Analysis

Catching Fire: Inflaming Our Passion to Pass the Safer Chemicals Act

Kirsten Moore

Flame retardants are associated with reductions in fertility, poor sperm quality, neurodevelopment delays in children and cancer. And because the chemical industry has been so deceptive and successful, flame retardants are found in strollers, nursing pillows, couches, chairs, cell phones, TVs, computers, and automobile cushioning – just to name a few places.

They lied to state legislators about flame retardants. They distorted the science about the effectiveness of flame retardants. They manipulated firefighters, some of our most trusted public servants. And they have harmed the reproductive health of women and families.

Who? The Chemical Industry.

It might seem like hyperbole, but the egregious behavior of chemical companies in the service of preserving and expanding the market for flame retardants is documented in a jaw-dropping investigative series from the Chicago Tribune, detailing deeply disturbing practices at the heart of the chemical industry. 

Flame retardants are associated with reductions in fertility, poor sperm quality, neuro-development delays in children, and cancer. And because the chemical industry has been so deceptive and successful, flame retardants are found in strollers, nursing pillows, couches, chairs, cell phones, TVs, computers, and automobile cushioning – just to name a few places. In fact, 97 percent of Americans have flame retardants in our bodies. Even baby belugas in the arctic have flame retardants in their bodies!

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Why should reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates care about baby belugas and poor sperm quality? It’s simple. We care about women’s health and we value each woman’s reproductive decision-making.  If we are constantly exposed to chemicals that can harm our reproductive health, women who want to become pregnant may not be able to and women who are pregnant may not be able to shake the concern of how toxic chemicals will impact the health of their child.

So what can we do? We can support the Safe Chemicals Act, a bill that will put commonsense limits on toxic chemicals.  

We aren’t the only ones with a reignited commitment to passing the Safe Chemicals Act.  The Tribune series has inflamed supporters on the Hill. As a result of the series, Senator Durbin (D-IL) has signaled his strong support for the Safe Chemicals Act and announced an interest in moving something to the floor before recess in July.  

We can help make that happen.

Join the the Safe Chemicals Brigade on May 22d in Washington, DC– an event to show Congress we’re fed up with toxic chemicals in the products we use, the air we breathe, and the water we drink.  For more details, check out the event Facebook page.

Culture & Conversation Law and Policy

The Modern Struggle Over Anti-Trans Bathroom Laws Has Its Roots in Decades of Title VII Fights

Jessica Mason Pieklo

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’s manufacturing 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.

So opens Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Workwritten by Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project. Despite its full title, though, Because of Sex goes beyond cases that helped shape workplace anti-discrimination policies, focusing on ten key women whose own lives changed the law.

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 and Zubik 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 Workers vJohnson 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 State made 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.

Culture & Conversation Media

The #MoreThanMean Video Highlights the Abuse Women in Sports Media Have Faced for Decades

Shireen Ahmed

Much of the discussion has been around how shocked the men in the video seem to be at the violently misogynistic tweets, and how shocked its male viewers have been.

Last week, the team at the “podcast and web community” Just Not Sports shared a new video project. The video, titled “#MoreThanMean: Women in Sports ‘Face’ Harassment,” featured two notable sportswriters, Julie DiCaro and Sarah Spain, who sat across from men who read “mean tweets” to them.

The tweets began in an almost comical yet rude manner—”I’d like to start a petition for a ban on all links to Julie DiCaro’s Twitter feed”; “Sarah Spain sounds like a nagging wife on TV today”—but they escalated quickly into violent misogyny, including messages of sexual assault. These messages had been sent directly to the women, and they had seen them. The tweet-readers had not. The video shows the men shifting uncomfortably in their seats as they are expected to vocalize these horrific remarks. Meanwhile, DiCaro and Spain remain very dignified and calm.

Within one day, the video had reached upwards of one million views; it now it stands at over three million. The #MoreThanMean project filled social media timelines and headlines, including international outlets. It has ignited discussions on the radio, news shows, and feminist websites. Fellow women sportswriters wrote about their own experiences and how we were affected by this video. I did. Spain wrote about what the experience meant to her, as did DiCaro.

Much of the response, however, has also been around how shocked the men in the video seem to be, and how shocked its male viewers have been. Men have said they were horrified to read and hear these tweets, effectively centering their own reactions in the conversation. This, too, is problematic: This video may have highlighted the abuse DiCaro and Spain receive through the internet, but women in sports media have faced this kind of harassment for decades. Disbelief and horror are not enough; it will take real, systemic change from the industry, social media companies, and these “shocked” fans to work against this kind of incessant abuse.

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In 1990, Lisa Olson, a former journalist at the Boston Herald, endured what she called “premeditated mind rape” when she attempted to interview the New England Patriots football team after a game. She settled with the team owner and the players were fined. More than 25 years later, prominent sports journalist Erin Andrews was awarded $55 million in a lawsuit against a hotel that failed to protect her privacy from a man who videotaped her while she was naked in her room. He leaked the video to the internet. Both journalists were unmistakably targeted because they are women.

In the case of online trolls, however, the problem is more complicated: Comments, emails, or tweets can be issued by people who do not use their real names and might not be identified. The waters become murky. One of the only ways to fight them is to block them, mute them, or as often suggested, disengage, phrased as “not feeding the trolls.”

Some women, DiCaro among them, argue against not engaging because they feel it is tantamount to being silenced. Each woman might have different ways of processing and handling the situation; it’s unfair to expect that all women should simply not reply or defend their work. People who attack women constantly are trying to derail our work and conversations—and the voices of women are important for adding nuance and perspective in a field that is already predominantly male.

For that matter, it may not work. As DiCaro explained for Chicago Magazine, “There are these guys who feel you’re a fake, a phony, a fraud, and you’re in a position you don’t deserve to be in, and you’re receiving attention you don’t deserve. Their mission is to take you down. Those are the trolls you can’t ignore. They don’t go away.”

And logging off—leaving Twitter and other forms of social media—is not a plausible course of action. As a sportswriter, I feel it is essential to be on Twitter. Social media is a tool to collect information quickly, and connect with readers and fans about events in the world of sports. In other words, being on social media is an essential part of our jobs.

This is where it becomes crucial for social media companies to step up and enact policies that can prevent this type of abuse from happening. DiCaro thinks social media—Twitter specifically—should wield greater responsibility in order to create a safer space for women online. “I blocked guys, but they would just create new accounts or find other ways to get around being blocked,” she said to me over email. “And Twitter didn’t really do anything about reported tweets unless they were rape or death threats. Anything else seemed to be tolerable to them, and that was really shocking to me.”

Twitter updated its Abuse Policy in December 2015 to crack down on “hateful conduct.” But DiCaro was so frustrated about constant harassment that she created a new handle at the end of March, @ZeroSafety, where she shares screencaps of harassment in order to urge Twitter to take these tweets seriously and further amend their policies to suspend abusive accounts. At one point, ironically, the account itself was suspended for using an avatar that was considered branded.

Female sportswriters will tell you that their work and their social media profiles are real life. It is not always possible to divorce one’s personal life from what they put out on their Twitter feed. A constant deluge of horrific comments can’t be ignored or simply waded through—particularly when the comments might wish for death or sexualized violence on the sportswriter. It is unfair to expect that women will have the mental or emotional bandwidth to fight trolls all the time.

This was especially evident in #MoreThanMean, when the male participants had to use their own emotional strength to get through reading the tweets. The experience was harrowing: One of the tweets directed to DiCaro, who bravely wrote in 2013 of her rape, read, “I hope you get raped again.” On more than one occasion, DiCaro has described the abuse as “soul-sucking.”

As emotionally exhausting as it is, DiCaro and Spain have very courageously pushed this conversation forward. I can’t fathom sitting in a chair and hearing all those awful comments spoken to me in front of the whole world. DiCaro and Spain used this opportunity to educate and share lived experiences.

But I wondered: Why did this particular video affect so many people? Was it the way we were able to see Spain and DiCaro as people, not just as faceless personalities on social media? Or were the men so sincere in their discomfort that the public was mortified?

DiCaro thinks it is the latter. “Honestly, I think it’s because society in general believes men more than they believe women. Sarah and I could scream from the rafters about being harassed, but if it was just us in the video, I wonder if it would have had the same impact,” she said.

DiCaro believes #MoreThanMean is a great start toward addressing this pervasive reluctance to acknowledge women speaking about abuse. In addition to urging social media companies to take action, she also tasked those horrified individuals to make change themselves, by including women in conversations, helping to promote them in industries where women are outnumbered, and by recommending women for panels and conferences. “Don’t speak for us; scoot over and give us a place at the table where we can speak for ourselves,” she wrote.

To men, DiCaro emphasized, “And if you see a buddy or family member beating up on women online, SAY SOMETHING. It’s not okay for people to treat others this way, and it’s not okay to stand by silently, either.”

It is my experience as a visible woman of color that there are no limits to the abuses that can be showered upon a woman for speaking up about a game, a team, or advocating for a victim of sexual assault by a player. I write about misogyny and race in sports; I also write about Muslim women. So, the abuse I receive is not only sexist, but coupled with Islamophobic and racist opinions. Charming, I know. This occurs only because I am doing what I am supposed to. Essentially, women sportswriters are abused for doing their jobs. For thousands of women in this industry and others, we don’t accept it but are are forced to tolerate it.

This is probably another reason #MoreThanMean struck a chord with so many. DiCaro said she was approached by women who admitted they never felt like they could talk about it before they saw the video. She suspects a lot of women keep it quiet or constantly self-edit to make sure they say nothing anyone could possibly object to. Both approaches silence women and suggest complacency is a way to combat abuse.

One way to also move away from a toxic, and in my opinion dangerous, acceptance of abuse is to support women’s work in the industry. In a column about #MoreThanMean project, DiCaro wrote, “Support women’s sports. Read and share women sportswriters. Question why more women, and especially women of color, aren’t actively promoted by their employers. Call out panels at events that don’t include women. Teach your sons and daughters that women have a place in sports equal to men.”

I feel this is essential if we want to move forward at all.

As far as handling the abuse, DiCaro told me about her self-care routines and how she should make them more of a priority. “We’re all working so hard to get ahead in this industry, [self-care] tends to fall by the wayside. But lately I’ve been giving myself permission to not charge so hard after everything. To set longer deadlines for myself, to have nights where I do nothing but watch a River Monsters marathon. And I’m a huge proponent of having pets. No matter how bad your day is, they always make you smile,” she said.

Her comments resonate with me too. As much as I rely on Twitter to stay connected and be “in the know,” I also love my time away from social media. It might involve watching Bend It like Beckham and eating popcorn. Or it might mean working out and just enjoying my family.

But self-care also means that when I log back on, I know I need help from other individuals to get through the day. After a few years on Twitter, I also became part of an informal support group of women who write about sports and its intersections with misogyny, sexual assault, politics, and various important social issues. We encourage and help each other every day, offering advice about projects, sharing contacts, and venting about our mentions. In response, we send each other photos of baby sloths or elephants and positive notes. This type of safe space is critical, particularly when we are trying to work while simultaneously swatting away trolls and defending ourselves against unfathomable rudeness.

Women are moving forward in sports writing and presenting, as game correspondents and as match analysts. As this happens, it is important to highlight toxicity in sports media and make sure that male colleagues, readers, and fans are aware of the abuse that happens and how they can eradicate it. It will not go away on its own. Consistently promoting the voices of women, and not excluding them from discussions of violence, is crucial. Equally important is addressing the layers of misogyny, racism, and homophobia present in all facets of the industry, including online.

Women need to lead discussions on what are the best strategies to combat online harassment and abuse. But it cannot be done without support.