White Male Privilege and the Daughter Test

Jun 24, 2011 by

Meet the newest MOMocrat, Grace.

Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame recently wrote that he bases his decisions on whether to support government prohibitions on what he calls the “daughter test”:

It wasn’t until the U.S. government’s crackdown on internet poker last week that I came to realize that the primary determinant of where I stand with respect to government interference in activities comes down to the answer to a simple question: How would I feel if my daughter were engaged in that activity? If the answer is that I wouldn’t want my daughter to do it, then I don’t mind the government passing a law against it. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be a cocaine addict or a prostitute, so in spite of the fact that it would probably be more economically efficient to legalize drugs and prostitution subject to heavy regulation/taxation, I don’t mind these activities being illegal. On the other hand, if my daughter had good reasons to want an abortion, I would want her to be able to have one, so I’m weakly in favor of abortion to be legal, even though I put a lot of value on unborn fetuses.

That this is utterly ridiculous ought to be so obvious as to need no elaborating. Do we want legislators making laws based on what they would personally want for us as parents, or based on respect for people as human beings with equal rights and autonomy? This shouldn’t be a difficult question to answer. Yet a bunch more white dudes similarly privileged as Levitt have since weighed in to debate whether or not his test is reasonable.

It’s no accident that Levitt, who does in fact have a son, uses a daughter test rather than a son or child test. He’s tapping into widespread sexist beliefs that girls and women need to be protected — by men, of course — from the big bad world. The US has a long, ugly history of “protective” government measures based on spurious, bigoted claims that women and other marginalized groups are incapable of self-governing. The recent rash of state laws requiring ultrasounds, waiting periods, anti-choice counseling, and so on before abortions are the products of such paternalistic assumptions (echoed in Levitt’s statement that he supports his daughter’s right to terminate a pregnancy if she has a “good reason” for doing so).It’s also no coincidence that the examples Levitt offers of behaviors he supports criminalizing — sex work and drug use — fall along gendered and racialized lines. There’s a privileged assumption of entitlement to government policing of women’s bodies and communities of color, and an equally casual disregard for (or ignorance of) the real, devastating effects of such policing on women and people of color. America’s endless “War on Drugs” has produced, for example, a racist culture of mass incarceration rivaling Jim Crow in its targeting of urban minority communities and disenfranchisement of people of color, especially black men. Levitt effectively claims that this is all worth it so long as his daughter is deterred from using hard drugs.

Ross Douthat, unsurprisingly, concurs with this breathtaking assertion of white male privilege as a proper basis for legal philosophy:

The idea behind the daughter tests, as I see it, is to clarify which vices seem so profoundly self-destructively [sic] that they merit sanction in law as well as culture…and which are merely regrettable life choices that even the most meddlesome parents must accept as part of the warp and woof of a free society….thinking ‘what if I my [sic] daughter did this/were in this position?’ is a way to take an argument from the abstract to the viscerally real, and to bring moral and legal gray areas into a sharper focus…the fact that I would want to be able to involve the police if my daughter became a streetwalker, but not if she became a Hare Krishna, tells me something important about what kind of legal regime I should support.

One wonders what, exactly, Douthat imagines “involving the police” entails. Are we to believe that he and Levitt would honestly want their daughters to go to jail if they were sex workers? More likely, they can so glibly discuss the prospect of their children being caught up in the criminal justice system because they have no reason to imagine such a thing could ever happen. They and their children are far less likely than minorities or the poor to face serious legal consequences for any criminalized activities they might participate in.

In short, these are incredibly privileged white, upper class men, sitting around engaging in fanciful thought experiments about how laws should apply to people who are not them. They have the luxury of pretending that laws are neutral, effective, and universal deterrents against crime, rather than part of a criminal justice system that perpetuates inequitable distribution of power and resources – measures levied disproportionately again women, against the poor and the brown.

On top of all that, they’re championing a “test” that prioritizes privileged voices and individualistic perspectives on the law – what I would want for my daughter – over a metric that takes into account the diverse experiences and perspectives of all Americans. Implicit in this commentary is the unquestioned assumption that “streetwalkers” (really, Ross Douthat?) should have no say in what the nation’s laws should be, even though they and other marginalized groups are the ones for whom criminal laws have the most serious ramifications. Heaven forbid that people who aren’t straight, financially secure white men be seen as full citizens with an equal right to civic involvement and representation.

It shouldn’t have to be said that the law is not meant to be an extension of parental authority, real or imagined. A legal philosophy based on imagining oneself as the parent of fellow citizens is textbook paternalism, and especially egregious coming from men who are highly unlikely to suffer the serious negative consequences of enforcing paternalistic laws. Rather than a “daughter test,” why not an empathy test – imagining how a legal regime might materially impact other people or communities? Or better yet, a test based on respecting the rights of others to autonomy and equal citizenship, one that allows other people and communities an equal voice and platform to speak to their own experiences with and perspectives on the law?

Levitt and Douthat’s self-centered and entitled “daughter test” is sadly representative of the paternalism and lack of equal representation that characterizes American political leadership in general. This is precisely why we need more female politicians, more politicians of color, and more politicians who aren’t millionaires many times over.

Grace is a writer, academic, and black queer feminist. She blogs about recovering from growing up in white fundamentalist Christian churches, and race, gender, and sexuality issues in fundamentalist Christianity at Are Women Human? and can be found on Twitter as @graceishuman.

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Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: It’s Time For Congress To Act On The Paycheck Fairness Act

Jun 23, 2011 by

This week's MOMocrats MOMochat dealt with the legal ramifications of this week's Supreme Court decision to dismiss the class action discrimination suit against Wal-Mart. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) also has something to say: 

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked up to 1.6 million women from suing Walmart for sex discrimination in a class action lawsuit. The court's 5-4 conservative majority sided with business over women, claiming that Walmart's well-documented wage and hiring disparities are coincidences and not a result of a persistent culture of discrimination.

This is unacceptable. In the U.S. today, women are paid only 78 cents on the dollar that men make. If the highest court in the land won't protect women from discrimination in the workplace, then we must stand together and demand action from Congress.

Please join me in urging my colleagues in Congress to act on The Paycheck Fairness Act now. Go to OffTheSidelines.org/EqualPay to stand with me in support this crucial piece of legislation.
The Paycheck Fairness Act would accomplish several important things including:

  • Close loopholes in The Equal Pay Act to ensure that employers have a legitimate business reason for paying women less for the same work
  • Prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who discuss their salary with co-workers
  • Update the Equal Pay Act to make it more in line with the class action procedures available under other anti-discrimination laws
  • Level the playing field for employers, so those that pay fairly are not at a disadvantage.

But this issue is not just about fairness. Achieving equal pay for women is also about economic recovery and rebuilding the American middle class. If women were paid what men are for equal work, America's GDP would rise by up to 9 points. Since women are often the primary breadwinners and caretakers for families, a rise in their pay would mean a higher quality of life for their children.

Women are now a majority of the workforce and they earn graduate degrees in larger numbers than men. Women are the economic drivers of our economy yet we are still discriminated against every day because more often than not, men are the ones in the boardrooms and the executive suites making the hiring decisions.

That's why I created Off The Sidelines, to make women aware of these disparities and the necessity that they get more involved in the issues that affect them every day. As a first step, please speak out by adding your name to the petition at OffTheSidelines.org/EqualPay.

Thanks for standing up for equal pay for women. We have a long way to go but together we can work to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act and take an important first step toward revitalizing our economy and achieving fairness for women in the workplace.

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Supreme Court Tells Wal-mart Women to Go Home

Jun 21, 2011 by

NWLC image The Supreme Court has told one and a half million women who work at Wal-mart, in essence, be grateful you have jobs even if you make less money and get promoted less than men. Now, shut up and go home.

That was the practical upshot of the ruling in the highly-watched case Dukes v. Wal-mart.

I used a similar phrase a short time ago when SCOTUS declined to hear the appeal of the Texas cheerleader who was dismissed from her high school squad for refusing to cheer for the student who had allegedly raped her. The denial of SCOTUS upheld the message sent by the lower courts — as a cheerleader, you're a hand-picked mouthpiece for the school's message, so you have to say what they tell you to say (even about your attacker) or get out.

Now, in the most activist judicial move I've seen in a long time, the Supreme Court dismissed the class action suit Dukes v. Wal-mart sending that same message to the women of Wal-mart by ruling that a class of 1.5 million plaintiffs was just too big for evidence of gender discrimination to be "common" to all of them — one of the basic requirements in a class action lawsuit. Few legal watchers, including this one, were surprised at that outcome. But digging deeper into the 5-4 opinion penned by Antonin "the Constitution doesn't protect women against discrimination" Scalia, you'll find that Scalia turned a procedural case into the latest substantive attack on women.

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For Less Weiner, Elect More Women

Jun 7, 2011 by

Congressman-Weiner-2011OK, so I fell for Anthony Weiner's lies about the whole "woe is me, my Twitter account was hacked" thing. But, honestly, were there many of us who thought that in this day and age of political sex scandals — or scandals involving semi-nude self-portraits — that any elected official would be stupid enough to Tweet images of himself to women he'd never even met and think he wouldn't get caught? If the first rule of the internet is that E-mail is forever, it's not a leap to realize that all social media is forever, as well. Delete things as much as you want, the fingerprints will always be there.

The level of dumb-assness (yes, that's a very journalistic word!) in the whole Weiner story is amazing to me. In the immortal words of George W. Bush — fool me once, um, wait, uh, won't get fooled again.

While the few rules I offered Congressman Weiner about how to deal with the media when they think they've got the goods on you aren't quite relevant anymore, I've got one more for him and all the other powerful men out there:  

Dudes, keep your body parts and delusions of grandeur to yourselves!

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Poor Newt Gingrich. He Just Wants to Be Loved.

May 12, 2011 by

Newt gingrich Newt Gingrich will never be the President of the United States.

I sound pretty sure of that, don’t I? Do I know something the other pundits don’t? Do I have some nugget of inside information that’s tipped me off to a secret Gingrich ruse?

Sort of. The secret is this — Newt Gingrich is Newt Gingrich.

Infamous as an ethics violating Speaker of the House, notorious for the way he conducts himself in marriage and hypocritical in trying to bring down Bill Clinton for marital indiscretions even as he was in the middle of his own affair with the woman who is now his third wife.

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After Osama bin Laden’s Death, Time to Restock the Emergency Kits?

May 2, 2011 by

Osama bin Laden caricatureOsama bin Laden is dead.  Do you know where your duct tape and canned foods are?

The man we've been tracking for a decade, and the reason so many American lives have been lost in Afghanistan and Iraq, has finally been taken out by Navy SEALS in a Pakistan mission worthy of a Tom Clancy nail-biter.

Cheering crowds celebrated the mission in Washington, D.C. and New York City after President Obama announced late Sunday night that the face of evil we've been chasing for a decade had been killed and buried at sea.

I'm sure that many of us thought this day would never come and that at some point we would read about bin Laden's death from old age in a cold, lonely cave somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan, a disappointing coda to America's anti-terror efforts.

Seeing news reports of the daring raid brings back vivid memories of the days immediately after the 9/11 attacks. None of us will ever forget what it was like to live through that fear, especially here in the shadow of the nation's capital when, for months, the constant hum of fighter jets in the sky became as common as the sounds of neighborhood kids playing outside my house on a warm spring day.

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