How Wikipedia Is Hostile to Women

She got into the habit of Googling her username, just in case. That’s how, earlier this year, a Wikipedia editor who goes by the username Lightbreather discovered that someone was posting images on a pornographic website and falsely claiming they were her. (The images were linked to her username; Lightbreather has been careful to make sure that no one on Wikipedia knows her real name.) A Google search of the poster’s username led her back to one of her fellow editors.

The photos were only the latest of several incidents of harassment. In 2014, Lightbreather made a request to the Wikipedia administrators: a space on the site to discuss ways to enforce Wikipedia’s civility policy, one of the site’s “five pillars” which says editors should always “treat each other with respect and civility.” In a page set up to discuss Lightbreather’s request, the user Eric Corbett, who was then an administrator, told her, “The easiest way to avoid being called a cunt is not to act like one.”

Soon after, Lightbreather was invited to join the Gender Gap Task Force, a project by Wikipedia editors to examine why so few women participate on the site and why there’s a lack of coverage of notable women. A few days after she joined, she says, a male editor who had expressed support for Corbett’s comments against Lightbreather began popping up on the task force’s discussion page—and others soon followed. The male editors would “show up [in online discussions] and say stuff like, ‘Well, show us evidence that there is a gender gap,’” Lightbreather said, even though Wikipedia’s article on its own gender gap states that between 84 and 91 percent of editors are male, and that the imbalance “contributes to the systemic bias in Wikipedia.” She quit the task force a few days later.

Then, in January 2015, Lightbreather proposed a women-only space on Wikipedia for female editors to support each other and discuss the specific barriers they face online. The proposal was part of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Inspire Campaign, launched to fund projects aimed at closing the site’s gender gap—but users took to the “oppose” section of proposal’s discussion page to promise to “fight this to the death.”

“It’s just incredible how much hatred was spewing out of these guys. … When you have a bunch of angry people show up on the doorstep of a new project you’re trying to get off the ground, it drives away a lot of people who might have been interested,” Lightbreather said. Her idea for a Women’s Wiki didn’t get funding from the Foundation, but others are currently trying to create something similar.

After stumbling across the fake pornographic pictures this spring, Lightbreather went to Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, or ArbCom, a panel of 12 elected users who have the final say on all arguments between editors. ArbCom declined to take on Lightbreather’s case on the grounds that it may “out” the editor that had posted the pictures, or link his username to his real name. But by that time, someone had already opened a case against her, a female editor who often defended Corbett in disputes. She argued that Lightbreather approached Wikipedia with a “battleground mentality,” and that because Lightbreather had filed complaints against multiple editors in the past, she herself must be the problem.  

ArbCom’s final decision: Lightbreather was banned from editing Wikipedia for a minimum of one year.

* * *

As the Internet’s single largest source of free information, Wikipedia has faced skepticism about its credibility since it was founded by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in 2001. But according to a 2011 study from the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of Americans use the site, up from only 36 percent in 2007. Interestingly, the more educated someone is, the more likely he or she is to consult Wikipedia. Almost 70 percent of Americans with college degrees read Wikipedia. Google now pulls directly from the crowd-sourced encyclopedia, so even people who never visit the site read it. Today, it’s the seventh most-visited website in the world.

But Wikipedia has changed in other ways since its founding, too. Wales said when he created the site it would be based on a “culture of thoughtful, diplomatic honesty” and a “neutral point of view”—but over time, that point of view came to be dominated by whoever joined Wikipedia first and wrote the most. As a result, Wikipedia has become a kind of Internet oligarchy, where those who have been around the longest have the most control.

“Most people look at Wikipedia, and see the text, and assume that it’s unproblematically produced by volunteers and always on a trajectory to improvement,” said Julia Adams, a sociologist at Yale University who’s studying how academic knowledge is portrayed on Wikipedia. “But that is simply not the case.”

ArbCom is a prime example. Because ArbCom members are mostly male, biases appear in the committee’s decision-making, said Molly White, an editor who goes by GorillaWarfare on Wikipedia and is one of ArbCom’s two female members. ArbCom members also tend to be white, formally educated, and from the global north, she added. “I don’t think anyone on the Arbitration Committee is intentionally trying to keep women and other minorities out of Wikipedia, but I do think that the decisions sometimes have that effect,” White said.

In 2011, an internal study estimated that less than 10 percent of Wikipedia editors are female. The disparity is even starker among more experienced editors: Another study from 2011, out of the University of Minnesota, showed that only 6 percent of contributors with more than 500 edits are women. “Whatever the numbers are, we do want to see them higher,” said Katherine Maher, the Wikimedia Foundation’s senior communications officer.

Shortly after the 2011 studies were published, the Wikimedia Foundation set a goal to have women make up 25 percent of its contributors by this year—but, as Wales told the BBC last year, the initiative “completely failed.”

“The 25-percent thing became a joke for anybody who was actively working in the gender gap,” said Sarah Stierch, who spent a year on contract with the Wikimedia Foundation to make the site more friendly to women. During her tenure, she helped to create programs that would encourage women to participate, like the Teahouse, a space for new editors to ask questions and find mentors. In late 2014, she was told her contract would not be extended.

The Foundation’s only action on the gender gap now comes in the form of initiatives like the Inspire Campaign, which provide grant funding for individual projects. Wikimedia gave out $250,000 in funding to proposals addressing the gender gap this spring, creating editor meetups with childcare and hosting workshops for admins who want to understand how sexism affects the site. But even in this project—specifically intended to increase women’s participation—only 34 percent of people who submitted proposals identified themselves as female.

When institutions like Wikipediainvolve systematic distortion, then we get farther and farther away from accurate understandings of the world,” said Adams. “And that presents all kinds of problems—some of them trivial, some of them quite big.”

The gender disparity among editors, in other words, has led to serious issues with Wikipedia’s content. One longtime editor, the Chicago-based college student Emily Temple-Wood, said she’s identified almost than 4,400 female scientists who meet Wikipedia’s standards for notability, but don’t have a page. And in 2013, a New York Times reporter discovered that all female novelists had been removed from the list of American novelists and relegated to their own list, “American woman novelists.” (The pages have since been combined back into one.) As a study by researchers in Germany and Switzerland found earlier this year, the pages that do exist about notable women are more likely to mention their gender and relationship status than articles about men.

Wikipedia is suffering from a cyclical kind of sexism: A lack of female editors means that its content can be hostile to women, which in turn drives away potential female editors. In 2011, Sue Gardner, then the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, compiled examples from women about why they don’t edit Wikipedia, culled from message boards around the Internet. One woman pointed out that in pages for movies, rape scenes are often called “sex scenes” or sometimes even, “making love.” “When people try to change it, editors change it back and note that unlike ‘sex,’ the word ‘rape’ is not neutral, so it should be left out,” she wrote. “Discovering that feature was really jarring and made me feel unwelcome there.”

But challenging the status quo on Wikipedia is no easy task. All the Wikipedia contributors interviewed said that if a woman wants to last as an editor on the site, there are certain fights she just doesn’t pick.

“When you put ‘feminism’ in anything on Wikipedia, all hell breaks loose,” said Stierch. “I’ve been called a Feminazi more times than I can count.”

“The lunatics are running the asylum,” she added. “And the non-profit that operates it can’t even control them. What do you do when you don’t have a principal to tell all the kids to behave?”

To avoid becoming targets of harassment, some editors use gender-neutral pseudonyms and avoid linking any personal information to their usernames. White, for example, said that she noticed a turning point in her treatment on Wikipedia after the Wikimedia Foundation had posted photo of her with her username. Other users on the site then dug to find her real name, address, more photographs, and details about her family.

Historically, Wikipedia may not be that different from the very first encyclopedias, which developed as a way for educated men to communicate with each other and create foundational knowledge, said Gina Luria Walker, an intellectual historian and associate professor of women’s studies at The New School. Around 150 men contributed to the great encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, Walker pointed out, but no women did. The very first version of Encyclopaedia Britannica, written between 1768 and 1771, featured 39 pages on curing disease in horses, and three words on woman: “female of man.”

“When white men have been editing history since day one, they don’t see this as a problem,” Stierch said.

Women like White, Temple-Wood, and Stierch are working towards something like balance. A few years ago, Stierch ran an edit-a-thon at the Smithsonian to create Wikipedia articles for women in science. Among the pages that the volunteers created was a page for Nellie Brown, a scientist in the early 20th century who saved all the oranges in Florida from disease, essentially preventing Florida’s economy from tanking. It was nominated for deletion within two minutes, she said. But it’s there now.

Temple-Wood says that she and her partners have created hundreds of articles for missing female scientists, and they have thousands more to go. “A lot of the women I work with on Wikipedia really care about making these biographies accessible on the web, because you know, if it’s not on Wikipedia it doesn’t exist,” said Temple-Wood. “These women need to be written back into history.”

The Man Behind the Aborted-Fetus Signs

In July, an activist group called the Center for Medical Progress began to release a series of undercover videos meant to “expose” Planned Parenthood. Most of the attention to the videos has focused on whether they prove the organization engaged in illegal sales of fetal-tissue harvesting. So far, despite multiple state investigations and four congressional hearings, they have not proved that. But the videos’ real aim seems to be prompting a purely visceral reaction among the public.

The Long GOP Fight to Defund Planned Parenthood

This is a tactic that some anti-abortion activists have been using for years in a more low-tech form: displaying graphic images of aborted fetuses in public places. This aggressive approach is extraordinarily unpopular outside activist circles for obvious reasons. And even within the anti-abortion community, it is sometimes viewed as an extreme tactic. In September, the president of the large anti-abortion organization Students for Life of America, Kristan Hawkins, wrote a column for the conservative website Townhall in which she compared the use of such images to screaming outside an abortion clinic, and questioned their relevance. (She did not condemn their use altogether.)

But overall, despite the revulsion it provokes, the tactic seems to be becoming more common within the anti-abortion community. Organizations including the Anti-Choice Project, Show the Truth, the Center for Bioethical Reform, and Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust now make such displays a significant part of their activism.

The Pro-Life Action League, an Illinois anti-abortion organization, is part of that trend. Founded in 1980, the group began holding events it calls Face the Truth tours in 2000, in which volunteers station themselves at major intersections holding large signs featuring photographs of aborted fetuses. At a typical event, volunteers stand at least 20 feet apart from each other along all four prongs of an intersection, to make sure that no drivers can escape from viewing them.

The group’s executive director, Eric Scheidler, describes this strategy as “bringing those pictures to the public square.” The Pro-Life Action League was founded by Scheidler’s parents, and he grew up going to protests with them. He is now a father of eight, and a measured, matter-of-fact defender of employing these gruesome images as part of his activism, which also includes more targeted protests, educational materials, and “sidewalk counseling” outside of abortion clinics. Recently, Scheidler agreed to speak with me about his organization’s use of what he calls “abortion-victim photography.” The interview has been edited for space.

Ruth Graham: Do you believe that these large, disturbing photographs are effective in changing people’s minds about abortion?

Eric Scheidler: We have lots of anecdotal evidence that they’re very effective. The most powerful evidence is when someone comes up to you and says—and we’ve had this experience again and again—“Thank you for being here, I passed by here three years ago, I now have a two-year old son, the love of my life, because I canceled my abortion appointment when I passed by your display.”

Very often people are shocked to see what abortion really is. One of the criticisms leveled at what we’re doing is that everybody already knows this, why do we think people are so ignorant. We’ve been out there and we’ve seen their responses. When people see these pictures they ask, “Is that really what abortion looks like? Is that really what it is?” Yeah, it is. “Why, I had no idea. That’s gotta stop.”

Graham: I’m sure you get negative reactions, too.

Scheidler: People do react negatively, too, sometimes violently. Just this past summer, somebody on a bicycle sped past one of our signs in downtown Chicago and splashed it with oil paint. This guy got oil paint all over his face…

We’re not there to make people angry. But people do respond in anger. And I think the reason for that is that the abortion issue makes people very, very uncomfortable, as it should. I mean, it’s an uncomfortable thing. It’s a horrible injustice taking place, an injustice with which people are often complicit in one way or another … Most people know someone who’s had an abortion, have been involved in an abortion decision themselves, have had an abortion, have paid for an abortion, have encouraged someone to get an abortion, or just failed to talk someone out of an abortion when they had a chance to.

So there’s a sense of responsibility we feel for it that’s quite different from other types of injustice. When you see a picture of a starving child, it moves you but it doesn’t make you angry. When you see a picture—even a graphically violent picture like a beheaded victim of ISIS, it makes you angry, but not at the person showing you the image. It makes you angry at the injustice. But abortion pictures seem to elicit an anger at those who are holding the signs…

So we get those reactions as well. But that’s okay. We’re not there to do PR for the pro-life movement.

Graham: Do you get any pushback from other parts of that movement? I know some activists try to distance themselves from this particular tactic.

Scheidler: There is some controversy surrounding it, but those of us who are using the images have seen the impact of them. We do try to appeal to other profile leaders to be a little more open-minded about it.

There’s a kind of closed-mindedness about these pictures, especially in the world today. Today we put such a premium on getting along. No one wants to offend anybody, and in a lot of ways that’s good. We should seek not to offend others, we should seek to have peaceable relations with one another. But sometimes I think that’s at the cost of showing the reality of these things.

I understand people’s discomfort with the images. I get it. They make me uncomfortable. How couldn’t they? But if you asked me to stop showing the pictures, I feel like morally I can’t do that.

Graham: Where do the actual photos come from?

Scheidler: Many of them have been taken by a woman named Monica Miller. Monica has been a pro-life activist since the 1970s, and she’s also an amateur photographer… In fact, one of the pictures we use of a first trimester abortion was taken in my childhood garage. A pro-life activist in Chicago got word from a security guard that this abortion clinic was throwing the babies’ bodies into a dumpster behind the abortion clinic on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. So the pro-life activists out there, including from the Pro-Life Action League, went out, did some dumpster diving and recovered these bodies.

Graham: So in most cases it’s activists managing to procure the bodies and then photographing them? The photos are not taken in clinics?

Scheidler: That’s right. There are other pictures, pictures that the Center for Bioethical Reform uses, where they simply made arrangements. They found an abortionist—I think in Russia—who was willing to have the abortions photographed. They arranged to have a photographer come and take those photographs. Some pro-life leaders feel those pictures were attained in a way that’s just too close to cooperation with the abortion itself. I know Monica Miller holds that view. So some of the pictures, some groups won’t use because they don’t feel comfortable with how the pictures were actually attained.

Graham: How many of these images are circulating at this point?

Scheidler: I’ve tried to find every single picture I could because we’re always revisiting the question of how to make our signs more effective. There’s a difference between a picture that’s depicting a victim and really elicits a recognition of the humanity there, and one that’s more kind of gory and stomach-turning. We really try to emphasize the reality of the victim over the gore. There’s times that the less-gory images are actually much more effective and impactful. People turn away from them less quickly. So I’ve tried to find all the pictures that I can. I don’t think there’s [more than] 100.

Graham: You say you’re not just going for gore, but they are very graphic images. Do you have any qualms about showing these in public spaces where children might see them or people will be upset by them?

Scheidler: I appreciate that concern, especially the concern about children seeing the images, because children’s innocence is very important to me… I’m sensitive to that. But I’m also sensitive to the horrible injustice being done to these unborn children. You’re really asking me to weigh tears against blood…

We don’t want to see the pictures, we don’t want people to show them, so we latch on to the most obvious reason those people shouldn’t be doing that. “Oh, kids’ll see the picture, they’ll be traumatized.” I’ve never met a child who was traumatized by an abortion picture. I’ve been seeing these pictures since I was literally 6-years-old. All of my children have seen them by necessity; there’s no way I could avoid my children seeing the pictures with the work that I do…

It’s adults who are upset by the pictures because the adult sees the picture and the adult’s eyes don’t just behold something that’s scary-looking or bloody. They see abortion clinics, they see abortion law, they see Roe v. Wade, they see a sexual encounter that resulted in this phenomenon. They see sexual morality, they see the legal system, they see moral questions.

Graham: Is there a moral dimension to showing these images? I almost wonder if effectiveness is beside the point. Do you feel an obligation to confront people with the physical reality of abortion, regardless of how they respond to it?

Scheidler: I think so. We feel an obligation to show these victims. If we knew that every time we show the victims more people support abortion, we would stop doing it, but we certainly don’t know that to be the case.

Graham: Obviously a lot of people view these images as hostile. Do you think there’s a place for hostility in activism?

Scheidler: No, I don’t think hostility is ever appropriate. But I do think there’s a certain activism or zeal or boldness—I think “boldness” is the right word. It takes guts to take these picture out into the public square. It takes courage. Because of that, and because of the reactions we get from people, our attitude has to be as non-hostile as possible.

The signs themselves elicit so much emotion that those who are holding the signs need to be calm, cool, collected, peaceful, confident in their message, and able to dialogue with those who come up and want to talk, even if they’re angry. I’ve had many an encounter that started out very hostile turn completely around … I think there’s an obligation for those who confront the public on the abortion issue—whether it’s with signs or a political campaign with petitions for a signature—a real responsibility to be open, to listen, to be patient and calm.

Graham: Do the encounters that don’t end that way, where people are just angry, does that get tiring for you?

Scheidler: It can be emotionally exhausting. But it can also be invigorating because you know you’re getting a response from people. If we go to a town with these signs and no one gives us the finger, no one stops to argue with us about it, then we kind of wonder if we had an impact that day.

Graham: Do you see the Planned Parenthood videos as an extension of your approach, really confronting people in a visceral way, not necessarily with new information but with an emotional element to the argument?

Scheidler: I see the impact these videos have had, the way they’ve gotten people mobilized to come out and do something active to fight abortion. They’ve even changed some people’s minds about Planned Parenthood or abortion or the law regarding abortion. It’s a real vindication of the impact of these images.

Graham: Have the videos affected the anti-abortion movement more broadly?

Scheidler: The pro-life movement has certainly gotten a huge boost from the videos. Those of us who were already involved feel like this is helping us to show the truth. More people are seeing what we’ve been seeing … That has really inspired people to get involved in this fight. So many people are coming out, for 40 Days for Life, for these protests we’ve been organizing, asking how they can get involved, what can they do. [This is] people who were against abortion but didn’t think there was anything they can do. Now they see they’ve got to do something. So it’s having a big impact on forming a movement. I think Planned Parenthood will never really come out from under this scandal.

Graham: Beyond Planned Parenthood, are you optimistic about the broader state of the abortion debate in this country?

Scheidler: Abortion rates have been going down, and the number of pro-life laws being passed has been going up. There’s some fluctuation in whether people identify as pro-life and what their attitudes toward the issue are. We’re winning a lot of battles but I don’t think we’re going to see a radical change in the landscape of abortion quickly. It’s going to be a long, long haul.

How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously

Early on a Wednesday morning, I heard an anguished cry—then silence.

I rushed into the bedroom and watched my wife, Rachel, stumble from the bathroom, doubled over, hugging herself in pain.

“Something’s wrong,” she gasped.

This scared me. Rachel’s not the type to sound the alarm over every pinch or twinge. She cut her finger badly once, when we lived in Iowa City, and joked all the way to Mercy Hospital as the rag wrapped around the wound reddened with her blood. Once, hobbled by a training injury in the days before a marathon, she limped across the finish line anyway.

So when I saw Rachel collapse on our bed, her hands grasping and ungrasping like an infant’s, I called the ambulance. I gave the dispatcher our address, then helped my wife to the bathroom to vomit.

I don’t know how long it took for the ambulance to reach us that Wednesday morning. Pain and panic have a way of distorting time, ballooning it, then compressing it again. But when we heard the sirens wailing somewhere far away, my whole body flooded with relief.

I didn’t know our wait was just beginning.

I buzzed the EMTs into our apartment. We answered their questions: When did the pain start? That morning. Where was it on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being worst?

Eleven,” Rachel croaked.

As we loaded into the ambulance, here’s what we didn’t know: Rachel had an ovarian cyst, a fairly common thing. But it had grown, undetected, until it was so large that it finally weighed her ovary down, twisting the fallopian tube like you’d wring out a sponge. This is called ovarian torsion, and it creates the kind of organ-failure pain few people experience and live to tell about.

“Ovarian torsion represents a true surgical emergency,” says an article in the medical journal Case Reports in Emergency Medicine. “High clinical suspicion is important. … Ramifications include ovarian loss, intra-abdominal infection, sepsis, and even death.” The best chance of salvaging a torsed ovary is surgery within eight hours of when the pain starts.

* * *

There is nothing like witnessing a loved one in deadly agony. Your muscles swell with the blood they need to fight or run. I felt like I could bend iron, tear nylon, through the 10-minute ambulance ride and as we entered the windowless basement hallways of the hospital.

And there we stopped. The intake line was long—a row of cots stretched down the darkened hall. Someone wheeled a gurney out for Rachel. Shaking, she got herself between the sheets, lay down, and officially became a patient.

What Brings Americans to the ER?

Soon, I started to realize—in a kind of panic—that there was no system of triage in effect. The other patients in the line slept peacefully, or stared up at the ceiling, bored, or chatted with their loved ones. It seemed that arrival order, not symptom severity, would determine when we’d be seen.

As we neared the ward’s open door, a nurse came to take Rachel’s blood pressure. By then, Rachel was writhing so uncontrollably that the nurse couldn’t get her reading.

She sighed and put down her squeezebox.

“You’ll have to sit still, or we’ll just have to start over,” she said.

Finally, we pulled her bed inside. They strapped a plastic bracelet, like half a handcuff, around Rachel’s wrist.

* * *

From an early age we’re taught to observe basic social codes: Be polite. Ask nicely. Wait your turn. But during an emergency, established codes evaporate—this is why ambulances can run red lights and drive on the wrong side of the road. I found myself pleading, uselessly, for that kind of special treatment. I kept having the strange impulse to take out my phone and call 911, as if that might transport us back to an urgent, responsive world where emergencies exist.

The average emergency-room patient in the U.S. waits 28 minutes before seeing a doctor. I later learned that at Brooklyn Hospital Center, where we were, the average wait was nearly three times as long, an hour and 49 minutes. Our wait would be much, much longer.

Everyone we encountered worked to assure me this was not an emergency. “Stones,” one of the nurses had pronounced. That made sense. I could believe that. I knew that kidney stones caused agony but never death. She’d be fine, I convinced myself, if I could only get her something for the pain.

By 10 a.m., Rachel’s cot had moved into the “red zone” of the E.R., a square room with maybe 30 beds pushed up against three walls. She hardly noticed when the attending physician came and visited her bed; I almost missed him, too. He never touched her body. He asked a few quick questions, and then left. His visit was so brief it didn’t register that he was the person overseeing Rachel’s care.

Around 10:45, someone came with an inverted vial and began to strap a tourniquet around Rachel’s trembling arm. We didn’t know it, but the doctor had prescribed the standard pain-management treatment for patients with kidney stones: hydromorphone for the pain, followed by a CT scan.

The pain medicine started seeping in. Rachel fell into a kind of shadow consciousness, awake but silent, her mouth frozen in an awful, anguished scowl. But for the first time that morning, she rested.

* * *

Leslie Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” examines ways that different forms of female suffering are minimized, mocked, coaxed into silence. In an interview included in her book The Empathy Exams, she discussed the piece, saying: “Months after I wrote that essay, one of my best friends had an experience where she was in a serious amount of pain that wasn’t taken seriously at the ER.”

She was talking about Rachel.  

“The Girl Who Cried Pain,” a study identifying ways gender bias tends to play out in clinical pain management. Women are  “more likely to be treated less aggressively in their initial encounters with the health-care system until they ‘prove that they are as sick as male patients,’” the study concludes—a phenomenon referred to in the medical community as “Yentl Syndrome.”

In the hospital, a lab tech made small talk, asked me how I like living in Brooklyn, while my wife struggled to hold still enough for the CT scan to take a clear shot of her abdomen.

“Lot of patients to get to, honey,” we heard, again and again, when we begged for stronger painkillers. “Don’t cry.”

I felt certain of this: The diagnosis of kidney stones—repeated by the nurses and confirmed by the attending physician’s prescribed course of treatment—was a denial of the specifically female nature of Rachel’s pain. A more careful examiner would have seen the need for gynecological evaluation; later, doctors told us that Rachel’s swollen ovary was likely palpable through the surface of her skin. But this particular ER, like many in the United States, had no attending OB-GYN. And every nurse’s shrug seemed to say, “Women cry—what can you do?”

Nationwide, men wait an average of 49 minutes before receiving an analgesic for acute abdominal pain. Women wait an average of 65 minutes for the same thing. Rachel waited somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours.

“My friend has been reckoning in a sustained way about her own fears about coming across as melodramatic.” Rachel does struggle with this, even now. How long is it appropriate to continue to process a traumatic event through language, through repeated retellings? Friends have heard the story, and still she finds herself searching for language to tell it again, again, as if the experience is a vast terrain that can never be fully circumscribed by words. Still, in the throes of debilitating pain, she tried to bite her lip, wait her turn, be good for the doctors.

For hours, nothing happened. Around 3 o’clock, we got the CT scan and came back to the ER. Otherwise, Rachel lay there, half-asleep, suffering and silent. Later, she’d tell me that the hydromorphone didn’t really stop the pain—just numbed it slightly. Mostly, it made her feel sedated, too tired to fight.

What If America Had Canada’s Healthcare System?

Suddenly, the world responded with the urgency we wanted. I helped a nurse push Rachel’s cot down a long hallway, and I ran beside her in a mad dash to make the ultrasound lab before it closed. It seemed impossible, but we were told that if we didn’t catch the tech before he left, Rachel’s care would have to be delayed until morning.

“Whatever happens,” Rachel told me while the tech prepared the machine, “don’t let me stay here through the night. I won’t make it. I don’t care what they tell you—I know I won’t.

Soon, the tech was peering inside Rachel through a gray screen. I couldn’t see what he saw, so I watched his face. His features rearranged into a disbelieving grimace.

By then, Rachel and I were grasping at straws. We thought: cancer. We thought: hysterectomy. Lying there in the dim light, Rachel almost seemed relieved.

“I can live without my uterus,” she said, with a soft, weak smile. “They can take it out, and I’ll get by.”

She’d make the tradeoff gladly, if it meant the pain would stop.

After the ultrasound, we led the gurney—slowly, this time—down the long hall to the ER, which by then was  completely crammed with beds. Trying to find a spot for Rachel’s cot was like navigating rush-hour traffic.

Then came more bad news. At 8 p.m., they had to clear the floor for rounds. Anyone who was not a nurse, or lying in a bed, had to leave the premises until visiting hours began again at 9.

When they let me back in an hour later, I found Rachel alone in a side room of the ER. So much had happened. Another doctor had told her the mass was her ovary, she said. She had something called ovarian torsion—the fallopian-tube twists, cutting off blood. There was no saving it. They’d have to take it out.

Rachel seemed confident and ready.

“He’s a good doctor,” she said. “He couldn’t believe that they left me here all day. He knows how much it hurts.”

When I met the surgery team, I saw Rachel was right. Talking with them, the words we’d used all day—excruciating, emergency, eleven—registered with real and urgent meaning. They wanted to help.

By 10:30, everything was ready. Rachel and I said goodbye outside the surgery room, 14 and a half hours from when her pain had started.

* * *

Rachel’s physical scars are healing, and she can go on the long runs she loves, but she’s still grappling with the psychic toll—what she calls “the trauma of not being seen.” She has nightmares, some nights. I wake her up when her limbs start twitching.

Sometimes we inspect the scars on her body together, looking at the way the pink, raised skin starts blending into ordinary flesh. Maybe one day, they’ll become invisible. Maybe they never will.

This article appears courtesy of Creative Nonfiction.

The Sexism of American Kitchen Design

Before women were all hunched over screens, applying filters and tapping out hashtags to food photos, we were hunched over sinks, sudsing dishes and keeping an eye on the stove. Today’s kitchens may have more machines, but they remain abuzz with structured and artificial femininity, from aprons to pink KitchenAids. Everything matches, even the woman, whose body the kitchen has been designed to fit—albeit inaccurately—since almost a century ago, when engineers measured thousands of women to try to make housework more comfortable.

Over the last 100 years, kitchens have grown, walls have fallen, and appliances have multiplied, but the kitchen protagonist—a woman, standardized—has stayed the same. So has the height of the countertops, sink, and oven.

Until the 1930s, kitchen-surface heights, like clothing, varied as people did, with kitchens and clothes matching the women in them, rather than the other way around. Engineers even sought to bring precision to the task. Kitchen work would be less back-breaking, they said, if the counters and sinks were the right height for the women using them.


One of those engineers, Christine Frederick, studied women at work to create a chart pairing work-surface height with woman height; a 5-foot-6 women, for instance, would be most comfortable with her countertops and the bottom of her sink 31 inches from the floor. Correct heights, combined with efficient kitchen layouts, could make cooking slightly less of a burden, she wrote.

But then American industry, for the sake of more efficient production, needed (and still needs) standards. Two decades after Frederick created her chart, standardization took over, and not just in the U.S., but in other parts of the world too. The tailor-made kitchen was gone. While it’s easy enough to make adjustable chairs and bikes, it’s much harder to build customization into an entire room filled with chunks of wood and granite wedged between heavy, expensive, factory-made appliances.

Standards crept in to guide not just activities, as Frederick had in mind, but physical objects too. And modernist aesthetics—simple forms with little ornamentation, clean 90-degree angles—became the norm.

That didn’t bode well for the woman for whom this new, uniformly-sized kitchen was being designed and made. The sink was the first kitchen object to be standardized. It became part of the continuous countertop—a single height dipping or lifting for no appliance, a look that fell in line perfectly with modernism’s minimalist lines. Everything else rose to meet the sink—the counters, the stove, the cabinets all converged at 36 inches above the floor, writes Leslie Land in her study of modernism and kitchens. That was much too high for the 5-foot-3 average-height woman of the time (and too high even for today’s average 5-foot-4 American woman).

she designed demonstration kitchens, with their layouts based on motion studies of women at work. Maybe it was arbitrary. No matter—it was set, giving society a yardstick by which to measure the woman and her space alike. In ads, you can see her standing next to her sink, appliance-installation man on bent knee holding a ruler and looking up longingly.

These new kitchens may have looked different, but they posed the same dilemma: They were either a way to make unavoidable work less onerous, furnished with objects that supposedly fit women specifically, or a way to make sure the kitchen was fit for only women, specifically. Was the new kitchen a realistic response to the existing societal structures that held women in kitchens? Or did it end up reinforcing sexism by pronouncing the kitchen a space made specifically to fit women’s bodies?

A Man’s Place Is in the Kitchen

With designs based on simplified ideals, not reality, women became misfits in their own kitchens and clothes alike. Today, our kitchens still have 36-inch everything, and they still have women in them, mostly; in heterosexual couples in the U.S., women cook 78 percent of dinners and buy 93 percent of the food. And though we eat fewer home-cooked meals and more commercially prepared foods, the ads for these foods still feature, for the most part, stereotypically nurturing women, smiling mothers whose primary concern is caring for their families and who, in their caricatures, stand for a commercialized version of the modern woman: someone who is productive but still feminine.

By standardizing the kitchen, designers also standardized women’s bodies, creating a space in which only a person with a specific body shape could be comfortable. Around then, clothing sizes were being standardized for the first time too. Before the Mail-Order Association of America requested a study of women’s bodies to create standards, clothing sizes for women were based on bust alone, as men’s clothes had been since soldiers’ uniforms became uniform in the 1800s. The Association wanted simple yet accurate sizes because it wanted fewer returns; sizes, then, were a way to make selling things more efficient.

One of those things was the idea of the perfect body. After all the measuring was done, sizes were still based on the bust, with an extrapolated hourglass figure filling out the rest of the garment.

There have always been beauty standards, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that those standards, like the kitchen, became integrated with uniform measurements. The problem is the standardizers got it wrong; with designs based on simplified ideals, not reality, women became misfits in their own kitchens and clothes alike.

The solution, then, must be the opposite of uniformity: customization. The best way to fit everyone, like the best way to make kitchens more comfortable, is to make objects tailored to individual bodies, rather than tailored to the idea of an individual body. Perhaps we should follow the DIY craze, with its jam-making and pickling, its hand-knitted sweaters and backyard-raised chickens; perhaps we should travel back in time 100 years, moving perversely against the expansion of women’s rights (but keeping those rights all the same), to a time when each kitchen was made for the person within it and each shirt for the person inside.

A GOP-Style Approach to Parental Leave

Marco Rubio recently distinguished himself as the first GOP presidential candidate to embrace paid family leave as part of his campaign. Rubio announced his plan at the Value Voters Summit, saying that one of the greatest threats to the American family is that there are too many individuals “who have to choose between being there for their children in times of great need or meeting the basic financial needs of their family. And like so many fundamental problems, this one can be traced back in part to the outdated policies from Washington, D.C.” Washington’s paid leave policies are certainly outdated, but Rubio’s plan isn’t going to bring them into the 21st century.

It’s not surprising that Rubio decided to include paid family leave in his platform. The Republican candidates are acutely aware of their need to attract the women voters they lost in the last election and they are eager to make the case that they understand the challenges facing women and families. Expanding access to paid leave is a political winner. In a new poll of 900 likely voters conducted by the Roosevelt Institute (where I am a fellow), 83 percent of respondents—96 percent of Democrats, 85 percent of Independents, and 67 percent of Republicans—believe that requiring employers to provide workers with paid sick leave and paid family leave to care for themselves or their loved ones would produce a better economy.

So, how does Rubio propose to create this paid leave for people? By giving a 25 percent tax credit for companies that offer a minimum of four weeks of paid leave. The credit would be capped at 12 weeks and $4,000 per employee annually. Rubio says his plan would apply to all “employee arrangements” and would be available to new parents, employees with serious illnesses, military families, and those taking care of sick parents, spouses, and children.

But Rubio’s plan would do little to bring forth the changes he promises and Americans want to see. History tells us that tax credits do not incentivize companies to do right by their employees. As The New York Times reported, tax breaks meant to encourage companies to provide childcare and hire veterans or people with disabilities have largely been ineffective. Indeed, since 1981 the federal government has offered a tax credit for companies that provide on-site childcare, but today only 7 percent of employers offer that benefit. To make matters worse, an employer-based tax credit could exacerbate inequities in access to paid family leave by encouraging employers who are already doing right by their workers to offer even better benefits while it does nothing to require less generous employers (particularly those relying on low-income workers) to expand access.

Many of the 77.2 million hourly-wage workers—three million of whom earn at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25—are unlikely to benefit from Rubio’s plan. Nearly one in five working mothers with young children works in low-wage jobs, one in three lives in poverty, and in every state across the country, at least 60 percent of low-wage workers are women (even though they represent half or less of the overall workforce in every state). As Vicki Shabo, the vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, said, “Leave provided as a result of tax credits won’t reach the people who most need and are least likely to have access to paid leave—low-wage and part-time workers, who are disproportionately female and people of color.”

Rubio’s proposal will also not guarantee benefits for the millions of independent contractors who make up a large and growing percent of the American workforce—last year amounting to 54 million individuals or 34 percent of workers. Seventy percent of young professionals aspire to be their own boss, and 90 percent of workers affiliated with Freelancers Union report they would not choose to return to traditional work. It’s anticipated that by 2020 independent contractors will comprise 40 percent of the workforce. Many of these workers do not have access to employer-based benefits and Rubio’s proposal would simply reinforce a system that fails to meet the needs of this new American economy.

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Under a Rubio presidency, the United States’ will continue to be the only Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country that does not mandate paid leave. On average, mothers in OECD countries are entitled to 17 weeks of paid leave with maternity benefits replacing an average of 78 percent of earnings. Most OECD countries offer paid leave to both parents, with an average parental leave of approximately 37 weeks combined—an amount unimaginable to most Americans. Some countries like Austria, Germany, and Japan offer extra time off to families where both parents take their allotted parental leave. This normalizes parental leave, helps equalize parenting roles inside the family, and creates more equitable workplaces. And beyond paid leave, OECD countries on average offer 86 weeks of job-protected leave. France offers 162. The United States offers 12, without pay.  

Rubio’s proposal would not improve upon the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the outdated program he criticized when announcing his plan. FMLA guarantees eligible workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to spend time with a new child, recover from personal illness or care for a sick family member, or deal with spousal military obligations. But the law, which only applies to companies with more than 50 employees, leaves behind roughly half of the workforce and more than four out of five new mothers. It does not guarantee any compensation during time off, and research shows that more than three quarters of eligible workers fail to take leave because they cannot afford it.

The cost of America’s failure to mandate paid leave is significant. Only 12 percent of U.S. workers have access to the benefit. Given that 40 percent of U.S. households with children under 18 depend on a mother’s income, it comes as no surprise that one in four women return to work a mere two weeks after giving birth. That’s far less time than it takes to recover from a vaginal delivery or a cesarean section, never mind the sleep deprivation that follows the arrival of a new baby. This lack of paid leave can, at least partially, be blamed for the United States’ decreasing female labor force participation rate, which is now 67.1 percent (down from 70.7 percent in 2000). This may be a small decline, but any decline—particularly while women’s work-force participation rates are increasing around the globe—is troublesome.

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There is a proposal before Congress that would provide a new baseline for the majority of U.S. workers. The FAMILY Act—sponsored by Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York—would create a national family and medical leave insurance program that would allow most workers, including those who are self-employed, to take 12 weeks of leave and receive 66 percent of their monthly wages. Under the FAMILY Act, employers and employees would contribute 0.2 percent of weekly wages (two cents for every $10 earned), totaling an average contribution of roughly $2 per week. The maximum contribution for a high-wage earner would be $227.40 a year. In California, where a similar paid leave program was implemented in 2004, the majority of workers didn’t notice a difference in their paychecks.

Rubio claims the FAMILY Act, which Hillary Clinton supports, would be too expensive and burdensome for businesses and taxpayers. But evidence suggests the opposite to be true. Research shows that mandating paid leave was a “non-event for California businesses.” The authors described their findings:

In a random sample of 253 firms, stratified by size, employers reported that PFL had no noticeable effect or a positive effect on productivity (89%), on profitability (91%), on turnover (93%), or morale (99%). Despite fears that small employers would experience the most difficulty, we found that firms with less than 50 employees and those with 50 to 99 employees actually reported more positive outcomes than those with 100+ employees. The fears about abuse of the program also did not materialize: 91% of the employers surveyed reported no knowledge of abuse, and among the 9% that were aware of abuse, it was a rare occurrence. Most employers (87%) reported no cost increases associated with the program, and 9% reported cost savings via reduced turnover or reduced benefit costs.

The study also found that gains were most significant for low-wage workers and that the program could be credited with more men taking time off to bond with their children, an important step to sharing parenting roles inside the family and to achieving gender equity in the workplace.

Rubio says this approach—which works quite well for the rest of the world—is not only bad for business, but would also “make it harder for women to enter the workforce.” This is simply not true. When women have access to paid leave they are more likely to return to work and advance in their careers. In California working mothers of young children saw their weekly hours and income increase by almost 10 percent in the years following the advent of its mandated family leave program. Similar results were found in a number of OECD countries. In a 2014 report, the Council of Economic Advisors argued that job-protected paid leave “can positively impact mothers’ wages and employment in the long-run by encouraging them to return to their prior job and by protecting against the loss of specific human capital.” Such research, they said, “highlights how paid leave contributes to higher labor force participation and a stronger economy.”

The FAMILY Act should be just the beginning of our efforts to revamp parental leave. Afterall, many private companies already offer more generous benefits. Google offers biological mothers 18 weeks of paid leave (up to 22 if there are complications) and all parents 12 weeks of paid time off. Facebook offers both parents 16 paid weeks off. Apple offers mothers four weeks before birth and 14 weeks after, and gives fathers six weeks of paid leave. Netflix recently made headlines when it announced it will offer unlimited paid time off to parents for up to a year (although it only extends that benefit to salaried workers of its streaming division, leaving behind many employees). This week Washington D.C. is considering legislation that would guarantee workers there 16 weeks of paid leave.

The United States’ lack of paid family leave exacerbates and is exacerbated by the lack other benefits such as paid sick leave, affordable childcare, comprehensive health coverage, and equal pay. But Rubio and many of his colleagues aren’t proposing solutions to those problems either. They are opposed to mandating paid sick leave and equal pay and to raising the minimum wage. They want to overturn the Affordable Care Act and are tireless in their efforts to curtail reproductive health access. And they aren’t likely to make affordable childcare and universal early childhood education part of their “pro-family” campaigns.  

While the very existence of a GOP plan containing the words “paid leave” is notable, Rubio’s proposal would at best tweak the rules of the current game, a game that is working for very few Americans. Tweaking the rules is not going to improve the health and economic security of workers and their families, and it’s not going to help the economy. American workers want and deserve a new system all together.