Tag Archives: women

Review Week: Generation Roe

I reviewed the book Generation Roe last fall, and there were several places where I found parallels to other struggles, in other contexts and other issues.

That has made me think more about the interconnections between causes and campaigns, what silos we need to break down in order to optimally learn from each other, and how our parochial concerns can lead to thinking that no issue is as challenging as ours and, thus, that no one can offer us anything of value.

So, in the interest of helping us get beyond our own, more narrow, ways of seeing our advocacy work, this week I have some reflections on the reproductive rights battle. My focus is not on the substance, here, nearly as much as the process, and the insights to be gleaned from these seemingly divergent issues.

Today: authentically rooting your issue in clients’ lived experiences

One of the emphases in Generation Roe was about the importance of systems thinking, and the problems that arise from practitioners and advocates looking at a client’s–or a larger group of women’s–abortion decision decision in isolation, rather than examining the interlocking systems that work to shape perceived choices…and constrains options.

I think this same tendency plays out in other arenas, too, such as in the evolving understanding about the role of trauma in shaping later well-being, and in the practice to refer clients to different systems when they need other types of help, rather than surrounding them with all of the supports they need. We know, in our own lives, that we can’t neatly compartmentalize our challenges–our worries about our ailing parents spill over into our decision about accepting the promotion we’ve been working towards, or our anxieties about our marriage keep us from scheduling that long-delayed doctor’s appointment–but we often expect clients to focus on whatever is the priority for our ‘slice’ of work with them, sometimes in willful ignorance of the messiness that is reality.

Many of the providers interviewed in Generation Roe talked about the difficulty of being face-to-face with desperation. It is harrowing, is it not, to really accompany someone through tremendous pain. So we build walls to protect ourselves from a visceral reaction, not because we don’t care, but because we do…so much.

The tragedy, here, is that this reaction neither protects our hearts nor aids our analysis. Instead, we can more easily become bitter and hopeless, cutting ourselves off from the human connections–painful though they often are–that were, for most of us, our motivation for entering social work in the first place.

And, finally, the most poignant passage for me was about questioning our right and responsibility to urge our clients to speak out, even when they might prefer to be silent, if such visibility and vocalization are the only ways that we can humanize the issues on which we are working (p. 174).

This evokes, for me, a lot of reflection about the immigrant rights movement, particularly the organizing of undocumented youth, and the way in which their ‘coming out’ has galvanized a generation of immigrants and their allies, even though many of us were hesitant to see them play this public role. What about when the tables are turned, and clients may not want to self-identify? Clearly we have an obligation to preserve their privacy, but do we have a role to play in encouraging them to drop those barriers on their own? If so, where is the line?

Where do you see yourself turning to campaigns and movements, even far afield of your own work, for inspiration or caution? What makes it hard to generalize from these seemingly parallel efforts? How can we bridge the gaps for greater collective force? How can we be better students of movements?

The new ‘mommy wars’


I am all for more Mommy Wars.

Not the ‘stay-at-home’ v. ‘work-full-time’ type.

Those are offensive (because they totally ignore the reality of families’ economic needs for two incomes, and the policies that have driven them, as well as the ongoing gender imbalance in the workplace and in domestic responsibilities), soul-sucking (because being a mother is hard work, and the last thing we need is more alienation), divisive (our biggest challenges are not each other), and, ultimately, really misguided.

No, I want more of the ‘Moms v. Injustice’ type of Mommy wars, the kind where Senator Mitch McConnell has to walk past lines of moms in strollers to get to his office, after leading the charge against mandatory background checks.

The kind where mothers and children celebrate Mothers’ Day by demanding immigration reform that will stop separating families.

The kind where mothers (and fathers) work together, across lines of class and race, to demand sick-leave policy to protect their families and preserve their jobs.

The kind of collective ‘mom war’ on what’s besieging our families, perhaps starting with the lack of recognition of the value of the caregiving work that women do–whether they also work for pay outside the home or not–and the need for society to share all of our responsibilities.

This year, for my birthday, I’m making donations to MomsRising, and I would love for you to join me.

My hope for this next year of my life is that moms–self included–feel less ‘stressed’ and more angry, together.

  • Angry at lack of affordable childcare and flexible workplace policies
  • Angry at society’s failure to take basic steps towards protecting our children
  • Angry at the gendered nature of caregiving and the reality of ongoing pay discrimination
  • Angry at the politicization of health care–for women and also for our families
  • Angry at how often women, in the U.S. and around the world, are expected to pick up the slack created by policy gaps, and at how unrecognized women’s work is, despite being the lifeblood of the economy
  • Angry at messages that convince us to compete with other moms or to focus inward on achieving ‘balance’, rather than seeking justice at home and work
  • Angry at forces that push us to tear each other down for our ‘choices’, instead of revealing the false nature of many of the options we face

We need a war on the system that tries to turn public failings into personal problems.

And Moms are just the ones to wage it.

Supreme Stakes

It’s the first Monday in October.

And here’s all I really want to say:

It has been a really big year for the judicial system (Um, the ACA, anyone?), in policymaking, and (in the crystal ball that I don’t really have) I see that continuing for quite a while.

With such polarization in the legislative and executive arenas, there is a lot of ‘envelope-pushing’ these days. And, when envelopes are pushed, sometimes details can get overlooked.

Like the Constitution.

I think we’ll see a lot more anti-immigrant legislation, which, while the Supreme Court has already green-lighted many of the Arizona-style provisions, is still likely to run afoul of preemption and equal protection, in particular, in legislators’ zealousness to ‘out-anti-immigrant’ each other.

It’s easy to imagine that Kansas might be the site of a showdown over abortion rights, and that that battle could end up in court. Kansas, too, is likely to abdicate its constitutional responsibilities in education, and many states are seriously failing students of color, in particular, in ways that invite court action. Depending on what happens in the November elections, we could see another attempt at campaign finance reform legislation, which could challenge some of the findings in the Citizens United decision.

What does this mean, on this October 1st?

That social workers had better be paying close attention, not just to the decisions that courts hand down, but to the issues where they should be asked to decide, too.

We have three branches for a reason and, even though we certainly can’t guarantee the outcome when we turn to the courts, we can’t afford to ignore one of the tools at our disposal.

The stakes are high, as I imagine the founders knew they would be, and we just might need to go to court.

A lot.

Horrible stuff I wouldn’t even dare to make up

I thought about, for this April Fool’s Day, making up something really awesome in the social policy world. But then I thought that would be super depressing, to find out that it was just a joke.

And, so, then I thought about making something up that’s really horrible, because that would make us feel better, right, to find out that it was a trick?

But, then I worried that I’d never be able to make up something so terrible that it would seem at all suspicious. Which was super depressing, too.

So, then I decided that I’d MUCH rather be angry than sad, about the assaults on social work values and on those we serve. So I scrolled through my email archives to find some of the horrible stuff that sounds so outlandishly awful that it should be made up, that I’ve collected over the past couple of months, for a sort of “should be April Fool’s jokes but we’re not laughing, so let’s do something about it” list.

That was too wordy a title even for me.

In no particular order, here are some completely unfunny, all-too-true examples of why social work advocacy is so needed.

No joke.

  • Tea Party group in my own state of Kansas depicts President Obama as a skunk, in an overtly racist smear. I’m grateful not only to the local NAACP chapter for speaking out on this but also for my good friends at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, for helping us see how this connects to very worrisome trends of anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric (and action) within Tea Party groups.
  • City of Topeka repeals its domestic violence law in order to avoid having to pay to prosecute misdemeanors, after the County DA announced that his office would no longer do so, in order to save money. This was really controversial, with some advocates applauding the City Council’s decision as calling the DA’s bluff, but I side with those who feel that it sent a really dangerous signal, in addition to resulting in the failure to charge at least several perpetrators whose crimes were committed during the time during which they were, essentially, not crimes. Women struggling to flee abuse should not be pawns in an intra-governmental budget showdown. Period.
  • 96-year-old African-American woman who voted even during the Jim Crow era blocked by Tennessee’s “voter ID” law. Honestly, I had hoped that I was just being paranoid about these laws being an attack on our most fundamental democratic rights. Obviously not.
  • Alabama. Enough said.

    It shouldn’t be so hard to come up with a list of totally wild things, pulled from our imaginations, that would be instantly recognizable as fabrications.

    Maybe that’s my new advocacy goal: make “ridiculous” mean something again, in the policy context.

    A year from now, I want to be foolable again.

That sounds about right…

In preparation for the upcoming state legislative session(s)–they’ll be here before we know it!–I’ve been working with some folks who are reviewing policy trends at the state level, nationwide, to identify sources for these new initiatives, messages and strategies that can combat them, and (because I’m ever the optimist!) positive legislative agendas that can chart a way forward, at least in the states where I spend most of my time.

Looking back, especially over the last couple of years, I was reminded of a quote that I bookmarked in Backlash, a book that I read during my maternity leave.

Will Bunch, the author, referred to some of the legislative developments that took precedence in Congress over job creation priorities, as “impulsive acts of rage with imprimatur of law” (p. 164).

And, you know, that sounds about right.

I have an obvious interest, in particular, in the anti-immigrant attacks that are odious not only for their sheer meanness but also for their foolishness, given that almost all of them are completely unlawful (which, if you think about it, is really kind of ironic: What part of “illegal” do they not understand?). Of course, immigrants aren’t the only ones hurt by these attacks: do you want to be waiting in an emergency room in Arizona while personnel are trying to verify proof of citizenship? (SB 1405–I don’t make this stuff up) Or, what–you don’t carry your original birth certificate on you in case of a life-threatening injury? Wasteful, ill-conceived, hateful, ridiculous…and popular, in states with very different demographics and even political landscapes.

But, of course, immigrants were not the only ones targeted by vengeful acts of childish rage. One of my students wrote a paper this year pointing out how the attacks on women’s reproductive rights threaten our economic viability as a nation, given the link, worldwide, between women’s ability to control their own fertility and their labor market participation. People who work for a living, despite their overwhelming strength in numbers, were demonized, devalued, and, in terms of meaningful access to redress for grievances and some power to right tremendous imbalances in the workplace, nearly destroyed.

States went after children’s health insurance, early childhood education, and safety-net services for those with mental illness, in many cases while simultaneously purporting that businesses need tax “relief” because of their horrible struggles. (In this, of course, they were echoed by the U.S. House of Representatives, whose penchant for oil company incentives over children’s health even my 5-year-old called “wacky.” Indeed.)

We cannot afford to bemoan these policy proposals (some of which made it into law, and some of which were forestalled only by the courageous efforts of advocates and policymakers who deserve our support in November 2012). What we need to do, first, is call them what they are: distractions and assaults, not legitimate plans to address the challenges facing our states.

We need organizing strategies that address their root causes–the maligning of the “other” and the fault-finding borne of desperation and preyed upon by those with a horribly unjust way of seeing the world. We need coalitions that see a threat to one as a threat to all. We need an agenda that offers a promise of real solutions.

We need a new year, and a commitment to make great things happen in it.

For many women, every day is Labor Day

Today is Labor Day.

Instead of thinking about how Americans work for a living, though, I’ve been thinking more about women’s work, the unpaid kind.

This isn’t another discussion about gendered divisions of labor within our own household, though.

The reality is that, on a much larger scale, our society and societies around the world are predicated on women’s labor and the way in which it is used to compensate for the impossibilities of our modern lives, especially as governments withdraw from the social contracts that have provided the foundation for family supports necessitated by changes in women’s work and family patterns.

It goes like this: Women provide more care for older relatives when services funded by the Older Americans Act are cut. They have to spend more time in labor-intensive meal preparation and shopping when food prices go up. They have to scramble for decent childcare when subsidies are reduced. They have to worry about health care for themselves and their children when fiscal strains and outright attacks on women’s health become commonplace in the political discourse. They work more hours (at unequal pay) as male wages stagnate in the global economy.

In many ways, then, even budget cuts that look “gender-neutral” on their face fall the hardest on women, and exact the highest price from women whose labor will inevitably fill in the cracks that surface as services are slashed. In Kansas, we’ve cut public schools and expected mothers to make sure that their children are still making “adequate yearly progress” by spending more time on homework in the evenings. We’ve reduced funding for mental health centers, both necessitating more caregiving for those with serious mental illnesses and denying those who need mental health care (including low-income women) an affordable way to access it. We’ve slashed funding for the Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, whose work includes many programs for children and families, but we’ll make sure to get out to investigate the mothers who aren’t adequately able to hold it all together without these supports.

This isn’t just about current American political currents and an ideological attack on women.

In my class on global poverty, my students learn about how research in economies undergoing structural adjustment programs finds that women’s unpaid labor increases significantly, in many of the same ways experienced by American women. Indeed, while the impacts on children, seniors, and other vulnerable populations are often dire, the evidence is clear that they are not nearly as catastrophic as they would be without women stepping up and, in many cases, sacrificing themselves.

Today, let’s not just celebrate the labor that has built this country, and the proud traditions of labor unions that continue to fight for every working person.

Let us remember the work that isn’t even dignified by being called such, the work that policymakers are subtly depending on when they target working families for budget cuts and service reductions, knowing that women will try to keep the sky from falling down.

And let us avoid the platitudes about “a woman’s work is never done”, and instead call this kind of accounting what it is: unjust, unsustainable, and unacceptable.

Women the world over deserve an “un-labor” day, and a movement that will deliver the public infrastructure and investments that will secure it.

What lessons for advocates in Roe v. Wade?

Opposing sides from last year's commemorative march

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the Roe v. Wade case almost 38 years ago, on January 22, 1973.

More because I finally got around to it than because I have such a keen sense of timing, I just finished reading Wrath of Angels, a quite compelling story of the battle over abortion in the United States, co-written by an investigative reporter from Kansas City who I know somewhat from her work on extremist groups associated with the anti-immigrant movement.

But, really, this post isn’t about abortion.

Instead, when I looked back at the pages I’d marked as I read, I found that what resonated with me the most were the lessons that this extraordinarily contentious, long-lived, and influential debate holds for advocates in other social justice arenas, as a sort of extreme case study that crosses multiple policy jurisdictions and has left a mark on all of American politics.

  • Public opinion may be more malleable, and more fickle, than we think. Several observers have called Roe v. Wade the ‘fastest social revolution in history’, but, just 7 years after the Supreme Court decision (issued contrary to American public opinion, which was mostly opposed to abortion), opinion polls showed considerable alignment with the expansions of reproductive freedoms the decision codified, as well as the limitations it embraced. To me, this suggests that social justice advocates should not necessarily focus as much energy on bringing “the public” to our side, but rather on working through policy mechanisms to force the changes we know our communities deserve, creating space for the rest of the nation to catch up.
  • We must be ready to fight on multiple fronts at the same time. Advocates on both sides of the abortion issue struggled to cope with a suddenly nationalized debate; where once they had fought state-by-state, building relationships with those policymakers and studying those processes, overnight they were dealing with a national issue that required a national strategy. I see a similar dilemma in the movement for immigrants’ rights; while congressional passage of comprehensive immigration reform is the end goal, advocates are also playing defense against restrictive state legislation and trying to advance something progressive at the state level as federal action remains elusive. It’s hard to play on both of these courts at the same time, particularly on an issue (like both abortion and immigrants’ rights) with important judicial tactics, as well.
  • Winning on language is huge. The anti-abortion (or “pro-life”–language figures into every aspect of this debate!) effort, in particular, has demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the importance of definitions, as evidenced in the push to have fetuses defined as children, even in areas of policy seemingly far removed from questions of reproduction itself. When we forget that how people talk about our issues matters at least as much as what they’re actually saying, we may have already lost.
  • Sometimes, movements may need to strategically exclude. This last piece is controversial for me, especially because social workers and community organizers (and I consider myself both) are rather instinctively inclusive, but I was quite transfixed by the account of the debate within the anti-abortion camp about excluding men from all of their demonstrations, in order to avoid the charge that their cause was about men controlling women’s lives, and to provide a counterbalance to the predominantly feminist reproductive health care providers they were combating. Ultimately, this commitment didn’t last long, and the major anti-abortion organizations did come to be dominated by men. But, still, it made me think: how might I feel differently about that movement, and its role in our politics, if it was authentically led by women? Which leads me to ask, should movements exclude to send a message, given how important messages are? And THAT question raises all kinds of issues about my own work within a community that’s not my own, and the kind of message that might have sent, and whether immigrants would be better off if they excluded non-immigrants from positions of leadership within their own struggle, too.

    While, obviously, I welcome your comments and questions and responses to these reflections on the theme of Roe v. Wade’s legacy for other campaigns and other causes, I’d also love to hear from those social workers who are better scholars of this particular struggle than I, about what this anniversary means for you. This post may be more about what we can learn from this epic battle than about the battle itself, but those lessons wouldn’t exist without the sacrifices of those who have gone before.