When Margaret Sanger wrote, “Woman must have the fundamental freedom of choosing whether or not she will be a mother and how many children she will have,” she wasn’t thinking about the increased rate of miscarriage among farm worker women exposed to pesticides. Nor was Maggie challenging the chemical industry for impeding the freedom to choose because of the science linking chemicals to the incidence of fertility-harming endometriosis among women and girls.
But the world was different for Margaret Sanger. When she was born in 1879, most industrial chemicals didn’t exist. It was only after World War II that the US petrochemical industry discovered “peaceful” applications of synthetic, or man-made, chemicals that would maintain their wartime production levels. New materials, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and plastics dramatically changed and improved the way we lived. By the time the evidence of human and ecosystem health problems led the United States to regulate industrial chemicals through the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, there were already 80,000 chemicals on the market. Rather than truly protect public health by issuing a comprehensive review process for these chemicals, TSCA deemed all 80,000 to be safe without pre-market testing, unless the EPA could prove otherwise.
The presumed innocent until proven guilty rule lets companies produce chemicals and put them into the products we use every day without providing evidence for their safety. While most people assume that chemicals are tested like pharmaceuticals – that manufacturers have to prove they are safe and effective before they can be sold – the opposite is true. In the thirty-one years since TSCA put the burden of proof on the EPA, the agency has only managed to review the safety data of less than two percent of the 80,000 chemicals that were on the market in 1976 and has only regulated five of these chemicals.
While TSCA’s ability to protect the American people from chemical exposure has weakened, evidence that chemicals can harm human health has mounted. Especially compelling is emerging research showing that chemical exposures that occur prior to conception, during pregnancy and early in life can have ramifications on adult health. Pre-term birth or low birth-weight, birth defects, diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adulthood have all now been linked to early exposure to chemicals and other environmental contaminants.
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In addition to impacting healthy pregnancy outcomes, chemicals may also be playing a role in whether a woman can become pregnant in the first place, if she chooses to do so.At least twelve percent of the reproductive-age population reports difficulty conceiving and/or maintaining pregnancy. This appears to be a rising trend, most markedly in women under twenty-five years old.
The increased rate of endometriosis is one reason that reports of infertility are going up. Endometriosis is a disease that causes tissue that ordinarily lines the inside of the uterus (called the endometrium) to grow outside of the uterus and in other parts of the body, for example, the ovary, abdomen and pelvis. About ten to twenty of women of reproductive age in the U.S. now suffer from endometriosis, and rates have been rising in the past 50 years, particularly among younger women. The link between chemical exposures and endometriosis was first recognized in 1993, when rhesus monkeys that had eaten food contaminated with dioxin began to develop endometriosis.
The right of a woman to decide when and if to become a mother may also depend on her partner’s ability to father a child. So the freedom to choose includes access to healthy sperm produced with plenty of testosterone. But sperm counts and testosterone levels have been going down in many parts of the world, and testicular cancer is going up. In some industrialized areas, sperm counts have gone down 50 percent over the last 50 years. More baby boys today are born with two birth defects of the reproductive system – hypospadias (deformity of the penis) and cryptorchidism (undescended testicles) – developmental problems that have also been linked to low sperm counts and testicular cancer later in life. New evidence suggests that all of these conditions may be caused by the same prenatal exposures.
Chemicals like phthalates, bisphenol A, and perfluorinated compounds are found in many consumer products such as baby bottles, food can linings, Nalgene water bottles, children’s toys, plastic food containers, cosmetics, dental fillings, furniture and wrinkle-free clothing. Data from the US Center for Disease Control shows that almost every person now has detectable levels of contaminants in their bodies – some even at levels near or above those shown in scientific studies to cause adverse effects.
Well-designed animal studies are showing how prenatal exposures to these chemicals can add up to harm, mirroring similar problems in people:
Bisphenol A found in polycarbonate plastic and can linings can cause permanent changes and increased risks of reproductive health problems later in life, such as infertility, miscarriage, breast cancer, and prostate cancer.
Prenatal exposures to phthalates found in personal care products and commodities made of vinyl have been linked to reproductive health problems in males such as reduced testosterone, reduced sperm count and infertility.
Prenatal exposures to PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals), common in stain-proof and stick-free products and found in almost everyone tested in the US, can cause irreversible damage in animal offspring and has been linked to decreased birthweight in humans.
Consumer campaigns like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are convincing manufacturers to move away from the use of some of these chemicals, while green chemistry scientists are increasingly discovering new ways to manufacture and produce safe alternatives to these chemicals. But we need comprehensive reform of the federal chemicals policy, so that chemicals are proven safe before they are put into the products we use every day, and manufacturers are given incentives to put more effort into researching and incorporating non-toxic chemicals in their design. And before we can create that sweeping reform we will need to build a movement for the twenty-first century right to choose that includes the right to be able to get pregnant and to have a healthy child.
Major League Baseball's response to charges of domestic violence against Jose Reyes is really just a step in the right direction. The league, its fans, and the media outlets covering it have work to do before there is additional cause to celebrate.
Two weeks ago, the Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball (MLB) team made headlines for designating their shortstop, Jose Reyes, for assignment. The designation for assignment (DFA) means he was removed from their roster, most likely so the Rockies could trade him or release him to the minors.
The decision came after an announcement from MLB in May concluding that Reyes had violated its new Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse policy. Reyes was put on leave in February while the league investigated charges that he had allegedly assaulted his wife in a Hawaii hotel the previous October. Though the charges were ultimately dropped, MLB still concluded that he had violated its policy—which allows discipline no matter a case’s legal status—based on the available police reports. Ultimately, Reyes was suspended for 52 games.
Many sports fans and media outlets are celebrating the Rockies’ decision to designate Reyes for assignment, framing it squarely as a moral response to his domestic violence suspension. As a result of the suspension, Reyes ultimately lost a total of $7.02 million for missing 30 percent of the season and is required to donate $100,000 to “charity focused on domestic violence.” Still, the team will owe Reyes $41 million despite the DFA—and that, spectators say, makes the Rockies’ actions worthy of praise. The Denver Post‘s Mark Kiszla, for example, wrote that the Rockies‘ franchise owner, Dick Monfort, deserves a “standing ovation” for taking a “$40M stance against domestic violence” that was “not just financial.” According to Kiszla, “the franchise did right by battered women by showing zero tolerance for physical abuse.”
The league could have acted faster and given Reyes a longer, more consequential suspension to show its seriousness in responding to his violation of the policy. In fact, the New York Mets’ recent signing of Reyes, which the team explained as giving him a “second chance,” underscores just how much tolerance for reports of domestic violence truly exists in professional baseball as a whole.
Even so, while the Rockies’ consideration of Reyes’ charges of domestic abuse in their decision should be appreciated, the DFA should be understood for what it really appears to be overall: based on the team’s response, it was a business decision, not an action on behalf of domestic violence survivors.
“Would we be sitting here talking about this if the domestic violence thing hadn’t happened in Hawaii? We wouldn’t. So it’s obviously part of the overall decision,” said Colorado general manager Jeff Bridich told the New York Times. After all, an incident causing a player to miss a third of the season is enough to make any team pause for consideration.But, as the Times pointed out, there are other reasons that the Rockies were ready to move on, including “never really wanting him in the first place,” the great performance of his replacement during the suspension, and the fact that the franchise had already sunk the costs of bringing Reyes onboard. By the terms of their contract, designating him for assignment was no more expensive than keeping him.
Furthermore, the handling of the Reyes case within the league and the franchise has been mostly professional, but there is still a lingering tone of undue apology toward Reyes—suggesting, again, that the treatment he has received may not be the unilateral condemnation of domestic violence that others have implied.
It begins with Reyes himself, who first apologized “to the Rockies organization, my teammates, all the fans, and most of all my family,” before retweeting Mike Cameron, a former MLB player who said that Reyes just had a “bad moment in life” and deserved forgiveness for committing physical violence against his wife.
Commissioner Manfred walked a thin line in a news conference in November just after the Hawaii incident, stating his interest in maintaining Reyes’ privacy despite the charges against him. “There’s a balance there,” he said. “On the one hand, I think our fans want to know that the case has been dealt with appropriately. On the other hand, whoever the player is, the fact that he’s a major league player doesn’t mean he has absolutely no right to privacy and or that everything in the context of a relationship or a marriage has to be public.”
While domestic violence can happen “behind closed doors,” that does not mean it is an issue of one’s personal privacy. As Bethany P. Withers has argued for the New York Times, there may not be public witnesses to abuse occurring between partners, but we should not ignore professional athletes who are charged with committing acts of domestic violence. Manfred’s comments, as well as Cameron’s, minimize Reyes’ Hawaii incident into “a lovers’ quarrel,” rather than a report of an abusive act of behavior that most likely exposes an ongoing pattern.
Rockies Franchise owner Dick Monfort’s comments were better, though not ideal. In April he told the Associated Press, “I’d like to know exactly what happened. It’s easy for us all to speculate on what happened. But really, until you really know, it’s hard. You’re dealing with a guy’s life, too.” Monfort, while expressing understandable concern for this player, sounds apologetic to Reyes, rather than the woman he was charged with abusing.
Sympathizing with Reyes in this matter, while he may be sorry for reportedly committing actions that had visible consequences, centers the experience of an abuser in a culture that silences, blames, shames, and erases survivors of domestic violence and perpetuates abusive behavior.
Much of the media, meanwhile, has taken action either to diminish Reyes’ alleged crimes or dismiss them completely. The Post‘s Kiszla, for example, was plain encouraging of Reyes, for whom he “hoped nothing but the best, if his wife had forgiven him.” His uninformed commentary shows utter lack of understanding of domestic violence and what Katherine Reyes might be experiencing in deciding to “not cooperate with the prosecutors” on the case. Fox News was similarly insensitive. At the very least, the media can provide a short explanation as to what domestic violence is and why victims may be reluctant to work with police and the criminal justice system in the first place. The “inaction, hostility, and bias” they might face, as the American Civil Liberties Union put it, is real. And their personal fear of consequences are legitimate.
Nightengale of USA Today had a particularly awful response, explicitly sympathizing with Reyes, saying “that one ugly night in Hawaii cost Reyes his pride and his job.” Except that domestic violence, a cycle of power and control, is hardly ever just “one ugly night.”
Furthermore, incidents of reported domestic violence need to be named as such. In the coverage of Reyes’ charges in Hawaii, the media failed to do so. Though ESPN reported Reyes had been arrested on abuse charges, it still said Reyes had “an argument with his wife [that] turned physical.” The Chicago Tribune labeled it as “an altercation.” The Tribune was also inaccurate in reporting that Reyes ‘choked’ his wife, when the it was actually strangulation. Technically, choking by definition is when the airway is blocked internally. Strangulation, however, is the act of blocking the passage of air through the external use of force. While the difference is subtle—in fact, the police report itself logged the action as “choking”—the ramifications are large. Describing the act as an expression of dominance signals to the public that acts of violence have perpetrators. It also gives detailed meaning to “domestic violence,” an all-encompassing phrase whose intricacies are not widely understood.
While it may seem petty to be picking over semantics, accurate framing is the difference between two partners having a disagreement and one partner committing threatening acts of violence against another in a cyclical power dynamic. It’s the difference between public acceptance of horrific behavior and public recognition of unhealthy, unacceptable relationship dynamics.
The focus on costs to Reyes and the Rockies should also be reframed. If we really want to talk big money, we should consider the exorbitant shared cost of domestic violence on all of our systems, both public and private. Domestic violence is “a serious, preventable public health problem.” The epidemic is estimated to cost $8.3 billion annually to the economy due to its effect on survivors’ physical and emotional health, as well as their workplace productivity. Because domestic violence is so widely underreported, this estimate is even a conservative one. It also does not encompass the cost to child survivors and the trauma inherited by future generations. Understanding the ridiculously high costs of domestic violence centers the long-lasting effects of an epidemic on survivors and our society as a whole, rather than the cost to a singular MLB player or team.
Though the new MLB policy appears to be comprehensive and informed by experts, the league, the teams, and the media haven’t quite perfected their responses. With regard to MLB’s process and ultimate decision, critics are saying the league should act faster and make longer, more consequential suspensions in the future. If Commissioner Manfred is really going to give weight to charges of domestic violence, a quicker, more punitive response to charges like Reyes’ is a good way to start. There is also significant work to be done in the public relations and media responses to domestic violence in the League overall.
Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work, written by Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, goes beyond cases that helped shape workplace anti-discrimination policies. Rather, it focuses on ten key women whose own lives changed the law.
In 1966, Ida Phillips, a single mother working as a waitress, sat down at her kitchen table and wrote a letter to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. She told him her story: Despite her qualifications, Phillips had been told by a Martin Marietta employee not to apply for an assembly-line position at one of the construction-material company’smanufacturing plant. The job would have paid more than double what she was making as a waitress. It included a pension plan and insurance, benefits unavailable in most female-dominated industries at the time (and which since have only marginally improved.) The reason Phillips was turned away? She was a woman with a preschool child.
That letter, Phillips’ subsequent lawsuit, and her Supreme Court win would help spark a civil rights revolution in the workplace—one with consequences that reverberate today.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. And it was Phillips’ case, and the nine others profiled in the book, that would ultimately shape that law into one that, decades later, is an important tool in advancing gender and sex equality. As Thomas explained to Rewire in an interview, Title VII it is not just a foundational piece of civil rights legislation important for its historical effect on workplace equality. In the face of anti-transgender bathroom bills and statewide “religious liberties” legislation sweeping the country, it is a crucial tool for pushing equality forward.
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Thomas’ book is organized along three key themes in employment discrimination law: pregnancy-related workplace policies, gender stereotypes in the workplace, and sexual harassment. Those themes act as an inroad toward thinking more broadly about how, in Thomas’ words, we achieve “substantive equality” in the workplace. They illustrate how early fights over promotions and workplace policies that kept women out of certain jobs due to concerns of harming their potential fertility foreshadowed the legal showdowns over contraception coverage in employee health-care plans in cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby andZubik v. Burwell.
“The subject matter areas that I saw [as a researcher and employment discrimination litigator] were, number one, women’s capacity for pregnancy, and then their subsequent roles as mothers, which, historically, has played a huge role in their second-class status legally,” Thomas told Rewire. “Women of color have always been seen as workers, irrespective of whether they had children, so that’s not an entirely universal stereotype. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that generally pregnancy and motherhood have proven to be enormous conflicts in terms of what equality looks like when you have these distinct differences” in how race and gender are perceived.
Take, for instance, the case of Peggy Young and the question whether an employer can refuse to make on-the-job accommodations for pregnant employees when it does so for nonpregnant employees. Young, another one of the women featured in Thomas’ book, was a United Parcel Service (UPS) “air driver” who became pregnant. When Young told her employer she was pregnant, UPS told her they couldn’t accommodate the light-lifting recommendation made by Young’s medical providers. Instead, UPS told Young, she would have to take unpaid medical leave for the remainder of her pregnancy.
In March 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against UPS, vacating the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had supported UPS’ policy. The decision produced a new test for assessing pregnancy discrimination claims and sent Young’s case back to the lower courts for another look. Not long after the Roberts Court’s decision, UPS and Young settled the lawsuit, bringing an end to Young’s case.
The decision was a qualified win for advocates. The Roberts Court had accepted Young’s argument that UPS had no legitimate business reason for failing to accommodate her particular request, but the decision went short of ruling businesses must accommodate any pregnancy request.
But Because of Sex doesn’t stop at unpacking overt discrimination like the kind detailed in Young’s 2015 case or Phillips’ one in 1966. The book also takes a look at what the law has described as more “benevolent” kinds of discrimination. These include employment policies designed to “protect” women from endangering possible future pregnancies, such as prohibiting women employees from working jobs where they may be exposed to hazardous chemicals.
“It really all boils down to two issues that we are talking about in all these things,” Thomas explained, when discussing workplace policies that, employers have argued, were put in place to protect their female employees from potentially endangering a pregnancy. “One is [employers] ignoring hazards that apply to men and making women into baby-making machines. And number two is [employers] treating health effects or health hazards on the job as reasons for diminishing women’s opportunities, instead of arming women with information and assuming that they will make the right choice for themselves.”
This disconnect is most apparent in the case of United Automobile Workersv. Johnson Controls, Inc., another case Thomas highlights in her book. In 1982, the car battery manufacturer Johnson Controls sent a memorandum to all its employees that said “[w]omen who are pregnant or who are capable of bearing children will not be placed into jobs involving lead exposure or which would expose them to lead through the exercise of job bidding, bumping, transfer or promotion rights.”
The policy amounted to a demotion for many female employees and a closed door for others.
Title VII actually permits employers, in a limited context, to have employment policies that discriminate on their face, such as policies that permit churches to only hire members of the same faith. Johnson Controls argued its policy of keeping women out of certain positions due to employer concerns of health risks to future pregnancies fit within Title VII’s narrow window for permitting explicit discrimination.
The Supreme Court would eventually rule in 1991 that Johnson Controls’ policy violated Title VII because it forced female employees to have to choose “between having a child and having a job,” thereby rejecting the argument made by Johnson Control’s that a woman’s fertility—or infertility—can in most situations be considered a bona fide occupational qualification.
As Thomas noted in her book, “It was no coincidence that fetal protection politics were most prevalent in well-paid, unionized industries from which women historically had been excluded. Indeed they had been excluded precisely because they had been deemed physically unsuited for the dirty, sometimes strenuous work.”
But “in female-dominated fields, though, fetal protection policies made no business sense; they effectively would gut the workforce. That reality apparently trumped any hypothetical harm to employees’ future pregnancies,” Thomas wrote.
In other words, these policies didn’t exist in female-dominated fields.
Johnson Controls may have helped grant women the agency to determine how and when they earned a paycheck with regard to policies targeting their potential fertility, but it hardly ended the debate around when and how employers attempt to diminish women’s opportunities related to their roles as potential mothers. This has played out in the hundreds of lawsuits over the contraception benefit, for example.
In other words, if Johnson Controls had settled the question of whether a woman’s fertility was an appropriate grounds for discrimination, we would not have Hobby Lobby.
Because of Sex draws another connection between the historical fight over Title VII and the contemporary one: How do employers adjust workplace policies around shifting gender norms, and when is it discriminatory if they don’t? The law asks, “What are women supposed to want to do?” said Thomas in her interview with Rewire. “What work are they able to do? What work do they want to do? [Given] assumptions and stereotypes that are about their abilities, their preferences, their interests and how [they are] conforming to [those] in terms of stereotypes about what femininity is—what [are] women … supposed to look and act like?”
Gender nonconforming behavior, and the manner in which employees experience discrimination as a result of that behavior, is a key component over the debate around transgender rights. But it would take a “shrill” woman and the birth of the notion of “workplace harassment” to get us and the law there first.
By every measure, Ann Hopkins should have been made a partner in the global accounting firm Price Waterhouse. She was smart. Ambitious. Worked hard and constantly outperformed her peers. But it was those very attributes that her male partners deemed “too aggressive” or as evidence that she needed “charm school,” and ultimately used to deny her a partnership that by every objective measure she had earned.
The Supreme Court would ultimately disagree. In 1989, it ruled Hopkins should have been made a partner and that the comments relating to her demeanor amounted to improper gender stereotyping, a violation of Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions.
If Hopkins was initially shut out of workplace advancement due to her defiance of feminine stereotypes, so too are women subjected to on-the-job harassment, as Thomas draws out in Because of Sex. “Sexual harassment didn’t even have a name in 1974, but was such a prevalent force driving women out of the work force, driving them into different jobs [and] subjugating them just generally in terms of the identity as sexual objects on the job,” Thomas further explained in her interview.
1974 was the year Mechelle Vinson first hired a lawyer to represent her in a case against her boss, who was chronically sexually abusing her on the job. But at the time, courts largely wrote off those kinds of complaints as a kind of chasing-around-the-office, and not sexual harassment, or in Vinson’s case, on-the-job rape. As described by Thomas in her book, “throughout the 1970s, many courts responded to complaints about abusive bosses with a collective shrug that conveyed, ‘You can’t blame a guy for trying.'”
“Sexual harassment was such a prevalent force driving women out of the workforce, driving them into different jobs, and subjugating them just generally in terms of the identity as sexual objects on the job,” Thomas told Rewire.
That “you can’t blame a guy for trying” attitude hasn’t completely gone away as far as the federal courts are concerned. After all, in 2013 the Roberts Court in Vance v. Ball Statemade it even harder for employees to bring workplace harassment suits, and employees still face losing jobs for “being too cute” or having their sexuality be a perceived threat to their employer’s ability to remain professional in the workplace.
Which is why, in the fight over transgender bathroom access in 2016, Title VII should be a powerful force in defeating these latest attempts to stymie social progress. The idea that “you can’t blame a guy for trying” has morphed into “how the hell can we police gender roles if we don’t know where you pee.” That’s thanks almost entirely to the manner in which the law has wrestled with gender stereotypes under Title VII, Thomas explained.
In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing workplace anti-discrimination laws, issued the landmark decision Macy v. Holder, which held that employment discrimination based on transgender status was a form of unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII. Then in 2015, it issued a ruling stating that denying employees access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity is also a violation of Title VII. Meanwhile several federal courts of appeals have ruled that Title VII protects against gender identity discrimination.
But the Roberts Court has yet to weigh in.
“I think sexual orientation in a way is the sort of a final frontier” in Title VII litigation, said Thomas. “The court seems really fixated on this idea of analogizing very precisely from Hopkins. In other words, if you look or act in a way that doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes then, OK, [the courts] can understand that’s sex discrimination,” said Thomas. “But if your identity is not conforming to stereotypes in that you, you know, are romantically attracted to someone of your sex, that is harder for [the courts] to get, even though it’s obviously the most obvious manifestation of stereotype.”
This is, in many ways, a fight that started in the workplace—one that eventually got the backing of the Obama administration before becoming a flashpoint of conservative election-cycle politics. Thomas’ book doesn’t close on a prediction of what the next big Title VII fight will be per se, but it is impossible to finish it and not see the narrative threads of the historical fight for workplace equality woven throughout the the contemporary one. Sex. Gender. How the law understands and navigates the two. All this is what makes Thomas’ Because of Sex the closest thing to an assigned reading I can make.