Category: Feminism and Gender


Best for Whom?

As an aside, I recently suggested that breast-feeding advocates organize a public information campaign about how breast-feeding can promote weight loss. An article from last week’s New York Times reminds me that such a campaign could point to other potential benefits as well. A recent study of 139,681 women enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative showed that:

Women who reported a lifetime history of more than a year of breast-feeding were 20 percent less likely to have diabetes, 12 percent less likely to have hypertension, 19 percent less likely to have high cholesterol and 9 percent less likely to have had a heart attack or a stroke by the time they enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative.

The word “potential” is important. The Women’s Health Initiative study showed an association between breast-feeding and reduced risk; it did not demonstrate a causal relationship. The study was not able to account for all differences in the lives of women who breast-fed and women who didn’t. In this regard, the study suffers from the same deficiencies as those that attempt to evaluate the effect that breast-feeding has on babies. Researchers cannot account for all the differences in the lives of children who are breast-fed and children who are not.

The idea that breastfeeding is beneficial for women is not new. For example, the association between breast-feeding and lower risks of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and osteoporosis have been known for some time.

All of this brings me to back to the question of why public health organizations that are eager to promote breast-feeding don’t focus more on the potential benefits for women. I suspect that it has something to do with an overly-simplistic take on the maternal mind: mothers want to do what is best for their children, period. The reality, however, is that most maternal decisions involve trade-offs between what is best for the mother and what is best for the child.

Read More

Online Symposium: Citron’s Cyber Civil Rights

From tomorrow through Thursday, Concurring Opinions will be hosting a number of scholars invited to discuss Danielle Citron’s work Cyber Civil Rights. Responding to controversies over online attacks, Citron argues the following:

Social networking sites and blogs have increasingly become breeding grounds for anonymous online groups that attack women, people of color, and members of other traditionally disadvantaged groups. These destructive groups target individuals with defamation, threats of violence, and technology-based attacks that silence victims and concomitantly destroy their privacy. Victims go offline or assume pseudonyms to prevent future attacks, impoverishing online dialogue and depriving victims of the social and economic opportunities associated with a vibrant online presence. Attackers manipulate search engines to reproduce their lies and threats for employers and clients to see, creating digital “scarlet letters” that ruin reputations. . . .

Web 2.0 technologies accelerate mob behavior. With little reason to expect self-correction of this intimidation of vulnerable individuals, the law must respond. General criminal statutes and tort law proscribe much of the mobs’ destructive behavior, but the harm they inflict also ought to be understood and addressed as civil rights violations. Civil rights suits reach the societal harm that would otherwise go unaddressed and would play a crucial expressive role. Acting against these attacks does not offend First Amendment principles when they consist of defamation, true threats, intentional infliction of emotional distress, technological sabotage, and bias-motivated abuse aimed to interfere with a victim’s employment opportunities. To the contrary, it helps preserve vibrant online dialogue and promote a culture of political, social, and economic equality.

As I’ve noted before, I think this piece breaks new ground in applying venerable laws to the online environment. In this cyber-symposium, we propose to discuss the following issues:

What can the law do to respond to these threats?

How we deter harassment while promoting legitimate speech?

How do we balance the privacy rights of speakers and those they speak about in the new communicative landscape created by sites like AutoAdmit, Juicy Campus, Facebook, and anonymous message boards?

A list of scholars invited to discuss these issues appears below:

Read More


Breastfeeding Backlash

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and other breastfeeding advocates should be very nervous. In the last two months, the Atlantic and the New Yorker have each published articles that are very different from the usual media fare about the benefits of breastfeeding. (You can read CoOp posts about Jill Lepore’s New Yorker piece here and here; Crooked Timber is the one of the sites with an excellent discussion thread about the Atlantic article.) In the New Yorker, Jill Lepore suggests that our zeal for breastfeeding has distracted us from the larger goal of ensuring that mothers are able to spend adequate time with their babies; instead we have become satisfied with policies that make it easier for women to pump milk. In the Atlantic, Hanna Rosin examines the medical literature that underlies the recommendation that women breastfeed. She concludes that while breastmilk is probably best, it is not the magical elixir that one might suspect based on popular accounts. Thus, Rosin argues, depending on a women’s individual circumstances and predilections, she can do a cost-benefit analysis and (more than) rationally conclude not to breastfeed.

“Breast is Best” campaigns have been most effective among educated white women with higher incomes; this is the demographic with the highest breastfeeding rates. It is also a demographic that reads both the New Yorker and the Atlantic. Among this group, a strong social norm affects the decision whether to breastfeed. Rosin aptly captures this dynamic:

One afternoon at the playground last summer, shortly after the birth of my third child, I made the mistake of idly musing about breast-feeding to a group of new mothers I’d just met. This time around, I said, I was considering cutting it off after a month or so. At this remark, the air of insta-friendship we had established cooled into an icy politeness, and the mothers shortly wandered away to chase little Emma or Liam onto the slide. Just to be perverse, over the next few weeks I tried this experiment again several more times. The reaction was always the same: circles were redrawn such that I ended up in the class of mom who, in a pinch, might feed her baby mashed-up Chicken McNuggets.

What remains to be seen is whether the New Yorker and Atlantic articles mark the beginning of a wider disenchantment with breastfeeding, one that will eventually erode the norm that Rosin so aptly documents. I also wonder whether the articles will influence what Rosin labels the “relentlessly cheerful tip culture” that dominates discussions of breastfeeding in popular media and in parenting books.

p.s. As an aside, I’ve always thought breastfeeding advocates should organize a public relations campaign around how breastfeeding, particularly long-term breastfeeding, can make easier for a woman to lose weight. Think of a big hot fudge sundae with the tag line “From you to your baby’s brain.” I guess there’s a reason I pursued law instead of marketing . . .


Violence Against Women and Forgiveness

“In the U.S., a woman is beaten by her partner every 9 seconds.” This was the subject line of an email announcing tonight’s Take Back the Night rally at Seton Hall Law School to raise awareness and protest violence against women. Although I have seen the statistic many times and I cover domestic violence in my Family Law course, I am still shocked by the prevalence of domestic abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one-third of all female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner and the proportion of female murder victims killed by an intimate partner has been increasing in recent years.

As shocking and disturbing as these statistics are, I am actually more surprised by number of teenage girls who do not see domestic abuse for what it is—a crime. I am referring to (you guessed it) R & B singer Chris Brown’s attack on his girlfriend, pop star Rihanna. According to court documents, Brown shoved Rihanna’s head against a car window, then punched, bit, and choked her nearly to the point of unconsciousness. He also threatened to kill her. Although Brown has been charged with two felonies—assault and criminal threats—46% of teenagers in a recent survey said that Rihanna was responsible for the attack and 52% said that they were both responsible. Why do so many teens blame the victim?

Read More


What’s Wrong with Teen Sexting?

The teen pastime of “sexting” has taken a serious tangle with the law of late in our fair state of Pennsylvania. For those who haven’t heard of the phenomenon, “sexting” is the practice of sending nude or semi-nude pictures of oneself (or of one’s closest friends or enemies) via cell phone to a love interest, a friend, or as many classmates as possible. A recent study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 20% of teens surveyed had electronically sent or posted online nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves — so this appears to be a sizeable and quite serious problem. Even worse is the jaw-dropping response from local law enforcement.

In one example, last fall, school officials from the Tunkhannock School District in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania, seized several cell phones from high school students. The officials searched the phones and discovered that male students had been using them to trade photos of semi-nude and nude female students. The local district attorney threatened to charge three girls — two photographed in white bras and one with a towel covering her from the waist down — with child pornography or open lewdness unless they agreed to participate in probation in the form of a five-week re-education program. He did not threaten to bring charges against any of the boys trading photographs on their cell phones. The concerns raised by this approach abound: privacy, free speech, proportional punishment (if found guilty of child pornography, the teens would be subject to Megan’s Laws disclosure requirements and other sex offender laws), and, of most interest to yours truly, the gendered nature of this particular bit of legal discourse.

Read More


Trivializing Women’s Harms: The Story of Cyber Gender Harassment

On March 3, 2009, National Public Radio host Tom Ashbrook hosted a conversation about cyber harassment with David Margolick, Marc Randazza, Anthony Ciolli, and myself. Our discussion focused on the attacks on female law students at AutoAdmit in 2007. Here is a little background: anonymous individuals posted hundreds of sexually explicit, threatening, economically-harming, and allegedly defamatory statements about named female students. For instance, “[female student’s name] is a dumbass slut with huge fake t****s who I want to rape in the ass”; “I will force myself on her and sodomize her repeatedly”; “She deserves to be raped so that her little fantasy world can be shattered by real life.” Posters suggested that they had access to the named women, noting what they wore at the law school gym, providing updates on their whereabouts, and encouraging others to take pictures of the named women and post them on the site. Posters accused named women of having sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., “[Named female student] is a slut but don’t f***k her she has herpes”). They sent emails to former and prospective employers urging the law firms not to hire named women due to their low character. A poster told the community there that he sent an email to a named student’s faculty members with embarassing information about her. Posters hailed the sender as a hero who should be awarded a Congressional medal. Others engaged in a google bombing campaign to ensure the prominence of the offensive threads in searches of the women’s names: “We’re not going to let that bitch have her own blog be the first result from googling her name!”

During the program, former New York Times At the Bar columnist and current editor at Portfolio magazine David Margolick characterized the AutoAdmit attacks as mostly “juvenile, immature, and obnoxious, but that is all they are.” He called them “frivolous frat boy rants.” Margolick said that because the female law students who graduated from the most prestigious law school in the country now have good jobs, they suffered no harm. Mark Randazza agreed with this characterization of the harassment: “these are digital natives; it is their juvenile shtick.”

As my article “Law’s Expressive Value in Combating Cyber Gender Harassment” (forthcoming Michigan Law Review) argues in great detail, far too many people like Margolick and Randazza trivialize the serious harms that women uniquely suffer as a result of such cyber harassment in much the same way that society downplayed or ignored workplace sexual harassment until 1970s. In the face of threats of sexual violence, women not only feel afraid, but also chilled to act on their own desires. Women withdraw from online discussion groups, shut down their blogs, and alter their physical activities to avoid offline harassment connected to the online harassment. For instance, AutoAdmit victims stopped going to the gym to ensure that the anonymous posters could not take a picture of her and post it online. The cyber harassment also harms women’s dignity and sense of equal worth. Online assaults objectify women by reducing them to their body parts. Harassers further humiliate women by reducing them to diseased body parts. This treats women as moral subordinates and undermines their self-respect just as workplace sexual harassment makes women feel like sex objects, not competent workers. Women suffer a performative harm: they may assume male pseudonyms online to avoid cyber harassment. And cyber harassment inflicts distinct harms to women’s emotional and physical well-being. Women fear that online threats of sexual violence will be realized: anonymous threats are all the more frightening as they are shorn of any cues that might alleviate that fear.

Read More

Cyber Civil Rights

I just wanted to put up a note of congratulations to co-blogger Danielle Citron, whose work Cyber Civil Rights was just published by the B.U. Law Review. I’ve seen Citron present the piece at a conference, and I think it really breaks new ground in applying venerable laws to the online environment. As recent controversies have shown, it’s easy for online mobs to inflict real injuries on their victims–and women bear a disproportionate share of the abuse. Citron argues that “acting against these attacks . . . helps preserve vibrant online dialogue and promote a culture of political, social, and economic equality.”

David Hoffman and I tried to organize an online symposium here at Co-Op last fall to discuss Citron’s work, but we couldn’t get the schedules of participants worked out. This year we’re going to try again, hopefully for early April. If you’d like to suggest possible commentators, please email me.

One good side effect of the delay is that we’ll also be able to discuss some of Danielle’s more recent work. Online attacks are getting more attention in the media. Evoking Catharine MacKinnon’s work to end sexual harassment, Citron argues that naming and recognizing the gendered nature of many online threats is crucial to developing common cultural understandings that enable real democratic culture and participation online.

I really value that kind of historical perspective, especially after listening to Fred Strebeigh discuss his work Equal: Women Reshape American Law. Strebeigh “tells the story of the female lawyers who took on sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and violence against women,” and the most remarkable part of the podcast was how many women resigned themselves to sexism in the legal profession even as they were beginning their careers in the extraordinarily discriminatory environment of the 1950s and 60s. I see Citron’s work as another step in the consciousness-raising that brave feminists began decades ago.




Last week the New York Times had an article about the challenges of traveling for breast-feeding mothers. The piece is consistent with the patterns noted in a recent New Yorker, where Jill Lepore observed that companies are increasingly rated as mother-friendly solely because they accommodate breast pumping, instead of because they permit long maternity leaves or otherwise allow mothers to spend time with their babies. (Chimène Keitner blogged about the article here.) The Times article is mostly consistent with this pattern. It discusses, for example, how Ernst & Young provides free kits that enable traveling mothers to ship milk home. Much of the Times piece talked about the perils of getting milk through airport security, because individual Transportation Security Agents determine what constitutes the “reasonable quantity” of milk permitted under TSA rules.

There is a distinction between pumping milk while away from home and transporting milk home so that it can be consumed. Pumping milk while away is essential, both to relieve physical discomfort and to maintain the milk supply. Transporting the milk back home is not essential, at least not if you are willing to supplement breast-milk with formula. This point leads to two larger observations.

Read More


Minding the Gap

While the U.S. Congress moves towards enacting the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act, which Tristin recently blogged about here, a U.K. think tank has released a report aimed at debunking the notion that discrimination accounts for gender disparities in pay. The Institute for Economic Affairs, whose mission is to find “ways of reducing the government’s role in our lives,” reports that differences in earnings can be accounted for most centrally by the fact that “[m]ales and females make different choices in the labor market, in terms of the trade-off between pay and other job characteristics, choice of education, choice of occupation and attitudes to work.” As stated in the Foreword, “the free choice of men and women who are seeking employment—as well as earlier educational choices and the choices they make regarding their domestic arrangements—are at the heart of differences in pay levels.” This account echoes the argument often deployed by employers facing claims of race discrimination, namely, that minorities simply aren’t interested in higher-paying, more secure jobs.

Why does this argument, which seems so easy to dismiss in the context of race discrimination, strike some as more plausible when it comes to women’s labor market “choices”? Enter Jill Lepore, who recently published an article in The New Yorker about the role of breast pumps in addressing the “Human Milk Gap.” Lepore reports:

One big reason so many women stop breast-feeding is that more than half of mothers of infants under six months old go to work. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees only twelve weeks of (unpaid) maternity leave and, in marked contrast to established practice in other industrial nations, neither the government nor the typical employer offers much more. To follow a doctor’s orders, a woman who returns to work twelve weeks after childbirth has to find a way to feed her baby her own milk for another nine months. The nation suffers, in short, from a Human Milk Gap.

There are three ways to bridge that gap: longer maternity leaves, on-site infant child care, and pumps. Much effort has been spent implementing option No. 3, the cheap way out.

Lepore asks, “is it the mother, or her milk, that matters more to the baby?” She suggests that pumps allow us to avoid addressing this important social question and its policy implications.

Juxtaposing these perspectives suggests that, in a variety of contexts, it can be useful to reflect on what we mean when we talk about women’s “choices,” and how we fail to recognize the ways in which many women’s choices are constrained.