The Wife Dilemma, Part One

Here’s one of my biggest pet peeves: women who are written off because they are “only” wives. This especially disturbs me when it is used to dismiss a woman’s expertise or accomplishments because it’s only her husband who is well-known for something. And it really upset me when it was directed at Hillary Clinton.

When Clinton was running for the Democratic nomination in the presidential race of 2008, many people spitefully said that she wouldn’t be where she is today if she hadn’t been married to a President of the United States, as if all she did was stand by his side at ceremonies or pick out his clothes. The ironic thing is that when she did try to take a more active part in her husband’s administration, she was strongly criticized and her efforts were ridiculed.

It’s no wonder that other First Ladies have been careful to pick causes that are considered appropriate for a wife of a President to have. I had high hopes for Michelle Obama; I thought she might take on something like domestic violence or poverty, or even, God forbid, reproductive rights. Instead she settled on childhood obesity, a nice safe cause that won’t rock anyone’s boat. (Although I did read that Sarah Palin criticized her for trying to tell parents what to do with their children; of course she equated that with big government.)

There were times during Bill Clinton’s presidency when I wondered what Hillary Clinton thought she was doing. But that was mainly because there was no precedent for it. At other times I thought, “Why not?” After all, who would be more in tune with what her husband was trying to accomplish than she? And it’s not like she’s a dummy; far from it. She’s an intelligent and accomplished person in her own right.

So is Michelle Obama. And if I sound like I’m saying she has to have her own “outside” job to be considered important, I’m not. On the contrary, I’m saying that we should accord respect to wives no matter what they do in or out of the home and not assume that just because they’re wives they’re incapable of contributing anything important to the world. I would just like to have seen her take on something a little more “earth-shattering” than childhood obesity (and before you jump in, I do realize that it’s a big problem; I just happen to think that getting food to starving children should be a higher priority than taking it away from kids who don’t need it).

But she’s probably responding, at least in part, to people who are ready to pounce on her if she so much as comments on a “touchy” subject. She’s not supposed to have opinions of her own, even if she has the knowledge and experience to back them up. I thought she added a lot to her husband’s campaign but as soon as he was elected, she seemed to have lost her voice.

Eleanor Roosevelt is probably considered the best First Lady this country has ever seen. But even she restricted herself to “feminine” causes like human rights, the status of working women and world peace. The truth is, though, she could probably have taken over for her husband in a heartbeat (and some think she did occasionally). She would have made a wonderful President. Still, she at least received recognition for her own accomplishments. She was never seen as “just” the wife of a President.

We should never underestimate what the woman behind a “great” man is capable of absorbing from being involved in her husband’s world. Wives know a lot more than we give them credit for. If we would just look past the label, we would discover a woman who is just as capable of “running the world” as her husband is.

See my next post for “The Wife Dilemma, Part Two.”

The Paycheck Fairness Act is DOA

While I was celebrating Eid Al-Adha on Tuesday, the Senate was voting on whether or not to proceed to a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act. This is called voting on a motion to invoke cloture and is used to end a filibuster. Because cloture requires a two-thirds majority to push it through, it only takes 41 Senators to revoke it. And on Tuesday, that’s exactly what happened.

Since there are only 57 Democrats and two Independents in the Senate now, it would have taken one Republican breaking the ranks to achieve cloture (assuming that the Independents voted with the Democrats). Not only did that not happen, but Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson from Nebraska sided with the Republicans. (Sen. Lisa Murkowski, newly-elected Senator from Alaska did not vote, but since she’s a Republican, it’s assumed that she would have voted along party lines, which would have given the Republicans 42 votes. But even if she would have broken ranks and voted with the Democrats, cloture would still have been rejected 59-41.)

In Great Britain it only takes a simple majority to invoke cloture, but that has been rejected in the U.S. because it’s thought that a simple majority doesn’t do enough to protect the rights of the minority. Silly me: I’ve always been under the impression that in a democracy a simple majority rules. Apparently that’s not the case when it comes to ending filibusters, which is one reason why they’re so hard to end.

Sorry for the civics lesson, but if you’re like me, you find this whole process confusing.

So why would anyone vote against the Paycheck Fairness Act? Because it would put too much of a burden on businesses. In other words, businesses should be allowed not only to pay their female employees less but also to hide the fact that they’re doing so! And people say that there is no more gender inequality in this country.

Another objection to the bill is that it was unnecessary since legislation already exists that makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender (although it has yet to be determined if this means that transgendered people are also protected). (Read Nancy Pelosi’s comments on the issue of wage discrimination.) However, the Paycheck Fairness Act includes many provisions that would make it easier to enforce laws that already exist, provide for research and training, and give women the right to sue over discriminatory practices. (At present, they are only able to collect back pay, or double that amount for willful violation.)

Of course, another objection is that the bill would increase litigation against businesses. Again, if businesses don’t want to be sued, then they should pay women and men the same pay for equal work. It’s as simple as that. Maybe it will take a few lawsuits before businesses finally decide that it’s not in their best interests to shortchange their female employees.

Read more here (Huffington Post)and here (Wall Street Journal). Also, see these statistics about the wage gap. You’ll be astonished.

Where’s Our Safety Net?

There’s an article in the latest issue (September 20, 2010) of The Nation titled “It’s Better Over There” that’s about the safety net that exists in Europe (specifically Germany) that doesn’t exist in the U.S. The author, Katha Pollitt, who is a columnist for The Nation (among other things), just came back from spending a year in Berlin and her report about how things are for the poor and the middle class in an economy that is hurting (although in better shape than ours) really made me think.

Here are some of the things Germans have that much of the U.S. doesn’t:

  • Six weeks of vacation and twenty-seven paid holidays.
  • Job security and retirement pensions.
  • Free, or nearly free education, including college.
  • Healthcare including nursing. (The German system requires everyone to buy insurance, but provides subsidies for low earners. Sound familiar?)
  • A government that provides partial compensation for lost wages and encourages companies to shorten hours rather than lay people off.
  • Paid maternity and maternity leave. [For international comparisons of parental leave policies, go here.]

This isn’t to say that social democratic systems like Germany’s are perfect, but they must be doing something right: Germany’s unemployment rate is around 7-7.5 and the United States’ is over 9 and worsening. [Source.]

But just mention social democracy and conservatives go crazy. They assume that social democracy is socialism, pure and simple. It’s not. One definition of social democracy (the one that applies to Germany) is: “a democratic welfare state that incorporates both capitalist and socialist practices.” It’s the “socialist” part that freaks conservatives out. But what social democracy means in practice is that the government is more hands-on in relation to issues that affect the common good. It’s not good for a country to have a high number of poor and unemployed. It costs everyone else a lot of money. It’s much better to spend that money making sure that workers are employed and spending their money. That’s what makes for a healthy economy.

It used to be that democracy meant “the rule of the majority.” But when you look at America today, you have to ask yourself if that’s still true. It seems to me that it is the wealthy and influential who rule America. And in their short-sighted desire to keep as much of their wealth and power as they can to themselves, they’ve robbed the majority of their right to make decisions that affect their very lives.

The term “majority” doesn’t mean the largest racial, religious or socioeconomic group. It means the most people overall. That means that minorities like blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, the handicapped, Muslims, welfare recipients and the poor all have a right to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed. And let’s not forget the largest group in this society: women. If we make up a majority of the population and of the workforce, why aren’t our needs being addressed?

I’ve written before about how vulnerable women are in our society. We have no maternity leave, fewer benefits, less pay and little or no support for the needs of our families. Women are often forced to work part-time because they can’t afford to pay for full-time child care (and women are still thought of as the primary child-care providers. Elder care also falls unfairly on the shoulders of women).

But this isn’t just a women’s issue. All of us are at risk. If our families aren’t protected and provided for, then what good is our government anyway?

We don’t have to identify as a social democracy in order to start caring for all our people. Returning to the original meaning of democracy would be enough.

Walmart’s Low Prices: Do They Come From Cheating Women?

Walmart is facing potentially the largest class action suit ever brought against a company. Estimates run as high as one million employees involved although Walmart has stated that it thinks it is “only” half a million. 

Walmart is now in the process of trying to get its case tossed out of court. In its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court it stated that each store is its own entity and therefore Walmart as an overall company can’t be sued. It also argued that there are too many potential plaintiffs and that the size of the suit renders it unmanageable.

This suit is significant not just because of its size. It will mark the first time a major company has been required to defend its pay and promotion policies in terms of sex discrimination. The original suit, which was brought in 2001 by seven women, alleged that female employees are consistently paid less than male employees, are promoted less often than men, and wait longer for chances for promotion.

It was subsequently decided that the suit qualified as a class action suit, and that it covers every woman employed at Walmart from 1998 to the present.

A class action suit makes it impossible for an individual woman to sue on her own behalf, but the sheer numbers in this suit would doubtless make a bigger impact on Walmart’s (and other companies’) pay and promotion policies in the future. If Walmart loses, it would take a financial hit of billions of dollars. Individual women suing Walmart would barely be noticed unless they won multimillion dollar settlements (which is not likely).

By rights, this suit, and Walmart’s attempts to wiggle out of it, should be headline news all through the fall, when the Supreme Court will probably rule on it. And it may well be, but I doubt it will be because it is about women. Its main significance is probably going to be seen as its impact on future class action suits instead of on how women employees are treated at Walmart. It’s only the sheer size of the suit that’s putting it in the headlines at all.

Some people will defend Walmart because they know women who are happy working there. But that doesn’t mean that Walmart isn’t guilty of the charges against it. (After all, slavery wasn’t right, even though some slave owners were humane and some slaves seemed to be happy with their lot.) I’m sure there are individual women who have done well at Walmart, at least in their eyes. But do they really know how much better off they could have done if Walmart didn’t have a discriminatory policy?

Others will defend Walmart because they simply don’t believe that there is any discimination against women in this day and age. These are the same people who declare that there is no longer any use for feminism, because its battles have all been won.

But if this suit has any merits, it would seem that they haven’t all been won. Those who would treat women inequitably are still our enemies.

 [Note: It’s interesting that whenever feminists talk in terms of a war against inequality, they are labeled as man-haters. That’s a misconception. Feminists are aware that some women are traitors to their own sex, even if unwittingly. And some men are our greatest champions. I’m sure that there are men and women at Walmart who discriminate against women. So I’m not just talking about men when I mention enemies. I’m talking about anyone who has adopted the “party line,” who goes along with those who think it’s fair to pay and promote men more than women.]

How to Alleviate Job Stress

Earlier this month, a JetBlue flight attendant named Steven Slater made headlines by his reaction to job stress: he loudly tendered his resignation over the airplane’s public address system, grabbed two beers and exited using the emergency chute. What set him off specifically? Having to deal with yet another rude and unruly passenger.

What was up with that? Couldn’t he have found another way to express his anger? Perhaps, but you have to admit that the way he chose certainly caught the public’s attention (not to mention the attention of his employer).

What is ironic is that the same day he conducted this unusual “exit interview,” The Wall Street Journal featured an article about how employers  are shocked that they can’t find people to work for them, even though unemployment is high. Apparently people won’t just take any old job: they’ve reached their limit in their willingness to take on stressful jobs, whether the stress is from low pay or poor working conditions, or both.

The next day, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that U.S. productivity rates have actually fallen for the first time in over a year, to a 0.9% annual rate. The reasoning behind this statistic is that American workers just can’t work any harder. They’re being asked to do more than is humanly possible.

People lucky enough to keep their jobs are expected to do the work left behind by those who have been fired. Companies don’t care how stressful this is for their workers; all they care about is cutting labor costs. But the end result might be lower productivity, higher absenteeism and more money paid out in sick leave, medical costs and disability payments for workers who have burnt out from job stress.

Women are hit particularly hard by this phenomenon. Many women already work at stressful jobs like nursing, waitressing and teaching and now they’re getting less time to do more work than ever before. Add this to the stress they deal with from juggling jobs and home work (keeping the household running) and it’s no wonder that women report more depression, anxiety and medical problems related to stress than men do (although this is also partly because men are reluctant to admit that they’re having trouble handling stress).

It should be said that work stress doesn’t always cause mental and physical health problems, but it can make pre-existing conditions worse. So much worse that the worker may find that he or she eventually can’t work at all.

Some stress is good for us: it keeps us on our toes and functioning more efficiently. But too much stress makes for a sick and tired work force. Sick and tired of “taking it.” But most people don’t have a choice. They keep on trying to run like a hamster in a hamster wheel. On some occasions, they run themselves to death.

Is it coincidental that many  more women are dying of heart attacks than cancer? That they die of them at a higher rate than men do within one year of having one (for people 40 and older)? [Source here.]

And that’s not even counting the stunted lives that come from having chronic depression or anxiety. We try to keep up, but the harder we try, the more we fall behind.

Because I hate to be given advice, I also hesitate to give it. But I can’t end this post without pointing out a few things a woman can do to decrease her job stress and increase her mental and physical health.

They are:

  1. Learn to stick up for yourself at work and how to do so calmly but firmly. If you have trouble with this, enlist the help of a union, if there is one. That’s what unions are for: to be your advocate.
  2. Know what your rights are. Make sure you’re getting regular pay reviews. Brush up on the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
  3. Follow the rules. It’s less stressful to make sure you’re never late or never take of work “just for the heck of it” than it is to have to fight a disciplinary action.
  4. Report harassment. This doesn’t just include sexual harassment. Anything that makes your workplace toxic should be reported to Human Resources or the appropriate manager.
  5. Take advantage of any Employee Assistance Program your company may have. This is a set number of counseling sessions that your employer is obligated to provide you at no cost to you. The programs also offer assessment and referrals to outside counseling and resources.
  6. Find a mentor: a sympathetic person at work (or elsewhere) who is willing to give you good advice and be a source of inspiration and strength.
  7. Look for less-stressful job positions at the company you already work for. A different department or shift can make all the difference.
  8. If there are no better positions or you hate your company, keep job hunting. There are other solutions. You just have to be open to them.
  9. Don’t just look for a higher-paying job; take into account the working conditions and benefits. Studies have shown that people cite “good working conditions” as more important to them than “higher pay.”
  10. Consider self-employment. While this can also be stressful, it may be worth it, if you’re truly unhappy working for someone else.

In addition to these tips, make sure that you:

  1. Get regular check-ups. Tell your doctor if you’re having symptoms of stress. This includes mental as well as physical symptoms. If he or she doesn’t take you seriously, go to another doctor.
  2. Educate yourself on symptoms of heart disease and follow the recommendations for avoiding or alleviating it. This includes signs of strokes as well as heart attacks.
  3. Get regular exercise. Make sure your get your doctor’s okay if you’re thinking of taking up something which is fairly strenuous. Find some kind of guidance program for maximum efficiency and safety.
  4. Modify your diet. Learn to prepare healthy meals. Keep healthy foods on hand for snacks. Eat smaller but more frequent meals. Make sure you have something to go on during your work day.
  5. Stop smoking. Stop drinking excessively. (A glass of red wine a day is recommended if you don’t have a problem with alcohol.)
  6. Drink plenty of water. Carry a water bottle with you at all times, if possible. Make sure your only fluids aren’t pop or coffee. They don’t satisfy your body’s hydration requirements.
  7. Find an absorbing hobby. Take a course in something you’ve always been interested in. Buy season tickets or annual memberships for something you enjoy (you’ll be more likely to regularly participate).
  8. Beef up your belief system. Find a group of like-minded individuals and spend time with them. (This doesn’t have to be a religion; it could be a group that is concerned about the environment or social justice, for instance.)
  9. Restrict your access to the news if you find yourself getting agitated or depressed by it. Find sources that propose solutions and cause you to think rather than just react.
  10. Make time for yourself every day, even if it’s just a few minutes to pray or write in a journal. Pamper yourself occasionally. Take mini-vacations. Make memories.

Job and life stress are controllable. First you need to determine the level of stress you’re living with. Then you need to learn to recognize any physical or psychological signs of harmful stress. And finally, you need to do something about it.

Go here for more information about stress: types, causes, symptoms and treatment.

Is Erection a Health Care Right?

Andrew Malcolm wrote this in the LA Times‘ “The Top of the Ticket”  on August 13, 2010:

The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association has gone to court asking a judge to order the financially strapped school board to reinstate coverage for Viagra, Levitra, Cialis and other erectile dysfunction drugs in union members’ healthcare plans. The union claims that excluding such coverage discriminates against the male gender.

In clearly less important news, facing growing benefit costs and shrinking revenues, the board in June had to lay off about 400 classroom teachers, the first such cuts there in decades.

At this time of stubborn national unemployment for millions, some silly people might question the wisdom of a labor union representing people with actual jobs launching legal action over a $20 pill to improve the functioning of a member of a member.

The school board claims the famous little starter pills are recreational, not medically necessary, and would cost the city $787,000 a year. Offhand, that seems like a lot of educators’ erections, but it’s also enough money to employ 12 full-time teachers of either gender.

A state labor commission recently ruled against the teachers’ sexual discrimination complaint, stating in part that the union had failed to identify by name the specific discriminated members who need the erectile dysfunction drug.

Stand by for that.

What’s your position on this issue?