Wednesday, August 14, 2013

I Am a Citizen of this Country: Reflections on the ERA in 2013

The White House released a statement on Monday regarding a recent petition on their “We the People” online petition program. The petition asked for the administration to “Vigorously support women's rights by fully engaging in efforts to ratify the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).” Much to the disappointment of advocates for the ERA, the statement was more of a nonresponse than anything else.

The petition, which currently has over 33,000 signatures, was created as an effort to force the Obama administration to commit to passing the ERA, especially focusing efforts in the states that have not yet ratified the amendment. Members of Congress have quietly reintroduced the ERA in many sessions including in March 2013. However, serious efforts to ratify the amendment have not been made by the administration, which has left supporters disappointed.

To add to their disappointment, the statement released by the White House on Monday barely acknowledged the ERA. Instead of tackling the issue head on, the White House made a statement basically summarizing President Obama’s achievements in bettering the lives of women. While it is wonderful to have a president who is committed to important issues such as fair pay and protecting women against domestic violence, it is disheartening that President Obama did not take the opportunity this petition presented him and declare his support for the current resolution to pass the ERA. The statement lists Obama’s many achievements in progress for women’s rights during his time in office and even says we completely agree that [the ERA is] an important priority,” but never comes out and says what he will do to ensure the amendment is passed.

The ERA has long been a popular amendment, but today many lawmakers shy away from endorsing it and making its passage a priority. President Obama, while advocating for women’s rights in a number of areas, has seemingly joined this group.

At the MWPC offices today, we were discussing how upsetting it is to even be in a society where we as women have to be given our rights by an amendment. I’ve always felt the fictional character Ainsley Hayes on the TV show The West Wing described this situation best when she said the following about the ERA:  

“It's humiliating! A new amendment that we vote on, declaring that I am equal under the law to a man. I am mortified to discover there's reason to believe I wasn't before. I am a citizen of this country. I am not a special subset in need of your protecting. I do not have to have my rights handed down to me by a bunch of old, white men.”

Ms. Hayes certainly has a point. As citizens under American law, why should we even need an amendment declaring that women are equal under the law? Shouldn't the Fourteenth Amendment (The Equal Protection Clause) cover us as American citizens? Despite the logic behind the character’s statement, in many cases--such as fair pay and workplace discrimination--women are not treated equally under the law as it stands now. So what IS it going to take for women be treated equally in all aspects of society?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Sexual Assault in the Military

It’s no secret that sexual assault in the military is a growing problem in our country. With a Pentagon report from 2012 claiming that as many as 26,000 military members might have been victims of sexual assault last year, it is evident that something must be done.

Enter Senator Kirsten Gillibrand,  who previously was a member of the fight to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and is the current chairwoman of the Armed Services personnel subcommittee. Sen. Gillibrand has been leading the charge for changes to be made in the way that the military handles sexual assault. She disagrees with the recent Pentagon approved policy changes advocated by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and has instead proposed that military commanders should no longer be the ones in charge of deciding whether a case should go to trial following a reported sexual assault. Gillibrand believes that experienced military lawyers should handle these cases and that leaving commanders in charge of proceedings is a mistake. Sen. Gillibrand recently said, "The chain of command is really an impediment for solving it because it's resulting in underreporting, no transparency, no accountability. The crux of the issue is objectivity. They (victims) don't believe the commanders can be objective, that commanders either know the victim or know the perpetrator or have a reason to support the perpetrator, who is more senior, more decorated, gone on more missions than the victim."

Gillibrand has gathered the support of 44 senators from both parties and will not rest on this important issue. Her proposal was recently endorsed by the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, and she continues to gather more and more support each day. Here at the MWPC we are pleased to see a hard-working female senator advocating for sexual assault victims!

Also in the news this week is the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio which posted a flyer dealing with its response to sexual assault. Under the title “Preventing Sexual Assault is Everyone’s Responsibility! Avoid Becoming a Victim,” the posted listed tips on how to avoid getting sexually assaulted. Some of tips were “socialize with people who share your values” and “trust your gut feelings.” Not only are these “tips” foolish, they place the blame with the victim and perpetuate the shameful feelings that many victims feel following an assault. Posters like these reinforce the false idea that victims are to blame for an assault that someone else makes against them.

Jennifer Stephens, an armed forces veteran and battalion commander in the Ohio National Guard who works on the base, felt that the message conveyed in the flyer would make victims feel less open about reporting sexual assault. She wrote a letter of her own and pasted it on top of the original poster. In her letter, Stephens detailed ways that victims could seek help after a sexual assault and condemned the author of the poster for perpetuating the rape culture that exists in the military. After tweeting the photo of her letter, Stephens is becoming a hero for standing up for assault victims.