Not Just A Cosmetic Problem

Sarah Seltzer

The effect that toxic chemicals in makeup have on their youngest buyers - teens who may be less discriminating about the products they use - is particularly worrisome.

Imagine a group of young teenage
girls wandering the tempting aisles of their local Walgreen’s or CVS,
holding up lipstick tubes and nail-polish bottles for examination. It’s
a vintage American scene and hardly alarming, given our beauty-focused
culture. But while these girls are deciding whether to take a risk with
forest-green toenails, sparkly lips or purple eyelids, they may be unknowingly
exposing themselves to harmful chemicals. In fact, they probably are. 

Several years since the European
Union took initial steps to seriously restrict the dangerous chemical
content of cosmetics, America lags behind. Environmentalists and scientists
argue that the FDA has neither the resources nor the inclination to
police the billion-dollar behemoth that is the cosmetics industry. 

And while chemicals are unsafe
for all, the effect that toxic cosmetics can have on their youngest
buyers – teens who may be less discriminating about the products they
use – is particularly worrisome.  

This past September, the Environmental
Working Group studied a sample group of teen women. The results they found were alarming (emphasis mine). 

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    Environmental Working Group
    (EWG) detected 16 chemicals from 4 chemical families – phthalates,
    triclosan, parabens, and musks – in blood and urine samples from 20
    teen girls aged 14-19
    . Studies link these chemicals to potential
    health effects including cancer and hormone disruption. These results
    … indicate that young women are widely exposed to this common class
    of cosmetic preservatives, with 2 parabens, methylparaben and propylparaben,
    detected in every single girl tested. 

As Mia Davis wrote in
2007 for RH Reality
Check,

the first group of chemicals in the above list, phthalates, can be extremely
damaging to the male reproductive system – and the damage can begin
in utero. While phthalates do not accrue in the body and are most dangerous
during pregnancy, says Stacy Malkan of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics,
"we are continually exposed to them. You’re going to find them in
most people." 

Parabens, on the other hand, mimic the activity
of estrogen and have been linked to female-specific disorders including
breast cancer. While individual products may have low amounts of parabens,
they are found in many products.  When Malkan was researching
her book on the cosmetic industry, Not
Just a Pretty Face
,
she looked at all the products she used as a teenager.
"There was makeup, face cream, skin lotion, hair products, perm, hair
gel, and hair spray. A lot of them have the same chemicals, like parabens.
There were two dozen exposures to parabens in my morning routine."

These two chemical groups don’t
even touch on the "lead in lipstick" controversy. Consumer advocate
group The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found
small amounts of lead in lipsticks over a year ago
. Malkan says that even trace amounts
of lead are dangerous, as lead builds up in the body
over time: "If a teenage girl is wearing lipstick with lead in it
every day, those exposures could add up and stay with her." Although the FDA was quick
to swat down the swelling internet rumors

about dangerous lead content in popular lipsticks, they have yet to
release public information about their own testing, and are coming under fire for their lack of action on the matter.  

Finally, nail
polish may be one of the most toxic products of all. A number of campaigns
have arisen in the past few years to protect salon workers from the
chemicals, which have potentially ugly ramifications for reproductive
health and are linked to birth defects. (RH
Reality Check covered this issue here). "If you have a toxic environment,
it’s worst for the workers, but it’s not ideal for anyone," says
Malkan. With a
boom in manicures as an easy and cheap way for women to feel good
, repeated and prolonged exposure has
become more common. 

So all of the products listed
above are far from safe. And in adolescence, when hormones are fluctuating,
the reproductive system is developing, the scientists who conducted
the study said that that sensitivity to these chemicals may in fact
increase. "We’re certainly concerned about teens in particular because
during adolescence they’re going through a lot of radical changes
to their physiology," says Dr. Rebecca Sutton, the staff scientist
for EWG who authored the report. "All these changes are guided by
hormones, so if we’ve gone hormonally active ingredients in personal
care products entering their bodies, there’s a higher risk." 

Furthermore, the doctors at
the Environmental Working Group found that their teen study participants
used an average of 17 (yep, 17) personal care products a day – this
was 5 more products than the average woman uses, again increasing their
exposure. 

Think about the way teenagers
behave – experimentation makes up a big part of their lives, no matter
how risk-prone their personalities. They are trying on different images
and traits before settling into adulthood. Furthermore, young teenage
girls are beginning to take a vigorous interest in their looks in order
to conform to the newly-noticed (and horribly oppressive) beauty standard.
And so, as the results above indicate, young women will spend more time
and attention on their toilettes and makeovers than they may when they’re
older.

In a column for truthdig that
also got reprinted
in Alternet
just
last week, Democracy Now’s
Amy Goodman sees hope for this issue in the European Union. As mentioned
above, the EU’s
regulation and disclosure policies

are more stringent and transparent, respectively. Therefore, the substances
they’ve banned provide the insight on product safety that that we
can’t find at home. And yes, they’ve banned both phthalates and
parabens among other chemicals. One of the reasons Goodman cites for
this difference in government policy is that Europeans collectively
shoulder the burden of health insurance. Therefore they see regulation
as a money-saver down the line and good policy; disease prevention will
keep health costs lower for all.  

So what to do? Sutton says
that parents and teens should not buy based on brands or labels, because
toxic chemicals can vary from product to product. She recommends using
the Skin
Deep
database which
lists nearly every imaginable makeup product on a scale of toxicity
from 1-10, including natural products.  The EWG also has a printable their pocket-size
shopping guide

(pdf) to take along to the makeup counter or drug store. "Some good
basic advice is to use fewer products," she says. "And parents can
be good role models by using fewer products themselves." 

But on a wider scale, it’s
also important to get involved in lobbying the government and FDA to
start regulating these ingredients. Sutton recommends checking out the Campaign for Safe
Cosmetics
or an
activist group that is active in some local safe cosmetics campaigns-including
lobbying the California government-called Teens
for Safe Cosmetics
.
The beauty industry will not go down without a fight, Sutton and other
activists warn. "It’s a powerful industry," she says. "The government
by its silence is somewhat complicit in the situation." 

Related Posts

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

‘I’m Not Saying Anything That’s Radical’: A Q&A With Matt McGorry

Regina Mahone

Matt McGorry spoke with Rewire about his experience working at the intersections of Hollywood and activism, how personal fitness is nothing like social justice awareness work, and why more men should care about targeted regulations of abortion providers.

You may have seen Matt McGorry’s face splashed across the internet today along with his co-stars promoting season four of Netflix’s hit show Orange Is the New Black. But this interview isn’t about that series’ latest premiere or McGorry’s role in one of my favorite ShondaLand productions, How To Get Away With Murder.

In the past year, McGorry has become an outspoken advocate for gender equality, Black Lives Matter, the importance of sexual consent via the White House’s It’s On Us campaign, and reproductive rights. And I have to admit: I’ve been a bit skeptical of all the headlines about him. For womenespecially Black women, who are constantly being talked over—seeing white men praised in the media for talking about what we’ve been talking about for decades with often zero recognition can feel about the same as when partners are praised for “babysitting” their own kids or for making dinner. As even McGorry will admit, “it can be triggering,” and the actor said that he was planning to pause interviews about his social justice work so he could actually “reflect and figure out a way to have deeper impact.”

But after speaking with him before the annual Gloria Awards in late April and then again in May via phone about everything from the film Captain America: Civil War to targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws, I can report that McGorry’s not mansplaining or looking for applause. It’s the media that must focus less on how much of a bae he is and more on how other aspiring allies and accomplices can learn from him. So that’s what this interview is about.

McGorry and I spoke at length about his experience working at the intersections of Hollywood and activism, how personal fitness is nothing like social justice awareness work, and why reproductive rights is a men’s issue.

Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

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Rewire: You talk a lot about being an advocate for gender equality. What does that mean, and what does that look like in practice?

Matt McGorry: There are obviously many different ways to do it. I think as a man, a big part of it is learning to understand and parse apart my privilege and my understanding of that, essentially how it influences my life and the choices that I’ve made in the past and the choices I continue to make even in doing the work. And continually learning and reading books and reading articles. It’s really about listening, and part of that listening is self-education. And part of that is talking to and being open to conversations with people in my life who are women or people of color when it comes to racial issues, but still being aware of the fact that it’s not women’s responsibility or people of color’s responsibility to educate me about these things.

I have to be careful that I’m not requiring that of people that I’m talking to who are marginalized. Sometimes I won’t be wanted or invited to conversations, and that’s OK too. And sometimes they won’t even tell me that they don’t necessarily want me in the conversation, and I have to be aware of that and take that into consideration as well.

I have been fortunate enough to have a platform due to acting that, since I have a certain number of followers [on social media], as I’m educating myself on these issues, I can retweet or repost articles or videos. I think that’s valuable for people to do even if they don’t have a following of my size.

One of the friends who got me very interested in Black Lives Matter was posting about these issues—and, unfortunately, it took my friend who’s a white man … to get me to pay attention. But sometimes that is the unfortunate nature of privilege.

It’s not that I need to be telling Black people about Black Lives Matter and I don’t need to be telling women about gender issues, but I need to be telling the people who are in my position. Some people have said that it’s useful to be able to point to me when talking to their white male friends about these things … I think there is some value for other men to see a man who says, “I am a feminist.” But it’s now asking myself the question: How do I make a deeper impact?

Rewire: You’ve written and spoken about how it’s only been a year in your journey as a feminist. Tell us what that experience has been like up to this point.

MM: I’m starting to examine my own views on the world … I don’t care how well your parents raised you or how inclusive your parents are—and my parents were very inclusive. You still grow up in a society where your media, your peers, and all these outside forces are pushing you toward sexism, racism, and all these things in a very insidious way. So … I then said I want to hold myself to a higher standard, but you don’t even know what that looks like at that time.

As you start learning about injustices, you start to realize aspects of your own self that are problematic. And that can be painful because, in these moments of realization, someone calls you out and you already feel like this is a risk. Obviously, the risk that I take in speaking about these things is relative to the risk that people who are not white or men or cis or straight take in this.

Rewire: I do wonder if there is a bit of a tension between the celebrity aspect of your identity, which may be about promoting the self, and the activist aspect, which is about lifting up other people who are not as privileged. How do you navigate that?

MM: I’m always thinking about it and always trying to figure out what might be the best way … as I have had opportunities like this or getting on the Nightly Show to say these things, it was important for me to have enough education on these topics, and conversations [with people] in real life to know how to not fuck up something like that, and to hopefully be more of service to any of these movements than to make it about myself, therefore excluding people and not being able to have as much of an impact. 

There’s not any [clear-cut path with these things] … I can ask women in my life about issues of feminism, and they are going to disagree with other women. And there are people online who don’t think that men should call themselves feminists. It was a conflicting moment for me actually when I was nominated [through an online poll, by supporters] as a potential “Feminist Celebrity of the Year.”

It’s a tricky conversation and has to be had with the right people because … essentially feminism is about gender equality. I think even in the community the word does tend to be gendered … and there were people, even friends of mine, who were like this [nomination] feels wrong.

I said, what if it was “Gender Equality Advocate of the Year,” would that feel different? And a lot of the time they would say, yeah maybe, which is very telling about our own perception with how we gender the word that we know is not really supposed to be gendered.

Bridging the gap between celebrity culture and [advocacy] is tricky … [but] if we’re not making ourselves uncomfortable, then we’re not really growing and we’re not forcing other people to grow too.

Rewire: It’s like when you decide to go on a diet, right? In order to go on this diet, you need to change your lifestyle. You want to exercise more, you want to start eating healthier, but often the people around you will say, “What is wrong with you? You’re acting strange.” Has that been your experience?

MM: I’ve never inherently been someone who likes confrontation. I was a personal trainer for ten years and even then I never really liked to force anyone to do anything. I would have clients come in and say, “Well, how much should I weigh,” or “What body type should I be”? I would answer, “Well, it’s whatever you want it to be. If you’re happy the way you’re now, then that’s great. Let’s work out, have fun, and keep you healthy. But if you have an issue with the way you look or with your health, let’s examine that.”

But social justice work is different from the world of personal training. In the world of fitness and personal training, it’s all very much personal preference. I do believe there is a right way of treating other people in this world, and I think that’s why activists and social justice work can quickly get so radical. It’s because, as soon as you see that you’ve been doing things wrong for a long time and then essentially, if there is a right way to do the things, it’s hard to pace oneself in terms of how much you try to turn other people to that as well and—I’m only a year in doing this. I’m engaged to see how the journey evolves over time, but I’m in a optimistic stage right now.

I feel like it’s quite possible that two years from now or a year from now, I won’t be arguing with someone like Piers Morgan because I’ll realize that he might not ever get it.

I think there was a value to having that conversation about what he thinks of as “reverse racism.” Having that conversation publicly in a way that other people can see it as well, even if he doesn’t get it. But it’s a very strange process. Because, it felt like the moment that I understood how bad things were, was the moment I felt compelled to act. There’s a bit of a disconnect for me [when I see] people that do understand it or that have some understanding of it or are starting to understand it, but that don’t act.

And what I’ve found is anyone who doesn’t take action on these things doesn’t really fully understand them yet. We can understand there is a problem with how our criminal justice system is run in our country, but I think understanding it in a really full and deep way and understanding how … someone like me gets to benefit from the criminal justice system that essentially keeps us safe but doesn’t keep everyone else safe in quite the same way.

Rewire: So, you have aligned yourself as an ally with various social justice movements. Are there any issues in particular within these movements that you’re most concerned with?

MM: In terms of racial justice issues, I would say that The New Jim Crow has had a profound effect on me and my view of the criminal justice system, and according to [its author] Michelle Alexander, that’s the biggest issue of our time, or what she calls the New Jim Crow. And so that’s been the thing that has stood out the most for me—how the “war on drugs” disproportionately has had negative effects on communities of color.

People are still serving lifetime sentences for first-time nonviolent drug crimes. And getting to meet in Washington, D.C., a number of these people who have received clemency from different administrations and are now free and are now really incredible members of their communities who are advocating for at-risk youth and other incarcerated individuals—I mean it’s incredible.

We have these internal biases—a lot of us do—that if someone ended up in prison, [we think] they must have done something that was terrible and violent. It’s not to say that drugs are good, but people make bad choices and people are more likely to make bad choices when they don’t have a lot of choices available to them.

Understanding what other people don’t have the luxury of has made me appreciate and understand more what I have had the luxury of growing up. Things that I didn’t even particularly like—I didn’t really enjoy much of classes in college or being tutored in high school or taking SAT prep classes—but those things are actually all privileges. And it does put me in a more advantageous position to succeed if I do have those opportunities available.

The criminal justice stuff for me stands out in a very big way because it’s just something that I’ve been totally blind to my whole life. I think what the book is very successful in accomplishing is forcing us to look at how we discriminated against criminals or people who have been incarcerated and how we justify the tactic, and we think that that’s okay.

Rewire: Earlier this year you launched a fundraiser to benefit NARAL Pro-Choice America. Why was it important for you to advocate for reproductive rights?

MM: A lot of men don’t understand it, or that this group is under attack, because of the TRAP laws and all this new legislation that people are trying to push. And again, as it always is with any of these issues, it’s really important to have people with privilege give a shit and say something and stand up against [bad policies].

These are not just women’s issues: They are human issues and human rights issues. In my mind, staying silent on this stuff when you have an opportunity to say something is essentially just telling women, “It’s your problem to deal with pro-choice issues.” That’s not fair and it’s not right.

We [as a society] need more men who care, and who care enough to say something. I’ve come to believe that if you say that you care about a thing but you don’t actually do something about it, you can’t really say that you care that much.

You might feel like you care. You might, if you had the choice to make abortion legal everywhere, you might wave the magic wand and say yes. But if you’re not willing to take a risk on for yourself, then you’re really not doing the work that needs to be done.

And I actually lost an opportunity because of the shirt. But it’s important for people in my position to be willing to make those sacrifices. The more men we have speaking out about these things, the less anyone else has to take the brunt of all these attacks.

If enough men gave a shit about women’s reproductive rights, these clinics would be staying open, and these TRAP laws wouldn’t be going into effect. The problem is, ultimately, not as many men care about these issues as women do.

Rewire: You spoke in a recent interview about how important it was to your gaining a deeper level of consciousness that you are working on shows like Orange Is the New Black and How to Get Away With Murder that allow you to wave your intersectional feminist flag with pride. What about the folks who aren’t in those environments? Just thinking about what it might be like if your next gig isn’t as “woke.” How do you see people navigating those spaces?

MM: I’m not in a place in my life where I have enough money to live even an extended period of time without working .… There is almost a guarantee that at some point in my future where I will work with someone on a project who is problematic, and I unfortunately won’t necessarily be able to call it out in a way that I would want to.

I have thought about that and I dread that day.

I just saw Captain America: Civil War, and there’s a great quote in that movie that resonated for me in terms of the social justice work. The theme behind it is that the United Nations wants to govern the Avengers and some of them do think it’s okay to be governed and some of them don’t want to be governed.

The quote is, “Compromise where you can. But where you can’t, don’t.” That’s not an easy thing to figure out, where you can and can’t. But it is an important part [of the work] and it’s one that’s a continual process.

I also think that part of the thing that scared me initially [about taking a stand] was I’m not always going to know what opportunities don’t come to me because of this stuff. The director is not going to call me up. They are going to go another way and you are not going to know.

I think for people who think they can’t speak out in some way, there is always other work to be done. There is always volunteering, community organizing, and having conversations with people [in small groups and] educating them.

I hope that I’ll be able to stay as much in line with my beliefs as possible as time goes on. It’s a constant process of figuring out and navigating, and I think it always will be. Any time you’re trying to go against the status quo, that’s not going to be a simple task.

Rewire: In the past year, you’ve gone from posting on Facebook about the gender pay gap and writing for Cosmo about your feminism to calling out Piers Morgan on Twitter about his response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. In the spirit of trope-ing, why are you such an angry white man speaking about these injustices?

MM: There is a component of it that I’m never [taking] the direct brunt of this, of speaking out about these issues the way, for example, that Black women are. And I’m not getting that same backlash and hate and threats of violence against me.

So when I do speak to other people about this, I try to remind myself that the less angry I can be or the less angry at least I can appear to be, the more effective I think I am at having these conversations. That has to be the paramount thing, because I am angry but I am not angry from a first-person perspective having to experience these things directly.

There are too many people who don’t listen to Black women for example, and claim that it is because they are too angry. As you know, if someone is telling you the right thing, even if they are not telling you it in the way that you want to hear, it is important to listen to them as much as you can.

Ultimately white people, white men, need to be more outraged with the injustices of racism and discrimination than we are when someone is telling us that they don’t like something that we are doing, for example.

I think if I’m talking to people whose points of view I simply couldn’t help but be infuriated by, I probably don’t need to be talking to them, because they are not welcoming any sort of actual dialogue.

It’s unfortunate that some of the deeply, deeply bigoted people are harder to [communicate with] and are not going to change through social media posts. But most of my work is really focused on how do I activate and change the minds of those people who really are interested in justice and maybe don’t understand these things fully, and don’t understand how to be an ally or that they even can be an ally as a white person. For me, if we can get enough people in these positions to care and to take action, there would be a point of critical mass that would pull the rest of everyone else even further toward the side of progress, whether they wanted to or not.

It’s what Martin Luther King said in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”—he said that the KKK is not the greatest stumbling block for the African American; it’s the white moderate who prefers order rather than justice. And who says, essentially what in today’s terms would be, “Whoa, you are being too loud” or “You should not go to these political rallies and yell Black Lives Matter.” It’s the people who prefer the order, who think, “not now, this is not the time or the place.”

I read in an article a while back how the movement [for racial justice] doesn’t need allies; it needs accomplices. That was an interesting way to think about [the work white people like me can do] too. We need to be there getting our hands dirty and taking on some of the risks, even in Hollywood, where we pretend we’re expressing those [messages], but we’re really not.

Again, I’m not saying anything that’s radical or that women and people of color haven’t been saying for years.

This interview, which was conducted in-person and later finished on the phone, has been edited for clarity and length.

Commentary Politics

A Telling Response: Trump’s Mistreatment of Women Evokes Yawn from GOP Leadership

Jodi Jacobson

Republican leaders have been largely dismissive of Donald Trump's misogynistic track record—which speaks volumes about the party's own treatment of women.

This weekend, the New York Times published the results of interviews with more than 50 people, many of whom attested to the fact that in both private and public life, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump made “unwelcome romantic advances” toward women and exhibited “unsettling workplace conduct over decades.” Translation: He objectified, sexually harassed, and made unwelcome comments and advances toward women with whom he worked, whom he met in social settings, or who participated in his reality show empire. He even, according to one person quoted in the Times, sought assurance that his own daughter was “hot.” Yet GOP leadership has been largely dismissive of Trump’s track record—which speaks volumes about the party’s own feelings on women.

While important in its detail, the Times story is anything but surprising. Trump is a historical treasure trove of misogynistic behavior and has talked about it openly. In an interview with Esquire, for example, Trump stated: “You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” He has frequently made derogatory comments about the looks of female politicians, journalists, actresses, and executives: He’s claimed that “flat-chested” women can’t be beautiful and mused about the potential breast size of his infant daughter. He’s suggested that sexual assault in the military is “expected” because men and women are working together and that the thought of someone pumping breast milk is “disgusting.”

Forgive me if I am not shocked that reports indicate he’s no feminist. Female voters know this: Even conservative news outlet National Review fretted about the fact that both Trump and former presidential aspirant Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) are both highly unpopular among female voters, noting that “seven out of ten women (67 percent) have an unfavorable view of Trump, and only 26 percent view him favorably… and [some] polls have his unfavorability ratings among women even higher, at 74 percent.”

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In interviews this weekend, the Times‘ report elicited what was effectively a yawn from Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, the guy charged with leading the GOP both in terms of the party’s platform and in helping its candidates across the country get elected. On Sunday, Fox News‘s Chris Wallace asked Priebus whether the reports of Trump’s mistreatment of women bothered him. Priebus responded by asserting that “people just don’t care” about all these stories, although when pressed, he suggested that Trump would have to answer to his own statements.

But that dodges the question. Priebus is the head of the party and also needs to take responsibility for his nominee’s behavior, as does the party itself. He did not say, “I deplore the remarks Trump has made during the campaign,” or, “as a party, we need to reflect deeply on why our candidates and policies are so deeply unpopular among a group that makes up more than half the U.S. population.”

Priebus said none of that. He just shooed the issues away. The fact he did not even attempt to address the substance of the Times article is the most telling news of all.

The real problem is that it’s the GOP leadership that just doesn’t care. This morning, the Guardian reported that “After a week of make-up meetings with Donald Trump, Republican party leaders have arrived at a new strategy to accommodate their presumptive presidential nominee: ignore his problematic attitude to women, his tax issues and his fluctuating positions on trade, immigration, foreign relations and a host of other topics, and instead embrace the will of Republican voters.”

The reality is that Trump’s “problematic attitude toward women” is not an isolated problem. For the GOP leadership, it is not a problem at all, but the product of their fundamental policies and positions. The GOP has been waging war on women’s fundamental rights for nearly two decades; it’s just gotten more brash and unapologetic about the attitudes underlying the party’s policies. The GOP is full of candidates who think pregnancy resulting from rape is a blessing; who minimize and stigmatize the role of access to contraception and abortion in public health and personal medical outcomes; who demonize and marginalize single mothers; and who won’t pay for basic services to help the poor. The GOP platform is built on policies that seek to deny women access to reproductive and sexual health care, including but not limited to abortion, thereby also denying them the right to self-determination and bodily autonomy. So the fact that both the party leaders and the media spun themselves into a tizzy when Trump suggested he would imprison women who had abortions was all theater. That is GOP policy.

The GOP majority in Congress and in state legislatures continues to deny low-wage workers—the majority of whom are women—living wages, labor protections, and paid family leave. At the state level, Republican governors and legislators have obliterated funding for education, child care, aid to single-parent families, aid to children with disabilities, and basic health-care services. And Trump is far from unique in this election cycle among GOP presidential candidates: Republicans in the running from Ted Cruz on down have used women as objects when it is convenient, with Cruz going so far as to parade his two young daughters on the campaign trail in bright pink dresses, seemingly to underscore their “innocence” and to stoke fear of transgender persons seeking access to the most basic facilities, though many of those are young girls themselves.

It’s not only Donald Trump’s mistreatment of women. It’s that the GOP’s platform is based on sheer misogyny, and the leadership has to ignore it or they’d have to rethink their entire platform and start from scratch.