Commentary Law and Policy

Defeating Personhood: A Critical But Incomplete Victory for Reproductive Justice

Loretta Ross

The defeat of Mississippi Initiative 26 and the gains for reproductive choice today in Mississippi--while critical--may in the long run be seen as pyrrhic victories given the ominous implications of Initiative 27, the exclusionary voter ID initiative that will disenfranchise thousands of African Americans, immigrants, married women, transgendered people, and Native Americans.

See all our coverage of the Mississippi Egg-As-Person Defeat here, our coverage of Mississippi Initiative (Prop) 26 here, and our coverage of egg-as-person initiatives here.

The headlines all say it – “Personhood defeated in Mississippi!” This was a tremendous victory for the pro-choice movement that started campaigning on the ground only September 8, years after proponents of the “Yes on 26” ballot initiative flooded the state with a superbly orchestrated campaign that included well-financed organizing and petition drives. As of this writing, 55 percent of the voters rejected this dangerous, precedent-setting initiative that would have declared a fertilized egg a “person” and outlawed most contraception, in vitro fertilization, and would have criminalized abortion – even in cases of rape and incest. These dangerous, unintended consequences even persuaded conservative voters to defeat the initiative, splitting the traditionally unified anti-abortion base.

Mississippi was a peoples’ victory, a triumph in which people of all backgrounds, races, professions and religions came together. Congratulations are definitely in order for the tireless activists in the state, and for those professional campaigners who came from out-of-state to direct the No on 26 campaign, led by Mississippians for Healthy Families. The grassroots efforts of many courageous Mississippi activists demonstrated that over-reaching zealots who do not care about women’s lives could be rebuffed even in the reddest, most religious, conservative state in the South. The professional campaign strategists were right – targeting their efforts at conservatives and independents by magnifying the anti-government sentiments in the state that are a holdover from the Civil Rights movement and the more recent stoking by the Tea Party.

The supporters of the personhood initiative could not hoodwink people in Mississippi because great folks like Valencia Robinson of SisterSong and Allison Korn of National Advocates for Pregnant Women threw their hearts into the campaign, knowing that Mississippi does not have the comparable pro-choice infrastructure that states like New York, California, and even Colorado have. It was a great success for the pro-choice movement and sets radical anti-abortionists back on their heels, after the millions of dollars they invested in the state.

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It was not, however, a total victory for the Reproductive Justice movement. At the same time, Mississippi voters approved Initiative 27, a Voter ID exclusion initiative requiring government-issued identification in order to vote, a direct threat to the Voting Rights Act. Even on November 7, some black voters were questioned about their ID and their right to vote. One poll worker asked Michelle Colon, a grassroots activist, why she did not recognize her when Michelle voted at the same precinct she had used for seven years. The same voters who elected a Republican governor and supported Voter ID broke ranks and rejected the Personhood Initiative. What this means for future elections is ominous and should be carefully analyzed.

Millions of dollars of staff and resources poured into Mississippi from around the country to defeat 26, the personhood initiative. What if those same resources had been equally devoted to defeating 27, the Voter ID initiative? We may never know the answer to that question.

What if campaigners had listened to Mississippi activists, done polling, created commercials, distributed comparable campaign literature, and put an equal amount of lift under the 27 initiative as we did on 26? Could we have saved the right to vote in Mississippi at the same time we saved (at least temporarily) the right to obtain an abortion?

Through a Reproductive Justice lens, Mississippi was a mixed bag for human rights activists who manage to care about other issues in addition to abortion politics. We have to ask why weren’t millions of dollars in resources poured into the state to stop the Voter ID initiative which will disenfranchise thousands of African Americans, immigrants, married women, transgendered people, Native Americans, etc. We have to ask why it took so long for our side to start mobilizing on the ground, only establishing a campaign office less than two months before the election. We have to ask why was the name of the black candidate for governor, Johnny Dupree, not on the electronic ballots at some precincts. Mostly, we have to ask why opponents of the Personhood Initiative did not see the link between that and the Voter ID exclusion Initiative that jeopardizes the prospects for women in Mississippi continuing to have access to abortions and contraceptives in the state.

Because we could have won on both.

I do not have yet have the data on voting by race so I don’t know if the overwhelmingly Democratic African American electorate made a difference on 26, but I suspect it did. If they did vote against the Personhood initiative as they had been urged to do, thanks are owed to them from women around the country for whom Mississippi was our Maginot Line.

What this will mean for the future in Mississippi may be predictable. The anti-abortion movement will probably try to achieve the same personhood goal legislatively that they tried at the ballot box. Given the preponderance of anti-abortion legislators in the state (with more to come with voter ID exclusions), they may have a better chance of persuading the legislature to pass yet another bill restricting abortion. The state already has a forced 24-hour waiting period, compulsory sonograms, and only one abortion clinic to which an out-of-state doctor has to fly to deliver services.

The pro-choice movement will, of course, fight them every step of the way. One of the more positive legacies from the 26 Initiative fight will be an energized and mobilized grassroots movement in the state available to continue to wage the just war against these opponents of women’s human rights. Bridges have been built across race, gender and class in defense of abortion rights and these bridges, if nurtured, can pay off in the end to counter future anti-woman measures.

Even as we celebrate, we have to watch other states for similar personhood efforts. The list is daunting – Florida, Montana, Ohio, California, Oregon, South Dakota, Michigan, Nevada, Georgia, Wisconsin have been mentioned in media reports speculating about future threats. These radical campaigns will vacuum up our limited resources in an ongoing war of attrition sadly too familiar to us.

What this will mean for voting rights champions is less clear. Already, Mississippi community activists are working to determine precisely what types of government-issued identification will be demanded when people go to the polls in 2012. They are assisting people in obtaining such ID, where possible, and considering legal challenges when people are denied the right to vote. They are under-funded and working beneath the media’s radar, but they are determined to not stop fighting for the right to vote in Mississippi. They have never stopped and will never give up, never give in.

By today, most of the out-of-town folks will be catching flights home, celebrating their tremendous victory, and catching up on much-needed sleep. This is a great day for those of us who fight for abortion rights. If I blink fast and hold my nose for a moment, I can briefly forget that we have won the battle, not the war.

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.

News Politics

Tim Kaine Changes Position on Federal Funding for Abortion Care

Ally Boguhn

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back the Hyde Amendment's ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate, has promised to stand with nominee Hillary Clinton in opposing the Hyde Amendment, a ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, told CNN’s State of the Union Sunday that Kaine “has said that he will stand with Secretary Clinton to defend a woman’s right to choose, to repeal the Hyde amendment,” according to the network’s transcript.

“Voters can be 100 percent confident that Tim Kaine is going to fight to protect a woman’s right to choose,” Mook said.

The commitment to opposing Hyde was “made privately,” Clinton spokesperson Jesse Ferguson later clarified to CNN’s Edward Mejia Davis.

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Kaine’s stated support for ending the federal ban on abortion funding is a reversal on the issue for the Virginia senator. Kaine this month told the Weekly Standard  that he had not “been informed” that this year’s Democratic Party platform included a call for repealing the Hyde Amendment. He said he has “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde amendment.”

Repealing the Hyde Amendment has been an issue for Democrats on the campaign trail this election cycle. Speaking at a campaign rally in New Hampshire in January, Clinton denounced Hyde, noting that it made it “harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.”

Clinton called the federal ban on abortion funding “hard to justify” when asked about it later that month at the Brown and Black Presidential Forum, adding that “the full range of reproductive health rights that women should have includes access to safe and legal abortion.”

Clinton’s campaign told Rewire during her 2008 run for president that she “does not support the Hyde amendment.”

The Democratic Party on Monday codified its commitment to opposing Hyde, as well as the Helms Amendment’s ban on foreign assistance funds being used for abortion care. 

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back Hyde’s ban on federal funding for abortion care.

When asked about whether the president supported the repeal of Hyde during the White House press briefing Tuesday, Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said he did not “believe we have changed our position on the Hyde Amendment.”

When pushed by a reporter to address if the administration is “not necessarily on board” with the Democratic platform’s call to repeal Hyde, Schultz said that the administration has “a longstanding view on this and I don’t have any changes in our position to announce today.”