the first college she attended, Bowling Green State. There, a slide librarian, recognizing her feminist promise, gave her Judy Chicago's 1975 memoir Through The Flower. Then, at CalArts, she absorbed the influence of art school dean Catherine Lord, a lesbian-feminist writer who hired a number of other women as professors. Bowers always craved more than theory, however.

"I always felt that what feminist academics do is really great, but it is completely removed from activism," she says. When she suggested to a CalArts feminist class that the students should undertake actions, only three volunteered to join her. "We need to look outside, too," Bowers felt.

For Pat Maginnis, Bowers' work has been a welcome use for the hundreds of letters she saved. "That someone is able to take these things and make a physical presentation is terribly important," she says. "I'm endlessly grateful to Andrea for having that insight."

And for Bowers, discovering the work of pioneers such as Maginnis is both personally and artistically inspiring. "I'm always looking for moments in history -- individuals doing great things and making big changes," she says. "I'm looking back to provide a model for now -- or maybe to find what's missing." A catalog of the Bowers show is available from

For the full text and a sampling of Bowers' art, visit

Is Your Lipstick Safe?

That lipstick or nail polish you may be wearing -- are they a danger to your health? How about your deodorant, toothpaste, body lotion, soap?

Seemingly innocuous personal-care products contain a host of largely unregulated chemicals and toxic ingredients. Some of those chemicals -- phthalates, formaldehyde, petroleum, parabens, benzene and lead -- have been variously linked to breast cancer, endometriosis, reproductive disorders, birth defects and developmental disabilities in children.

Women and girls should be particularly concerned, as our bodies are uniquely susceptible to certain environmental chemicals. Women have a greater percentage of fat in comparison to men, so fat-soluble chemicals such as parabens and toluene tend to be more readily absorbed and fatty breast tissue can be a long-term storage site for some of the more persistent toxic chemicals. Hormones also play a role: Synthetic chemicals such as alkylphenols (found in some detergents) and bisphenol A (found in hard plastics) can mimic natural estrogens in the body -- and excess estrogen can play a role in the development of breast cancer. Childbearing women may also pass toxins to fetuses in utero or to newborns when breastfeeding.

But U.S. consumers are left in the dark about vital safety information: Cosmetic companies are not required to label many of their products' ingredients, and the Food and Drug Administration does not mandate premarket safety testing of those ingredients.

And that's why the California Safe Cosmetics Act is such a landmark achievement.

Signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last October and taking effect in 2007, it requires manufacturers to disclose product ingredients found on state or federal lists of chemicals that cause cancer or birth defects. The law further authorizes the state to investigate the health impacts of chemicals in cosmetics, and requires manufacturers to supply health-related information about their ingredients. Finally, the act enables the state to regulate products in order to assure the safety of salon workers.

California is the first state in the nation to pass such legislation, thus serving as a model for the other 49. "This is an important disclosure bill, and an important victory for women's health," says Jeanne Rizzo of the Breast Cancer Fund. "California has set the stage for states to assert regulatory authority around toxic chemicals in cosmetics, which the federal government has thus far refused to lead on."

Adds California state Sen. Carole Migden, who championed the legislation, "It is beyond belief that consumers are not being told whether or not they are putting carcinogens on their skin, in their hair or on their face. [The law] represents a triumph of grassroots efforts over money and power. Even in the face of a multinationally funded lobbying machine, common sense and the public good prevailed."

While many known toxic components have been banned in Europe from use in personal care products, similar ingredients remain legal in products marketed to the American public. Currently, the FDA does not review the ingredients in cosmetic and beauty-care products, but instead relies on self-regulation by the cosmetic industry's own Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) panel. According to the watchdog Environmental Working Group, only 11 percent of the 10,500-plus ingredients that the FDA has documented in personal-care products have been assessed for safety by the CIR panel.

In response to the lack of government oversight, an international Campaign for Safe Cosmetics was initiated in 2002 to pressure the personal-care industry to phase out known toxic ingredients and replace them with safer alternatives. Manufacturers have been encouraged to sign the "Compact for Safe Cosmetics," and to date more than 300 have done so, including The Body Shop, Burt's Bees and Aubrey Organics.

Migden authored the California Safe Cosmetics Act (S.B. 484) in 2004, with co-sponsorship by Breast Cancer Action, Breast Cancer Fund and the National Environmental Trust. They joined with other public-health, environmental, consumer, Asian Pacific Islander, teen and faith-based groups in a yearlong organizing and lobbying campaign -- which met aggressive opposition from the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association. The industry group spent more than $600,000 trying to defeat the bill, even going so far as to host a website to capture searchers looking for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. In contradiction to a growing body of science, the website claims that the personal-care products sold in California are the safest in the world.

Julia Liou, of Oakland-based Asian Health Services, advocated particularly for provisions in the bill designed to protect the safety of nail-salon and cosmetology workers. "We realize that Asian nail-salon workers and owners are not fully aware of the long-term health risks facing their sector," says Liou. Currently, of the more than 83,500 manicurists in California, 80 percent are of Vietnamese descent, more than half of whom are of reproductive age.

Nail-salon and cosmetology workers handle solvents, chemical solutions and glues on a daily basis, yet little research has been conducted on the chronic health effects of such exposures. There is also a dearth of culturally and linguistically appropriate educational materials to build awareness about environmental exposures and help workers and salon owners implement safety precautions.

Most of the Vietnamese salon workers earn less than $15,700 a year, speak limited English and lack health coverage. Their voices went largely unheard in the safe-cosmetics debate, and some salon owners actually came out against the bill -- "based on misinformation and fear about how it might impact small immigrant-owned businesses," says Liou. "So it is important for us to work with salon workers and owners in a way that empowers them to be leaders and advocates themselves." In an effort to do so, the California Healthy Nail Salons Collaborative was formed, and now advocates for greater work- place safety, protective policies, research and community education.

The passage of the California Safe Cosmetics Act sets the stage for further advocacy around cosmetic safety, occupational exposures and chemical policy reform. Those who fought to pass it are now working to ensure its adequate funding and enforcement, and hope to see it replicated in other states.

For more information, visit: Campaign for Safe Cosmetics; California Health Nail Salons Collaborative,; Skin Deep, a database of the Environmental Working Group providing a safety assessment of personal-care product ingredients. To access the California Safe Cosmetics Act:

The Wage Gap for Women

Imagine you're a woman interviewing for a job you really want. You get a call the next day with an offer, and immediately accept it. Later, though, you discover that a male counterpart earns significantly more than you. When pressed for an explanation, your boss tells you that the man demanded more when he negotiated his starting pay.

If you sue for wage discrimination under this scenario, your chances of success would, unfortunately, be slim. Current rulings in employment law have permitted employers to hide behind the "she-didn't-ask-for-more" and other so-called market-based excuses as legitimate reasons for paying women less than men for the same job or one of equivalent value.

Here's how the system has been working: Under the crucial federal antidiscrimination law -- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- a woman must prove that an employer was motivated by intent to discriminate when deciding to pay her less than a male counterpart. Therefore, employers who merely take advantage of the fact that a woman is willing to work for less won't be held liable for pay discrimination.

In a slightly different vein, under the federal Equal Pay Act -- which requires only that an employee prove that an employer paid men and women differently even though they performed the same job, not an intent to discriminate -- the law lets employers escape liability if they can show that the pay differentials are caused by a "factor other than sex." To avoid legal liability, employers trot out market-based excuses: The woman asked for less money, did not seek or negotiate strongly for a raise, or came to the job from a position that paid less. These excuses have, for example, shielded universities that paid female coaches considerably less than male coaches, or compensated female faculty members in male-dominated disciplines less than their male colleagues.

The current legal standard fails to account for the insidious results of gender differences in salary negotiation. A study of master's-degree candidates at Carnegie Mellon University by economist Linda Babcock found that only 7 percent of first-job-seeking women negotiated their salary, as opposed to 57 percent of men. There was no small consequence to this failure to negotiate. In their book Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide (Princeton University Press, 2003), Babcock and co-author Sara Laschever found that candidates who negotiated increased their starting salaries by 7.4 percent (about $4,000), and that the starting salaries of males averaged 7.6 percent higher than the females'.

Babcock calculated that failing to negotiate for a first salary can lead to an overall loss of over $560,000 by age 60. That comprises a good chunk of the estimated overall wage gap between men and women -- further ex- acerbated by such other forms of gender discrimination as mommy tracking and sexual harassment -- which Brandeis University Women's Studies Research Center resident scholar Evelyn Murphy projects (using U.S. Census figures) costs women between $700,000 and $2 million over the course of a career.

But aren't women at fault for not negotiating? Babcock concluded that women are essentially trained not to and penalized by employers when they do. Rigid gender-based stereotypes and behavioral norms urge women to behave modestly and wait to be given what they deserve rather than negotiate for it. The economist also has shown that negotiating can sometimes hurt a female job candidate. In research she co-published last year, she found that female candidates who ask for higher salaries before receiving a formal job offer are often not hired at all. Not surprisingly, males who negotiate do not face similar negative consequences. This empirical evidence supports what many women already know from experience: When they ask for what they deserve, employers often view them as overly aggressive, pushy or too "difficult" to hire.

Given the tremendous ramifications of this pervasive discrimination, it's high time for courts to stop accepting excuses based on women's failure to negotiate, and instead put the burden of pay discrimination where it belongs: on employers. It's the employers who should be obligated to carefully evaluate their pay structures to ensure that female ap-plicants are paid what the position is worth -- and what similarly situated male applicants would be paid.

This sort of legal approach is not unprecedented. The U.S. Supreme Court has been willing to crack down on the use of stereotypes when they operate to the detriment of women. In the landmark 1989 case Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, for example, the Courtheld that the employer should bear the responsibility for preventing the application of harmful gender-based stereotypes that disadvantage women.

Ann Hopkins, a certified public accountant who was seeking promotion to partner in her firm, was criticized by male partners for not fitting tradi- tional gender roles and was turned down despite her exemplary record. She was deemed too "macho" by one partner, and in need of "a course at charm school" by another. The Court concluded that the employer should be held accountable for letting these stereotypes pollute the promotion decisions, noting, "An employer who objects to aggressiveness in women but whose positions require this trait places women in an intolerable and impermissible Catch-22: out of a job if they behave aggressively and out of a job if they do not. Title VII lifts women out of this bind."

Women are in a similar bind when it comes to negotiating for equitable pay. Employers should not let outdated gender norms taint their employment decisions. And it's time for advocates to push the courts to step in and tell employers: no more excuses for gender- based pay discrimination.

Workplace Harassment Now a Teen Rite of Passage

The partisan game of "gotcha" politics is in full swing with the Mark Foley scandal occupying center stage. Unfortunately, in this political drama that has overtaken Washington, an issue of critical importance has been overlooked. Republican leaders who were given strong indications that something was gravely amiss in the interactions between Congressman Foley and the Congressional pages, failed miserably in their legal obligations to protect their young employees from sexual harassment. In this respect, Congress joins the ranks of many of the nation's leading retail and food service establishments -- workplaces where teens have been subjected to harassment with impunity in what has increasingly become a vile rite of passage for youth joining the American workforce.

Studies indicate that throughout America, sexual harassment on the job is a fact of life for many teens. A recently completed study by professors Susan Fineran of the University of Southern Maine and James Gruber of the University of Michigan-Dearborn found that 46.8 percent of female working students had been sexually harassed in the last year. In a previous study, Fineran had found that 35 percent of high school students who worked part time had experienced sexual harassment on the job.

Teens are particularly vulnerable to workplace harassment because of their low status and a lack of awareness about their rights. In recent years, the number of sexual harassment complaints filed by teens with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has dramatically increased. Recently, the EEOC has made some effort to respond to this growing problem, by initiating an educational campaign ( and bringing cases against some well known retail and service establishments for permitting sexual harassment of teenagers including McDonald's and Burger King franchises, Kmart, often resulting in large settlements.

However, many of our nation's teenagers unfortunately continue to launch their working lives in environments where submitting to sexual harassment is often the price of a good job. And for many, as in the case of the Congressional pages who endured vile harassment but chose to remain silent about it, the message has been reinforced that "you have to go along to get along" in order to get good references and advance in one's career. The response by the Congressional leadership to this debacle has been almost as indefensible as the harassment itself.

Although all the facts are not yet in, it seems undeniable that Republican leaders turned a blind eye to the sexual harassment they knew was occurring, leaving teenage employees prey to Rep. Foley's sexually predatory conduct. Those inclined to ignore or explain away the Republican leadership's failure to take action, might pause to consider, would they be given a similar reprieve if they failed to protect teens under their supervision from the predatory behavior of an adult supervisor? Not likely.

In 1964, Congress passed Title VII, which banned workplace gender discrimination for employers with 15 or more employees. Twenty years ago, in its landmark case, Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment, which includes unwelcome sexual advances and sexualized banter of the type featured in Foley's e-mails, constitutes unlawful sex discrimination. Congress chose not to hold itself accountability under this law until 1995, when it passed the Congressional Accountability Act. You would not know it by their responses to reports made to them about Foley's blatantly improper conduct vis-a-vis the Congressional pages -- which included a late night drunken attempt to enter their dorm -- but this law imposes the same legal obligations on members of Congress and their staff as it does on other employers.

In two 1998 landmark cases, Burlington Indus. v. Ellerth and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, the Supreme Court held that an employer must exercise "reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior" in order to avoid liability for a sexually hostile work environment. A chat with the accused, accepting his patently implausible explanation and telling him not to do it again, does not meet that standard. Nor does failing to act out of deference to an employee's parents' wishes absolve Republican leaders from legal responsibility here.

Taking real action to prevent sexual harassment of teens at work requires first, an acknowledgement that this is serious problem that gives rise to obligations on the part of the employer which are heightened by the vulnerable status of the teen employee. Second, it requires facing the problem head on, and taking responsibility to ensure protection of the victim and any other potential victims.

Often we hear politicians talk about the importance of setting examples for our kids, and in election season, we hear constantly from politicians on both sides of the aisle about how important it is that we protect our children and families from the dangers that lurk in our world. This is a perfect opportunity for the Congress to set a real example for Americans. Show us that you take teen sexual harassment seriously, hold the responsible parties accountable.

The law is clear: after Republican leaders learned about the inappropriate e-mail to a congressional page, they were obligated, as employers, to act to correct the problem. Their inaction in the face of obvious risk to the teens was a clear breach of their legal obligations, and the pathetic attempts to deflect responsibility and blame Democrats since the scandal broke constitutes a tremendous breach of public trust.

Advocacy Groups Ignore Breast Cancer Hot Spots

Editor's Note:This article is excerpted from the fall 2006 issue of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands now.

Living on the wild, craggy elbow of Cape Cod, Jane Chase feels lucky to have spent 50 years in a house facing Nantucket Sound. "We love it here," she says, looking out over a marsh at a spectacular sunset on Red River Beach.

It wasn't until a few years ago, when a community effort was launched to understand the strangely high rate of breast cancer on Cape Cod, that the mother of six considered her South Harwich, Mass., home to be anything other than a bucolic haven.

The two-time breast cancer survivor might never have linked her disease to the environment had she not joined a local cancer group and later enlisted in a household health study. She then learned that her classic colonial garrison house harbored lurking toxins, and that her idyllic neighborhood had likely been aerially sprayed with now-banned organochlorine pesticides such as DDT.

Cape Cod, with a breast cancer rate 20 percent higher than the rest of Massachusetts, is just one of a several places around the United States with the dubious distinction of being a "hot spot" on our nation's increasingly lit-up breast cancer map. It's joined by Long Island, Marin County and San Francisco -- places where a controversy has brewed for years -- and newly emerging areas such as the Puget Sound in Washington state and Brownsville, Texas.

A large cluster of elevated mortality rates for breast cancer, extending from the Mid-Atlantic through the Northeastern states, has "persisted for many years," says Deborah Winn of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). In the Northeast, rates are about 16 percent higher than the rest of the U.S. and in the smaller swatch from New York City to Philadelphia rates are 7 percent higher than the rest of the Northeast.

The reasons for variable rates of the disease are not well understood, according to Winn. But what is clear is that the discovery of hot spots have sparked a new breast-cancer environmental movement, with strong local advocacy groups as well as new national groups.

Long Island activists began drawing their own breast cancer maps in 1992, pinpointing neighbors' homes as if they were battlefield targets. As more hot spots were identified, each touched off a surge of interest. On Cape Cod, women "called on researchers, like ourselves, to begin studying the problem," says Julia Brody of Silent Spring Institute, in Newton, Mass. Long Island activists went to Congress for research funding to investigate possible environmental factors.

"They felt there was a bias in the scientific literature toward 'known risk factors' for the disease, and that these tend to reside with the personal [factors] -- like [use of] alcohol, tobacco and birth control," says Scott Carlin, a geographer at C.W. Post College. "And there's not an equally well-studied and known list of risk factors in the environmental spheres."

The first flurry of environmental studies proved inconclusive, but activists and scientists have not stopped pursuing the environmental questions. Far from it: Interest in environmental factors is growing, says Kevin Donegan of the Breast Cancer Fund (BCF), one of several national breast cancer advocacy groups that formed in the 1990s. "Our own polls show an overwhelming majority of people believe that pollution of various kinds is driving this disease," he says.

In 2006, some 270,000 U.S. women -- and men, too, since a small percentage are prone -- will learn that they have some form of breast cancer. The American Cancer Society predicts that, of those cases, more than 40,000 will die of the disease. Worldwide, an estimated 1.2 million people will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, but women living in North America maintain the highest rate of the disease.

Breast cancer is what scientists call "multifactorial," in that a variety of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors may play a role. The American Cancer Society attributes 5 to 10 percent of the risk of developing the disease on genetic predisposition. Another 25 to 30 percent of the risk has been linked to reproductive/hormonal factors, such as earlier age at menarche, later age of menopause, waiting longer to have children and having few (if any) children.

But these possible risk factors leave much unexplained. So researchers have also looked to diet, lifestyle (smoking, exercise, alcohol) and exposure to environmental toxins in the air, water and food. In the view of establishment groups such as the American Cancer Society and the NCI, however, the environment is an unlikely reason for the noticeable U.S. hot spots.

For many breast cancer activists, this lack of attention to the physical environment is frustrating. And certainly, Jane Chase, with her family of six kids and young age at motherhood, proves that having children early and often is no guarantee of being protected from breast cancer.

"They can continue to dismiss environmental factors, and harp on demographics, when frankly that's why we're in such a pickle," says Jeanne Rizzo, director of the BCF. "This generation is getting sicker rather than healthier, and we need to understand why."

Federal funding for breast cancer research since 1991 has totaled $6.8 billion, according to BCF's 2006 report, State of the Evidence, but only a small percentage of that has been directed toward studying environmental connections to the disease. Like other cancers, breast cancer has a long latency period -- typically 20 to 40 years -- and before it can be detected, people have moved, died or been exposed to other factors that promote or retard the disease.

Enter the mapmakers. An exciting new tool of epidemiological researchers is geographic information systems (GIS), a computer-aided system that makes it possible to integrate and display (most commonly as a map) geographically referenced information that is otherwise difficult to correlate.

"Geographic data can add another dimension to the mix," says Silent Spring's Brody, "because it can answer questions about the environment that women can't answer for themselves -- like whether their neighborhood was sprayed for Gypsy moths."

Back in Cape Cod, Jane Chase thinks about her nine grandchildren as she follows the results of studies looking into her local environment. "Instead of just focusing on treating and curing those who are unfortunately afflicted now," says Chase, "we need to learn about all of the factors that are triggering and promoting this disease so that we can prevent it from attacking future generations."

We Had Abortions

In its 1972 debut issue, Ms. magazine ran a bold petition in which 53 well-known U.S. women declared that they had undergone abortions �despite state laws rendering the procedure illegal. These women were following the example of a 1971 manifesto signed by 343 prominent French women, who also had declared they had abortions.

Even then, to many it seemed absurd that the government could deny a woman sovereignty over her own body. It is even more absurd in 2006 to learn that an abortion ban has passed into law in South Dakota, although it has been stayed until an initiative to remove the ban is voted on this November. Whatever happens in South Dakota, 17 other states now have trigger laws or pre-Roe v.Wade laws that could automatically ban abortion if the Supreme Court were to reverse Roe. Experts believe that as many as 30 states could outlaw abortion if Roe is overturned. A myriad of restrictions already limit access to abortion in the U.S. for poor women, young women and women in the military.

We know it is time again for women of conscience to stand up and speak truth to power.

At the time of the original Ms. petition, illegal abortions were causing untold suffering in the United States, especially for poor women who had to resort to unsafe self-induced or back-alley abortions. Today, in the developing nations, approximately 70,000 women and girls die each year from botched and unsafe abortions. Another 500,000 needless maternal deaths occur. Most of this suffering and loss could be prevented. U.S. international family-planning policies contribute to the death toll: first, by conditioning U.S. aid on a global gag rule that prevents medical workers from even giving out information on abortion (let alone providing the service); second, by withholding or providing inadequate funds; and finally, by funding "abstinence-only" rather than comprehensive sex education.

We are now starting a new petition, beginning with the names of some of the original 1972 signers. They signed "to save lives and to spare other women the pain of socially imposed guilt." Their purpose was "to repeal archaic and inhuman laws." They recognized that because of the "social stigma still wrongly attached to abortion" many would not be able to sign publicly. But they invited all women to sign-"to help eliminate the stigma."

We recognize that, still, not every woman will be able to sign � 33 years after Roe � even though abortion is a very common, necessary and important procedure for millions of women in the U.S. But if a multitude of women step forward publicly, and more and more continue to join us, we will transform the public debate.

We know that women who have had abortions have spoken out many times during the last 33 years, and millions of women and men have marched in countless rallies and demonstrations. It is time to speak out again -- in even larger numbers -- and to make politicians face their neighbors, influential members of the community and, yes, their own family members who have had abortions. We cannot, must not, lose the right to safe and accessible abortion or access to birth control -- for U.S. women and the women of the world. Just as in 1972, Ms. will send the signed petitions to the White House, members of Congress and state legislators. We will also post the petition online. And we ask signers to make a contribution so Ms. can promote the petition and provide needed funds to fight abortion bans and support targeted abortion providers, such as the sole remaining women's clinic in Mississippi.

Your name and your voice will make a difference.

To add your name to the petition, go to

Women Expose Street Harassment

Next time a stranger comments on your breasts in public, just shoot him -- with a camera, such as the one built into your cell phone.

This is the unorthodox advice of Holla Back NYC, a blog-cum-grass-roots movement that uses digital technology to combat street harassment. They urge women not only to take a photo when men hassle or insult them in public, but to make the photo public on

Women and men from New York City and elsewhere have posted snapshots (sometimes blurry) and stories (often grisly) to the website; the worst of which end up in the "Holla Shame." Although participants have been called vigilantes by some, they insist their aim is not to catch or punish the men who catcall on the street. Rather, they want to provide women with an alternative to the helpless feeling of being sexually objectified by a stranger.

"When I didn't do anything [to respond], it didn't feel good, and when I yelled back it didn't feel good, but now I have a response that genuinely feels good," says Emily May, 25, one of the seven friends who founded the group. "I don't feel victimized anymore." was created last summer by four women and three men in their 20s who were fed up with the way harassers are ignored and tolerated. The website receives an average of 1,500 hits per day and has inspired Holla Back sites for Boston, Washington, D.C., and the European Union. "We believe we're on the cusp of street harassment being the next big feminist issue, like workplace harassment," says May.

To raise public awareness about harassment, the group organizes events with other activists and nonprofits. For example, they plan to join with the Blank Noise Project in India to host an event to counter the stereotype that men only hassle women in skimpy clothing: They'll exhibit actual clothes women were wearing when harassed.

Such grassroots action is vital, because street harassment is a very difficult crime to deal with by law, says Marty Langelan, author of Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers. "Most cities do not even have ordinances that would make it a misdemeanor, and even in cities that do, such as Washington [D.C.] ... police won't make an arrest unless they witness the behavior and consider it threatening. But [police] are [most often] males with guns, and not much is threatening to them."

Women, on the other hand, may feel threatened even by statements that seem to be compliments -- because they may be the precursor to more lewd or injurious conduct. (Indeed, Langelan urges women to be cautious about photographing harassers who seem at all violent.)

"Most of the guys I've spoken with can't believe that the problem is really that big a deal," adds Katie Runyan, 23, who founded Holla Back D.C., a group with whom Langelan plans to work. "They seem to believe that it's a mild annoyance or that it only happens once in a while. This proves to me exactly why this site needs to be created."

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.

Destroying Paradise for Profit

(Editor's Note: This article is excerpted from the spring 2006 issue of Ms. Magazine, available on newsstands now.)

Were abusive garment sweatshops, forced abortions and sex trafficking in Saipan, one of the Northern Mariana Islands, protected by Tom DeLay? How did congressional leaders and the Bush administration succeed in blocking labor and immigration reforms there? And how did Jack Abramoff figure into all of this?

Those are some of the questions we answered after sending an investigative team to Saipan, the main island in the Northern Marianas chain. There, 30,000 "guest workers" -- predominately women -- from China, the Philippines and Thailand sew clothing for top-name American brands, which are then allowed to label them "Made in USA" because the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is a U.S. territory. But workers in these factories are not covered by U.S. minimum-wage and immigration laws.

Coming from rural villages and the big-city slums of poor Asian countries, these garment workers arrive in Saipan with a huge financial debt, having borrowed money (at interest rates as high as 20 percent) to pay recruiters as much as $7,000 for a one-year contract job. In a situation akin to indentured servitude, workers cannot earn back their recruitment fee and pay for housing and food without working tremendous hours of overtime.

At its peak, the factories in the Northern Marianas exported garments worth $2 billion retail annually to the United States. Considering that the success of the industry was tied closely to its low wages and exploitative guest worker program -- and the fact that it was exempt from tariffs or quotas on exports to the U.S. mainland -- it's not surprising that both the Marianas' government and the garment manufacturers have fought long and hard to maintain the deal.

Enter Jack Abramoff, the formerly high-flying Republican lobbyist. First at the Washington, D.C., law offices of Preston, Gates, Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds -- and later at Greenberg Traurig -- Abramoff and his team brought in nearly $11 million in fees from the Northern Marianas government and Saipan garment manufacturers to block congressional efforts to raise the minimum wage and eliminate the islands' exemptions from U.S. immigration laws. His efforts focused on the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over U.S. territories. And he also cultivated powerful allies in the House leadership -- notably Tom DeLay, who, as Majority Whip at the time, could keep a bill off the House floor even if the Resources Committee voted in its favor.

One of Abramoff's favorite tactics for influencing Congress was to arrange Saipan junkets for members of Congress and their staffers. As many as 100 people connected to the U.S. Congress -- members themselves, or their staffers -- traveled to the islands. Among the islands' visitors were DeLay, his wife and daughter, and six of his aides. At a New Year's Eve dinner on Saipan in 1998, he lavishly praised the CNMI governor -- a moment caught on camera by ABC's "20/20:" "You are a shining light for what is happening in the Republican Party, and you represent everything that is good about what we're trying to do in America in leading the world in the free-market system."

But the dark underbelly of DeLay's "shining light" is right across a busy Saipan street and a few yards down a dirt road. That's where garment workers live in tiny, corrugated-tin-roofed homes, with three women sharing a queen-size bed. Their "kitchen" is a few hot plates and water-filled plastic buckets set outside on a concrete counter. Nine people share one toilet.

If they get pregnant while working in Saipan, workers face another nightmare. According to a 1998 investigation by the Department of Interior Office of Insular Affairs, a number of Chinese garment workers reported that if they became pregnant, they were "forced to return to China to have an abortion, or forced to have an illegal abortion" in the Marianas. These days, many pregnant workers still feel they have little choice but to visit one of Saipan's underground abortion clinics -- or else lose their jobs.

Meanwhile, the garment industry on Saipan has begun to decline with the expiration of worldwide quotas on apparel exports to the United States. Garment makers are moving off Saipan to even lower-wage countries such as China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Desperate to earn money and pay back their recruitment fees, some unemployed garment workers have found themselves turning to another lucrative industry on Saipan: sex tourism. There are no reliable statistics, but an estimated 90 percent of the island's prostitutes are former garment workers.

Tom DeLay insists that he's never heard such stories. "Sure, when you get this number of people, there are stories of sexual exploitation," he told the Galveston County Daily News in May 2005. "But in interviewing these employees one-on-one, there was no evidence of any of that going on. No evidence of sweatshops as portrayed by the national media. It's a beautiful island with beautiful people who are happy about what's happening."

When we contacted DeLay during our investigation, his spokesman Michael Connolly said, "He stands by the things he has said in the past, and he stands by the votes he's made that pertain to the islands."

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who has championed efforts to raise the minimum wage in Saipan, hopes that Abramoff's recent indictment offers a chance for real change in the Marianas. He has requested that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the House Resources Committee chair, Richard Pombo, R-Calif., launch a full investigation of Abramoff's dealings in the Marianas.

"It's so ironic that people who talk about themselves as having family values are allowing these guest workers to be exploited in the harshest possible ways," says Miller. "Their money and lobbying allowed the continuation of the worst of human behavior."
@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by