Women's eNews

How a Student Run Database is Changing the Way Universities Respond to Rape

Is there at least one full-time person working on campus sex-assault? May rape survivors report their attack confidentially and-or anonymously? Does the school's policy cover the sex assault of a man? Is emergency contraception available in the school health center?
These are the questions that students across the country are answering through the Campus Accountability Project, an open-access database designed for students, applicants and parents.
The database ranges in alphabetical order, beginning with the University of Alabama and ending with Yale University. It finds plenty of schools failing to present friendly survivor policies.
Of about 250 schools now in the database, 19 don't cover the cost of counseling after a sexual assault or rape, including such well-known universities as University of California-Berkeley and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Only 30 offer victims amnesty from punishment for offenses surrounding the assault, such as violating school policy against underage drinking. The fear of being punished for such offenses is considered a major deterrent to bringing a report.
A victim's sexual history and attire are allowable points of discussion in 108 schools in the database, including such highly ranked institutions as Williams College in Massachusetts; UNC-Chapel Hill; and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
The database is produced by a partnership between Students Active for Ending Rape, or SAFER, based in New York City, and V-Day, the global anti-violence franchise that on Feb. 14 announced its largest campaign to date entitled One Billion Rising, which invites one billion women and their loved ones -- representative of the one billion female survivors of sexual violence worldwide -- to gather and dance in their communities on V-Day's 15th anniversary, February 14, 2013.
The database is housed on SAFER's website, and SAFER staff members vet each submission for accuracy. V-Day provides financial assistance and organizational support.
SAFER's data-gathering project provides a way to screen schools for a survivor-friendly campus culture. By showing stronger and weaker policies, it also provides a tool for student activists.
Critical Resource
Survivor-friendly campus policies are considered a critical resource for victims, since a local justice system can lose jurisdiction when students graduate or for other reasons move away from campus. District attorneys can shy away from cases involving alcohol and drugs and a shortage of strong physical evidence.
Organizers intend that the database will eventually be integrated into college ranking systems to catch the eye of school administrators, parents and prospective students.
By providing an at-a-glance look at better and worse campus policies it's also meant to serve as a tool for activism.
Ninety-five percent of college rapes are not reported, according to a 2000 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A major explanation for that, according to a 2009 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, were institutional obstacles, including administrators and trustees who fear a strong rape-response policy will spur bad publicity.
Dan Wald, a SAFER board member, says that ignorance and a paucity of sexual-health education also accounts for historically poor treatment of rape survivors on campuses.
"Why would they [administrators] have any better education than many of us do?" he asked in a phone interview with Women's eNews.
Wald said he became involved with the organization following his own project to revise his college's policy. After a series of rapes on his campus at Ithaca University, Wald managed to work with campus safety groups to establish a system that allows victims the option of submitting a written document or audio or videotape recording instead of appearing at disciplinary proceedings, sparing a victim from appearing before his or her alleged attacker. Victims may also request the school provide an advocate to give legal and moral support through the proceedings.
Wald said those changes took about a year and a half to institute, requiring the approval of various school offices and boards, underscoring the serious commitments required to achieve such reforms.
Aiming for 400 Schools
Organizers plan to produce a report on the database once it amasses policies for 400 schools.
The project accepts rolling submissions but also works in bursts. In December, for instance, organizers launched their second push for students to review and submit policies during winter breaks, in between the pressures of semester deadlines.
Volunteers are asked to submit the entire text of their schools' policies and answer a probing 54-question survey. Do survivors have the option of reporting confidentially or anonymously? May a student's sexual history or clothing be discussed during disciplinary proceedings?
In 2009, SAFER published a preliminary report, based on 93 collected policies, which identified 11 basic components of a strong, survivor-friendly policy. These included amnesty for victims who may have been violating other school prohibitions during an assault or rape.
Another element: student input into the formation of a campus rape-response policy.
SAFER's database can assist students by showing the array of school policies and the questions that advocates can keep in mind as they push for reforms.
Last spring, Vice President Joe Biden released an open letter to universities explaining how federal law should be implemented in order to comply with Title IX, which prohibits schools that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex. While Title IX has long been used to maintain equality in school sports, advocates are now actively broadening its application to the realm of sexual aggression.
At the same time as Biden was making that announcement, the Department of Education was investigating allegations that prominent universities -- including Yale, Princeton, Duke, Harvard Law School and the University of Virginia--violated Title IX by failing to counteract or combat environments of sexual hostility on campus.
Policy Updates
In the past year, these institutions have updated or are now updating their sexual assault policies. Yale, for instance, expanded its definition of sexual assault to include sexually harassing speech and online communications and implemented a mandatory sexual misconduct training program for student organizations.
While top-down pressure from government institutions can compel colleges to abide by the law, the Campus Accountability Project works in reverse; giving students the resources and knowledge to jumpstart change.
Data from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education suggest that schools--whether due to advocacy pressures or their own reforms or some combination of both--are finding ways to encourage more victims to report sex assault.
In 2010 the number of students reporting on-campus sex assault rose to 2,933, up from a range of 2,605 to 2,738 between 2005 to 2009. This rise occurs as Bureau of Justice data is tracking an overall decline in U.S. rape.
This interpretation of the new numbers -- that more rape reporting means more reporting, not necessarily more assaults--is speculative, however. The higher figure in 2010 could simply indicate a worsening of the already severe problem of campus rape.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2000 estimated that a staggering number of women--between 20 percent and 25 percent -- were subject to rape or an attempted rape during college.
"I think that students still face resistance in even defining rape and consent," Sarah Martino, board chair of SAFER, said in an e-mail interview. "Even as schools respond to the call to create more comprehensive policies, there is a feeling that on the ground it is still treated like a 'he said/she said' discrepancy between 'regretful' young people."

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Financial Crisis Sends Women Voters Flocking to Obama

The economic crisis has been stretching the voting gender gap in favor of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama.

Polls from mid-October show women, already more inclined to vote Democratic, embracing Obama with growing vigor, a trend that political analysts attribute to an economic crisis that is leaving women feeling acutely vulnerable to threats to their jobs, health care and financial stability.

A Gallup poll from Sept. 7, the day the federal government took over mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, found female registered voters favoring Obama by 49 percent compared to 42 percent for his rival, Republican Sen. John McCain.

Following a six-week period when bad economic news dominated the headlines, that lead of seven percentage points widened to 16 points, according to an Oct. 26 Gallup poll. Women favored Obama 54 percent to 38 percent. Men, by contrast, were split almost equally between the two candidates.

"He's going to need that women's vote in order to win," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick.

The Obama campaign is courting donations from women as well as votes. It held a fundraiser Oct. 10 and 11 in Chicago billed as the National Women's Leadership Issues Conference, where panels included Democratic stars like Robert Rubin and Madeleine Albright. About 1,000 women paid $2,500 to attend. A $28,500 donation guaranteed a meeting with Oprah Winfrey.

Women Write Checks for $75 Million

Women have given Obama more than $75 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington research group which tracks money in politics. Men donated almost $122 million.

McCain received $34 million from women and almost $88 million from men, according to the center.

If past patterns continue, more women will turn out than men in a year when voters, in general, are expected to turn out heavily. Women have voted in higher numbers in every presidential election since 1964, and they've voted at higher rates since 1980. In 2004 about 60 percent of women older than 18 voted, compared to 56 percent of men.

Women's greater trust in Obama's approach to the economy was echoed by the Economists' Policy Group for Women's Issues, a network of more than 40 economists from across the country. On Oct. 23 the group released a report card on the two candidates' positions on 10 economic issues critical to women. Obama earned an overall B grade; McCain earned a D.

The group formed in 1992 to evaluate the presidential candidates that year, and this is the first time they've released a report card since that election. Robert Drago, a professor of labor and women's studies at Penn State University, said the group felt the economic crisis had crowded out discussion of women's issues.

Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who helped grade the candidates, underscored that point. "We're tired of hearing about the Joes, as in Six-Pack and Plumber," she said. "We want more attention (paid) to the Joannes; the women in our economy who typically earn less money and shoulder more family responsibilities than men."

Grade Gap on Equal Pay

In the specific category for pay and employment equity McCain earned an F for voting against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which would expand the amount of time a worker has to sue for employment discrimination. The act would have countermanded the Supreme Court's 2007 ruling that Goodyear Tire employee Lilly Ledbetter waited too long to sue her employer, even though for years she didn't know the company paid her male counterparts more.

Obama voted for the act and supported other anti-discrimination legislation, but because he lacks a comprehensive plan to promote pay equity, he earned a B.

The group gave out few As, but Obama did receive two for his positions on domestic violence and reproductive rights. McCain's highest grade was a C-, which he earned in two categories: health care and nontraditional families.

McCain's paucity of initiatives to alleviate poverty merited a D grade. Obama received a B for wanting to expand early childhood education, the earned-income tax credit and opportunities for affordable housing.

McCain and Obama received a D and a B+, respectively, for their support of paid sick leave for workers. No federal law requires paid time off, but a handful of states and municipalities have instituted policies that are creating a patchwork of varying benefits. The nonprofit advocacy group 9to5, National Association of Working Women is trying to pass a paid-leave measure on Election Day in Milwaukee, where it is based. California, Washington state, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are among those that already have similar laws on the books.

Trying to Seal the Deal

The Obama campaign was trying to capitalize on its edge with female voters in the last week of the election.

Becky Carroll, field director of Women for Obama, the campaign's national initiative to reach out to female voters, said the campaign has been targeting female voters through woman-to-woman phone banks, house parties thrown by supporters and the heavy use of female surrogates at campaign events such as New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and "Sex and the City" star Cynthia Nixon.

The campaign also encouraged women to vote early to sidestep last-minute complications that could prevent them from voting, like a sick child on Election Day. Carroll emphasized that early voting allows women to "vote around their own schedule and their own time."

The initial interest McCain generated among women by choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has subsided, Walsh said. "Women are saying, 'What about these economic issues? What about my survival?' And that's what they're going to vote on."

The widening gender gap stands to reason in light of women's distribution within the economy, said Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. (She is not related to Becky Carroll of the Obama campaign.)

Women account for almost two-thirds of minimum-wage workers and are more likely to head households alone.

In August, before the worst economic news arrived, 58 percent of women were already saying they were "very concerned" about the job market, compared to 38 percent of men, according to a survey released by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

"Whether I've spoken with women in New Mexico or Indiana or Wisconsin or Florida or Colorado, they're all asking the same questions," said Women for Obama's Becky Carroll. "They all wake up in the morning with the same concerns. They're worried about their family. They're worried about their jobs. They're worried about retirement security and the cost of health care, and they want specific answers about how the candidates will address these issues."

Copyright 2008 Women's eNews. All Rights Reserved.

How This Election Could Change the Meaning of Masculinity in America

In the waning days of the presidential campaign, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are the leads in a gripping national drama about masculinity and Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin are nominees for best supporting actors.

Sen. McCain has replaced George Bush as the standard bearer for conventional manhood -- stubborn, controlling, shoot-from-the-hip, inflexible. From his sneering angry attacks on Sen. Obama's character to his Marlboro Man response to the perilous financial calamity, John Wayne (and Richard Nixon) would be proud. While his handlers spin his behavior as a sign of decisive, manly leadership, his campaign has devolved to the point former Secretary of State Colin Powell crossed party lines to endorse Sen. Obama. Neither on Main Street, nor on Wall Street, polls indicate, are people buying the Republican ticket's bullying tactics (which McCain briefly curtailed, only to resume with zeals). No cross dresser, Gov. Palin, meanwhile, is behaving in a way that would make that bastion of masculine behavior, the late Charlton Heston, proud indeed. Sen. Obama, who has been described in scores of newspaper editorial endorsements as sensitive, thoughtful, composed, and collaborative, reflects a gentler brand of masculinity. Polls suggest his "let's stay calm" approach to the financial crisis -- and in general -- is playing much better with voters than the McCain-Palin fear-mongering. While "It's the masculinity, stupid" is unlikely to become a last minute campaign theme, manhood is a subtext in the campaign. Consider how a less strident brand of American masculinity as practiced by an Obama-Biden administration would contribute to polishing our tarnished reputation internationally.

Obama has resisted supporters' calls to find his "killer instinct" and "go for the jugular." They miss the point. Obama really does want to do things differently. He understands that old school manhood translates into old style politics and visa versa. Whatever legitimate criticisms can be made about some of Obama's positions, his conduct signals an effort to expand the definition of masculinity away from suspicion and isolation and toward trust and collaboration. For growing numbers of voters, being willing to talk with our enemies (now central to the Bush administration's diplomatic strategy) is seen not as a naïve flaw but as a quiet strength.

As gender's role as a force in the campaign has unfolded, a new political reality has emerged: "kinder, gentler" expressions of masculinity are being viewed positively. Mean-spirited representations, as evidenced by Gov. Palin's snarly attacks, rather than attracting Hillary Clinton's supporters, aren't getting much traction. Among the electorate those most excited about her candidacy -- portraying Dick Cheney in a dress -- are Tina Fey and her writers at "Saturday Night Live."

By contrast, remember Sen. Biden's emotional moment at his debate against Gov. Palin? There was a time (think Sen. Edmund Muskie crying in New Hampshire 40 years ago) when a display of such feeling by a man would have been seen as a game-changing moment of weakness. Biden's moment only made him seem more human and, when commented on at all, elicited a positive response. Clearly, ideas about manhood are changing. It's about time. (In case you've forgotten, the Delaware senator choked up for a moment while recalling his life as a single father 35 years ago in the aftermath of his wife and baby daughter dying in an automobile accident that also seriously injured his two young sons). Notably, Gov. Palin didn't acknowledge Biden's tender moment. How old school male. Imagine what the response would have been if the roles had been reversed?

All of the vital issues facing the nation -- from civil liberties to global warming, from finding a way out of the financial morass to ending two wars -- have been directly impacted these past eight years by the old style masculinity practiced by the president and much of the senior members of his administration. The now laughable image of George ("Mission Accomplished") W. triumphantly striding in his flight suit across the aircraft carrier deck, may be one John McCain longs to reprise, but it is the polar opposite of the brand of manhood Obama and Joe Biden are symbolizing. And lest some presume that a "new masculinity" is only something Obama is embodying, consider this: That at 65, Biden, a white, senior, respected Senate leader, is willing to play second fiddle to his younger, African American colleague, communicates volumes about what's possible in redefining masculinity.

Women have long asked the question: "Is it possible for more men to grow and change?" For them, and for all voters, this campaign season offers a simple, clear answer: "Yes, we can."

Copyright 2008 Women's eNews. All Rights Reserved.

Wall Street Takes Welfare It Begrudges to Ordinary Americans

Today we sit and watch as the high-rolling gamblers and critics of "big government" take welfare. These are many of the same people who thought it was just fine to deprive millions of women of critical resources and let them fend for themselves.

Even before the catastrophic news out of Wall Street in recent days, women have been worried about their economic security.

Last March a Gallup poll found that in the past two years more women than men said that they worry about the economy (64 percent versus 57 percent). The same holds for health care, crime, the environment, drug use, unemployment, hunger and homelessness.

More men are employed by Wall Street and more men have money invested there. That means the male anxiety meter is probably much higher now that they risk losing their jobs, pensions, portfolios and homes. But women's worries have probably shot up even more.

Women are likely to lead in the economic-anxiety gap because distressing economic events fall harder on people with less. "I don't play the stock market, but it does affect us. It affects me personally. It affects the little guy," a female dispatch supervisor of a limo company that serves investment bank employees recently told the New York Times.

The same holds for all the secretaries and housekeepers who keep investment houses clean and running.

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Rutgers Center Helps Women Enter Politics

Hillary Clinton may be out of the running for president, but plenty of women remain in this year's political field.

That's the message from Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, which follows and trains women running for office. Rutgers is located in New Brunswick, N.J., but the center tracks races nationwide.

This year, 149 women are candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives and eight women are running for the Senate. In 2006, 136 women ran for the House and 12 ran for the Senate. Five women also are running for governor in five states.

"There's so much attention at that very top of the ticket, but it is an important moment to also remember that there are races that are 'down-ticket,'" said Walsh, who joined the research group in 1981. "We're still looking to see what happens nationally with those races."

Since the center began in 1971 with a mission to "promote greater understanding and knowledge about women's changing relationship to politics and government," it has been churning out information on women in government, from state legislatures to governors' mansions to Congress. Pollsters and reporters often call the center for data about high-profile races and women's voting patterns.

In the past four years the center's home state of New Jersey has been making the kind of progress the center likes to see. In 2004 the state ranked 43rd in the proportion of women in its legislature. Now, the state's 34 female legislators are 28 percent of all lawmakers, propelling it to a shared 15th place with Connecticut.

Getting Women Ready to Run

Walsh thinks the group's training program for female candidates -- "Ready to Run," launched in 1998 -- can take some credit. She estimates one-quarter of the women in New Jersey's legislature went through the one-day training blitzes, which cover political party structures, fundraising and media relations.

Walsh and project manager Jean Sinzdak say women don't consider running for office as easily as men. Often, they say, they need to be encouraged.

"The message of the whole day is, 'We're asking you to run,'" Sinzdak said.

Ready to Run participants attend the same opening sessions but then break into two afternoon tracks: one for women who have made up their minds to run and are there for tactical advice and one for women looking for more information about entering the ring.

On the eve of the workshops the center offers three Friday night programs with special attractions for Latinas, African Americans and Asian Americans.

In March, a session for New Jersey women provided a crash course in the state's political parties, including guidance on joining a party and gaining membership support.

Ready to Run alumna Meryl Frank, a mother of four, is now in her ninth year as mayor of New Jersey's Borough of Highland Park. Before her first bid she took a training course in 1998.

Nurturing Candidates

Even more helpful than the nuts-and-bolts training of running a campaign, Frank said, is having other women there saying, "Yes, you should do this.'"

To assist her campaign, Frank tapped contacts in school parent groups and pulled together strategy sessions at 10 p.m. when kids were in bed. She also said she kept a "tantrum voice" of calm when her opponent became combative in debates.

Both Walsh and Sinzdak say the most effective politicians are those frustrated with something in their own town, like a broken stoplight or an arbitrary school policy.

Women, they say, often volunteer in soup kitchens or domestic violence shelters but don't realize they can take charge on a larger scale. "We try to make those connections for them," Walsh said.

The center, housed in a white mansion flanked by an expansive lawn dotted with students, sits on the campus as part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers.

Women's History on the Wall

The walls of the mansion's rooms are covered with portraits of women making history.

Walsh's office is decorated with a "Madame President" hat, a photo of Walsh with Hillary Clinton and the 2003 children's book "A is for Abigail: an Almanac of Amazing American Women" by Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney.

The center devotes itself to helping women start political bids. Once they do, other groups, such as the nonpartisan Women's Campaign Forum and EMILY's List, a pro-choice political action committee that helps Democrats, often take over by providing financial support and publicity. Another major political machine for women is the White House Project, a New York-based group that galvanizes young women and trains adults to enter politics.

This November, Darcy Burner, a Democrat in Washington state, is making her second run for U.S. Congress, where she is in a high-profile race against incumbent Republican Rep. Dave Reichert, who narrowly defeated her in 2006.

Burner, who has not gone through a Ready to Run workshop, is endorsed by EMILY's List and the Women's Campaign Forum, both based in Washington, D.C. The forum sponsored a conference call with reporters and followed up with an e-mail requesting donations to help Burner buy yard signs, mail campaign literature and hire staff.

In a conference call with reporters earlier this summer about her campaign, she was asked if she had any advice for other women mulling a political move.

"My first piece of advice is just jump in and do it," Burner said.

Copyright 2008 Women's eNews. All Rights Reserved.

Growing Industry Helps Moms Relaunch Careers

After caring for her twin sons full-time for five years, last fall Meredith Soree was ready to re-enter the work force.

To find a part-time job with the flexible schedule she required to take care of her family, Soree, 37, turned to Mom Corps, an Atlanta-based flexible staffing firm. The firm helped her find her current position as a senior human resources manager for Newell Rubbermaid, where she arrives at varying times in the morning depending upon her sons' school and camp schedules and leaves at 2 p.m. each day to care for them.

"I wouldn't have found this posted somewhere," she said, attributing her new employment to Mom Corps, which she says helped her get in front of an employer who understood the importance of flexible work arrangements.

These days, women in Soree's situation have extra resources at their disposal, thanks to a cottage industry that has sprung up over the past few years of career counselors, business school courses and flexible staffing firms catering to women re-entering the work force.

Nationally, 37 percent of highly qualified women -- and 43 percent of highly qualified mothers -- take time off of paid work at some point in their lives, according to "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success," a 2005 Harvard Business Review report by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the New York-based Center for Work-Life Policy, and Carolyn Buck Luce, a senior partner at Ernst and Young. The report found that 93 percent of such women want to return to their careers, but of those, only 74 percent manage to do so.

Connecting Women to Work

But they are finding more roadside assistance while looking for the on-ramp.

"It's really remarkable, the number of organizations that are trying to help women re-enter the work force," said Constance Helfat, faculty director of Back in Business, an 11-day program run by Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business to prepare professionals to rejoin the labor market.

Helfat said the burgeoning industry of niche career coaches and flexible staffing firms remains small, characterized by small companies, sole practitioners and nonprofit organizations often led by women who recognize the value of the business opportunity.

One Denver-based firm, 10 til 2 -- named for the hours when many moms are available to work -- was founded in 2003 to match companies with part-time staffers and has already expanded into 20 franchises in 11 states.

Experts say the lagging economy is driving a demand for such workers.

"Companies are very reticent to add to head count and there are hiring freezes, so many positions are unfilled, but the work loads are still there," said Nadine Mockler, co-founder of Flexible Resources, a Stamford, Conn., staffing firm specializing in nontraditional work arrangements whose majority of clients are mothers.

More Moms Than Flexible Jobs

Still, owners of flexible staffing firms say the interest from moms in part-time work, consultant contracts and other forms of nontraditional employment continues to outpace the demand from employers.

"My message to the women out there is to be patient," said Allison O'Kelly, CEO of Mom Corps. Since the company launched in 2005, 25,000 women have registered to work on its Web site; several hundred have been placed in employment.

One factor driving the demand is the greater number of highly educated women. According to a 2005 U.S. Department of Education report, the percentage of master's degrees in business management earned by women rose from almost 4 percent in 1969-1970 to 41 percent in 2000-2001. In the same time period, the percentage of law degrees earned by women rose from around 5 percent to 47 percent.

For highly qualified women, the decision to take time off from paid work is costly; the Harvard report found that "off-ramping" for three to four years costs such women 37 percent of their earning power. In March, the difficult decision grabbed headlines with the publication of Meg Wolitzer's novel, The Ten-Year Nap, which portrays successful women who, 10 years after deciding to stay home with their children, question their choices.

Business schools like Helfat's are also stepping in to fill the need.

Last year, for example, Swiss financial giant UBS began funding a free "Career Comeback" program to help professional women sharpen their business skills and networks. The two- to three-day course is now offered at the Australian Graduate School of Management, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, London School of Economics, Singapore Management University and Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2006, Harvard Business School launched "A New Path," a $5,000 weeklong program to prepare women to re-enter the work force.

Dipping Into Moms' Labor Pool

Large companies -- especially in the financial sector -- are increasingly recognizing the value of the labor pool of highly qualified women who take time off; Deloitte and Touche, Goldman Sachs, Ernst and Young, Lehman Brothers and PricewaterhouseCoopers have all developed programs to recruit them back.

But the Harvard report found that just 5 percent of highly qualified women want to return to their previous employers, a finding some researchers say indicates that they left feeling "underutilized and underappreciated."

Nancy Collamer, a career coach in Old Greenwich, Conn., who specializes in helping moms re-enter the work force, said most of her clients end up freelancing, consulting or crafting agreements with small businesses because the full-time corporate jobs they are offered are not flexible enough.

"These women look at the jobs out there and say they don't want to work 60 hours a week," she said.

Founders of flexible staffing firms say the Internet has radically changed the nature of work, making it possible to craft more flexible arrangements such as work from home, but it's a matter of persuading companies to allow it.

O'Kelly, of Mom Corps, said companies are starting to change and she expects flexible work arrangements to become more common, thanks to the path moms are trailblazing.

"Technology enables us to have more flexibility, and now that the tools are there, people are demanding it," she said. "Right now it's the moms out there who are really saying they need it."

Copyright 2008 Women's eNews. All Rights Reserved.

Ideology Should Not Play a Role in Reproductive Rights

ATLANTA -- Pro-choice activists braced for weeklong demonstrations in mid-July that were supposed to celebrate street actions staged here by the anti-choice group Operation Rescue 20 years ago.

Amanda Atwell, an intern with SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW! (formerly Georgians for Choice), kept in touch with the police about where protests were being organized by the Dallas-based Operation Save America, an offshoot group of Operation Rescue. A small group of other activists made pro-choice posters in a church basement in case counter demonstrations were called.

In the end, however, there wasn't much of a stir. About 120 protesters showed up, many wearing red T-shirts with slogans like "Abortion Is Murder," "Homosexuality Is a Sin," "Islam Is a Lie," "Feminism Is Rebellion." But their downtown rally didn't even disturb the meditative mood of the chess-playing regulars nearby.

Rev. Flip Benham of Texas, a key organizer of the demonstrations, held a press conference but no media showed up.

But the fizzle doesn't mean Atwell has no reason to be fired up about the status of reproductive justice in Atlanta, the city at the commercial and progressive heart of the South.

Atwell, a 22-year-old senior at Georgia State University, got sex education in a junior-high abstinence-only-until-marriage program in nearby Smyrna. "They were definitely trying to use scare tactics," she said. "They said that condoms couldn't be trusted because they had microscopic holes that were too big to prevent against HIV. My dad assured me it wasn't true."

Abstinence Class in 27 States

Georgia is among 27 states that continue to use abstinence-only programs, for which the federal government allocated $176 million in fiscal 2008, despite a congressionally mandated scientific review that found them ineffective in delaying sex. Georgia does permit its more than 180 school boards to choose "abstinence-plus" education, which may describe contraception.

Information is not the sole issue. Money is also a prime concern for Atwell, who is among the 22 percent of Georgia women of reproductive age -- and 18 percent nationally -- lacking health insurance.

At 17, she got a prescription for birth control pills, but at $42 per pack could only afford them for one month. When she began living with a boyfriend in college, she heard that the local Planned Parenthood had discounted pills and went there.

But that solution isn't available to every woman in the state.

Publicly funded family planning clinics in Georgia provide contraceptive care to 200,000 women, including 56,000 teens, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization in New York. But that helps less than half of the 490,000 women who need the services, Guttmacher estimates.

In its most recent analysis, the Guttmacher Institute found that 92 percent of Georgia counties had no abortion provider in 2005, compared to 87 percent of counties in the United States. Nearby Mississippi has only one abortion clinic.

In 1999 Georgia adopted one of the earliest and best laws on equitable insurance coverage for contraceptive drugs and devices. Twenty-six other states now have similar contraceptive equity laws.

D-Grades for Reproductive Rights

But as of January 2008, the Washington-based abortion rights lobby NARAL Pro-Choice America marked Georgia with "D" on its state report card. The nation as a whole earned a D-minus.

"What's really changed in the past 10 years is the political landscape," said Nancy Boothe, executive director of the Atlanta Feminist Women's Health Center.

Since 2000 the state's political leadership has shifted to the right. The governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house are all Republicans endorsed by Georgia Right to Life. Majorities in both houses of the state legislature are anti-choice, as are both Republican U.S. senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson.

A law passed four years ago requires women to undergo 24-hour waiting periods before an abortion, "which affects their comfort level and ability to access care," said Boothe, whose clinic provides 3,400 abortions each year, along with an array of other services to 6,000 women, including special gynecological care for refugees, transgender people and rape survivors.

Other Georgia restrictions require clinicians to read women a script designed to discourage abortion, notify parents about a minor's abortion and offer fetal image viewing if their facility uses ultrasound. A refusal clause favored by anti-choice groups permits medical personnel to refuse to provide reproductive services.

"We're a blue city in a red state," said Loretta J. Ross, national coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective that operates from a restored mansion in Atlanta's West End. "But reproductive health is not decided by the city. Outside the city limits, it's redneck hell."

Atlanta Hospital Closed

The most recent devastation to city services occurred in April, when the state legislature insisted that abortion services be eliminated at the city's public hospital, Grady Memorial, before it agreed to bail out the financially troubled institution. "You're looking at services for poor, black and increasingly Latino populations. You can't ignore racial politics in the South," Ross said.

Nationally, state legislatures have been flooded with thousands of proposals intended to limit abortion access. From 2000 to 2007, 293 abortion restrictions have been enacted across the country, according to NARAL.

Pro-choice Georgians did manage to block a legislative attempt in 2007 to get a "personhood" ballot measure, asking voters to declare that life begins at conception, considered a tactic for instituting complete abortion bans.

Georgia records about 34,000 abortions each year, or 16 abortions per 1,000 women, compared to 19 per 1,000 women nationwide.

Kay Scott, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Georgia, which operates five health centers in the state, one of which offers abortion, is most concerned about the lack of basic resources.

In June, a report by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked Georgia 40th among the states on 10 key children's indicators. Georgia ranked seventh worst in low-birth-weight pregnancies, eighth worst in teen pregnancies, ninth worst in infant mortality and 10th worst in high school dropouts.

"Our profile is really poor in how we do health care and what we do in education," said Scott. "For a state that prides itself on being the real powerhouse of the South, a more progressive state of the South, our policies and resources are not utilized in a way that reflects that. The problem in these conservative states is some of the focus is on being the sex police. We've not come together to say that every child should be planned for and wanted."

Ideology is making broadly popular goals such as reducing teen pregnancy harder to achieve, said Michele Ozumba, president of the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, founded by Jane Fonda.

In both Georgia and across the nation, teen pregnancies rose by 3 percent in 2006, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. "Reproductive health is in the back of the bus as a priority," said Ozumba. "We need to remove the politics."

Copyright 2008 Women's eNews. All Rights Reserved.

Black Women More Likely to Die in Childbirth than Whites or Latinas

A probing 90-question review promises to unravel the stubborn knot of questions about why as many as 139 women died from pregnancy-related complications in New York state between 2003 and 2005 and why New York City continues to be a leader in maternal mortality.

For more than two years, a voluntary maternal mortality review conducted in the state has been struggling with its own life-and-death problem: the disappearance of New York City hospital participation.

The New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation -- a coalition of city-owned care and treatment facilities that represent a large portion of the city's maternal deaths along with the largest population of African- American patients -- has backed out of the review process.

As a result Donna Montalto, who heads the New York state review, says a report due out in 2009 won't have enough hospitals participating to a make a meaningful analysis of maternal deaths in the state.

The Health and Hospitals Corporation, a public hospital system that includes 11 acute-care hospitals and several home care, diagnostic and treatment facilities, withdrew from the review in 2006. Two years before, 13 maternal deaths occurred in its hospitals, representing nearly half of all the maternal deaths in the city that year, state health department data indicate. Three years later in 2007, the number of deaths fell to six.

"We chose not to participate in the Safe Motherhood Initiative simply because we already participate in a number of established monitoring and review processes, measures and collaboratives," Pamela McDonnell, a spokesperson for the Health and Hospitals Corporation, replied via e-mail.

'Damaging' Departure of Data

The fact that the city's hospitals with the largest number of black patients will be missing is especially damaging to the study, says Montalto, director of New York's American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which launched the Safe Motherhood Initiative in 2001 in conjunction with the New York State Department of Health. In addition to conducting the review, the team of medical specialists that run the initiative also train physicians volunteering to study curriculums on averting maternal mortality.

Montalto is now working with the Healthcare Association of New York State, an association of the state's hospitals, to educate and encourage all hospitals to participate. In 2004, black women were nearly four times as likely to die in childbirth as white women nationwide, and had a maternal death rate of 34.7 per 100,000 live births compared to 9.3 deaths per 100,000 live births for white women.

These types of reviews are path-breaking analyses of maternal death causes and recommendations are active in at least nine states, including New York state for now.

Designed to discover and interpret major risk factors, Montalto's State Maternal Mortality Review surveys -- among many data -- the deceased woman's occupation, primary language, education, insurance coverage, prenatal care, method of delivery and history of sexually transmitted diseases. It asks if the pregnancy was intended or unintended. It might also help explain why African-American women represent a disproportionate amount of maternal deaths.

While all hospitals are required to report maternal deaths to state agencies, this voluntary review effort strives to present a detailed account of the life of the woman and her care in the ward and make recommendations on enhancing quality of care in obstetrics and gynecology.

New York Leads Cities in Maternal Deaths

New York City leads all other U.S. cities in the number of maternal mortalities, and between 1989 and 1998, the state had the highest rate of maternal mortalities per 100,000 live births -- 28.7 -- in the nation, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 1999.

The Health and Hospitals Corporation represents the inner city population, Montalto says. "They would have a wealth of data considering their hospital demographic, which includes the Harlem Hospital population."

Montalto says the New York-Presbyterian Healthcare System, a major network of private hospitals operating top city facilities, has also backed out.

A spokesperson from New York-Presbyterian said yesterday she could neither confirm nor deny that her organization withdrew from the study without further research.

Unlike studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, which de-contextualize a mother's death -- erring on the side of numbers instead of in-depth analysis and interpretation of what went wrong -- the review report discusses pregnancy outcomes by race and specific risk determinants, such as in-hospital maltreatment and the woman's pre-existing health issues, which are then matched along a roster of social and health conditions associated with maternal deaths.

The first New York Safe Motherhood report came out in 2005 and interpreted 33 deaths between August 2003 and June 2005. A team of specialists conducted on-site reviews of 21 of the deaths, with black women representing the majority, or nearly 60 percent. The team of specialists found that 43 percent of the pregnancies were already at high risk -- for example, due to obesity and heart disease -- and that mothers could benefit from knowing their risk sooner. A big issue concerning Montalto: less than half of the cases -- about 37 percent -- received adequate prenatal care.

Probing Black Women's Deaths

But one chart shows that black women with adequate prenatal care died at a rate comparable to that of white women with inadequate prenatal care -- which hints at a medical mystery a small field of researchers are trying to explain. While some analysts emphasize a lack of health care and poverty to explain high maternal mortality rates among black women, newer studies have indicated that regardless of a black woman's income and education levels, black women are more likely to die having a baby than white and Latina women.

Now, a network of progressive experts is trying to pinpoint how stress and racism places black mothers and their children at greater harm in the ward. Still, Montalto says most black mothers in the study did not have continuous prenatal care and this is an urgent part of the picture.

Ultimately, the findings she helped co-author were considered tentative, so the second review, slated for 2009, raised hopes of better insights that investigators could use to guide health care facilities and doctors.

Since the initial report, the proportion of hospitals where maternal deaths occurred at all and that reported to the Safe Motherhood Initiative went from half to a third, says Montalto.

Nationwide, an estimated 1,000 U.S. women die of pregnancy-related complications every year, according to a 2006 maternal mortality review summary by government agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

In the fall, the consortium will release its maternal and fetal statistics online as a part of a transparency initiative, says McDonnell, the Health and Hospital Corporation spokesperson, but the information will not probe causes of death or the identities of the mothers. Officials at the Health and Hospitals Corporation have set a goal of zero maternal deaths, using intervention and management procedures to respond to crisis.

"We also conduct mock codes and drills to ensure consistency with response to obstetric and medical emergencies," says McDonnell.

Montalto says hospital legal teams fear being marked for having a higher risk population and more maternal mortalities so they avoid the review, which they fear may not adequately guard confidentiality.

While New York City's big hospitals must have every maternal death reviewed by state authorities, Montalto says the reviews tend to be inappropriately sympathetic to errors, similar to "having your mom come in and review your homework."

Members of this separate, state review group -- the Perinatal Center Team -- could not be reached for comment.

Copyright 2008 Women's eNews. All Rights Reserved.

Female Politicians in Comeback Runs Are Breaking Records

BETHESDA, Md. -- Donna Edwards' June election to the U.S. House of Representatives was neither fast nor easy.

In 2006, Edwards tried to unseat Democratic Rep. Albert Wynn of Maryland, but she lost by fewer than 3,000 votes. "When I lost, I wanted to crawl under my bed," Edwards said earlier this month at the annual conference of the Washington-based National Organization for Women held in Bethesda, Md. "But I woke up."

Wynn, an African American who voted in 2002 to authorize the president to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, was too moderate for the heavily Democratic district in suburbs east of Washington, D.C., Edwards asserted.

Ousting him, she said, deserved a second try.

So Edwards, a lawyer and anti-domestic violence activist, staged a repeat performance of her 2006 campaign. Voters responded enthusiastically, giving her a 22-point victory over Wynn the second time around.

Wynn resigned in June, triggering a special election for the seat. Edwards won with 80 percent of the vote and now serves in Congress.

Edwards' persistence is unusual for female candidates, who tend to shut down the campaign office and return to pre-race routines after losing political contests, according to Gilda Morales, a researcher at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick.

"Women kind of disappear after they lose," Morales said.

Long Road to Victory

After losing once, running a second race in the same district or state for the same office may seem futile. But often, a political loss is the first leg on a longer road to victory, an axiom well understood by male candidates ranging from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan. Indeed, repeat candidates often benefit from higher name recognition, established fundraising networks and experience gained from rookie mistakes.

"No question there's an advantage because you know what you did right and what you did wrong the last time," said Jonathan Parker, political director of EMILY's List, a leading political action committee in Washington that backs pro-choice Democratic women.

It's a lesson Edwards said needs to be learned by women. "For so many women who run for political office and lose, you may never see that person again. That needs to change."

Edwards' message appears to be catching on.

Sixteen women who lost congressional races in 2006 are running again in 2008, a record number of female comeback bids for congressional office that could mark a new era in the evolution of the female political candidate, Morales said.

Historically, women have sought political office after the death, resignation or retirement of husbands or male relatives, as was the case with presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton. That pattern began to change in recent decades, and today, many of the 88 women currently serving in Congress established political careers without following in the footsteps of male relatives.

Now women are running on their own initiative, sometimes for a second or third time.

New Outlook, Repeat Candidates

Several of the women who ran in 2006 have a better shot this time around, Parker said. He pointed to two women, both endorsed by EMILY's List, who are running for the same seat they lost before but under more favorable circumstances this time.

In 2006, Linda Stender of New Jersey and Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio ran against GOP incumbents, both of whom are retiring this year. Because Stender and Kilroy have already run, they enjoy the edge in name recognition, fundraising and experience.

As of mid-July, Stender had $1.2 million in the bank, far more than the $81,000 reported by her GOP rival, state Sen. Leonard Lance. Kilroy also had $1.2 million on hand; her opponent, state Sen. Steve Stivers, had $880,000, according to CQ Politics, an online political journal.

Several other women are mounting rematches against the same incumbents they fought in 2006, but under more favorable conditions this time around, Parker said.

In Washington state, Democrat Darcy Burner is running again against Republican Dave Reichert, to whom she lost in 2006. Burner has a better shot this year because she can ride on the coattails of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who is expected to carry Washington state, Parker said.

And in New Hampshire, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen is running a second time for the United States Senate against GOP Sen. John Sununu, whom she lost to six years ago. This time, she hopes to capitalize on a Democratic tide that swept the state in 2006, when Democrats took control of both houses of the state Legislature for the first time since 1874.

All four races are considered too close to call by Charlie Cook, author of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that tracks congressional races.

"There are real reasons these women candidates are running again," Parker said. "They're not just running to run."

Playing the Odds to Win

Other female Democrats also hope to take advantage of a more favorable national political climate.

Daily tracking polls of registered voters across the country conducted during the month of July by Gallup give Obama a 1- to 9-point lead over GOP nominee John McCain.

And 51 percent of registered voters surveyed in a national poll conducted July 25-27 by Research 2000 said they would favor a Democratic candidate for Congress, while only 37 percent said they would back a generic Republican candidate.

Female Democrats like Victoria Wulsin of Ohio and Sharon Renier of Michigan hope to capitalize on that trend. Wulsin is taking on GOP Rep. Jean Schmidt and Renier wants to oust Republican Tim Walberg.

Both women came close to victory in 2006, although none more so than Christine Jennings, a Florida Democrat who came within 373 votes of beating Republican Vern Buchanan. In that race, more than 18,000 ballots were not counted due to voter machine malfunction, giving Jennings hope that she will win this time around.

Meanwhile, two Republican women -- Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania and Anne Northup of Kentucky -- who lost their seats in the 2006 midterm elections are running to reclaim them now.

All of these races are considered competitive by Cook.

Other women are running longer-shot repeat campaigns, including Republicans Sydney Hay of Arizona, Deborah Honeycutt of Georgia and Charel Winston of California, and Democrats Judy Feder of Virginia, Diane Benson of Alaska, Nikki Tinker of Tennessee and Cristina Avalos of California.

Copyright 2008 Women's eNews. All Rights Reserved.

Record Number of Women Victimized by Murderous Ex-Lovers

GRAY, Maine (WOMENSENEWS) -- With groceries in her car, Jennifer Lessard apparently planned to make several quick stops after work before picking up her two school-age sons one afternoon in May. Instead, she became the 13th victim of domestic homicide in Maine this year, part of a murder trend that's on pace to exceed every other year since the state began compiling records in 1971.

In an all-too-common scenario in the United States -- where a woman's risk of being murdered by an intimate partner is highest after leaving an abusive relationship -- the 40-year-old pharmacist attempted to pick up her belongings at the home of a former boyfriend, whom she had recently left.

Lessard was found dead there, with a gunshot wound to the head. Her boyfriend was also dead, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and left a suicide note, according to state police.

Domestic violence is a leading cause of death for women ages 15-44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. It is a leading cause of death of pregnant women, mortality research shows. And African American and Native American women are at the highest risk of intimate partner homicide.

Sexual violence is so prevalent that it touches every family in the United States, advocates say.

Estimates show that 272,000 sexual assaults against people age 12 and older occurred in 2006.

Crime Drop Benefits Men Most

Since violent crime rates peaked in the early 1990s men have benefited most from a downward trend that has left Americans safer overall.

In the three decades from 1976 to 2005, the number of men killed by female partners has dropped precipitously, from about 1,300 to 329. But homicides of women by male partners has declined far less, dropping from around 1,500 to about 1,200, figures from the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics show.

Those female homicide figures reached their lowest point of 1,155 in 2004, but climbed slightly to 1,181 in 2005, the latest year available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The bloody trail of those deaths, along with injuries, crisscrosses the nation each year and overshadows women's daily lives.

Nearly one-third of all U.S. women report experiencing violence from a current or former spouse or boyfriend at some point in their lives, according to the San Francisco-based Family Violence Prevention Fund.

The impact of violence spreads through families, health-care services and the workplace, and is associated with far higher disease risk.

Women who have experienced domestic violence are 80 percent more likely to have a stroke, 70 percent more likely to have heart disease, 60 percent more likely to have asthma and 70 percent more likely to drink heavily than women who have not experienced intimate partner violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Declaring an Emergency

At least one governor is putting the problem on the front burner.

In early June Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick declared a "domestic violence emergency" in his state, where deaths at the hands of a domestic partner nearly tripled to 42 in 2007 from 15 in 2005.

So far in 2008, domestic crime has killed 19 people in Massachusetts, according to Boston-based Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.

Patrick signed legislation creating statewide guidelines for hospitals treating victims of violence and called for strengthened training of police officers in the state.

Maine is also taking steps, says Lois Galgay Reckitt, a longtime advocate for battered women in the state who serves on the board of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

All police officers will be required to complete domestic violence training next year to be certified, she says, and the plan expands training requirements that are now common in most states.

But while access to crisis services and an informed police response are improving for battered women in Maine and elsewhere, Reckitt says more action is needed.

"We need to start focusing on prosecution of domestic violence offenses as a matter of homicide prevention," says Reckitt, who serves on the board of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro. "Incarceration might have an impact, but we are having trouble in Maine getting the prosecution to happen."

Not Enough Programs to Help Women

Esta Soler, president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, which carries out public health campaigns for the federal Centers for Disease Control, agrees with Reckitt and says health care providers can also do more. "Too few women are screened for violence and offered the help and referrals they need."

Despite the ongoing high level of violence, the 2006 National Crime Victimization Survey found declines in sexual and domestic violence since passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, which distributed over $570 million in funding to anti-violence programs across the country this year.

"There's still a sexual assault every two minutes in the United States, but the Violence Against Women Act has helped focus police, prosecutors and judges on the seriousness of the crime," says Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an anti-sexual violence advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "The progress shows that we need to fully fund the programs, because the ones that have been funded are working."

But other leaders in the field challenge the 2006 data and any interpretation of it that suggests sexual violence is ebbing.

"I don't think we can say that violence is declining when the number of people seeking services continues to grow or stay the same," says Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Denver. "It could be that the numbers aren't being counted right, or it could be that women have stopped using the justice system, but the experience in the field is not that women are safer."

Sue Else, executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, says the 2006 national survey misses thousands of instances of violence because it is not safe for battered women to respond truthfully to questions about the violence that can permeate -- or threaten -- their lives.

"The National Crime Victimization Survey is not an accurate reflection of what we know about domestic violence prevalence," says Else, which tracked requests for services for one day in 2007, and found that service providers were stretched beyond capacity. "More than 7,700 requests for services went unmet in a 24-hour period in 2007 because there simply weren't enough resources to help them."

Women in college are particularly vulnerable to gender violence. Over the course of a college career between 20 and 25 percent of female students will be sexually assaulted, according to a 2000 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Soler and other advocates share a time-worn perspective on violence against women: Preventing violence means transforming a culture and its institutions.

"Changing attitudes is our greatest long-term challenge," Soler says. "But we are making progress and we can do even more."

Did Hollywood Execs Finally Get the Memo That Women Can Carry Movies?

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

Could it be that this season will turn out to be the Summer of Women, on screen, if not on the campaign trail?

Sex and the City, that glitzy ode to conspicuous consumption and soppy (or, shall I say, shoppy) female friendship, still has shapely box office legs, having rung up a whopping $369 million worldwide these past six weeks, making it the ninth-largest-grossing romantic comedy since 1978.

And somewhat surprisingly, the Sex and the City gals are suddenly in good screen company: Angelina Jolie is drawing crowds by outshooting and outkicking her male counterparts in the action picture, Wanted, a Matrix-wannabe which, despite so-so reviews, took in $176 million in a mere 17 days, largely because of her presence.

And in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, Abigail Breslin as Kit, the feisty 10-year-old reporter, is wowing tomorrow's feminists and shopaholics alike in this screen version adapted from stories by Valerie Tripp, which were based on an American Girl doll.

Although the movie, going into its second week of wide release, has not yet found its audience, Kit displays a plucky competence worthy of Shirley Temple (who, after all, affected peace between the Brits and militant Indians in Wee Willie Winkie in 1937) and far more ambition and social conscience than the moony, man-crazy women of Sex and the City.

What's more, Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! (opening July 18) and America Ferrera in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (Aug. 8) -- both written, directed and produced by women -- just may help make this a female-centric summer indeed.

Proving a Feminine Point

As a longtime critic and observer of movies, I have been waiting for a Summer of Women to happen, it seems, since before the Great Flood.

While I admit that the emergence of this season's chick flicks will not solve our health insurance crisis, shrink the gender wage gap or bring down the price of oil, their success should at least unequivocally prove to Hollywood's moguls that women's pictures are not D.O.A. And they should show the legions of craven executives with short memories -- vice presidents drawing high salaries for greenlighting an endless array of cartoonish movies (read: comic book sequels) for the young boy in all of us -- that stories of interest to women will lure us into movie theaters in noteworthy numbers.

Primarily, though, this box-office girl power should shut up studio heads like Jeff Robinov, who created a blizzard of ugly publicity for himself last October when that unsparing industry chronicler, Nikki Finke, reported in an LA Weekly column that Robinov, then Warner Brothers' president of production, "had made a new decree that his studio is no longer making movies with women cast as the main lead."

Immediately, Gloria Allred, the attorney and women's rights warrior, weighed in on his remarks. "This is an insult to all moviegoers and particularly women," she harrumphed, then called for a boycott of Warner films. Robinov, who was then angling for promotion when he found himself labeled Hollywood's man-who-women-loved-to-hate, backpedaled at the speed of light.

And yes, he was promoted. Now the man responsible, in varying degrees, for such male-centric movies as The Matrix, Swordfish and the Batman franchise, is president of the new Warner Brothers Picture Group.

Painting Women Out of the Pictures

Of course, Robinov didn't really need to articulate his mandate; Hollywood has been easing women out of the big picture for years.

The real shift in box-office demographics may actually have begun with the advent of television: By the mid-60s the networks were gearing prime-time programming (and advertising) to females between 18 and 49, once the heart of the movie audience. And suddenly Hollywood became a haven for the male sensibility, the male "buddy" movie, and for a new generation of (male) filmmakers who, like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, were creating little-boy screen adventures at the precise moment when women's real lives were in dynamic, and perhaps confusing, flux.

But what finally doused the fire in Hollywood's proverbial belly for women's movies was the discovery that they did not spark the same billion-dollar global box office as boy stories, particularly the comic book and space adventures that were long on visual pyrotechnics and short on smart dialogue, character complexity and relationships.

Still, Robinov's comments make one wonder how conveniently the men's club of Hollywood has chosen to forget the worldwide box office rewards of such recent movies about women as Enchanted ($340 million), 27 Dresses ($159 million), Juno ($229 million) and The Devil Wears Prada ($326 million).

Mulling the Male Flops

To put the situation into perspective, did any studio executive ever muse, after the shocking failure of last fall's Brad Pitt vehicle, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (domestic box office: $6 million; worldwide: $15 million), that it would be a smart idea to stop making movies featuring man-centric stories?

Did anyone have misgivings about boys-will-be-boys flicks when Wes Anderson's testosterone-drenched The Darjeeling Limited, with Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and the Oscar winner Adrien Brody, opened the New York Film Festival last September, then broke down before ever gathering steam (worldwide: $15.5 million)?

And, on assessing the rotten global returns of George Clooney's The Good German ($6 million), Ryan Gosling's Lars and the Real Girl ($10 million) or Johnny Depp's The Libertine ($11 million), did even one among the new breed of female executives dare to whisper in the ladies room of that upscale industry watering hole, the Ivy: "Nix the guy pix. And bring back the women?"

Hard to know, hard to imagine.

So here's to Kit, who could teach Carrie Bradshaw a thing or two about journalism. Here's to Jolie's villainous Fox who can smack 'em down and shoot 'em up with the worst of them. To Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, Charlotte and their Manolos, Vera Wangs and glorious closet space. And even to the Streep and Ferrer characters and their box-office promise.

Together, this summer sorority could well begin to challenge the reign of all those one-dimensional comic-book "men" -- Superman, Batman, Spiderman, X-Man and Iron Man -- and go on to kindle a fire that brings women back to the movies and, eventually, movies back to women.

Marjorie Rosen, the author of "Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream," teaches journalism at Lehman College, CUNY.

Why Brides-to-Be Are Starving Themselves Skinny

NEW YORK -- Sure, brides-to-be dream of orchids, fluffy cakes and love everlasting, but the singular thought of many in the months leading up to their weddings is, "How am I going to look in that dress?"

The growth and sophistication of the wedding industry, from the local florist and caterer to wedding media -- TV shows, magazines and Web sites like TheKnot.com -- is giving brides more options than ever before and more channels through which to receive marketing messages. They are selling perfection and many brides are buying.

This rise of the large extravagant weddings -- today's average affair costs $28,704 with 161 guests in attendance -- has been accompanied by an increasingly conspicuous concern with pre-wedding fitness.

Elizabeth Sussman, a 25-year-old account executive at CGI Group in Atlanta, took a 30-day "Fitness Boot Camp" program where she was one of six engaged women. She now works with a trainer to prepare for her May 2009 nuptials.

"The pictures are going to be around forever," she said. "I don't want to scrutinize a roll because I could've worked out."

Some grooms prepare physically for their weddings, but the pressure to do so seems much stronger on women.

A study from Cornell University published in the March-May 2008 edition of the journal Appetite found that 70 percent of women want to lose weight before they wed. Fitness magazine reported in their June issue that 83 percent do, and one-third of them, like Sussman, hope to drop 30 pounds or more. Neither study targeted a specific demographic or looked at men.

Extreme Dieting

More than half of the 272 women in the Cornell study said they would be willing to use extreme dieting methods to meet their weight goals. Most frequently, women skipped meals or took dieting supplements.

"Everybody's going to be looking at them from head to toe when they walk down that aisle and they have a vision in their minds of what they want to look like," said Pam O'Brien, Fitness executive editor.

The Fitness survey of 1,000 brides found that 1 in 5 would postpone their wedding if they didn't meet a weight goal, while 29 percent would move in with their mother-in-law if it meant reaching their ideal weight. Their report was called "Bridezilla Confessions."

"She's not just obsessed. She's monstrously obsessed," said Rebecca Mead, author of "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding," a 2007 book that investigates the sociological side effects of a wedding industry, which began in the early- to mid-20th century and is now worth $161 billion annually to the U.S. economy.

"We think that the way we can best express ourselves is through what we buy," said Mead, a staff writer at The New Yorker.

The average wedding cost for 2008 has dropped slightly, to $28,704 from $28,732 in 2007, possibly reflecting a tighter credit market and rising prices at the pump that are making travelers more reluctant to burn gasoline. But the dip is minor, and big spending is hanging around for now.

Reinforcing Marital Transition

Mead writes that the transition into marriage is, in many ways, less significant than it once was. Many couples choose to live together, engage in premarital sex and become a part of one another's families before they consider making a marital commitment. Some brides force a dramatic transition.

"This need for there to be some sense of difference is very profound," said Mead. "Reshaping your body for the event could certainly be part of that wish to make it feel as if you're passing a milestone."

Women's rights activist Gloria Feldt, the former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, links women's fixation on their bridal appearance to the residue of such traditional practices as the bride price or dowry system. She says there remains a cultural question surrounding marriage, even if it's a subconscious one: What are women bringing to the table?

"Today what she's bringing is herself. It is terrifying to think that women can interpret that to literally mean their physical beings having to be perfected in a way that's not really them."

A 2006 survey by the Conde Nast Bridal Group found that 30 percent of brides' parents are paying for the entire wedding and 32 percent of couples foot the bill themselves.

Went Dress Shopping Together

Same-sex couples are not immune from the pressures. Allison and Lindsey Piper went dress shopping together before their ceremony in Franklin, Maine. Allison, a 31-year-old dental student at Tufts University in Boston, described having body image issues since she was "knee high to a bullfrog."

"Lindsey is very thin and trim," said Allison, who was conscious that her partner would be wearing a dress in a smaller size, but added that they share the same values of healthy eating and exercise.

The wedding industry has spawned its own therapeutic service sector. Bridal counselor, Sheryl Paul, of Denver, who authored "The Conscious Bride" in 2000, shields her clients from the worst of the production pressures.

Paul coaches her clients to avoid bridal magazines and other wedding pop culture peddling the external fantasy.

Paul says brides can feel vulnerable while preparing for the lifestyle changes that may lie ahead in marriage. "Whether she's focusing on the perfect place settings or the perfect body she's still trying to have control in an external way instead of recognizing that she feels out of control. That's normal, that's part of transitioning."

Ann Valenti, 31, did not want to use her real name for the story, because it would upset her husband and family to learn that she had taken drugs prior to her October 2007 wedding.

Valenti thrust herself into what she calls "wedding mode." She exercised strenuously, yet restricted her diet to a meager 1,200 calories a day. Valenti also experimented with the stimulant and appetite suppressant phentermine until it gave her headaches and heart palpitations.

Valenti, who was treated for an eating disorder years earlier, dropped so much weight that she needed a guard for her engagement ring. On the big day, she promised herself not to step on the scale.

"I felt so much love that day," she says. "Not because of my weight or what I looked like. People were so happy for us."

She was pleased with her pictures, but is quick to point out flaws.

"I'm looking at this one right now and my arm is fat," she said.

50 More Years of Women Making Less Money Than Men?

PORTLAND, Ore. -- With two decades of experience under her belt, Lindsay Hall was confident she was a strong candidate for a promotion within the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency in Oregon where she works as a wildlife biologist.

But after agency "subject matter experts" reviewed all candidates who received the highest ranking from the agency personnel department, Hall -- who asked that her name be changed because she still works for the government -- found herself cut from the applicant pool. Two candidates, both male, were interviewed, and the one who was offered the job had about five years' experience, compared to Hall's 20.

It was not the first time she was passed over for a promotion in favor of a male applicant with less time in the field. Six years earlier, Hall and another woman both applied for an agency position that dealt with hydrosystem policy on the Columbia River's network of power-generating dams. Hall had policy experience, and the other woman had done her master's thesis on the Columbia River hydrosystem. But a less experienced man with a social science degree was hired.

After the second job slipped away, Hall filed a "pre-grievance" with the agency, providing her access to confidential personnel documents. She discovered that the "subject matter experts" ranked her a couple of points below the man who got the job despite her greater experience. They drew what she describes as an "arbitrary line" between her name and his and didn't interview anyone below it.

"When it happens to you, it doesn't take but once or twice and you start to become mistrustful," said Hall. "It's very demoralizing. You end up shifting your focus away from work as a survival tactic."

Few Squeeze Through the Porthole

Rather than calling it a "glass ceiling," Hall sees advancement within her agency as a "porthole" that only a select few can pass through. Younger men, she says, seem to have an easier time getting through the porthole than women, even if the women have more experience under their belts.

Despite her frustration, Hall has been reluctant to leave her job because of her seniority and the benefits it provides. But the thought of losing out on another promotion has left her considering her options.

While women such as Hall might keep their jobs, they say the cracks in the glass ceiling that once seemed to be widening have been filled by a number of sticky problems, such as sex bias in promotions, sexual harassment, pregnancy and motherhood bias, and unequal pay for equal work.

The average 25-year-old woman who works until age 65 will earn $523,000 less over her lifetime than the average working male, according to a 2004 report compiled by Milwaukee-based 9to5 National Association of Working Women.

It's a discrepancy largely due to women earning less than their male colleagues for doing the same work.

Although the gender wage gap has narrowed over the last three decades, at its current rate it will take until 2057 to close, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently dealt a blow to women's ability to sue their employers for pay discrimination. In the 5-4 Ledbetter v. Goodyear decision handed down last year, the court's majority ruled that employees cannot sue unless they have first filed a formal complaint with a federal agency within 180 of the discriminatory pay being set. Since salary information is often secret, a woman may not know she was paid less until the clock has run out.

While some members of Congress attempted to redress the court's decision through the Fair Pay Restorative Act, so far their efforts have been stymied. The bill is stalled after a Republican filibuster in the Senate, but a group of female senators hopes to resurrect it later this year.

"Women are earning just 77 cents for every dollar our male counterpart makes," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland as she and nine other female senators announced their "Checklist for Change" agenda on June 17. "Equality in a woman's checkbook depends on change in the federal law book."

Half of Women Are Harassed

In 2007, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- the federal agency that investigates bias complaints -- received 12,510 charges of sexual harassment, 84 percent of which were filed by female employees.

Yet the number doesn't reflect the thousands of women who do not file formal complaints due to fear of retribution. Surveys indicate that almost half of all working women experience some form of sexual harassment on the job, according to the Washington-based National Women's Law Center.

When Hall was recruited as a wildlife officer in the early days of her career, she was required to attend law enforcement academy. Her class consisted of 67 men and six women. The male instructor began every day with a sexist joke.

"He once joked that the most painful part of a male-to-female sex operation was the part where half the brain is sucked out through a straw," said Hall. "I had to listen to this kind of thing every morning."

Those most vulnerable to harassment are employees who do not have the resources to take legal action, such as low-wage workers. Women account for 59 percent of workers earning less than $8 per hour, according to a 2001 study by the New York-based Ms. Foundation for Women.

"These workers really need the money, so they're less likely to file a complaint or quit," said Sarah Dunne, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington in Seattle. "Quite often, they're not aware of their rights, so employers who take advantage of them are not held accountable."

Bias Complaints Hit New High

A woman who has been spared any discrimination or harassment may find that changes when she becomes pregnant.

A 2004 study by the Washington-based National Partnership for Women and Families found that between 1992 and 2003, pregnancy discrimination complaints increased 39 percent, even though the nation's birth rate dropped by 9 percent.

The surge may be due to the fact that more women -- about three-quarters -- are opting to keep working after they become pregnant.

"Employers put women in a category where they think they're not going to be reliable," said Janet Chung, and attorney with the Northwest Women's Law Center in Seattle. "It's not just about pregnancy, but the whole frontier of family responsibility discrimination. They may think a newly married, younger woman will become pregnant soon and not be committed to her job. Or if she has children, they may assume she doesn't want to travel. Rather than assessing a woman's performance on the job, they make assumptions."

Hall says that while she sticks with her job, plenty of women who are passed over for promotions, earn less than male counterparts or who face harassment may opt to leave their jobs.

"Employers lose years of experience when women leave," said Hall. "It goes against our original American values to realize that you can have great ideas and potential, lots of experience, be the best person for the job and still be slapped to the ground."

Copyright 2008 Women's eNews. All Rights Reserved.

Female Marriage-Maker Raises Gender Issues in Egypt

CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)--Amal Soliman did not realize how large a controversy would erupt here when she sought to become Egypt's first female "maazun," or Islamic public notary who performs wedding ceremonies and authorizes marriage and divorce certificates.

"I knew it was going to be a little bit in the press, but I didn't really think it would be such a big deal," Soliman says about her February selection by local government officials. "It is what it is and I don't want to have politics as a part of the discussion of me being a maazun because I am a simple housewife who wants to work close to home and raise my kids."

Religious leaders have both condemned and endorsed her selection. Her status was significant enough to require the government to approve it. But she's not brandishing it in a quest for equal rights and recoils from having her appointment politicized.

"I don't want people, especially the West, to take me as a victory for women in Egypt and the Middle East," she says. "I am Egyptian and a Muslim so what I am doing is for here and not for the West."

Already, people know about the "female maazun" in her town of Qaniyat, an hour east of Cairo. "They point you in the direction of 'Madame Soliman's house' if you ask," she says.

People knock on her door every day to be married, even though she still waits for official permission to work from the national justice ministry. She has heard about others, though, who will stay away.

"Some people have said that I am not appropriate to be a maazun because I am a woman," she says, "but I am confident this will fade with time."

Sought Employment, Not Controversy

Soliman, a 32-year-old mother of three, applied for the position when it became vacant after her father-in-law passed away. The job is not inherited, and there are hundreds of maazuns in Egypt, one for each local district.

"I didn't really think about the gender issue when I applied for the job," she says. "It was close to my house and I needed something so close by so I could still be at home for my kids."

Ten others, all men, applied to fill the vacancy. Soliman had a master's degree in law from Zagazig University as well as law and criminal justice diplomas and had the highest qualifications.

Justice Minister Mamdouh Marei has sought to relieve tensions among Egypt's powerful Islamic scholars, saying that Soliman's nomination was based "on her abilities rather than on her gender." A year ago, 30 women were appointed as judges in response to activists' complaints that Egypt lagged in female participation in the judiciary.

"Everyone is beginning to recognize women's rights and women's potential," Hanan Abdel-Aziz, one of the appointed judges, told the state press at the time.

Egypt has stood out among Arab nations in women's participation in many aspects of life and politics. Suffrage was granted in 1956, ahead of most others in the region. Women are about 30 percent of the private professional and technical work force, but few are high officials in the government.

Detecting Forced Marriages

One of Soliman's responsibilities will be to ensure there is no coercion behind a wedding, particularly when younger brides are involved. As many as one in three weddings are forced upon the woman, who is often under 18, according to the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights in Cairo.

"As a woman I will be better able to find out if the girl wants to get married and if she is being forced into the agreement by an outside party," Soliman says. "I wanted to take this position because it gives women and girls who are getting married a real opportunity to take action."

Ibrahim Abdel Salam, 26, an employee at a Cairo cafe, nonetheless objects. "It is wrong to have a woman in this position. My sheikh tells me that if we are to get married that we must avoid her because she can't do the job."

"I know that women are not as strong as men," says Heba Mahmoud, a female student at Cairo University who, like many young people here, embraces conservative Islam, which is growing in influence in Egypt. "That is why some jobs are supposed to remain in the hands of men. She can't do the job. I mean, there are so many reasons that she can't, but when it comes down to it, women are not made to be in positions of power."

Islamic scholars are divided about a woman having legal responsibility for marriage and divorce. A devout Muslim, Soliman embraces the view that Islam does not bar women from having a career in anything.

"Islam is pro-women's rights and it is social customs that put women's rights backward," she says.

No Religious Prohibition

No religious texts ban a female maazun, says Sheikh Fawzi Zefzaf, deputy director of Al-Azhar University, an influential center of Sunni Muslim theology. "But when a woman is menstruating she must not enter a mosque or read Quranic verses and that will affect her job, so for this reason we say it is not advisable to have a woman maazun," the sheikh said in a statement from his office.

Soliman says she will conduct home visits with couples who need her authority to avoid breaking Islamic law and an assistant will be able to work in the mosque when she is forbidden to enter.

"This is an opportunity for women to show that they have a right to be in such positions and the Arab and Islamic world need to accept this and move forward," says Mohamed Serag, a professor of Islamic studies at the American University in Cairo.

The profession used to be "a man's business" and the controversy will pass, Serag says. "She is a public notary, not an official representative of Islam and this needs to be understood."

The manner in which some scholars are downgrading the maazun's importance is disconcerting to Aida Seif Al Dawla, a leading activist. She wonders "why was it all over the press" if Soliman's job is inconsequential.

"This is a precedent for women in Egypt no matter what anyone says," Seif Al Dawla says. "Since when has getting married not been important? I say good for her for taking this step."

Soliman says a female maazun is more likely to be readily accepted in Cairo, where people are "more open" than in her own town. But the time has arrived for women to enter the profession.

"I think Egypt is ready for this."

How Advertisers Psychologically Mug Women

As a journalist who writes about issues of interest to women, I receive a steady stream of pitches from public relations and marketing agencies:

Secrets of discreet feminine hygiene. Products that will eliminate pounds and years. An "age-defying lift" brassiere. Another bra that makes you look like you have cosmetic breast implants (who knew that was desirable?).

For Mother's Day, there was the Love Doctor dispensing romance advice for single moms. For Valentine's Day, there was the condom paper weight and a PR rep offering an interview with America's Love Doctor.

The problem with pitches like this, many of which trade on women's anxieties, is that they seem to assume women are mainly in the business of buying trifles. And that extends to the general marketplace.

"While marketers may be aware that women are major spenders on the so-called small stuff -- groceries, apparel, kids -- they are not fully aware that women are the majority of buyers of new cars, consumer electronics and home improvement," says Marti Barletta, CEO of the marketing consultancy TrendSight Group, who was a keynote speaker at last week's annual M2W marketing conference in Chicago, which debated how marketers could improve their appeals to women.

Women's Purchasing Power is Green, Not Pink

Marketers, Barletta says, "are worried that marketing to women means making it pink and that would horrify men. ... They don't know what marketing to women is."

While marketing campaigns often seem to assume men are more technologically oriented than women, Barletta, a veteran marketing and advertising executive, says that when Best Buy analyzed its patrons, it found the majority of those cruising the aisles were men, but at the cash register, the majority of buyers were women.

Even though women make 85 percent of all consumer purchases, Barletta says the pay gap, which leaves women earning 76 cents for every dollar earned by men, creates the impression that women don't have or control much money. In fact, "Women bring in more than half of household income," Barletta says. "In a partnered household, a woman spends not only her own paycheck but most of her spouse's or partner's as well."

Much has been said and lamented over the years -- including by me in columns in this space -- of marketing that gets women to open up their wallets through a sort of psychological mugging. Ads target us with the self-improvement message. One example that comes to mind is Nutrisystem's touting of going from an already modest dress size to an even smaller one ("I went from a size 10 to a size 4!"). The relentlessly repeated premise is that we're inadequate. Unattractive. Unworthy.

Reality Check

Then there's the reality. Barletta describes women now between 50 and 75 -- a group virtually ignored by marketers -- as "the healthiest, wealthiest, most educated, active and influential generation of women in history."

If marketing reflected this -- instead of picking away at our fears about our complexions, our weight and the elasticity of our skin -- it might go a long way toward countering ageism and boosting the confidence of young women who look to older women for role models. Who knows, it might even help close the incredible gender gap in the U.S. Congress and corporate board rooms.

But Barletta says even sophisticated marketers are half a step behind where women are right now. "They'll say, 'We're offering these tools to empower women to take control of their lives, to give them more freedom and flexibility.' That's language from the 1980s and 1990s. I keep telling them women are empowered and they need to be thinking about serving women."

Barletta singled out the already highly-praised "Dove Campaign for Real Beauty" as the best women's marketing campaign of 2007. The campaign's ads for Dove soap featured "real" women -- in other words not fashion models -- of various ages, shapes and sizes, and was intended to widen the definition and discussion of beauty. (A May 12 New Yorker article about a photo retoucher quoted him as saying the Dove models had in fact been a bit retouched but he has since clarified that he "was directed only to remove dust and do color correction -- both the integrity of the photographs and the women's natural beauty were maintained.") Dove says women's response to the campaign has been overwhelmingly positive; nearly 2.5 million visitors have visited the site at Campaignforrealbeauty.com. Parent company Unilever's first-quarter revenues exceeded its forecast for the first time in six years, in part because of increased sales of Dove products.

But Dove's campaign was hardly typical. Most beauty and apparel products are fronted by skinny, extensively airbrushed models few real women relate to. According to a Dove-commissioned study of women in nine countries, the majority of women believe that if media were reflective of the population, a person would likely believe women over 50 do not exist.

"Most businesses fall into the trap of believing in the 'ethereal woman,'" write Michele Miller and Holly Buchanan in "The Soccer Mom Myth" (Wizard Academy Press, 2007). "They see her as an intangible, emotional being with mysterious traits like intuition and nurturing behavior."

They consider mothers "the most stereotyped women in advertising," and I can believe it after the outpouring of ads in the newspaper last week about giving "her" jewelry and other expensive baubles for "all that she does." The message of these ads is that women with children labor quietly in the shadows most of the year to emerge Cinderella-like, once a year, to play the princess at the magical Hallmark ball.

New Blood Could Improve Marketing Tactics

A new generation of marketing execs might stop the industry from undervaluing and patronizing women.

An intriguing initiative is 3iying, a New York City agency. Its staff is media-talented young women 15 and up who sniff out marketing ploys that lack authenticity and relevance to them and their peers.

Miller and Buchanan say 3iying founder Heidi Dangelmaier "makes a point to contact these girls before they get into a traditional agency setting. She wants to reach them before they are forced to give up their natural instincts to conform to the more traditional, and often male-dominated, world of advertising."

The early influx of young women into the advertising and marketing scene could lead to more accurate female images.

Even with single women heading so many households, authors Miller and Buchanan say the majority of today's advertising still depicts the traditional mother-father household. "The traditional family unit may not be as reflective of reality, but it's a whole lot more comfortable territory for advertisers," they say.

And that's the real point. Women have worked hard to make social gains but the consumer P.A. system seems intent on denying us our hard-won advancement. It would help everyone -- companies and their female customers alike -- if marketers would just catch on.

On-Screen Sex Ratios Add Up to One Big Negative

Women on "The View" may get Barack Obama showing up to pay his presidential-hopeful respects. Oprah's one-woman media empire may seem like a world without end. And Ellen DeGeneres' daily dance-and-gabfest recently has taken a more activist spin (just ask Chris Matthews!)

But that doesn't mean mainstream entertainment -- meaning TV and film -- reflects anything like our true worth to girls and women.

Earlier this year, researchers gathered from all over the country -- and the world -- at the University of Southern California to present studies that document and display the historical context of how we see females on TV (if they are on-screen at all). The conference was a first for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

An overview of female portrayals on U.S. TV there reminded conference-goers that the United States television in the late 1950s and early 1960s -- had such extremes as "Rifleman" and "Bonanza" with no major female characters at all -- and shows like "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie," in which female leads had to minimize their talents when they orchestrated "real life" with their men.

Today we have more programs with stronger female characters: "Cold Case," "Grey's Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives," "Law and Order." But the fact that women make up more than half the world's population is not reflected on-screen. The male-female on-screen ratio is still only 1-in-3, up from a more dismal 1-in-5 two decades ago.

In a study presented at the conference of 13 top-grossing children's films with female leads -- produced between the mid-1930s through the 1990s and many of them from Disney--only one featured a character who wasn't looking for "happily ever after" with a prince. Dorothy Gale, from "The Wizard of Oz"--the oldest movie in the bunch as it so happens -- kept her eyes on a different prize: going home.

Animation Offers Big Challenge

Animation--where hypersexualization is intense -- offers some of the biggest challenges to gender parity. Animated females are thin and impossibly stylized. Many conference-goers talked about how there is literally "no room for a womb" in these busty, hourglass-shaped females.

In sharing her recent work with the conference, Stacy Smith from the Annenberg School of Communications, told attendees a story of two female researchers who went to a studio to meet with a very successful illustrator. He showed them a crowd scene that he was finishing. "Here are some businessmen. Over here is a cop directing traffic. There are some guys doing construction work on a building, and some kids on the corner, skateboarding . . . this is a group of doctors leaving a medical center."

Everyone was male.

"And here," he said proudly, "is the girl." For the record, she was wearing SRC (sexually revealing clothing), had a waist that was too tiny to allow blood to reach her brain and, no surprise, inordinately large breasts.

The two researchers -- keeping their eyes on the prize -- said, "Well . . . what if you added some women to the group of business people? And a female doctor talking to an EMT in front of the hospital? And over here, a female city engineer talking to the architect? And . . ."

The illustrator put his hands to his face. "Oh my God. The problem here is ME."

Like many other men in a male-dominated entertainment industry, he had gotten the idea that having one "girl" -- drawn as the "ideal" woman -- was representation. It's not.

It's about the numbers. And the shapes. And colors. And sizes. And ages. And our part in the big picture.

'We Thought It Was Better'

"We thought it was better," was the general sentiment expressed by conference-goers, even by longtime media activists used to the glacial pace of progress.

International researchers assured us that parity problems are not restricted to U.S. media. From one hemisphere to another, the picture for women is grim.

Prof. Kara Chan, from Hong Kong Baptist University, said that women on screen in Hong Kong are there for a purpose -- to be nonstop consumers. They are portrayed (and valued) as shoppers who whine and pout when they don't get the item they "want" and "need."

Meanwhile, in mainland China -- where families are allowed only one child and the preference, historically, is male -- TV depicts an ideal world, where, for every male character, there is a female character.

One study presented at the conference looked at 42 kids from 10 countries and documented the use of "media traces," in which children "borrow" the attributes of strong (male) characters and include them in drawings of themselves. Some were wearing capes and hats (like Batman); some waved light sabers from "Star Wars." But symbols of female strength -- as well as female voices -- were in very short supply. They simply weren't there.

Geena Davis, the actor who played the female U.S. president in the TV series "Commander in Chief," created the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media after starting a group called See Jane. That has grown into an institute dedicated to increasing awareness of gender imbalance in media, and developing strategies to change media portrayals of women and girls for the better.

Nothing Near 50 Percent'

"Whatever environment we're in on TV, it's nothing near the 50 percent we are in the world," Davis said in her conference address. "Girls see this imbalance and realize 'I'm not important.' We need secondary and tertiary characters, too, and animals in the forest. Women have presence and space in this world."

Davis said later that "once you have a daughter, you look at things differently." Her search for positive on-screen role models for her now-6-year-old Alizeh Keshvar drives a movement whose time has come, in a year when, one way or another, electoral history is about to be made.

We don't have to be a parent of a daughter to take action about gender media bias. Remember the lessons of "Sesame Street" -- one show that actually managed to get it right -- and count just like the Count ("ONE guy, TWO guys, NO girls") when you watch programs that leave us out. This is particularly important as you watch news programs, where the male-female ratios are still abysmal. One female correspondent among five male panelists is not "representation."

Contact the show, the producers, the talent and the sponsors, and follow up frequently.

The best recommendation I heard at the conference was to encourage girls to move from absorbing media messages to creating them. There are more female writers than ever before. More female animators and directors in the 21st century have landed gigs, and several studios are headed by women (although way too few.) Those numbers need to increase significantly if we hope to change the big picture.

Film critic and author Sara Voorhees, who led the final panel discussion at the conference, wants to see more women running studios. "Chick flicks are dissed because they feature relationships and problem-solving; dick-flicks reflect the Warrior Ethic," she told the conference. "Maybe Hollywood needs a mother to make sure that everyone gets to play."

Stay tuned.

Seeking Roe-Supporting Politicians

(WOMENSENEWS)--As a wounded Roe v. Wade approaches its 35th anniversary on Jan. 22, our popular narrative urgently begs for a full-scale, ground-up offensive to enshrine reproductive rights as human rights and create a more durable approach than the right to privacy--however valuable--has ever given women.

Instead we get William Kristol--who cynically advised Republicans two decades ago to remove the anti-abortion plank to win elections but to focus on restrictions that humiliate and endanger women--starting last week as a regular New York Times columnist. By paragraph four he had worked in a reference to "life" as interchangeable with restricting women's control over their own bodies.

And on Tuesday, NARAL Pro-Choice America's "Choice at Risk" report gave the nation a grade of D-Minus on access to contraception and abortion.

Last year, meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court drove a stake through Roe's heart by stripping away the principle that women's health is primary in its Gonzales v. Carhart decision.

But while most of the Republican presidential candidates compete to out-anti-Roe each other all is not lost. Not yet. Voters also have a lineup of Democratic hopefuls vying for the most pro-choice mantle and women are turning out in record numbers in the Democratic primaries.

So there's hope in strong political engagement and in asking these questions of the candidates seeking your vote:

Keep reading... Show less

Holiday Shopping? How About a Plastic Surgery Gift Card?

I definitely have a little more jiggle than I'd like. More wrinkles, too.

But the last thing I want to do is check into a hospital for cosmetic surgery and never check out. A flat tummy or a chiseled chin is not something you risk your life for. Not in my book.

But I feel like I'm in a shrinking majority that's hanging on for dear life.

Our society is getting positively hooked on plastic surgery. Since 1997 the number of cosmetic procedures performed each year has soared by more than fivefold, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons in Arlington Heights, Ill.

Nearly 11 million cosmetic surgery procedures were performed in 2006, up 7 percent from the year before. Almost 10 million of the surgeries last year were performed on women. Breast augmentations (329,000) top the 2006 list of 1.9 million invasive surgical procedures. These are surgeries that require anesthesia and they are far from risk-free.

The signals urging women to maintain or reclaim their youth have become ingrained in our culture. Day spas that administer non-invasive cosmetic procedures pop up as regularly in strip malls as 7-11's and botox injections are even being administered by eye doctors.

But what's scary is that more than ever, smart, professional, successful women are undergoing expensive, complicated life-threatening cosmetic surgeries. With all they have going for them, more and more of these successful women are choosing to roll the dice with their lives in search of a flatter tummy, less wrinkles or firmer breasts.

The most recent high-profile and tragic example, of course, is Donda West, the 58-year-old mother of hip-hop music superstar Kanye West.

Achievements Weren't Enough

An accomplished educator, West was a former chair of Chicago State University's English department and a Fulbright scholar who left academia in 2004 to assist with Kanye's career. She was a wonderful role model for both her students and her son. On some level, however, that wasn't enough.

On Nov. 9 she went in for a tummy tuck and a breast reduction and was sent home that night to recuperate. The next evening, paramedics brought an unresponsive West to the Centinela Freeman Regional Medical Center in Marina del Rey, where an attempt to revive her failed. After an autopsy, the Los Angeles coroner said that the initial indications were that West died from complications from the surgery.

According to CNN, West knew she was an at-risk surgical patient, but elected to do the surgery anyway. She had visited another surgeon -- Dr. Andre Aboolian of Beverly Hills -- in June who refused to perform the cosmetic surgery.

Aboolian said she contacted him again two weeks before her recent surgery saying she was ready to go forward, but he noted he needed a medical clearance before he would perform it.

"I always insist on a medical clearance for women over 40, and in this instance it was particularly important because of a condition she had that I felt could have led to a heart attack," Aboolian said in a statement through his publicist, according to CNN.

West found another doctor with two malpractice cases that ended in payouts and two DUIs on his record. She had the surgery anyway.

Other High-Profile Deaths

Other high-profile deaths from plastic-surgery complications include former Nigerian first lady Stella Obasanjo, who died in 2005, and Olivia Goldsmith, author of the 1996 best seller "The First Wives Club," who died three years ago during a chin-tuck. Ironically, in her 1998 novel, "Switcheroo," her main character, who wants a face lift to compete with a younger woman, is told by her doctor, "Are you insane? You need a psychiatrist, not a plastic surgeon." If only Goldsmith had heeded the part of herself who knew better.

But these women are just the cases we hear about. Thousands of women elect to imperil themselves for the chance to look a little thinner, a little younger; an urge that is stoked by a cosmetic surgery industry that puts millions into marketing every year.

The popular media only seems to abet the crime. Even a newspaper like The New York Times -- counted on to play its Great Gray Lady role at such moments -- seems caught up in the mania. In an Oct. 4 article about women who are opting for cosmetic surgery to reverse the effects of pregnancy and childbirth the Times' headline read "Skin Deep: Is the 'Mom Job' Really Necessary?"

Necessary? It's the wrong word to ever associate with the "mom job trifecta," which packages a breast lift, tummy tuck and dash of liposuction into one expensive and risky craze.

It's Not Like Going to a Spa

"There is no such thing as a minor procedure in cosmetic surgery. It's not like going to the spa or salon," said Los Angeles cosmetic surgeon Dr. Barry Friedberg. "Tummy tucks are a big operation and, in my mind, one of the most dangerous cosmetic procedures. And the patients who have them tend to be a high-risk group. They're older, often they've had children, often they're heavier. There are risks of strokes, bleeding, post-operative problems. And sometimes it's hard to tell patients about these things, but it's got to be safety first."

A 2003 University of California, Los Angeles, study that asked 52,000 adults "If money were no object, would you ever consider getting cosmetic surgery or liposuction to improve your looks or body?" found 71 percent of women expressed at least possible interest. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 303,000 liposuctions and 140,000 tummy tuck surgeries were performed just last year. The plastic surgery holiday gift card

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons doesn't track the number of deaths due to cosmetic surgery but notes that serious complications from office-based surgery occur once in every 298 cases.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that the risks of dying from liposuction -- the third most common cosmetic surgical procedure -- are worse than car accidents. For every 100,000 liposuction procedures the death risk is between 20 and 100; for every 100,000 car accidents the death risk is 16.

But the cosmetic surgery industry doesn't let that faze them. Like last year's overzealous mortgage market, it offers all kinds of ways for consumers to pay for procedures that cost between $2,000 and $5,000 each, including deferred payment plans and accepting credit cards.

At this time of year you can even come across a seasonal marketing initiative: plastic surgery holiday gift cards.

Just perfect: a present that says hey, you're just not good enough.

If anyone out there has me on their shopping list, I'd rather take my chances with a new car.

Consider Boycotting Holiday Shopping

Female shoppers, beware.

It's November and that means that Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year -- is lurking at the end of the month, raising the risk of a post-holiday debt hangover.

Twenty-three percent of Americans will not pay off their holiday debt until March or later, equaling $14.6 billion in interest-accruing debt, according to a Consumer Reports 2006 survey. Over one-quarter of Americans use credit cards most often when holiday shopping, contributing to the $63.6 billion charged on credit cards throughout the shopping season.

Since as much as 75 percent of retailers' profits accrue during the holiday season, Black Friday represents the point in time when retailers' account books shift from red (debt) to black (profit).

But black fades into red when we switch our standpoint to the consumer's perspective.

The money flowing into cash registers accentuates the red tide of consumer debt, which is especially toxic for women, whose bankruptcy filings have risen ninefold in the past 20 years, according to research published in the Brooklyn Law Review. Women Aren't Profligate

It's not that women are profligate in their spending, at the holidays or otherwise.

Yes, Women's Wear Daily may tell us that "yuletide bling" appeals to multiple generations of women and that "jewel-encrusted bras, camisoles embellished with feathers and silky crotch-less panties sold like hot cakes last year."

This could tempt you to think that women have become downright hysterical in their spending. But more methodical research tells us that when it comes to overspending our society has achieved a rare gender balance; both sexes do it to pretty much to the same extent.

Instead, overspending during the holidays is a women's issue in particular for a very simple reason: we can afford it less. That's because we continue to earn less -- 75 cents to the dollar on average -- and we are also less likely to have other financial safeguards such as jobs with good health care and pension benefits.

Much more often than men, women are using consumer credit to pay for life's necessities. Retailers Worried

Retailers, meanwhile, are clearly worried that spending will not match the double-digit sales gains of the last several seasons, which gets us to the real warning of the story.

In 2006 companies spent a staggering $209.74 billion on advertising. The results of all that money are, in their immensity, difficult if not impossible to either avoid or ignore.

Advertisers target women for a simple reason: We do about 85 percent of all consumer spending. The constant buzz of advertising is, as the economist John Kenneth Galbraith once put it, "relentless propaganda on behalf of goods."

The array of available goods grows daily, and so inevitably does the list of what we know we don't have. This induces a perpetual state of wanting, and millions of us heed the siren call of malls, department stores, upscale boutiques, downscale discounters and everything in between.

It's all particularly dangerous for women who head households. Saving a portion of your earnings is an essential element of long-term financial security, but a recent report in the Survey of Consumer Finances, says 53 percent of female household heads spend all or more than all of their incomes.

The dominant media doesn't want to focus on the systemic reasons for women's financial problems. Instead they focus, as usual, on self-improvement, running endless how-to articles about ending impulse spending, making a list and sticking to it, cutting back on your make-up routine, finding a less expensive hair salon, and don't forget the $64,000 question: Do your finances need a makeover? Social Policy Void

This individualist focus misses a deeper point: there is no social policy working to protect people from the aggressive influence of marketing; that not enough is being done to make sure women have more workplace equity.

Women as individuals and consumers should, of course, develop habits that get them off the consumer escalator. Read a book, take a walk, talk to a friend instead of reaching for that credit card. Sure.

But there's more to the story than any one woman's individual behavior.

For one thing, there's recent political history. Over the past 25 years, kicked off by the massive tax cuts of the Reagan era, income in the United States has been distributed less and less equally. That has created a huge gulf between the very rich, the posh well-to-do, and the rest of us.

Not only ads, but entertainment programming such as "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" make people earning $35,000 a year desire the ways and means of those earning $135,000. Economist and social commentator Juliet Schor describes the new consumerism as a cycle of "see, want, borrow, buy."

So when we think about consumerism as part of social policy -- rather than a simple set of "free" individual choices -- it becomes obvious that our national fascination with "more" is being driven by policies designed to reduce public attention to the values that sustain us as a community.

As citizens we value parks, clean energy, recreation, housing, and the environment. But the share of federal spending devoted to these public goods has been declining since the beginning of the conservative attack on government in 1981 when these were 11 percent of the federal budget. Spending in these areas is now a mere 8.6 percent of federal spending.

Households strapped to make monthly home, car and credit card payments are not likely to look fondly on spending to enhance community life. Funding for health care, parks, public recreation, elder care, child care, transportation and education become less palatable.

So with that in mind, maybe the best approach to the day after Thanksgiving this year -- rather than rushing around the mall -- is to join anti-consumer, pro-environment activists in Buy Nothing Day.

After all it's a political campaign season. With all the time we save by not shopping we can start looking over the candidates. Who's talking about women's pay and benefits disparities? Who's talking about health care, park, public recreation, child care, transportation, education?

Susan Feiner is professor of women's studies and economics at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

Maternal Death Rates Remain Alarmingly High

Research conducted by the World Health Organization, the United Nations and the World Bank released today concluded that maternal death rates are declining too slowly to meet international goals set in 2000.

The new maternal death statistics show there has been virtually no progress in reducing deaths for the past 15 years in countries where mortality rates are already the highest; sub-Saharan African nations, for instance, account for more than half the world's maternal deaths.

The international agencies say universal access to reproductive health services must be prioritized to reverse the trend.

The report follows the release of studies that found that abortion rates dropped sharply between 1995 and 2003, particularly in places where abortion is legal.

Released to news outlets on Thursday, the joint research from the World Health Organization and the New York-based Guttmacher Institute found abortions worldwide had declined to 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in 2003 from 35 abortions per 1,000 in 1995. The lowest rates were recorded in Western Europe, where abortion is largely legal and women have better access to contraception.

The lack of safe abortion services in many developing countries continues to take a toll, killing about 67,000 women annually and hospitalizing 5 million others, according to the report, published in the Oct. 13 edition of British medical journal The Lancet.

In an accompanying analysis, Guttmacher concluded that safe access to abortion and increased family planning and reproductive health services could curb the toll and substantially reduce maternal mortality. The research organization estimates that more than 100 million women worldwide have unmet needs for contraception.

Timed Delivery of Data Load

The twin load of global data on women's health came in a week when the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee had been scheduled to hold hearings on a U.S. policy barring aid to foreign clinics that provide abortion-related services or advocate for change in local abortion laws.

The federal policy is coming under growing political criticism following its repudiation by both houses of Congress over the summer.

Officially called the Mexico City Policy because it was first announced by President Reagan at the International Conference on Population in Mexico City in 1984, detractors call it the global gag rule because it bars funded groups from not only providing abortions but also from counseling women on abortion and lobbying on the issue.

Due to the death from breast cancer of a committee member, Rep. Jo Ann Davis of Virginia, the hearings are being rescheduled and are likely to be held in late October.

Critics say the policy has hurt family planning access in Africa.

"The global gag rule has totally dismantled the tradition of family planning services in Kenya," said Joachim Osur, one of the experts invited to Congress to testify at the hearings and to brief committee staff members yesterday.

Osur oversaw medical services for Family Health Options Kenya when the affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Federation stopped receiving U.S. funds after refusing to agree to the gag rule.

Shuttered Clinics and Programs

He told Women's eNews that the loss of funding forced him to close clinics that provided 100,000 women annually with gynecological and family planning services and screenings for breast cancer, cervical cancer and HIV-AIDS.

He also shuttered the organization's training program for counselors who provided family planning services; education and mobilization efforts to encourage public use of family planning services; and a network of 1,000 health workers distributing contraceptives to 200,000 women annually.

Wendy Turnbull, senior policy research analyst at Population Action International, a Washington-based international family planning group, says U.S. funding for family planning assistance is down 41 percent since its high-water mark in 1995.

"A lot of nongovernmental organizations doing reproductive health are, if anything, just holding the line."

Under the rule, foreign nongovernmental organizations must sign pledges that they will not provide abortions, counsel or refer women on the procedure, or lobby to make abortion legal or more available, even if the costs of those services are funded from separate sources.

The Senate voted to overturn the policy in its entirety in September, while the House passed provisions that restore U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) shipments of contraceptives to foreign organizations that refuse the terms of the policy.

Turnbull said there is not yet enough political support for a full repeal of the policy in the House and President Bush has promised to veto even the contraceptives exemption, which enjoys broad bipartisan support.

Ellen Starbird, assistant director of USAID's Office of Population and Reproductive Health, said the agency had successfully allocated all of its funding to organizations that agreed to comply with the policy "with an emphasis on the countries where the need is greatest." USAID is the largest international family planning donor in the world, she said.

Policy Start in Reagan Administration

President Reagan first instituted the rule to attack abortion with a policy that was easier to implement than a domestic ban. He announced it during the lead-up to his 1984 re-election and it has been in effect under every Republican president since.

President Clinton repealed the policy, but President George W. Bush reinstated it as his first official act in office on Jan. 22, 2001, the 28th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision that affirmed the legality of abortion in the United States.

The policy has broad opposition from Democratic presidential candidates.

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Christopher Dodd and Barack Obama co-sponsored the amendment in the Senate to repeal the policy, a vote which Sen. Joseph Biden skipped. In the House, Rep. Dennis Kucinich voted for the amendment that repealed the ban on donated contraceptives. Former Sen. John Edwards and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico oppose the policy on their campaign Web sites.

While opponents say it is impossible to calculate the number of women affected by the policy, the Global Gag Rule Impact Project, an online database, documents the effects of the policy in Ethiopia, Ghana, the Dominican Republic, Nepal, Romania, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The project finds that the loss of funding for family planning is reducing the capacities of organizations to carry out other key services for women, such as screenings for cervical and breast cancer, and pre- and post-natal care.

Population Action International's Turnbull says the reduced capacities of these groups is likely to hinder initiatives such as introducing new vaccines which fight the humanpapilloma virus to prevent cervical cancer.

Eighty-five percent of deaths from cervical cancer occur among women in developing nations, according to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, an advocacy group based in West Hills, Calif.

The project also finds that the policy is undermining the fight against HIV-AIDS at a time when 75 percent of young people infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are female, according to Avert, an international AIDS charity based in the United Kingdom.

The Health Risks of Racism

Black women are twice as likely as white women to give birth prematurely and five times more likely to do so in Southern states such as Mississippi.

A black woman is 3.7 times more likely to die during pregnancy than a white woman and six times more likely to do so in some urban areas such as New York City.

Researchers at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found college-educated black women twice as likely as other women to deliver premature or underweight babies. Scientists found subjects' birth outcomes resembled those of unemployed, uninsured white women with low education levels.

These are among the findings of five landmark reports released today by the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies that draw together existing data in a comprehensive review that calls for an end to the inequities.

The center concludes that African American babies -- who are twice as likely as white infants to die before their first birthday -- will have a better shot at life if the health inequities plaguing black mothers, such as less prenatal care and adequate nutrition, are corrected.

"The health disparities affecting African American women are nothing less than shocking, and we need to address the social causes behind them," says Alexine Jackson, board president of the Black Women's Agenda.

Stress, Racism, Poverty Implicated

The center's 19-member Courage to Love: Infant Mortality Commission -- funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and partnering with the UCLA School of Public Affairs and the University of Michigan's NIH Roadmap Disparities Center -- says the health problems of black women and black infants stem not just from inadequate medical care but from stress, racism, poverty and other social pressures.

Released during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference from Sept. 26 to 29, the reports also coincide with a meeting organized by the Joint Center and the Washington-based Black Women's Agenda for 250 representatives of black women's organizations in Washington, D.C. Attendees will discuss the reports and preview "Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?" an upcoming PBS television series that explores race and health.

In the five reports -- one on breastfeeding, one on nutrition, two on infant mortality and one summarizing the others -- commission members address the possible reasons for black women's negative birth outcomes.

Only 75 percent of African American women have prenatal care compared to 89 percent of white women.

Black women are more likely than their peers to have hypertension and diabetes, which can leave the fetus undernourished.

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics, in Elk Grove Village, Ill., says breastfeeding protects against ear infections, diarrhea and other health problems among infants -- and though it recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life -- black women are 50 percent less likely to breastfeed than white or Hispanic women.

"Black women's eating habits also play a role," notes commission member Dr. Michael C. Lu, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "Only 1 in 4 African American women meets the recommended daily allowance for calcium, magnesium, zinc and vitamin E and 1 in 3 does not meet the RDA for iron and folate. Among low-income women, approximately 1 in 3 is anemic in the third trimester of pregnancy. And among low-income African American women, only 40 percent enter pregnancy with normal weight, and less than 30 percent achieve ideal weight gain during pregnancy."

Economic, Social Factors

Joint Center authors stress not only health factors, but economic and social conditions.

Black women are more likely to work part time and to go without health benefits. They are 20 percent more likely to be uninsured, and three times more likely to live below the federal poverty line.

Research shows black women are under more stress than their peers, and that stress can compromise the immune system, disrupt the hormonal balance and threaten vascular function.

The reports also implicate racism.

For instance, authors note recent studies at Chicago's Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University find African American women who deliver pre-term, very low weight infants have a twofold greater lifelong exposure to racial discrimination than African American women who deliver full-term, normal weight babies. They cite a 2007 study from Atlanta's Spelman College in which black women agree racism is a source of the stress they cite as their "major" health risk.

"For black women, the effects of racism, sexism and class are multiplicative rather than additive," says Vijaya Hogan, director of the Health Disparities Curriculum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who was not involved in the Joint Center reports. "Each increases the individual effect of the other and together they add up to more than the sum of their parts."

Contributions to Overall Crisis

Experts say the same problems causing poor birth outcomes for black women are likely contributing to an overall crisis in their health.

Black women are twice as likely as white women to be overweight, have heart attacks, develop diabetes or fail to get the recommended 30 minutes of exercise daily, reports the CDC.

They account for 72 percent of new AIDS cases even though they represent just 6 percent of the population, reports the Los Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute.

Their life expectancy is 69 years, eight years less than for white women, reports the Census.

Black-white health disparities explain why 40,000 African American women die of treatable causes each year, notes the office of the U.S. Surgeon General.

Authors of the center's reports call for better health care access and education to improve birth outcomes. They also call for sweeping social change such as legislation that will work to end economic and educational disparities.

On Sept. 29, the Chicago-based advocacy group African American Women Evolving is holding its own 100-member symposium on black women's health at Malcolm X College in Chicago.

"We need to pay attention to -- and address -- high infant mortality and other health problems affecting black women," says Gina E. Wood, deputy director of the Joint Center's Health Policy Institute. "This is broader than a medical issue. It's about the total environment -- and the total life -- of African American women."

Which Dem Has the Most Woman-Friendly Health Plan?

So who's got the most women-friendly health care plan?

Is it Hillary, Obama or Edwards?

Answer: none of the above.

Only Dennis Kucinich offers what women really need: single-payer, universal health care.

To the others I have one question: Why are you ignoring over 50 years of experience in our peer nations, which show that the public provision of health care delivers far better results at far lower costs?

The national disparities in women's deaths between the United States and countries such as Canada, France and Germany are horrendous.

In the United States there are 77 female deaths from heart disease per 100,000 women, according to current World Health Organization data. In Germany that first key number is 68; in Canada 54; in France 21. For pulmonary disease the U.S. performance is even worse. The rate per 100,000 in the United States is 33; in Canada 13. In France and Germany it's 7.

But universal health insurance does more than fight the diseases that afflict women. By extending better coverage and care to everyone it goes to the heart of women's major inequity: our lower work-force participation due to the time we spend taking care of the preschoolers, sick kids, elderly parents and disabled spouses.

Women's wages are often reported to be about 80 percent of men's. But that figure seriously understates the actual loss of earnings due to gender and caretaking. The 2004 report "Still a Man's Labor Market" by the Women's Institute for Policy Research puts the gap closer to 60 percent.

But the proposals by the Big 3 will not stop women from being the ones to leave work -- or not even attempt it at all -- when the health care system breaks down.

Nice Features

All three plans have some nice features. All call for a ban on the insurer practice of "adverse risk selection," which means enrolling healthy people and rejecting those more likely to require doctors, hospitals and medicine. All allow Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices.

But each plan shortchanges women in some similar ways.

For starters, each relies on tax credits to help people buy health insurance -- the purchase of which will be mandatory -- from existing private, mostly for-profit, insurers.

Do tax credits really help women, given that women earn considerably less than men? No. The value of tax credits decline as income falls so the more generous the tax credit the greater the benefit to the highest earners: men.

The trio of plans by Hillary, Obama and Edwards are also equally hard on women by requiring some level of out-of-pocket payments.

Even when women have insurance coverage their economic insecurity means they are more likely than men to economize on their medications and minimize follow-up treatment. All of this was first reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation and confirmed earlier this year by a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Caretakers Need a Real Break

The three private insurer-based plans are also identically stingy toward caretakers.

Some plans -- Hillary's and Edwards' -- would cover respite care to help caregivers. Edwards offers up flextime, longer leave periods and paid leaves to help "parents" balance work and family.

Although well intentioned these policies reinforce the social expectation that women will be able to meet the daily needs of those who cannot help themselves.

If, for example, federal legislation required employers to grant flextime to help care for the elderly, our social expectations of women would mean that any one of them who didn't use this option -- who didn't toss aside her paying job to assume this role -- would be subject to criticism.

And the news media wouldn't shy from broadcasting every report -- however marginal or questionable its methodology -- that showed how much better it is for the elderly to be in the care of a daughter than a professional attendant.

The U.S. health care crisis -- which left 47 million uninsured in 2006 -- is driven by escalating costs, high co-payments, skyrocketing drug prices, minimal preventive care and over-hospitalization (combined, ironically, with such short stays that the families of discharged patients must learn advanced nursing skills overnight).

None of the Big 3 addresses the fundamental cause of this crisis, which is not consumer behavior, employer stinginess or insufficient competition.

Instead, the high costs are traceable to the for-profit organization of the medical-industrial complex.

One need not have an MBA -- or even to have viewed Michael Moore's diatribe against the U.S. system in "Sicko" -- to know that insurance company profits rise with every claim that is denied, or delayed, delayed again and then processed incorrectly.

Eventually some customers give up thinking, "It's only $25," "It's only $50" and "It's only $1,000."

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HPV Vaccine Flags Need for More Pap Tests

A little more than a year ago, the nation's first vaccine against some human papillomavirus (HPV) infections was released.

This medical progress against cervical cancer got swept up by fear-based marketing that helped to generate premature calls for government mandates.

"You could become one less life affected by cervical cancer" is the mantra in most of Merck's ads for its vaccine, called Gardasil. The ubiquitous marketing campaign may leave viewers thinking that cervical cancer is more prevalent than it really is.

Merck also lobbied behind the scenes to make its vaccine mandatory for school-age girls, quietly funding groups such as Women in Government that promoted mandatory vaccination bills in state legislatures. Such a mandate, if passed quickly, would have increased the firm's sales before a competitor's product -- soon to hit the market -- was available.

When Merck's funding was exposed, the tactic backfired, fanning suspicions that profit motives were overwhelming public health concerns.

Opposition came from other camps too. Some parents pointed to the new vaccine's side effects (which are usually minor and transient) and questioned whether it should be required. Social conservatives raised concern that the vaccine could lead to increased sexual activity among America's youth.

HPV vaccination has been approved for females ages 9 through 26 and appears to be most beneficial for girls with no prior sexual activity. Studies show that vaccination after virus exposure is only minimally effective. The vaccine is not recommended for pregnant women, anyone with moderate to severe acute illnesses or anyone with sensitivity to vaccine components.

All of this has left a number of questions simmering.

Would a Mandate Reduce Cervical Cancer?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict a 22 percent to 60 percent reduction in cervical cancer attributable to this vaccine. However, for these reductions to be realized, a high proportion of young women will have to be vaccinated. Even then, reductions in invasive cervical cancer won't be measurable for several decades.

Many believe mandates are premature. Gardasil appears safe and effective up to five years, the length of time studies have covered so far, and if its effects are as strong over the long term as early results suggest, then requiring and funding vaccination for school-age girls (with exceptions for families who opt out) may become the best way to ensure access and protection for all girls, regardless of class or race.

About 10,000 cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed this year in the United States, and about 3,700 of these women will die from the disease.

Most who die of cervical cancer never had regular Pap tests. These screening tests can detect pre-cancerous tissue, which can be removed to prevent the development of cervical cancer.

In the United States, there are 6.6 cases of cervical cancer for every 100,000 white women and 10.5 cases for every 100,000 African American women. The racial disparity is due at least in part to women of color having less access to screening.

Globally, in regions where screening is much less common, the numbers are much worse. In areas of Africa, Central and South America, and Micronesia, there are more than 50 cases of cervical cancer per 100,000 women.

We don't know yet if requiring vaccination could reduce cervical cancer deaths and reduce racial and ethnic disparities in terms of HPV prevalence, cervical cancer incidence and cancer mortality. It is possible that women who do not get regular Pap screening and follow-up now will also be those least likely to be vaccinated, even with legislative mandates in place.

If there's one thing the discussions make clear, it's that we need to try harder on Pap tests. Cervical cancer used to be a leading cause of cancer deaths among U.S. women. But since the introduction of the Pap smear in the 1940s, those deaths have dropped about 75 percent, even as the population has grown.

What Does the HPV Vaccine Achieve?

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, affecting about 1 in 4 women between 14 and 59. Exposure usually occurs within the first few years of sexual activity, but infections often go unrecognized because there may be no symptoms. The vast majority of HPV infections clear up on their own.

Worldwide, 70 percent of women who develop cervical cancer have been infected with either HPV 16 or HPV 18, two of the strains the Gardasil vaccine targets. But most women infected with even such "high-risk" strains of HPV will not develop cervical cancer.

In addition to effectively protecting against HPV 16 and HPV 18, Gardasil protects against types 6 and 11, two strains that can cause genital warts but not cervical cancer.

Cervarix, a vaccine that GlaxoSmithKline expects to introduce in the United States soon, also protects against HPV types 16 and 18, but not the strains that can cause genital warts. Both Gardasil and Cervarix may provide partial cross-protection against some additional HPV types.

Neither vaccine protects against all strains of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer. In addition, testing of Gardasil has shown that it is far less effective if women have been exposed to HPV before vaccination. This is one reason why vaccination of girls as young as 9 has been recommended.

Regular Pap tests and follow-up care are still needed, even for women who are vaccinated, because they may have prior exposure to HPV or may in the future become exposed to strains that are not covered by the vaccine.

It is worth noting that HPV vaccine trials have demonstrated only protection against HPV-related genital pre-cancers, not cancer.

Should HPV Vaccines Be Made Available to All?

Is spending public money on HPV vaccination of all girls and young women appropriate, when cash-strapped communities could put the funds to other uses? This may be the most difficult question of all.

It leads immediately to another question: Does Merck need to charge $360 per person for the vaccine as it does now? According to Glenn McGee of Albany Medical College, Merck could recoup in several years its development costs for this and other vaccines that never made it to market by charging one-tenth the current price (assuming that sales continue at the current rate).

Merck says it calculated the price taking into account research and development costs as well as what the vaccine could save in terms of HPV-related treatment expenses. It argues that the long-term cost savings justify the unusually high price for this vaccine. Other analyses (for example, a British Columbia Cancer Agency report) disagree with these calculations and conclude that the cost of vaccination greatly outweighs the amount saved by avoiding treatment of HPV-related disease.

As we consider how to proceed on HPV vaccination, a clear understanding of the research -- not marketing claims or lobbying funds -- needs to guide both our individual decisions and our public policy.

More Parents Using Sperm Sorting Technique to Have Daughters

Leslie Jordan just wanted to dress up a dainty, delicate baby girl. But after giving birth to four sons, she was well established as a "boy mom" and playing kickball outside.

When Jordan married her husband about 10 years ago, they had a playful agreement to have four children; she wanted all four to be daughters. When she became pregnant, the ultrasound revealed their first son, Christian.

"I was thrilled when I saw him on the monitor," she said. "I didn't care what kind of package he came with. I was having a baby, and that's all I cared about."

Three similar ultrasounds later, and three failed attempts at folk remedies to conceive a girl including wearing tight underwear, taking Sudafed and tracking ovulation, the Jordans had their four children. She and her husband decided to try one more time, but didn't leave it to nature.

Jordan used a pre-conception sperm-sorting method and in vitro fertilization, which offered her an 85 percent chance of conceiving a girl. The procedure cost about $5,000, after insurance, which covered the in vitro and she became pregnant on the first try with Natalie, now a year old.

The Microsort method of sperm sorting, which uses a dye to separate male and female sperm before fertilization, and a second high-tech method called PGD -- or preimplantation genetic diagnosis -- which identifies the sex of embryos in the test tube before they are implanted in the womb, are drawing parents in to fertility clinics, where costs can rise up to $18,000 per cycle.

"They're having to save up for a BMW, or a baby," said Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, director of Fertility Institutes in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The clinic sees about 4,000 patients a year.

The success ratio for selecting girls is higher: In a Microsort clinical trial, 726 babies were born to parents who selected girls with a 92 percent success rate, compared to 81 percent success among 211 babies born to those who wanted boys.

From Prevention to Selection

The technology was initially developed to help prevent genetic disorders, which are often carried by one of the sex chromosomes, but a 2006 report from the Washington-based Genetics and Public Policy Center found that 42 percent of fertility clinics that offer the PGD embryo selection method used it for non-medical sex selection.

Jordan is one of thousands of parents to choose the gender of a child in the name of "family balancing." It's often used by women who want a daughter to add to a brood of sons, says Robin Weiss, author of "Guarantee the Sex of Your Baby," a 2007 book published by Ulysses Press that explains both low- and high-tech methods available to parents.

Up to 80 percent of U.S. families choose to try for girls, using methods ranging from sperm separation to money-back-guarantee kits complete with digital thermometers and ovulation predictors to use at home, according to the Web site In-gender.com, which informs parents interested in gender selection. Fertility professionals also say they have noticed a trend to select for females.

On Web sites such as In-gender.com and iVillage.com -- where a message board thread cheerfully begins, "A healthy baby is all that really matters, of course. But we know you're dying to find out if you can help the sperm carrying a particular chromosome be the one that wins the race" -- women fill forums with topics like "gender disappointment," which is what happens when methods don't produce the expected child. The anonymity the Internet provides -- with sex selection jargon like a "dh, "ds" or "dd" (dear husband, dear son or dear daughter) dotting the posts -- serves as a useful tool for a topic Weiss said is normally taboo.

"Women are not talking about it," she said, noting that the standard line of parents is that they just want a healthy baby. "Nobody says, 'We just plunked down $18,000, and it's a girl.'"

Test-Tube Baby Trial

Jordan used sperm-sorting to conceive Natalie as a participant in a clinical trial conducted by the Fairfax, Va.-based Genetics and IVF Institute. More than 900 babies had been born in the trial as of January 2007. It is so popular the Fairfax center suggests patients call for an appointment several months before a planned conception.

Both sperm-sorting and the embryo selection method were developed as a way to avoid passing along genetic disorders, which are carried by one of the sex chromosomes, but parents began calling fertility institutes, however, to find out if they could use it solely for choosing gender.

In his practice, Steinberg said he sees a nearly 50-50 split of which sex a couple desires. If a mother calls to make the appointment, he said, she almost always wants a girl, and when the father calls, it's usually for a boy. Most couples come in after having two or three children of the same sex, but the clinic will perform the procedure for a first child. (The Microsort clinical trial requires that families already have at least one child.)

Steinberg said about half his patients are from abroad, and typically those from China and India -- where the national sex ratio is skewed -- generally use the procedure to select males. Gender selection is outlawed in China, India and throughout much of Europe amid fears that sex selection will lead to sex discrimination. Largely, however, concerns over gender selection have focused on prenatal tests and ultrasounds that lead to selective abortions.

Debate Over Ethics

In the United States, non-medical gender selection is on vague ground ethically. The Chicago-based American Medical Association has neither endorsed nor condoned the practice. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, in Birmingham, Ala., says it is ethical when the couple is informed about the procedure and don't have "unrealistic expectations about the behavior of children of the preferred gender."

Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine at the University of California, issued a warning in a July 21 Sacramento Bee article about technology moving faster than the discussion surrounding it. "We've not yet had the debate and discussion to develop a rational approach to use of the technology," he wrote, adding that the doctor's job is not just to fill the requests of patients but to fulfill an integrity based on "reasoned, rational logic."

Steinberg said the real ethical conundrums may come later, when doctors can dissect an entire embryo's DNA, determining what the child will look and act like.

"We've been accused of being on the slippery slope for 20 years," he said. "The future's maybe a bit scarier than things are right now."

For Jordan, and the scores of other women posting due dates on message boards and discussing the best way to convince their "dh" to invest in sperm-sorting or embryo selection, her daughter is not an ethical quandary but the scientific fulfillment of a dream.

Natalie is not the dainty, delicate thing she'd envisioned, she said of her fifth child, but is instead an adorable squealer she discovers sitting in the toilet or tearing through cupboards.

"There's just this hole in my soul that I had to have filled," she said. "And it's filled."

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