Q & A Abortion

Texas Abortion Provider Launches Program to ‘Shift’ Abortion Stigma: A Q&A With Amy Hagstrom Miller and Amanda Williams

Andrea Grimes

Amy Hagstrom Miller and Amanda Williams at ChoiceWorks speak about their vision for their new nonprofit Shift, why they’ve chosen to launch in Texas, and what the end of abortion stigma might look like in red states.

I drive by what used to be Whole Woman’s Health’s flagship abortion clinic here in Austin all the time. Every time I pass by, I think of how it never really felt like a doctor’s office inside. Warm, purple walls. Inspirational quotes painted inside counseling and exam rooms. A recovery room filled with cushy recliners. More like a retreat, or maybe a sanctuary.

But there’s been a “For Rent” sign outside for months, ever since HB 2, the 2013 omnibus anti-abortion law, forced it and dozens of other providers to shutter last year.

I hated seeing that “For Rent” sign. And now I’m pleased to report that it’s gone. Instead, Austin Whole Woman’s Health has been reincarnated as an organizing and co-working space called ChoiceWorks, the operational headquarters of a new nonprofit from Whole Woman’s Health CEO Amy Hagstrom Miller: Shift.

Shift, according to Hagstrom Miller, is a group “working to strategically shift the stigma around abortion in our culture,” and “committed to fostering open and honest conversations, lifting up all communities, and advocating for reproductive freedom.”

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I sat down with Hagstrom Miller and Shift Program Manager Amanda Williams at ChoiceWorks to talk more about their vision for Shift, why they’ve chosen to launch in Texas, and what the end of abortion stigma might look like in red states.

Rewire: Big question first: What is Shift? How’s it related to Whole Woman’s Health?

AHM: Whole Woman’s Health has always been involved in the advocacy and education realm, with a really strong commitment to having open and honest conversations about abortion in the context of the wider range of reproductive rights and justice issues and a human rights framework. People don’t just experience abortion as a medical procedure. And they don’t just experience it as a civil right, either. In the direct service realm, the conversation about abortion has some ambiguity around it. So how do we get that nuance into the public policy and culture change sphere?

I noticed years and years ago that the only people talking about abortion in public were the people who were against it. We would have people in our clinics who would say, “Not only did I have a great abortion experience, but this is the best health-care experience I’ve ever had. But it’s at an abortion clinic.” And they would articulate: “I feel so empowered, I made the right choice, I feel affirmed.” So they have this great, empowering experience and they walk out the door and there’s just silence on the issue. Nobody’s talking about abortion as though it’s a good in our society, or as though good women would have an abortion. I had this banner outside Whole Woman’s Health for years that said, “Good women have abortions.” People flipped out.

Inside our clinics, we talk to people and say, you know, there’s no one right way to have an abortion. People say, “Hey, can I see my fetus?” And we’re like, sure. They say, “I wanna baptize it.” Sure. Let’s do it. Let’s figure it out.

And so Shift is trying to take that sort of experience we have in the service out into the public sphere where it’s really needed.

Rewire: Why a nonprofit? Why now?

AHM: We’ve always had a 501(c)(3) ever since we opened—that was an abortion fund, before a lot of abortion funds existed. But then a couple of years ago, in the middle of the 2013 legislative session, we started to have people really interested in how to help my voice and Whole Woman’s voice remain on the scene.

The voice that we’re bringing is very unique: We’re speaking on behalf of providers, talking about how real people experience abortion as a medical service but also as a cultural experience. How can our voice remain in that conversation around reproductive rights? It’s very different than the researcher voice or the patient storytelling stuff that Advocates for Youth or Sea Change is doing, and it’s different from the family planning folks who sometimes avoid talking about abortion.

From that idea grew a much stronger foundation than our previous 501(c)(3) work. We had support from multiple donors saying, “We’d like to see you do crisis mitigation,” “We want your clinics to be able to be open,” and “We want to see providers be able to continue to be a voice and continue to influence policy stuff.” Like: If there’s an amendment about to be introduced by the Democrats, let’s make sure it actually helps. Or, let’s sit with [legislators] and say: This is what an ambulatory surgical center does, this is what the regulation already is.

We see ourselves in a place to be able to have a 501(c)(3) with much more funding and structure to be able to do longstanding culture change work and movement building. Informing some of the policies. Helping us figure out what proactive policy would look like.

Rewire: Do you have any hopes on that front, or work you’ve done so far in that direction?

AHM: I always fantasize: What would it look like if abortion care were treated as legitimate in women’s health care, just like miscarriage management or delivery? There would be no question that abortion is covered by insurance or Medicaid. We’d have standards of care that aren’t targeted in a negative way, but in positive ways. There wouldn’t be stigma, so that you could talk about it openly and honestly. We could reframe the notion that there’s only one kind of woman who has an abortion, or that abortion isn’t a normal part of a medical history. That’s our goal: To say everything is normal, everything is funded, everything is talked about.

If that’s our goal, how would we get there from here? Obviously being involved in abortion funding work, and the economic justice work of All Above All and other campaigns, but also really trying to figure out ways that we can be of service to progressives, to talk about abortion better.

Some of our programs are inviting people to come into the clinic—this, where we’re talking, is one of those clinics. We have a safe space where we kind of re-enact a day in the life of a clinic for not just the media, but our allies. We’ll walk through, literally from the phone call all the way through the paperwork, ultrasound, and counseling, so people can see how regulations actually affect the service, experientially. But then we could also have this interaction where people can, in a safe place, say, “But what is that you’re seeing in the ultrasound? What happens in the ultrasound? Can I see the instruments?” And they’ll say things like, “Oh my goodness, there aren’t any sharp instruments,” or “Can I see the fetal tissue?” or whatever. A safe place where we can do education about what actually happens.

Amanda Williams: Just earlier, I walked a visiting organization through the space and I showed them the equipment, and one of the women was like “Aaaaah!” The way we just have it there for them, I’m like, you can touch it! My vocabulary’s a little rusty on what everything is, but I walked them through as much as I could. She was quiet and I was like, “So what do y’all think?” And she was like, “This is awesome.” They loved it. She’d never had an abortion, but they talk about it all the time. They work on these issues. I’m like, y’all were doing abortion work, but you had no clue. There’s that disconnect.

AHM: One of the things I love to do, with staff, we do this thing I call “downriver.” Which teaches the staff how the jobs fit together and why they’re all important. Staff members get up on to the table. They play a patient. So when a guy gets on the table and puts his feet in the stirrups, it’s profound. I turn on the suction machine so people can hear what it sounds like. Even though they’re not having an abortion, there’s some stuff that people go through. Sometimes they get a little triggered, and that vulnerable, emotional place is where we want to teach people. This is what we’re doing here. That’s the fun part. I see us being able to do some education for people in the field who are providers who may not get the same kind of education about their jobs that Whole Woman’s provides to the people who work for us. But also have it be a place where literal destigmatization happens. Like, “Can I touch the machine?”

AW: And talking about that. Like, your ignorance about the procedure is a product of stigma. You can actually see that connection. That’s what’s powerful for me. Those shocked faces. This is stigma!

AHM: And this is my whole life’s work of turning lemons into lemonade. I have, as it turns out, a bunch of suction machines I don’t know what to do with. So if they can become used for show and tell? Awesome. I have all these nitrous oxide mixers. Are we going to throw them away? Or I can use them. So that’s part of this space. It’s part of a reclaiming.

Being able to do these “Abortion 101” workshops are, in my mind, the beginnings of what I would call kind of an “Abortion University,” which would train not only progressive people, but people in the field who aren’t doctors. So the counselors, the advocates, the administrators. Like, who teaches you, as a liberal arts grad, how to run a clinic and host a health department inspector? How are we training people in the field to handle the dynamics of working in red states and working with TRAP laws? Figuring out regulatory compliance, things like that.

We can also practice handling the things that people may have uncomfortable issues about. For example, how can I help somebody prepare for a question about 20-week bans they’re going to get as a progressive? How can I help them learn how to pivot, or help them learn to talk from a level of expertise, while also acknowledging that moral complexity?

We see ourselves as facilitating these open and honest conversations and not being afraid to talk about any of the difficult stuff, because we see it all the time around abortion as providers. Because the people we serve are pretty articulate about the hang-ups they have. They come from the broader culture and they go back into the culture. It’s not a mystery. We’re not messaging for people we don’t see. The people are right in front of us! So in some ways I feel there isn’t an affiliation really between Shift and Whole Woman’s Health, except for our clinics are kind of a lab for us. They’re where we learn what people want to talk about and how they want to have things framed. And then we can be able to talk about the issues with the kind of complexity that has people start to feel like their voices are being heard and their stories are being respected.

Rewire: What are some specific programs or policies that Shift is working on?

AHM: We’ve been funded for doing some hotline work where we can collaborate and bring advocates, patients, and providers together in a statewide way. So that we can coordinate. And do something about the fact that so many people think abortion is illegal. Doing like some billboards or some web campaigns that say, “Do you need an abortion? We can help you.” You’re triaging people, helping them get to the abortion fund, helping them get to a clinic that’s open. And knowing there’s going to be people who call us who’ve tried to self-induce. Or who have a question like, “Is there a place where I can go in my community where they won’t hurt me, or judge me?”

So we placed two billboards on Highway 83 (the main thoroughfare in the Rio Grande Valley), in McAllen, Texas. They say, “If you need an abortion, we can help you and you’re not alone” in Spanish. And they have the Shift logo and a link to SafeAbortion.org. We have to do billboards in lots of places. Our goal would be to do them in West Texas, right? And facilitate a hotline, but also radio, or on a bus, or different ways to reach a population of people who really have no idea.

We’ve been funded for bigger things, but we’ve also done some crisis mitigation stuff in the Rio Grande Valley, and a mural for the clinic there.

There’s a spirit of entrepreneurial innovation in our clinic services delivery, and we can kind of bring that to this nonprofit advocacy organization. In that spirit: We try stuff. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t, but we keep trying stuff.

Rewire: Are there existing organizations or groups that are doing work you find informative or inspirational?

AHM: There are a few of us, independent abortion providers, who’ve worked in the clinic and in the advocacy realm both. Primarily they’re women-led, women-owned sort of organizations that come from this framework of “I do direct service work and I have a clinic, but I do it because I’m trying to make the world a better place for women.”

I think of my friend Tammi Kromenaker in North Dakota. I think of my friend Renee Chelian in Detroit. I think of Preterm, a clinic in Ohio. Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta. People who are doing this kind of praxis, where they’re speaking about life as a provider in the public realm and the advocacy realm. Part of what I’d like to do is I want to figure out a way to support and train providers to go out into the world and have a place where we work through “Why am I hiding in the shadows?” Or, “Am I participating in the stigma on some levels?” And can we facilitate some conversations about the “bad provider”?

AW: Because right now we kind of just ignore them.

AHM: The bad provider thing is rough. How can we talk about that? Whenever I see the word “access,” I don’t want access to abortion, I want access to quality abortion. I host little debates within the field: Is any abortion a good abortion? I don’t think so. I want us to have those ethical debates.

In my mind there are some clinics that haven’t kept up with holistic approaches, whose providers understand women don’t just experience abortion as a medical procedure, and they also may not have kept up with modern medicine. Is there a way we can go into the community and keep access but also raise the standard of care? It’s not that people are doing harm, but abortion in my mind is specialty medicine, and it involves an approach that’s holistic. You should have fundraising for women, counseling programs, and other reproductive health-care options for people as part of your service. So some folks who are just in the medical model, emptying the uterus safely, are kind of old-school. We can go in and help them retire gracefully and take what started in the 1970s forward into the next generation.

That’s a big part of what we do at Whole Women’s Health. But how do we talk about that?

That’s where Shift comes in. Because we need to. We don’t want the byproduct of these regulations to be that there’s only giant providers who can raise money to build ambulatory surgical clinics and that’s all we have. That’s what happens when you have high regulation on abortion care. You have people who, in order to comply with the law, have to be giant. You can look at other “industries” and you can totally see that. They’re doing away with the mom-and-pop businesses in the same way. Barnes and Noble. Walgreens.

I think we could do some storytelling about clinics like the Feminist Women’s Health Clinic in Atlanta, or of Emma Goldman in Iowa City or Tammi’s clinic in North Dakota. That could be part of what we try to do to talk about what good abortion [care] looks like, without talking about “bad providers.” [Ed. note: See Rewire reporting exposing unethical providers here.]

Rewire: Who are you telling those clinic stories to? Or telling them for?

AW: I often think that a big piece of our movement-building work is reaching people who don’t even talk about abortion at all. How do we incorporate them into the conversation? How do we reach them where they are? This everyday person who might have an idea of what abortion is but will be easily persuaded into believing abortion is wrong, because that’s the narrative that’s currently out there. So I see Shift being key in taking control of that narrative and taking back that storytelling power. Whether that’s in our community work or in the media: reaching everyday people and incorporating them into this movement in a way that no one in Texas is doing. That’s something I see us being very capable of doing. And when you talked about organizations that influence us, I love the work that the Sea Change Program has done, although I think we would be very different. The work they do with the book clubs and stuff—I love their research. I think we can use that.

AHM: They have the research, and they’re very much in line with the content, but the service provision is something they don’t have.

AW: We can bring that into the conversation in a way that no one else can. Reaching everyday people is something that campaigns or organizations have tried to do, in a way, but they always end up reaching the same kind of people. So I hope that we can shift that and finally make waves in that area. That’s going to take a lot of collaboration. That’s going to take a lot of community work and a lot of education, frankly. Because I think our audience is going to be different than what’s traditionally the audience in this movement. Especially when so many groups are so focused on policy. How can we participate in that, but break away from it?

AHM: And Shift, there’s a lot of things we can do with that. Shifting Texas. Shifting stigma. Shifting whatever kinds of things we need to work on. Because abortion encompasses a lot of it, but I think there’s other stigmatized reproductive health issues, and it’s all really intertwined. Because it’s about power, and it’s about putting us in our place. And we know that. But abortion becomes this lightning rod for a lot of it. And it’s by design. It’s good for the other side to keep the lightning rod on abortion, because then they don’t have to talk about the other stuff.

People have often said to me, especially the last two years, “You should work in the political sphere!” I’m just like, first of all, no way. Second of all, I see that disconnect so strongly. Even yesterday with our coalition partners, we got in this heated argument, we’re talking about policy about our strategies reaching Latinas in the Rio Grande Valley or whatever, and I’m like, you know the vast majority of my patients aren’t Democrats. Republicans have abortions every day inside my clinics. Let’s talk to them. What seed could we plant there? When 95 percent of Texans identify as Christian? And 70,000 of them every year have abortions. Woah! That’s something to work with. And they’re here! These clients have figured out how to reckon with “I’m a Christian Republican but I am the kind of person who had an abortion.” They may not talk about it after they walk out of our door, but all of those things are true. So what invitation can we make for them to see themselves differently? Or see pro-choice differently?

Rewire: Maybe those patients could tell you, or coalition partners, something really valuable about messaging that’s not currently working.

AHM: Oh, they do, all the time.

Rewire: Because as you say, there are 70,000 Texans getting abortions here every year. We know that.

AHM: They’re sitting right here! They’re sitting here, almost all of them, like literally almost all of them, with another person with them. People say, “People just need to tell their abortion stories,” and I’m like, no they fucking don’t. I mean, I love when they do. But we can’t make shifting the movement that person’s burden. That’s not her fucking job. She doesn’t owe that to us. So I get super animated about this, “Oh we just need to have more patients tell their stories,” you know? No we don’t! We have providers that don’t talk about what they do. For good reason, and there’s a risk there. So what if we start with the loved one who called and made the appointment? What if we start with the person who’s here, who says, “I’ve helped someone get an abortion. I’ve loved someone who got an abortion.” That’s not so scary to say. Because no one’s asking you to name who it is. No one’s asking you if you caused the abortion.

I envision pregnancy histories that are taken on men, that ask men their pregnancy history as part of their health history. Like, down the road, I would love that. “How many pregnancies have you had?” Because I want a frame where we can talk about how men benefit from abortion. We’re not there yet. It drives me nuts, but it drives me nuts for a reason I’m trying to shift. Nobody thinks they’re going to need an abortion until they do, so nobody pays attention to the law until they need an abortion. So some of that, changing who we’re talking to.

AW: And making space for difference. A lot of times when we talk about storytelling, we’re all waiting for the abortion moment in the story. But really people want to talk about their lives. We need to be listening for not the abortion itself, but their lives. Really, the highlight should be on the person’s life and their journey and not just the abortion. That’s where we strive to be this, sort of, platform of the difference.

AHM: Amanda hit the nail on the head. Journalists always ask me this all the time: “So how come your movement isn’t being successful and those gay people have had all the success?” And this is at the root of it right here: It’s that your abortion doesn’t define who you are. It’s not who you are as a person. It’s not your identity. Where, being gay is who you are. Abortion is like, something you did. That’s why I don’t like this whole coming-out thing about abortion. Because it’s not an identity.

Rewire: There are, though, people on the anti-choice side who wear their abortion, specifically their abortion regret, as their entire identity. Texas state Rep. Molly White comes to mind.

AHM: Right. But I think there’s something for us to work on there. This is a new thing I’m trying to develop. I want Shift to incubate this stuff. Should we have a campaign where white men talk about how they benefitted from abortion? It sort of makes you throw up in your mouth a little bit, but maybe actually people listen to them. Would that work? I don’t know. Like, “I got to go to law school because my girlfriend in college had an abortion.” Like, holy shit! Because it’s true. What would happen if that happened? These are the things I think about all the time in the Shift context. What if we told this story? Would it work? Would it not? What if we have a woman talking about her abortion who’s breastfeeding? Woah! Would that be good or would that backfire? We should try it. In a small pilot.

I’m guessing we’ll probably make some pro-choice people uncomfortable.

Rewire: So what is your role as the provider at the table?

AHM: For a while I was the only provider funded for this state advocacy work in any of the states. I believed, so strongly that I could barely keep my mouth shut, that if we work on culture change and movement building and policy work, and we leave clinics still doing bad abortions in the state, it’s never going to work! I feel really strongly about this. So if we as a movement can’t talk about that? Our goals on the culture change and policy? It’s never gonna work. It’s never gonna work because you’ll have those photographs, whether they’re of Gosnell or Steve Brigham, and anti-choicers [are] going to use those clinics as examples of every abortion. And the abortion provider doesn’t have any sympathy in the public.

So this is where I see: Oh, we’ve got to tell a more nuanced story about why we do this work. What is this work? It’s not just uterus-emptying. But we’ve got to be able to talk about the service. And our avoidance of it? People see it. They see it so clearly. I want to, behind the scenes at first, work on our stuff. So that we don’t leave what my friend Charlotte Taft calls the “crumbs at the picnic.” We have a picnic and we don’t clean up and anti-choicers grab every little crumb. Abortion, money! Ooh, “late-term” abortion! Fetal pain! Oh, sex-selection! I could make a list of all the things that all of us are terrified of being asked about. That’s totally by design.

And when we say “Oh, abortion is only part of what we do,” or “Oh, we believe in prevention first,” how can we as a movement say those things proudly, but not say them in a way that stigmatizes?

AW: Real talk. Real talk about abortion. That’s our tagline.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

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.