Court Allows Wal-Mart to Get Away with it Again

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Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court did not find that Wal-Mart routinely discriminates against its female employees. That doesn’t mean that Wal-Mart is innocent. All it means is that the Court refused to hear the case. It seems that the 1.5 million plaintiffs in this class action suit have experiences that are too disparate and don’t show enough commonality to qualify for class action status.

Excuse me? Of course their experiences are disparate: you’re talking about 1.5 million women. And what could be more in common than the fact that they were discriminated against because they were all women?

This is the problem with proving sex discrimination in this country: it happens to women, one at a time, whenever a woman is passed over for a variety of types of promotions: better hours, more hours, positions of greater responsibility, higher pay. But the result is still the same: a woman is denied the opportunities that are routinely offered to men. And she can’t do a damn thing about it.

Because that’s the other thing about sex discrimination: it’s carefully packaged as something else. The discriminators don’t say that all women lack ambition or the requisite managerial skills and personality traits. They don’t say that women don’t work as hard or as long. Instead they pick out one reason and match it to one woman and voilà, it’s not discriminatory policy, it’s the manager’s “informed” opinion. And we all know that every manager is free of sexual bias.

Wal-Mart covers its ass by saying that its policy is equal employment opportunity for men and women, but then allowing its supervisors wide leeway in how they interpret that policy. All a supervisor has to do is show that he had a “valid” reason for promoting a man over a woman and the big wigs at Wal-Mart are satisfied that their non-discriminatory stance is being promoted. They don’t look over their supervisors’ shoulders or second-guess his decisions.

The Supreme Court therefore ruled that since a non-discrimination policy is in place at Wal-Mart, there is no case. Period. Any deviations from that policy are to be handled by Wal-Mart internally. Well, I’m sorry, but I thought the main reason a suit is brought against a company is to get them to do something they aren’t already doing.

The fact that the Court dismissed the complaints of 1.5 million women is an outrage. Does it think these women are delusional? That they all imagined that they were being discriminated against? Surely out of 1.5 million plaintiffs there was enough evidence to warrant hearing the case. Instead, the Justices who voted for dismissal said that there wasn’t enough evidence; only “about 1 [anecdote] for every 12,500 class members.” I’m sure the women could have come up with far more if they’d realized that the Justices were going to consider 120 anecdotes “insignificant.”

The most troubling aspect of this ruling is that it will undoubtedly make it even harder for class action suits to be successful in the future—especially when they’re filed against huge corporations. All the Justices have to say is that the company is too large to hold it responsible for the actions of all its managers.

The women filed a class action suit expressly because it would have been cost-prohibitive for each woman to file a suit against each manager. And why should they when it’s clear that Wal-Mart condones discriminatory practices by its managers by looking the other way?

Maybe we shouldn’t be blaming Wal-Mart for sexual discrimination in the workplace. Maybe it’s actually our society that should be on trial. Because Wal-Mart’s climate exists within a larger system. One in which comments like, “Everyone knows women don’t like to work long hours” are common.

One commenter said that Wal-Mart couldn’t be guilty of sex discrimination because if it was “why would it hire women at all if they’re such poor workers?” Apparently this idiot isn’t acquainted with the practice of hiring people for the “grunt work.” Who better for those positions than women who don’t care about getting ahead anyway?

[Source: New York Times]

Also check out Room for Debate: “A Death Blow for Class Action?

 

Women’s History Month: Does Being a Mother Count?

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I should have written this post at the beginning of the month instead of at the end, but somehow the fact that March was Women’s History Month got pushed into the background of my mind. And isn’t that what usually happens to women’s history? It’s always getting pushed into the background. It’s always been that way and I fear that it always will be.

Sure, more women are being recognized for their accomplishments these days. But will they be considered noteworthy in the future? Will Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin receive as much attention among biographers and historians as Barack Obama, for instance? (How many women know that Geraldine Ferraro—who just died the other day—was actually the first woman vice-presidential candidate?)

And even though women’s studies has become a staple of almost every university’s curriculum, how many people really know anything about women’s history? Or even care?

What I find amazing is how little women know about their own history. Naturally, feminists and women’s studies majors know a lot. But what about the average woman? Does she know how many women we have in Congress? Or who was the first female candidate for president? (Hint: it wasn’t Hillary Clinton.) Or what role women have played in war and peace?

What about this little tidbit?

On November 11, 1865, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was awarded a Medal of Honor for her service as a surgeon during the Civil War. She was the only woman to receive such an honor, the country’s highest military award. Unfortunately, in 1917, Dr. Walker’s medal was taken away, along with 910 others, when Congress changed the rules of the award to include only “actual combat with an enemy.” Dr. Walker, however, refused to give back the medal and wore it every day until her death in 1919. After her death, she was re-awarded the Medal of Honor in 1977.

Too many people reduce women’s roles in life to that of wives and mothers. For example, Susannah Wesley is known as the “Mother of Methodism” not because she was a preacher or minister, but because two of her 19 children went on to found Methodism.

Probably the most revered woman in the world is Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is known for her faithfulness and obedience to God in her role  as a mother.

These examples aren’t meant to diminish women who are mothers. I happen to believe that being a mother is an incredibly difficult job and that women who are mothers deserve even more credit than they are given. (Ironically, though we put mothers on a pedestal, we do little to support them. America in particular is notorious for not being mother-friendly. )

Ever since  Louise Story’s article appeared in The New York Times about college-educated women choosing to stay home with their children, feminists have raised the question of whether or not being a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) is the best use of a woman’s talents and education.  And recently, when Natalie Portman announced at the Academy Awards that being a mother will be the greatest role of her life, she was castigated by some feminists for implying that all of her personal accomplishments paled in comparison with being a mother.

I think some feminists look down on SAHMs because they think of motherhood as something that just happens to you, not something you had to work at to accomplish. Perhaps that’s true of the pregnancy, but there’s nothing passive about being a mother. Perhaps Portman was thinking of the awesomeness of motherhood when she called it the greatest role, but she will soon find out that it is possibly the hardest role to execute satisfactorily.

Feminists who put down motherhood are wrong on two counts:

First of all, being a mother does not mean that you can’t still accomplish things other than motherhood. Elizabeth Cady Stanton had seven children and she is known as one of the most important First Wave feminists.

Although she enjoyed motherhood and assumed primary responsibility for rearing the children, Stanton found herself unsatisfied and even depressed by the lack of intellectual companionship and stimulation in Seneca Falls. As an antidote to the boredom and loneliness, Stanton became increasingly involved in the community and, by 1848, had established ties to similarly-minded women in the area. By this time, she was firmly committed to the nascent women’s rights movement and was ready to engage in organized activism.

Secondly, a woman can be extremely influential as a mother. Not only can she shape the values of her children, she can also leave her mark on their world by working for causes that impact her children. Most of the women in the book The Maternal is Political write that they became politically motivated precisely because they are mothers.

Wouldn’t it be revolutionary if women went down in history as being as influential as men, not in spite of the fact that they were mothers, but because of it? Cindy Sheehan is a good example. When her son was killed in Iraq, she found her mission in life and became an extremely vocal anti-war activist. However, the fact that she is a woman and mother has diminished her influence in some people’s eyes: they’ve pegged her as some kind of crackpot. Will she be remembered in history as a famous mother? Only time will tell.

 

 

 

Missing International Women’s Day

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I missed the celebration of International Women’s Day this year (it was on March 8th). It’s not that I wasn’t aware of it. I just didn’t care.

That’s a terrible thing for a feminist to say. How can I not care about the plight of women all over the world?

All I can say in my defense is that, as a feminist, I sometimes have to fall back on the adage:  “Do as I say, not as I do.” Of course I should care about International Women’s Day. Just as I should care about all feminist issues. But the truth is, sometimes I’m just too involved in trying to live my own life to be concerned about the lives of others.

I’m not much of an activist. My actions on behalf on feminism are pretty much limited to signing email petitions and writing for this blog. I also rant and rave about feminist issues when I’m watching the news or reading comments on the Internet. And I spout feminist ideology when I’m talking with my friends, sister, daughters and husband. I’m constantly trying to parse what feminism means to me as an American, a Muslim, and an over-the-hill Second Wave feminist.

In the TED Talk that I posted yesterday, Courtney Martin spoke about how we all must accept our smallness while believing in our greatness. It’s easy to get down on ourselves for not accomplishing more, but it’s important to see the ways that we do make a difference. We make a difference by the way that we handle the details of our lives.

When I give advice or voice an opinion as a feminist, I’m always uncomfortably aware of how badly I’ve lived up to the feminist ideology in my own life. I dropped out of college when I was twenty to get married. I started having babies right away. I put aside my desires for self-advancement during my children’s younger years. I worked at a job that was meaningless and toxic toward women for over sixteen years. I never had enough guts to stay unmarried while trying to raise my children. (I thought I was remarrying for love, but it was mostly because I felt overwhelmed by single parenthood.) I demeaned myself by having an affair with a married man. And I never, ever got it straight that being a woman did not mean that I couldn’t be a success.

But at the same time, I’ve never wavered in my support of other women. Maybe having four daughters contributed to that attitude (well, of course it did), but I’ve always  been aware of the injustices dealt to women just because they’re women. I haven’t always been the best example to my daughters, but one thing they learned from me was to never settle for less than the best for themselves.

Continue reading Missing International Women’s Day

How About a Marathon for Mental Illness?

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I’ve never heard of a marathon for mental illness.* We have them for birth defects, breast cancer, AIDS, muscular dystrophy, heart disease and even some “orphan” diseases. But not for mental illness. Not for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or other kinds of psychosis.

It can’t be because there aren’t that many people affected by mental illness. Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada. (See source below.**) What if it could be treated successfully, or even cured? Just think of all the anguish that could be assuaged, the marriages that could be salvaged, the prison populations that could be reduced and the individuals who could be restored to full productivity. And of course all of that translates into billions of dollars in savings.

So why don’t we do more to alleviate the problems associated with mental illness? There are principally three reasons why we don’t.

1) Mental illness is grossly misunderstood. Most people are confused about what constitutes mental illness. We don’t know how to differentiate between “normal” depression or anxiety and the kind of depression or anxiety that completely debilitates a person, for instance. Not even the medical profession agrees on the causes and appropriate treatments.

2) Crazy people scare us. We are afraid that they’ll do damage to themselves or others. We steer clear of them whenever possible. Sometimes we even act like we think that mental illness is contagious. We joke about it (“Mental illness is catching. I caught it from my kids”), but never treat it seriously. We don’t talk about it in polite company in the same way that we would talk about cancer or even alcoholism.

3) Because mental illness can’t be “seen” in the same way as other diseases, we tend to think that it’s all in the sufferer’s head. It’s a figment of his or her imagination or a matter of learning how to think good thoughts. We don’t believe that it can be a real disability; we assume that the mentally disabled person is just playing the system.

I’m very familiar with all of these reasons. I don’t even understand my own mental illness. And yes, it scares me sometimes. And I constantly doubt whether or not I’m really disabled.

It’s humiliating to admit that you can’t handle things that other people seem to be able to. It’s frightening when you exhibit behavior that others consider to be just plain crazy. And it’s a terrible feeling when you realize that you don’t have control over your own mind.

One thing I try not to do is blame my mental illness for my behavior and personality traits. But it’s hard to draw the line between staying home and feeling sane and putting myself in situations where I get so anxious I can barely function. I try to keep my life as uncomplicated as possible because I don’t handle stress well at all, but even I get impatient about the lack of excitement in my life.  I understand why some people go off their meds: they’re tired of not feeling anything.

The problem is, there is no one effective treatment for mental illness. (Not to mention that there are so many different kinds of mental illness.) And so far there is no cure. I will probably always have to take medication for my depression and anxiety. When I don’t (as I have discovered when I run out of meds or am lax about taking them), I fall apart. Even when I do take them, I can easily tip over the edge. And yet I hate that weakness within me.

But what is even worse is how others look at you when they know you have a mental illness. Some people just flat out don’t believe you. Others worry about you unduly. And still others steer clear of you completely. You become afraid that people won’t want to befriend you, date you, marry you, have children with you, vote for you, or hire you. And often you’re right. Sometimes even you doubt your ability to do these things. And the sad thing is, sometimes you can’t. At least, not without help.

My own children doubt the extent of my mental illness. They think it’s awful that I take so many medications. They think if I had a different psychiatrist I’d be able to overcome them.

Each mentally ill person deals with their condition as best they can. It’s easy to be on the outside and prescribe ways to “get over it.”  But until you’ve suffered from a mental illness, you have no idea what the mentally ill person is up against. She has to use her own mind to deal with things that are going wrong with it. He may not even realize that he has a mental illness. But the main reason why the mentally ill don’t get treatment is because of the stigma associated with it.

It’s obvious that society is not willing to deal with mental illness. Most health insurance plans are woefully inadequate when it comes to mental health coverage. 10-15 visits a year is average; inpatient care has high deductibles, and brand name medications, which are usually Tier Three, are expensive. Hour-long visits for psychotherapy are almost never covered; you’re lucky to get a 15-minute medication check for when you go in for one of your limited number of appointments.

We don’t lock people up in insane asylums the way we used to (partly because the state doesn’t want to pay for mental hospitals any more). But being mentally ill is like being in prison and even when you’re being treated for it, you feel like an ex-con.

When there are marathons for breast cancer the participants proudly advertise that they are or know breast cancer survivors. No one would announce that fact if we were having a marathon for mental illness. In fact, it’s likely that no one would come.

**Read David Schimke’s essay on mental illness from the latest issue of Utne Reader.

Read about the father who has run over a hundred marathons on behalf of his daughter who suffers from schizophrenia. His dream is to organize marathons to help to erase the stigma associated with mental illness. I hope he is successful.

*That’s not entirely true: I did find some information about a STOMP OUT STIGMA  (SOS) marathon to be run in October, 2011 which is sponsored by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance of Greater Chicago. But that doesn’t erase the fact that public support for mental illness is almost non-existent.

Video: Geena Davis Talks About Gender Equality in Media

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The Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis is an intelligent and thoughtful advocate for women. She started the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media because of her concern about gender equality in TV and film. In this Livestream video she discusses the problem, cites supporting statistics, explains her personal interest (she has an 8-year-old daughter, the film Thelma and Louise, etc.), the role of gender in family equality, and what she does and others can do to raise awareness about this issue.

While you’re on the site where the video is located, “Women and Hollywood,” take a look around. It has great information about women both in front of and behind the camera.

What’s Wrong With Being a Victim?

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There has been a lot written in recent years about the Victim Mentality. It’s based on the premise that others are to blame for all the bad things that happen to us and it keeps us from taking responsibility for our own actions. At least that’s the definition.

Those who go on about the Victim Mentality focus mainly on three groups: people of color, the poor, and feminists. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say that if blacks, the poor and women would stop focusing on their victimhood they could get on with the business of making something of their lives. As if recognizing all the ways that they’ve been discriminated against automatically makes them feel sorry for themselves and unwilling to do anything about it.

But what if it’s not self-pity but social awareness that makes a person see him or her self as a victim? After all, you know the saying, “You’re not paranoid if there really is someone after you.” Why are so many people so quick to label victims as paranoid when it’s clear that they are being victimized?

Yes, you can take being a victim too far. If it paralyzes you and destroys your self-esteem, it’s obviously not a useful mind-set. But rather than seeing it as a character defect, I see it as a positive thing. Because far to many of us don’t blame others enough for the hardships we encounter in life. We put ourselves down for not being strong enough, or clever enough, or hard-working enough to overcome our personal difficulties.

But if we do happen to express the thought that someone else may have “done us wrong,” watch out. There are plenty of people out there who will accuse us of playing the “poor me” card. “You’re just lazy,” they say. “You aren’t willing to work hard for what you want. You’re a baby.”

“They” want us to swallow that swill because they don’t want to face all the ways that they have contributed to our subjugation and our hardships. Whites don’t want to admit that they’re prejudiced. The rich don’t want to admit that they could care less what happens to the poor. Men don’t want to admit that they really do see women as inferior.

See, there’s no excuse in the good ole U.S. of A. for personal failure. So if a black, poor person or female has a hard time getting ahead, it must be his or her fault. Institutional or personal discrimination couldn’t possibly play a role in their less-than-stellar outcomes in life.

There are such things as racism, classism and sexism is this country. People do discriminate against others based on their own self-interest and biases. Human nature dictates that one way to keep yourself on top is to make sure that others stay down. Those who victimize others blame the victims for their own victimization. It’s a clever and insidious technique.

I think it’s important to see yourself as a victim. Because until you identify the ways you’ve been victimized, you’re never going to have enough fire in your belly to do anything about it. You need to be able to identify the people who have a vested interest in keeping you in your place and the processes they use to accomplish it.

And then you need to fight like hell to make sure they never victimize you again.