Saturday, August 30, 2008

McCain and Palin Are Extremists, Not Mavericks

Many pundits have labeled John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for the vice-presidential slot as an off-message roll of the dice. In fact, it was probably the most calculated move he’s made.

McCain has a big problem: How does a diehard conservative who’s championed every failed policy of the last eight years (tax cuts for the rich, the war in Iraq, the power of Big Oil) win the presidency against an inspiring proponent of change? He can’t win by relying solely on the conservative base, and yet he can’t win without them. He has to keep his mantel as a maverick while assuring the Big Boys he has no intention of bucking them.

His only chance of victory is to appeal to women, especially Hillary supporters, to white working class voters and to independents without alienating conservative extremists.

Former Hewlett Packard CEO and McCain finance chair Carly Fiorina might have sparked some women, but she’d antagonize the conservatives with her support for abortion rights and for requiring policies that include Viagra to cover birth control. The evangelicals would have had a similar reaction to Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge, both of whom are pro-choice. Mitt Romney appealed to the base but would have been a finger in the eye to women and white workers – another four houses to account for.

Presto! Sarah Palin, a woman who uses the language of feminism while promoting a staunch conservative agenda: pro-gun, pro-creationism, anti-gay rights, anti-abortion even in the case of rape and incest. A woman who introduces her husband as a proud member of the steelworkers union while working to open Alaska to Big Oil. A politician who claims to be an environmentalist while denying that global warming is “man-made.”

In the eyes of John McCain, Palin brings another big plus. The press has bought into the Republican talking points and cloaked her, too, in the maverick mode. Like McCain, she stood her ground on certain reform issues. But on all the big questions of the day, both Palin and McCain walk lock step with George W. Bush and against the interests of women and working people in general.

John McCain is trying to pass off Gov. Palin as a career mom who knows the difficulties of balancing job and family – hoping women won’t notice the ticket’s opposition to every measure that would ease those difficulties, from expanding family leave to paid sick days to equal pay.

The real question isn’t why McCain chose Palin, but why the media continues to give them both cover, pasting on the “maverick” and “moderate” labels as if listing these terms were equivalent to listing party affiliation and state.

Recently I conducted an informal poll among my friends, all smart, politically aware people who keep up with the news. A dozen of the fifteen people I asked had never seen the clip of a befuddled Sen. McCain stroking his chin when a reporter asked if he’d voted against a proposal to require insurance companies that cover Viagra to cover contraceptive products. "I don't know enough about it to give you an informed answer because I don't recall the vote,” McCain replied. “I don't usually duck an issue, but I'll try to get back to you."

Had that clip – or any of numerous examples of McCain’s other extremist positions and slip-ups – been played more than 600 times in four days, as the Dean scream was, today’s polls would be very different.

McCain is counting on women to be cheap and superficial about his selection. Even more, he’s counting on a docile media to be his ally as he tries to pass off Gov. Palin as a sister and champion.

It’s high time for the public to meet the real John McCain.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Highlights from Denver

Generosity and sisterhood:
Hotel rooms were all taken when I decided to go to the DNC in Denver to promote the agenda for Valuing Families at Work. Dori Maynard, who runs the Maynard media institute, offered to have me share her room. She was staying far from the convention, and I wound up staying with a friend closer by. When I saw Dori, I thanked her for being willing to open her room to a stranger. “You’re not a stranger,” she said. “We just hadn’t met.”

Favorite lines:
Ceil Richards, daughter of Ann Richards and head of Planned Parenthood: “Women voting for McCain would be like chickens voting for Colonel Sanders.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN): “People who live in seven houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (NY) recalling a line of Bella Abzug about equal opportunity: “We’re not fighting for a female Einstein to be an assistant professor. We fight for a female schlemiel to get the same job as a male schlemiel.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who chaired Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign in NY: “I wear this button: ‘I’m a Hillary supporter. Now Hillary supports Barack Obama and so do I.’ The media kept calling me, asking, ‘Are you going to the demonstration protesting that Hillary wasn’t selected as VP?’ They’re trying to divide us, pour salt on the wounds. The media people say Barack Obama is not treating Hillary well – but the platform has its strongest planks ever for women. That’s how Barack Obama is treating women.”

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (CA), ranking woman on the Armed Services Committee, on the insistence by military lawyers that current procedures for reporting sexual assault needed no change: “Obviously, you’ve never been raped.”

Billye Avery, founder of a Black women’s health group in Atlanta: “The Massachusetts health plan is insurance reform, not health care reform.”

Mary Kay Harris, an activist from DARE in Rhode Island who became involved after her son was brutally beaten by police, at a discussion of women activists: “Seeing you all doing amazing work builds hope for me. I leave with a burst of energy.” Mary Kay attributes her activism to learning to stand up for herself and fight harassment as one of the only female welders.

Carol Jenkins, president of the Women’s Media Center, on the need for the media to include women experts on every issue: “There are women who can write about nuclear bombs and even some who can set them off.”

Amazing factoids:
The country with the highest percentage of women in political office: Rwanda. It was one of the reforms they felt they had to do in order to rebuild after the murder of 8000 Tutsis.

Iraq and Afghanistan both have more women in political office than the U.S.

Percentage of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afganistan who are female: 19.
Number of instances of rape reported by those women from military men: 900.

Where the U.S. ranks compared to other countries in maternal mortality: 41

Favorite Freebies
Condoms from Planned Parenthood saying, “Protect yourself from John McCain.” Each has one of 10 reasons why McCain would be terrible for women.

Favorite T-Shirt

They Got the Memo

Activists spend lots of time developing materials for candidates who never see or hear a word about it. Imagine what would happen if these folks actually got the memo.

While in Denver, I attended a panel hosted by the Women's Media Center and Women's ENews boasting a stellar assortment of women Congressional leaders. If only this had been a mandatory session for every candidate for public office.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT) kicked things off by talking about inequality in pay and benefits: Women over a lifetime losing an average of two million dollars; one fifth of women lacking health insurance; nearly half in jobs with no retirement plan. Rep. DeLauro has been spearheading bills like the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would allow women to file for damages without a cap, and end salary secrecy. She also fights for the Fair Pay Restoration Act, to undo the Supreme Court decision that said pay discrimination complaints have to be filed within 180 days of the first act of inequality – even if the woman involved had no idea she was being paid less than male co-workers for the same job.

“Men and women in Congress get equal pay,” Rep. DeLauro said. “We need this for every woman.”

In addition, Rep. DeLauro has been leading the fight in the House for a new minimum standard of paid sick days.

Cong. Carolyn Maloney (NY) talked about her new book, “Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Why Women's Lives Aren't Getting Any Easier--And How We Can Make Real Progress For Ourselves and Our Daughters.” She described her outrage when the 9/11 victims compensation planned to award the families of women a third less than the families of their male co-workers based on expected lifetime earnings. Maloney and others got this changed.

Yes, it matters who sits in the halls of Congress.

Facts about domestic violence and sexual assault in the military came from Rep. Loretta Sanchez (CA), the ranking woman on the Armed Services Committee and vice-chair of the Homeland Security Committee. Angered by a Department of Defense that issued 18 reports over 15 years on sexual assault issues but took no action, Rep. Sanchez helped push through a change in the Uniform Code of Military Justice to make it easier for women to bring complaints. She described the military lawyers who insisted that procedures didn’t need to change.

“Obviously, you’ve never been raped,” she told them. Now Rep. Sanchez wants any officer on a promotion list to be evaluated on how he’s treated issues of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Rep. Gwen Moore (WI) talked about her efforts to improve the lives of women living in poverty. She was able to ensure that women on TANF who have to deal with domestic violence are not subjected to time limits on benefits. Rep. Moore also led the fight to make sure that every penny of child support goes directly to women.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL) won change allowing women facing deportation who’ve been victims of domestic violence to file separately for relief. “Being terrorized in your own home is one of the worst kind of terrorisms,” she said. She urged U.S. feminists to see ourselves as part of an international sisterhood.

Rep. Schakowsky also highlighted Bush’s proposed Conscience Clause, which would allow pharmacists not to fill a prescription if their beliefs oppose birth control. “This is not just about abortion,” she said. “This administration is after controlling our lives.”

The last speaker was Rep. Lois Capps, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, which numbered 75 until the untimely death of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones. A former school nurse, she represents the district where a transgendered youth was murdered. Rep. Capps has fought to help pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell provision.

I attended this panel with a friend whose wife is considering running for Congress. “This panel was transformative for me,” he said. Until that moment, he’d been ambivalent, fearing Congress would be too alien and hostile for the work she wants to do. Seeing these vibrant women, so clearly connected to each other, opened his eyes to the kind of support and co-champions his wife would be among.

“I hope she plunges in,” he said.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

On Truth Telling

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Thanks to the Women’s Media Center, I’ve been thinking a lot about what that phrase means, about the difference between information, opinion and bias.

Information means facts. Like ‘em or not, facts express reality. They need to be accurate and they need to be thorough.

I can say, Denise Smith lost her job because she was absent too many times. That’s a fact -- but it doesn’t tell me the whole story. What was too many times and why was she absent? Turns out she had a child with asthma and her employer had no paid sick days. Each of the three times Denise missed work, even though she followed the guidelines for calling in, she was given an “absence point.” Three points and you’re out.

You may think that’s reasonable – that’s an opinion. I may disagree. But we both have to be operating from the same set of facts. Just knowing Denise Smith didn’t show up for work may cause you to believe she was lazy. That’s a bias based on too little information.

If someone tells you Denise Smith quit her job, that’s misinformation. And if they tell you she had a bad work ethic, that’s disinformation. Both feed bias.

The media’s job is to dig deep, make sure we the people have all the facts. As the WMC video “Sexism Sells and We’re Not Buying It” reminds us, too often the media falls short – in no small part because of the lack of diversity both among those who tell the story and those who decide what the stories should be.

I've been in Denver at the Democratic Convention, promoting an agenda that values families at work -- see Folks will be distributing this information at the RNC as well.) I attended the panel called “Soundbites and Solutions: Bias, Punditry and the Press in the 2008 Elections.” The Women’s Media Center, in conjunction with the Maynard Institute and the White House Project, gave us a feast of experts to probe the question of what constitutes bias in the media and what to do about it.

Richard Prince, who chairs the Diversity Committee of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, described being in a room full of reporters and publishers when John McCain declared that the United States wasn’t founded on notions of class or race or ethnicity, but rather on ideas. Everyone but Prince nodded. So much for the facts – at our founding, only white male property owners were allowed to vote; even free Blacks were considered three-fifths of a person.

“There was something wrong with who these people are and what they know about the U.S.,” Prince said. No news stories the next day mentioned McCain’s comment. Had those in the room looked and lived more like the rest of us, they wouldn’t just have had a different opinion – they would have known and told the truth.

Patricia Williams, columnist for the Nation, talked about the difference between opinion and bias. “I hear people say, ‘In my opinion, Barack Obama is a Muslim or terrorist.’ That’s not just an opinion – it’s disinformation.” Williams also talked about the institutional bias of the consolidation of media ownership. Bias becomes embedded when the media operates entirely for commercial rather than public interest. “Fiction becomes fact,” Williams said, “because people see it repeated.”

A powerful example of the consequences of this phenomenon came from Maria Teresa Peterson of Voto Latino. She described the father of three in Shenandoah, PA who was beaten to death because he was an immigrant. “The media shapes perceptions,” she said, “and gives permission for certain acts.” Noting that 61 percent of all hate crimes over the last two years were against Latinos, Peterson pointed to the role of Lou Dobbs and others who have been allowed to shape the negative perceptions of immigrants that leads to such violence.

Carol Jenkins reminded us that the Women’s Media Center doesn’t just describe the problem, they’ve also laid out solutions – changes the media needs to make and also changes we can make as consumers of media in order to remove sexism and every other form of bias. “Use your purse,” she said. “Use your voice.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Women's Equality Day: It's Personal for Everyone

If you’ve heard Sen. Barack Obama speak about the women in his life, you’ve probably heard him say, “This is personal for me.” He tells stories about his grandmother, his mother, and his wife and the obstacles they ran into – pay inequity, glass ceilings, work-family conflicts. He describes his dreams for his daughters, how he wants them to have the exact same opportunities as males.

Year after year, campaigns too often marginalize women’s issues, box them into one little “special interest” cubby. But our issues should be personal to every candidate -- because the ways in which women are held back or forced to jump through hoops directly affects the lives and well-being of men. What happens to women happens also to their families.

The converse is also true: solutions for women are good for families.

Often when I give talks, men come up to me afterwards to share the moment they figured this out. “I never thought about how little my wife earned as a [fill-in-the-blank-typical-women’s-job,]” they say. “And then I got laid off/saw my job outsourced/had my hours cut/pay slashed. Suddenly her pay was our family’s only/main income – and we couldn’t get by.”

When women’s jobs are undervalued, clearly the missing dollars don’t flow into the pockets of their husbands or sons, or their male co-workers.

But pay isn’t the only issue. Problems that affect disproportionately women affect men as well.

Think about cases where women exposed to lead were ordered to be sterilized if they wanted to stay in their high-paying jobs, even if they had already borne children or had no intention of becoming pregnant. Reproductive organs, as we know, are the canaries in the coal mine – they indicate a problem early, but the problem is all around. “Clean up the department,” activists insisted. “All workers need protection.”

Or think about the inequities of part-time work. Women make up the majority of part-time workers in this country. The assumption has been that women working reduced hours have men to take care of them (or better get one). Regardless of the realities, it’s perfectly legal in the United States of America to pay part-timers lower wages and fewer or no benefits than full-time workers.

A recent New York Times article reminded us how this legal discrimination rule affects more than women. The paper reported that more than 3.7 million people have now had full-time hours slashed to part-time, the largest number since the government began keeping track of this category. Nearly three-fourths of those affected in the last year are men, especially Latinos.

We could make the same point about any number of policies, including paid sick days. It’s not just women who get sick or deal with sick kids, and certainly not just women are affected by the germs of co-workers or servers who can’t get off when they’re ill. When workplaces function as if all workers are males with wives at home, men as well as women suffer.

We all have a stake in solving the problems women face – unequal pay, lack of paid sick days and family leave insurance, lack of control over work schedules, inadequate access to quality and affordable child care, missing retirement options.

August 26 is Women's Equality Day. The movement that launched the struggle for women's suffrage began with a focus on a wide range of women's issues. Women saw the vote not as an end in itself, but a means to win the social and economic justice they deserved.

Today, the 88th anniversary of women finally winning the right to vote, is a good time to remember that women’s issues are key to the health and economic security of our nation – and also that women will determine who wins this election.