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Archive for August, 2010

Today, August 26, is Women’s Equality Day, created in commemoration of the passage of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. In 1971 Congress designated this date to remember the amendment that gave women an equal say in the voting process, as well as to think about and focus on equality looking forward. JWA has a great roundup of recent interesting articles relating to women’s suffrage, as well as a post on the lessons we (in the U.S.) should take away from it. I’d recommend checking them out.

Meanwhile, I’d also like to take some time to think about the lack of equality that still exists for many women today across the world. Yes, there are some issues in the United States, but there are some huge and pressing issues across the world. For example, take Equality Now, an organization whose mission is to protect the human rights of females across the world. Currently, it has campaigns focusing on rape, domestic violence, reproductive rights, human trafficking, female genital mutilation, and denying women equal access to economic opportunity and political participation. Some of these things we think about on a regular basis, but most often we, or I at least, just live our regular lives. Think about it—how often do you think about girls sold into prostitution or the fact that female genital mutilation can lead to infertility, hemorrhages, urine retention, and open sores, among other things? And the fact that 98% of women in Somalia go through genital mutilation? For me, it’s not that often. So today, I’d say, think about those things for a while. And tell people. Maybe do a Google search and find out some things, and send some links around to raise awareness. And then, if you feel inflamed, take action by writing a letter to officials around the world about issues that are going on right now. (Examples: raids on women’s shelters, giving women equality under laws, etc.) Maybe it won’t do that much, but maybe it will—and the act of investing yourself in an issue will probably make you feel more connected to it and more likely to care about and discuss it with others.

Also, if you’re interested: President Obama’s speech about Women’s Equality Day. He talks about the gender pay gap, lack of women in science, business, and Congress, and other issues in America, as well as his hopes for working on women’s equality issues inside and outside of the U.S. He also talks about how he established the White House Council on Women and Girls in order to try to deal with these issues (did you know it has its own blog?). The creation of the council is in itself important as a symbol, but it also seems (from reading through this blog) that the administration is interested in furthering women’s equality, from the rights of Native American women to women entrepreneurs across Africa. That’s also worth a read.

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The Other Mama Grizzlies

I’m assuming a lot of people have seen this: It’s a video that Sarah Palin created about “Mama Grizzlies” who are “banding together” and leading a new movement that is changing America. What exactly they are doing is not particularly clear, but these women are clearly very united and very passionate about helping to shape this country. Right. It’s a good thing that all the women who are passionate about changing the country—common- sense conservative women—are mothers, and that their motherhood has taught them how to rebuild a country.

Well, yesterday a video came out that serves as a kind of response to Palin’s, and I wanted to point it out: In addition to being witty and extremely funny, it also raises some serious issues: the fact that Sarah Palin does not support a woman’s right to choose, that she wants to cut unemployment benefits, and that she vehemently opposed healthcare reform.  The video is important because it is a reminder of just how many women Sarah Palin does not represent—that just because Palin is a woman and a mother does not mean that she has the support of all women or all mothers, or that she has any particular special knowledge about leading a country from being a woman or a mother. Or that she even has the best interest of women and mothers at heart. Although it is very strategic of Palin to emphasize that she and the candidates that she supports are women, and to paint it as if consequently all women should support her, there is more to a candidate than his or her gender: politicians should be elected based on their ideas and opinions, not their sex. If a woman candidate happens to be particularly interested in reproductive rights and education because she is a woman or a mother, then all the more reason to support her, but if she supports policies that would actually harm women (as a I believe she does) then her gender should play no role in the decision of choosing who to vote for.

Watch the video, share it with your friends, and then go out and vote for candidates in November—not because they are “Mama Grizzlies” but because they support policies that will benefit you, your family, and this country as a whole. Don’t be afraid that the grizzly bears will rise on their hind legs and come get you.

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Yesterday, the FDA approved Ella, an emergency contraceptive that is about effective up to 120 hours after unprotected sex and that is currently available in 22 countries. According to the NYT:

Women who have unprotected intercourse have about 1 chance in 20 of becoming pregnant. Those who take Plan B within three days cut that risk to about 1 in 40, while those who take ella would cut that risk to about 1 in 50, regulators say.

Plan b, the current form of emergency contraception, which is available over-the-counter for people 17 and older, claims to be effective for 72 hours after unprotected sex.

Less than two months ago, a federal advisory committee voted unanimously to recommend approval of Ella. Unlike the long, drawn-out FDA decision to make Plan B available without a prescription, the last FDA discussion about emergency contraception, this approval process has been quick and efficient, which many women’s health advocates celebrate as a step away from what they see as FDA’s previous political agenda. However, women will need a prescription to get Ella.

The debate over Ella that has ensued is because of comparisons to RU-486, what many people call the abortion pill. Ella’s main ingredient is ulipristal acetate, which works as a contraceptive by blocking progesterone, thereby delaying the ovaries’ egg production. However, because RU-486 prevents a fertilized egg from implanting and dislodges growing embryos by blocking progesterone, as progesterone is needed to prepare the womb to accept a fertilized egg and to nurture a developing embryo, some people say that Ella will do the same and that it is another “abortion pill.” Studies on animals have shown that ella has little effect on established pregnancies, suggesting that it will not induce abortions like RU-486; however, it has not been tested as an abortion pill for humans, so there is no conclusive evidence as to whether or not it could serve as one. Even without evidence, antiabortion groups such as Concerned Women for America have made statements declaring it an “abortion drug.”

In the article linked to above, and in this article in the Washington Post, it says that one of the fears that critics of the pill have is that men will slip the pill to unsuspecting women. Now, the fact that both the NYT and the Washington Post felt the need to mention this fact means that people are actually worried about this, which I find very surprising, and kind of funny—if men are going to slip women Ella, then wouldn’t they slip them Plan B (which they wouldn’t need a prescription for), or birth control every night? What kind of regulatory concern is it that men would secretly slip women pills: yes, it could happen, but it could also happen with myriad other pills, too.

Either way, I think that it’s important that the FDA approved Ella for women in the US. It’s another option for women to prevent unwanted pregnancies, at a time when about one half of all pregnancies are unwanted. And most people, both pro-choice and anti-abortion, agree that unwanted pregnancy is an issue that must be dealt with, both to reduce the number of abortions that occur and because children born from an unwanted pregnancy are more likely to have developmental and childhood issues. While calling Ella an abortion pill is only speculation, it is fact that Ella can prevent unwanted pregnancies and help prevent unwanted pregnancies and their repercussions.

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This morning I woke up and was greeted by the Washington Post Magazine, whose main article today is called “Separate but Equal: More Schools are Dividing Classes by Gender.” The article discusses how many public schools across the country are popping up with single-sex classrooms in an effort to tailor education to boys’ and girls’ distinct needs, partly in response to the “boy crisis” in reading scores (boys trailing behind girls), discipline issues (boys having more of them), and college aspirations (boys again with less) that people have been discussing for a while, and because laws passed in 2008 making it easier to open single-sex schools legally. It features the Imagine Southeast Public Charter school, and discusses how different teaching methods are used in the separate boy and girl classrooms to make the children more comfortable and engaged.

The article discusses Leonard Sax, a leading proponent of single-sex education and author of Why Gender Matters, bases his belief in single-sex education on studies that show that girls are easily distracted by boys, and that the two sexes have differences in hearing ability and response to teachers who yell. Lise Eliot, a neuroscience professor at Chicago Medical School and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, says that there is very little evidence from scientific research that gender differences are biological rather than societal—that a study in which parents were supposed to put their babies on an incline and crawl showed that parents expected their girls to perform worse than boys but that when girls were given the same climb they performed the same.

I was still curious after reading this article, so I was happy to see that in 2008, the New York Times Magazine did a feature on single sex-education. It discusses Sax more in-depth, and in doing so also contrasts the two reasons why people believe in single-sex education: the idea that gender causes inherent differences in learning style (such as Sax), and the belief that children of different genders have different social needs and experiences (such as Ann Rubenstein Tisch, founder of the Young Women’s Leadership School).

Much of what Sax, who created the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, bases his belief in single-sex education on is research showing differences in the rate of brain development and development of motor skills and differences in hearing ability, as the Washington Post article mentions. However, many people (like Eliot, above) have criticized him for citing these studies, as the study about hearing shows that girls and boys have hearing that is actually more similar than it is difference, exhibiting what many believe to be his tendency to selectively interpret studies to prove his point. Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health, argues that gender is not an very effective way for sorting children: “Yes, you’ll get more students who favor cooperative learning in the girls’ room, and more students who enjoy competitive learning in the boys’, but you won’t do very well,” since “there are just too many exceptions to the rule.”

However, many students, such as those at the Young Women’s Leadership School in Harlem, or at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Seattle, have benefited significantly from single-sex education: a rise in test scores, and in the case of TYWLS, an incredible college acceptance and attendance rate. However, when contrasted with single-sex classrooms that have not shown any identifiable improvements in education, many people attribute the successes of these classrooms to teacher quality, curriculum, etc.

One problem with research assessing single-sex versus co-ed education that many people have openly admitted to (even the principal of one of these schools) is that the parents and children who choose to be in the classrooms are self-selecting, for better or worse. In many cases, the highest achievers choose to be in the single sex classrooms, and in some cases, a school will put their lowest achievers into the classrooms in the hopes of motivating them; the selection process therefore makes it difficult to assess the single-sex classrooms in comparison to similar co-ed ones.

In 2005, the United States Department of Education, along with the American Institute for Research, tried to weigh in, publishing research comparing single-sex and co-ed schools. Of the 40 studies they analyzes, 41 percent favored single-sex schools, 45 percent found no positive or negative effects for either single-sex or co-ed schools, 6 percent were mixed (meaning they found positive results for one gender but not the other), and 8 percent favored co-ed schools—showing how difficult it is to come to conclusions about single-sex education. Cornelius Riordan, the Providence College professor leading the study, says that the lack of conclusions is not surprising because “so many variables are at play in a school: quality of teachers, quality of the principal, quality of the infrastructure, involvement of families, financing, curriculum — the list is nearly endless.”

So, I’m still not really sure what to think. I’ve always wondered what happens to these kids after they graduate—they have to go into the real world, which is clearly co-ed, and how well do they adapt? I don’t have the answer, clearly, but I’m not so sure that it will be so good for kids to raise them in an environment that is so different from the outside world. That being said, for the girls in Harlem, escaping the outside world served to turn their school into a kind of refuge and helped them to achieve much higher than kids in co-ed schools in their neighborhood, which points towards single-sex education providing a benefit that is not biological but social and societal, and that can help kids overcome sexualized classroom environments and societal pressure to perform a certain way. So there could be some benefits there, especially among populations that struggle with things such as teenage pregnancy, etc.

I’m also still a little skeptical of the idea of single-sex education because, as both articles mention, there is a risk that having single-sex schools will perpetrate gender stereotypes if they are not taught properly. And because there is little research to prove inherent biological differences based on gender to merit separate schooling, I’m not sure that teaching boys and girls differently is the way to go; perhaps there should be more of an emphasis on teaching to children’s individual learning styles in general, rather than just based on gender. I guess as more and more of these programs pop up, more research will be done and hopefully we’ll be able to see what the benefits are, if any; for now, I’m going to hold onto my skepticism but try and keep an open mind until I see more scientific proof that separating education by gender works.

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