Monthly Archives: October 2009

Vote for the WLP’s Grant Proposal!

The Women’s Law Project’s grant proposal, Equity Now: Southwestern PA, has been chosen as a finalist by the Women and Girls Foundation. Please head over to their website and vote for us!

Our project is two-fold. We will work for public disclosure of information about gender equity in federally funded high school and middle school athletics programs through Senate Bill 890. Given the widespread and often extreme disparities in boys’ and girls’ school sports programs, it is important that parents, students, and community advocates have ready access to public information about participation rates, athletic department budgets, and coaching to determine if schools are treating female and male athletes fairly.  Requiring public reporting and transparency will lead to greater compliance with federal and state laws requiring gender equity.

We will also specifically target Lawrence and Butler counties for intensive advocacy and community organizing, as these counties appear to have unusually severe gender equity problems.

It only takes a second to vote, and every vote counts! Please vote for our proposal – voting ends November 16.

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Allegheny County Bar Association Launches Institute for Gender Equality

Yesterday, the Allegheny County Bar Association (ACBA) kicked off its new Institute for Gender Equality with a luncheon featuring judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Marjorie Rendell speaking about the difficulties women face in the legal profession.

The ACBA created the Institute last year after a study revealed that female lawyers in the Pittsburgh legal community had made very little advancement between 1990 and 2005. Some findings:

According to the survey, only about 5 percent of female lawyers make more than $250,000 a year. About 20 percent of men do. No women surveyed who graduated law school in the 1990s made $250,000 or more, while almost 10 percent of the male graduates of the 1990s did.

Nationally, about 17.3 percent of partners in law firms are women. In Allegheny County, 15.8 percent are, said Kim Brown, president of the county bar association.

The association has approximately 6,600 members, and about 1,780 of them women, spokesman Tom Loftus said.

Brown said the gap exists despite high-profile examples of women in leadership positions, such as U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, Allegheny County Common Pleas President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel and U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose, who recently stepped down as chief judge.

“There has been a lot of progress in many areas of law, such as on the bench,” Brown said. “There’s an inability to crack that last barrier to succeed in law firms.”

The Institute will be headed by Linda Varrenti Hernandez and will offer classes for local law students, policymakers, and lawyers in the next few months.

At the luncheon, Judge Rendell spoke about the difficulties she has experienced throughout her legal career and the importance of mentoring for young female attorneys:

As a young attorney building a practice in bankruptcy law and commercial litigation, Judge Rendell said she was frequently stressed by the demands of work and family.

“I cried to my husband but I wouldn’t let on at work. I was a good soldier. I was a poster child for ‘Women Don’t Ask,'” she said referring to a book published several years ago about women’s reluctance to ask for better pay and for other things they may need in the workplace as well as at home.

While her husband was a supportive sounding board and “my biggest fan,” Judge Rendell eventually found career help through a male partner at her firm who became her mentor.

“Every woman lawyer needs this,” she said.

The local Institute for Gender Equality will “pave the way out of darkness into light,” and help maximize the potential of female attorneys, she said.

We are thrilled that the ACBA has taken this very encouraging step toward rectifying gender inequality in the legal profession in Pittsburgh. We hope that female lawyers and law students will find it a great resource for ensuring that they get the support and recognition they deserve in every facet of their careers.

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No, Stalking Victims Don’t “Ask For It”

In a very personal column talking about the video taken of ESPN sportscaster Erin Andrews in a hotel room without her consent, Washington Post sports columnist Tracee Hamilton opens up about a stalker who instilled fear and helplessness in her—feelings that still persist to this day. It’s a disturbing read, but one that puts into perspective the fact that this could happen to anyone—not just beautiful, blonde, sportscasters, and makes it perfectly clear why victims of stalkers do not “ask for it.”

Hamilton was stalked for two years by a man she met in school. He followed her around campus, sent her sexually explicit and threatening letters, called her without saying a word night after night, and, at least once, stationed himself outside her window all night, waiting for her to wake up. When she considered reporting her stalker to the police, she was told by school administrators that if she reported him, he might kill himself, so she was discouraged from doing so. Even worse, one night she got a phone call from a mental health professional who blamed her for “her boyfriend’s” (the stalker’s) unstable state of mind. She writes:

I still remember standing there, in the dark, phone in my hand, shaking, as [the therapist] went on and on about my ‘boyfriend’ and my poor treatment of him. You see, my boyfriend wasn’t in therapy. The ‘boyfriend’ he was describing was my stalker. Slowly it came to me: I was being chastised by a mental health professional for being mean to the man who was torturing me. And finally, I snapped.

She furthermore contends that although one might think that the video of Andrews going public is the worst part about this situation, this is not, in fact, the case:

Andrews also has to live with the knowledge that this man stalked her all over the country, that at times only a hotel door separated her from a clearly obsessed and disturbed man. As hard as it is to remove a video from the Internet, that’s how hard it is to remove that kind of fear from your mind. And that’s why I’m tired of the endless debate about whether Andrews somehow “asked for it.”

Although it may seem strange that people would suggest Andrews and other stalking victims “asked for it,” this is just another example of how women are frequently blamed for initiating rape, harassment, and abuse because of the way they look, the clothes they wear, or the way they behave. These attitudes persist despite the fact that about 1 in 12 women will be stalked (PDF) in their lifetime through no fault of their own. In Andrews’s case, people have mentioned that perhaps she shouldn’t have worn “short skirts”; even sports columnist Christine Brennan wrote in her column that “there are hundreds of women covering sports in this country who haven’t had this happen to them. I wish it didn’t happen to Erin, but I also would suggest to her if she asked (and she hasn’t) that she rely on her talent and brains and not succumb to the lowest common denominator in sports media by playing to the frat house,” suggesting that this happened to Andrews because she didn’t rely on her “talent and brains.” Comments like these make it all too clear how essential perspectives like Tracee Hamilton’s are.

We’re so thankful to Hamilton for having the courage to share her terrifying experience, and especially to remind us that the victim-blaming needs to stop: when it comes to stalking, no one “asks for it” and no one deserves it.

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Reducing Maternal Mortality Rates through Health Care Reform

It may come as a surprise that the United States ranks first among industrialized nations, and 42nd worldwide, in its maternal mortality rate. In an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Vice Chair of the Women’s Law Project’s Board of Trustees Cathy Raphael reminds us of this unpleasant reality. However, she also tells us that change is on its way:

Healthy women have healthy babies. The pending reform of the American health-care system recognizes this simple equation and would create for the first time a seamless, lifelong continuum of care for women. Women no longer would be charged up to 45 percent more than men for identical health-insurance coverage, and maternity and reproductive health would be part of a basic care package.

Ms. Raphael goes on to offer more detail about the need for better reproductive health care for women, as well as how better health care for women will have a positive impact on everybody. That such arguments still need to be made is somewhat discouraging, but let’s hope that these impending changes to our health-care system are part of a societal shift towards broad acceptance of the idea that women deserve comprehensive health care that does not discriminate against them based on their sex.

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Filed under Childbirth, Pregnancy, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

Good News for Child Support Enforcement

Last Thursday, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller introduced the Child Support Enforcement Act, which would restore needed funding to child support enforcement efforts by reinstating the federal policy of matching the state-provided funds.

Joan Entmacher at Womenstake highlighted the impressive bipartisan support behind the bill in her blog post about the act: Democrat Herb Kohl and Republicans Olympia Snowe and John Cornyn join Rockefeller as co-sponsors, working to ensure that parents financially support their children.

The bill is currently in the Finance Committee. We hope that this bill, which directly affects the lives of millions of children, continues to attract the bipartisan support it deserves and soon becomes law.

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Filed under Government, Politics

Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act Passed

Last Thursday, the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act was approved by the Senate 68-29. The long-awaited legislation makes it a federal crime to assault people based on gender, sexual orientation, disability, and gender identity, and allows for added charges and harsher jail sentences for hate crime perpetrators.  Civil rights and LGBT groups rejoice in the passage of this law: “The day is within sight when lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will benefit from updating our nation’s hate crimes laws and giving local law enforcement the tools they need to combat hate violence,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

What this Act means for women everywhere, regardless of sexual orientation, is that gender will soon be protected under federal hate crime prevention laws.  As the American Association of University Women blog notes:  “While it is important to recognize that not all crimes against women are hate crimes, it is true that some crimes against women are committed with hatred against women as a motivation.”  Recent examples of misogynist violence widely covered in the media remain in our minds as we anticipate President Obama’s signing of the law: the Amish schoolhouse massacre in 2006, in which only little girls were slain, and the Bridgeville gym shooting of August 2009, which left three women dead and numerous others injured.

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Filed under Government, LGBT, Sexual orientation

DNA Evidence Used to Solve Older Rape Cases

In New York City, investigators are turning to DNA evidence as a means for solving cases of rape long after the fact. Used for years as a means of overturning wrongful convictions, a $500,000 federal grant is now funding investigations by the Manhattan and Staten Island district attorney’s offices, the police department, and the city medical examiner’s office into cases of homicide and sexual assault  long considered closed. These investigations use DNA evidence as an essential tool for finding perpetrators.

At  this point, prosecutors have secured 117 indictments of DNA samples in rape cases, linked 18 of those profiles to specific people, and obtained 13 convictions, either through trials or negotiated pleas. Of the 117 rape indictments, one has been appealed, but the state’s Appellate Division upheld the prosecution. The success of using DNA in rape cases has led New York City officials to take the lead and expand the use from serious, violent crimes to non-violent crimes such as serial car theft. Other states have had success using this strategy as well:

In Sacramento, Calif., a deputy district attorney, Anne Marie Schubert, said the strategy of indicting DNA is applicable not only to sexual assault cases.

“If you have a guy, a bank robbery person, and you know it belongs to the suspect, or a guy goes in and beats up an old lady and leaves his blood behind, you can do it in cases like that, where there is a statute of limitations,” Ms. Schubert said. “It is a tremendously powerful tool that allows us to protect the rights of victims.”

In 2003, the John Doe Indictment Project under the Bloomberg administration was the first focused effort seeking to preserve the ability to prosecute rape suspects in cases where the statute of limitations was near. The statute of limitations, which was lifted in 2006, had set a 10-year time frame for prosecution when a suspect’s whereabouts or identity were unknown.

Opponents have raised several concerns about lifting time limitations on charging suspects, asserting that the passage of time can impede the ability to defend oneself as memory fades and both evidence and witnesses become more difficult to locate. Additionally, in a resolution against John Doe DNA indictments, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said that DNA samples can degrade over time and that errors in the “collection, handling and storage of DNA sample” can lead to wrongful prosecutions.

However, officials believe that any concerns are outweighed by the certainty of genetic evidence. John Feinblatt, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s criminal justice coordinator, stated that currently the state requires taking DNA samples from those convicted of any felony and 35 types of misdemeanors and believes that that New York should be taking DNA from all convicted criminals as well as from all arrestees, as is done in federal cases.

For the victims, the discovery of old DNA evidence can provide closure. Natasha A. was attacked in 1993 when she was a 20-year-old college student and received a call in 2003 that biological evidence had been recovered on a staircase landing near the roof of her building. This was six months before the previous statute of limitations would have expired. After a 2007 trial, Victor Rondon was convicted of her attack. Natasha A. said it comforted her to imagine the culmination of her saga giving solace to victims timed out of such opportunities by the old statute of limitations.

“The crime that Victor Rondon committed was against me, but it was also against the people of New York,” she said. “This is a man who committed a crime and got away with it, and may have continued to do it throughout his life, thinking he could get away with it and creating more victims.”

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