6 Why GWSS Still Matters

By Carrie N. Baker, Smith College

Illustration of author Carrie Baker holding her co-authored book "Sexual Harassment Law: History, Cases, and Practice"
Carrie N. Baker by Nicole Carter

The Trump administration has made it clearer than ever how much we still need strong GWSS programs in the US and abroad to produce informed feminists to fight for women’s rights.[1] In this essay, I’ll give a few examples of the rollbacks in women’s rights and the erosion of the US civil rights infrastructure since Trump took office in January 2017. While this has happened in many areas, I will focus on reproductive rights, violence against women, and employment. I maintain that GWSS  plays a critical role in providing students important tools and perspectives to combat these rollbacks.

The Trump administration’s appointment of anti-choice Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch[2] and Brett Kavanaugh (Turner, 2019) to the US Supreme Court has inspired conservative states to pass abortion restrictions that directly violate Roe v. Wade—the long-established Supreme Court precedent that abortion is a Constitutional right (Carter, 2020; Nash et al., 2019). Abortion rights advocates immediately challenged these laws. Anti-abortion advocates hope that one of these cases will make it to the Supreme Court, giving the Court’s conservative majority the opportunity to overturn the Roe precedent.

In addition to undermining abortion access, the Trump administration is steadily chipping away at contraceptive access as well. For example, the Trump administration has issued rules allowing any employer to gain an exemption to federally required coverage of birth control in employee health insurance plans by claiming that contraception violates their religious beliefs or their “non-religious moral convictions,” vastly expanding earlier exceptions for religious organizations (Baker, 2017; Baker, June 2019). They have also issued a “conscience exemption” policy granting broad rights for anyone working in the health care industry to refuse reproductive health care to women, even in emergency situations when a woman’s life is in danger (Baker, November 2019).

In March of 2019, the Trump administration issued a domestic gag rule that prohibits health centers receiving Title X funds from even referring patients for abortion. Further, the rule mandates Title X clinics refer all pregnant patients to prenatal care even if they have decided not to continue their pregnancies. The rule outright blocks the availability of federal funds to family planning providers that also offer abortion care such as Planned Parenthood and encourages participation by “non-traditional” organizations (Sobel et al., 2019). The Trump administration has already granted $5.1 million over three years of Title X funding to the coercive Obria Medical Clinics, a Christian, anti-abortion organization that opposes hormonal birth control, and other FDA-approved contraceptives and only offers training in the notoriously unreliable rhythm method (Campaign for Accountability, 2019).

Title X has provided $286.5 million annually to reproductive health care centers to serve over 4 million people, including 600,000 teens. Half the people served at Title X clinics are women of color. Trump’s new rule is aimed at cutting off Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health care centers from receiving Title X funds and opens the door for funds to flow to faith-based, anti-abortion clinics. As a result, Planned Parenthood, which has over 600 clinics nationwide, lost the approximately $60 million a year of Title X funds it had been receiving (Belluck, 2019). Experts say that the rule fundamentally undermines the purpose of Title X and violates the law (Baker, Fall 2019, 8-9). Nevertheless, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the law by a vote of 7-4 (California v. Azar, No. 19-15974 [9th Cir. Feb. 24, 2020]). As of March of 2020, Trump has appointed 193 federal judges to lifetime appointments, including two Supreme Court Justices and 51 Circuit Court judges. These judges are now overturning established precedents and upholding Trump’s conservative policies.[3]

Many Title X clinics have decided not to comply with the new rules. Planned Parenthood, which has 13% of Title X health care centers but serves 41% of the approximately 4 million Title X patients, has withdrawn from the program, which will cause them a 19% budget shortfall and reduced services. According to the Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood is the only Title X provider of publicly funded contraceptives for low-income patients in many areas of the country (Frost, 2015). Other providers would have to increase their caseloads by an average of 70 percent to serve all the patients currently seen by Planned Parenthood, which they are unlikely to be able to do any time soon (Hasstedt, 2017). The domestic gag rule has slashed the Title X network’s capacity by half, reports the Guttmacher Institute (Dawson, 2020).

In 2016 alone, health clinics used Title X to fund 720,000 pap smear tests, more than four million STD tests (including HIV tests) and nearly one million breast exams, and they prevent one million unintended pregnancies each year. Without these health services, patients are likely to experience increased levels of sexually transmitted diseases, increased breast and cervical cancers, and more unintended pregnancies, which would likely drive up the abortion rate. Low-income women and women of color are particularly harmed by the gag rule (Baker, Fall 2019, 8-9). The Trump administration is upending a decades-long bipartisan consensus that all US Americans, including low-income and young people, are entitled to comprehensive reproductive health care and access to all FDA-approved contraceptives (Rodberg, 2011).

The Trump administration is also eroding Title IX protections from sexual assault for students in colleges, high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools. Young women and girls in the US experience extremely high rates of sexual assault and harassment in educational institutions. Title IX requires schools to provide equal educational opportunity to women and girls, including protection from sexual assault and harassment. During the Obama years, the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education strengthened these protections, but the Trump administration has reversed these protections and undermined the safety of women and girls in schools. Indeed, even before he was elected we learned that Trump is proud that his fame provides him what he sees as a right to sexually assault women, so it’s no surprise his administration has undermined protections from similar violence for students (Victor, 2017).

Education secretary Betsy DeVos proposed new Title IX guidelines that eliminate time deadlines for resolving complaints and allow schools to refuse to provide interim measures to keep survivors safe while their case is ongoing. They also allow schools to require that sexual assault survivors meet a higher burden of evidence—they have to prove their cases by “clear and convincing evidence”—than that required in most other cases, which require proof by a “preponderance of the evidence.” The new guidelines allow alleged perpetrators to directly cross-examine survivors—even about their sexual history. As a result of the DeVos guidelines, some schools are not responding promptly, or at all, to student complaints and others have weakened their Title IX enforcement procedures, citing the Trump administration’s new guidance (Baker, 2018).

The Trump administration is also rolling back protections for victim/survivors of domestic violence, and defunding programs that help survivors and prevent violence. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions eliminated domestic violence as a ground for asylum and axed funding for legal assistance to sex trafficking survivors to clear their criminal records from charges related to their trafficking experience. Congress has yet to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) which funds programs to address sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking across the country. The Act expired in September 2018 for the first time since VAWA was first enacted in 1994 (Baker, 2018). As with reproductive rights, the Trump administration has abandoned a decades-long bipartisan consensus that women and girls have the right to live their lives free from violence and rape.

A third area in which the Trump administration has rolled back federal protections is in employment. In 2016, the Obama administration created a pay data initiative requiring large businesses to collect and report wage data on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, and job category. With this data, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) could track and address these disparities. But in August of 2017, without any public notice or opportunity to weigh in, the Trump administration blocked the pay data collection initiative, claiming that it was “unnecessarily burdensome” for businesses (Baker, 2020). Trump’s EEOC has now issued a proposal to permanently stop collecting pay data from employers. The EEOC proposal would allow employers to continue to hide the fact they are paying women/people of color less than white men.

The Trump administration has also rolled back protections for LGBTQ people in education, employment, the military, housing, health care, public accommodations, and prisons (Gessen, 2020; Woodward, 2020). In fact, the administration has put in place policies to protect people who discriminate against LGBTQ people, particularly if the person claims to be motivated by religious beliefs (National Center for Transgender Equality, 2020).

These rollbacks of women’s rights–and the many others I don’t have space to list–make GWSS more important than ever. Students need to understand our history, our rights, and acquire the tools to challenge these rollbacks. In the GWSS classroom, students learn about past organizing for social justice, which offers lessons in perspective, strategy, and inspiration. They learn about present activists and organizations, which opens up possibilities for students’ future (and present) activism and teaches them innovative strategies for social change. Finally, students learn the importance of envisioning a better future, especially through the creative arts, which can offer them hope (Baker, 2018). GWSS students learn about interconnected systems of oppression based on gender, race, class, sexuality, nationality, and disability, and how these systems negatively impact people marginalized by these systems. The GWSS classroom offers students pathways to empowerment by engaging them with histories of feminist movement organizing and knowledge about current feminist activists and organizations, as well as encouraging them to envision futures based on social justice (see Creel Falcón; Tajima Creef & Hertz; and Valdez essays in this collection). In this political moment, when the Trump regime is dismantling reproductive rights, protections from violence and employment discrimination laws, GWSS offers students important tools of resistance (Shayne, 2020).

Works cited:

Barker, Carrie N. 2017, October 23. “The 10 Most Egregious Things about Trump’s New Rules on Birth Control Coverage,” in Ms. Magazine (online), at https://msmagazine.com/2017/10/23/10-egregious-things-trumps-new-rules-birth-control-coverage/. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

—–. 2018, October 1. “What the Midterms Could Mean for Survivors of Rape, Sexual Assault, and Domestic Violence,” in Ms. Magazine (online), at https://msmagazine.com/2018/10/01/midterms-mean-survivors-rape-sexual-assault-domestic-violence/. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

—–. 2019, June 19. “Doctors Are Speaking Out on Trump’s Attack on Birth Control Coverage,” in Ms. Magazine (online). https://msmagazine.com/2019/06/13/doctors-are-speaking-out-on-trumps-attacks-on-birth-control-coverage/. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

—–. 2019, Fall. “The Gag is In Place,” in Ms. Magazine, 8-9, at https://msmagazine.com/2019/09/19/the-.gag-is-in-place/. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

—–. 2019, November 7. “The Trump Administration’s Attempt to Allow Discrimination in Health Care Was Just Struck Down,” in Ms. Magazine (online), at https://msmagazine.com/2019/11/07/the-trump-administrations-attempt-to-allow-discrimination-in-healthcare-was-just-struck-down/. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

—–. 2020, Winter. “‘Equal Opportunity’ Includes Equal Income,” in Ms. Magazine, 10. https://msmagazine.com/2020/02/24/equal-opportunity-includes-equal-income/. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Belluck, Pam. 2019, August 19. “Planned Parenthood Refuses Federal Funds Over Abortion Restrictions,” in The New York Times, at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/19/health/planned-parenthood-title-x.html. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

California v. Azar, No. 19-15974 (9th Cir. Feb. 24, 2020), at https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/TitleXRuleInj-9CAenbanc.pdf. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Campaign for Accountability. 2019, May. Trolling for Title X Funds, at https://campaignforaccountability.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/CfA-Report-Obria-History-5-13-19.pdf. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Carter, Dennis. 2020, March 23. “State Officials Try to End Abortion During COVID-19 Crisis,” in Rewire News, at https://rewire.news/article/2020/03/23/state-officials-try-to-end-abortion-during-covid-19-crisis/. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Dawson, Ruth. 2020, February 5. “Trump Administration’s Domestic Gag Rule Has Slashed the Title X Network’s Capacity by Half.” Guttmacher Institute https://www.guttmacher.org/article/020/02/trump-administrations-domestic-gag-rule-has-slashed-title-x-networks-capacity-half. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Frost, Jennifer to Lisa Ramirez-Branum. 2015, August 14. “Response to Inquiry Concerning Geographic Service Availability From Planned Parenthood Health Centers.” https://www.guttmacher.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/pubs/guttmacher-cbo-memo-2015.pdf. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Gessen, Masha. 2020, June 13. “The Trump Administration’s Hateful Message on Health Care for Transgender Americans,” in The New Yorker, at www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists /the-trump-administrations-hateful-message-on-health-care-for-transgender-americans?fbclid=IwAR3f96uyiKPzq6sooQBhmpUt7yWEEu3QqOwDhzqO9HQ998lUfrXtLlnUD90. [Accessed: 6/15/2020]

Hasstedt, Kinsey. 2017, August 3. “Beyond the Rhetoric: The Real-World Impact of Attacks on Planned Parenthood and Title X.” Guttmacher Institute. https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/2017/08/beyond-rhetoric-real-world-impact-attacks-planned-parenthood-and-title-x. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

June Med. Servs. 2016. LLC v. Gee, 814 F.3d 319 (5th Cir.) https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/ca5/17-30397/17-30397-2018-09-26.html. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Nash, Elizabeth., Lizamarie Mohammed, Olivia Cappello, and Sophia Naide. 2019, December 10. “State Policy Trends 2019: A Wave of Abortion Bans, But Some States Are Fighting Back.” Guttmacher Institute. https://www.guttmacher.org/article/2019/12/state-policy-trends-2019-wave-abortion-bans-some-states-are-fighting-back. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

National Center for Transgender Equality. n.d. “The Discrimination Administration: Trump’s Record of Action Against Transgender People.” https://transequality.org/the-discrimination-administration. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Pieklo, Jessica Mason. 2016, July 20. “Republicans Make History in Obstructing Merrick Garland for Supreme Court,” in Rewire News, at https://rewire.news/article/2016/07/20/republicans-history-obstructing-garland-supreme-court/. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Rodberg, Josie. 2011, February 22. “America Used to Agree on Public Funding for Family Planning. What Happened?” in Slate. https://slate.com/human-interest/2011/02/america-used-to-agree-on-public-funding-for-family-planning-what-happened.html. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Shayne, Julie. 2020, February 24. “The Trump Era Proves That Women’s Studies Matters,” in Ms. Magazine (online). https://msmagazine.com/2020/02/24/i-cant-believe-im-still-making-the-case-for-gender-women-sexuality-studies/. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Sobel, Laurie, Alina Salganicoff, and Brittni Frederiksen. 2019, March 8. “New Title X Regulations: Implications for Women and Family Planning Providers.” Kaiser Family Foundation Issue Brief. https://www.kff.org/womens-health-policy/issue-brief/new-title-x-regulations-implications-for-women-and-family-planning-providers/. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Turner, Kathleen. 2019, October 4. “Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS Seat Rests on a Mountain of Misogyny,” in Ms. Magazine (online), at https://msmagazine.com/2019/10/04/brett-kavanaughs-scotus-seat-rests-on-a-mountain-of-misogyny/. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Victor, Daniel. 2017, November 28. “‘Access Hollywood’ Reminds Trump: ‘The Tape Is Very Real’,” in The New York Times.  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/us/politics/donald-trump-tape.html. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 136 S. Ct. 2292. 2016. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/579/15-274/. [Accessed: 3/31/2020]

Woodward, Alex. 2020, June 12. “Trump administration rolls back healthcare protections for LGBT+ people and abortion access with HHS ruling,” in The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-lgbt-healthcare-hhs-aca-section-1557-a9564131.html?fbclid=IwAR3hiXdTL-b5UZ0saQ48omGKWWvPB27LfyDM-2hmn8XT0faPOCTfR_robfw. [Accessed: 6/12/2020]

  1. “Women” and “girls” refer to anyone who identifies that way, including transgender women.
  2. Trump was able to appoint Gorsuch because Mitch McConnell refused to allow a vote in the Senate on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland (Pieklo, 2016).
  3. See, e.g., June Med. Servs. LLC v. Gee, 814 F.3d 319 (5th Cir. 2016), in direct contradiction to Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, 136 S. Ct. 2292 (2016).

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