The Women, Peace and Security Agenda Under the Trump Administration: Undercutting Advances with a Return to Masculine Militarism

by Barbara Frey and Lindsey Greising
September 28, 2017

President Trump’s bombastic first speech to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on September 19 is yet another signal that the current U.S. administration is much more focused on war than on peace.  Threats to “totally destroy North Korea” as well as the tossing aside of a nuanced Iran treaty like it was just a bad real estate deal are bad omens for stability, human rights, and respectful bilateral and multilateral negotiations.  Trump’s view of security is also a bad omen for women.

The Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Agenda focuses on women and armed conflict and is based on UN Security Resolution 1325 and the six related resolutions that stem from it.  The Agenda looks at impacts and special needs/protections for women, as well as the transformative power of including women in decision-making and conflict prevention, resolution, and post-conflict recovery.  

At the international level, the UN is mandated to include WPS considerations in its activities across the board, such as increasing the role of female peacekeepers and decision-makers, focusing on women in post-conflict negotiations, ending impunity regarding crimes against women during conflict, and including women’s protections/needs in emergency response. A central tenet of WPS is that women need to have a central seat at the table in all facets of domestic and international security policymaking.

The Obama Administration issued the U.S.’s first National Action Plan on WPS in 2011, fully eleven years after the Sec. Res. 1325’s adoption.  The goal of the plan claimed to be “as simple as it [was] profound: to empower half the world’s population as equal partners in preventing conflict and building peace in countries threatened and affected by war, violence and insecurity.”

The Obama Administration took some important steps toward embracing the more powerful aims of WPS, such as training the U.S.’s own foreign service staff on gender equality, and working multilaterally to strengthen peacekeepers’ capacity to protect civilians from gender-based violence.


Weapons, not women

The Trump Administration’s approach to the WPS Agenda seems to be one of neglect, characterized by indifference to women’s issues, incompetence in diplomacy, and an infatuation with all things military. President Trump’s shift away from diplomacy and toward militant rhetoric undoubtedly threatens the critical space for WPS. The lack of diplomatic personnel and policy direction on WPS has a withering effect. In Trump’s world, safeguarding women is the job of strong men.

Conscious of these regressive policies, many are pushing back against the (masculinized) militarization of global security, which could suggest that the “era of women,” of which the WPS agenda is part, has moved the agenda far enough to withstand this assault.  Women remain in key security positions in governments and international organizations, and finance-conscious leaders understand that human-centered security is far more sustainable than butting nuclear warheads.

The most immediate impacts on the U.S. commitment to the WPS agenda are likely to come from the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts in the aid budget and the Administration’s overall “we’re taking names” posture towards the UN.

Trump’s proposed 2018 budget for the Department of State and USAID— the main entities with a role in the WPS Agenda—not only directly targets programs that benefit WPS and women’s rights, but they make a clear statement that militarism and masculinities will once again be front-and-center.  For example, Trump has vowed to slash 30 percent of the budget for the State Department and USAID.  The budget request is almost completely silent on women. Instead the priorities are peppered with phrases like “defeating terrorism,” “improving cybersecurity,” and “strengthening economic imperatives.” So much for democratic values.

The Trump administration also highlights reductions in collaborative international efforts such as joint peacekeeping operations.  A particular target for State Department budget cuts are U.N. programs.  Ambassador Nikki Haley warned, “Anything that seems to be obsolete and not necessary, we’re going to do away with.”  UN Peacekeeping Operations were Haley’s first target.  The U.S. advocated a $1 billion reduction to the blue helmets’ $8 billion budget, but settled for a reduction of $600 million.  An exuberant Haley tweeted, “Just 5 months into our time here, we’ve cut over half a billion $$$ from the UN peacekeeping budget & we’re only getting started.”  

The U.S. pays a quarter of the U.N. Peacekeeping budget, so we just saved ourselves $150 million (with an “m”) by cutting peacekeeping troops in the Ivory Coast and Sudan.  Just for comparison, the Trump Administration is proposing more than $600 billion (with a “b”) for our military.


Actions Speak Louder than Words

Beyond the numbers, the Trump Administration has been sending signals on women and human rights through active steps to destroy the few institutions created to further these goals.  The position of U.S. Ambassador of the Office of Global Women’s Issues remains vacant, though WPS is, surprisingly, still listed as a priority on the Administration’s website and the Obama-era National Action Plan on WPS has not yet been erased (an oversight, perhaps?).  

Also threatened is the entire Office of Global Crimes, which is a key actor in accountability and prevention regarding rights violations against women and girls.  

In addition, there is a salient absence of the mention of women’s rights and WPS in the Administration’s rhetoric.  For example, in the compilation of Secretary of State Tillerson’s remarks online, not a single statement directly touches on women, girls, gender, or reproductive rights. Rather than attend himself, Tillerson sent an Undersecretary to join the First Lady, Melania Trump, to deliver the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Awards in March 2017. While actions speak louder than words, the absence of words in this case speaks volumes about the weight this Administration is giving to women’s issues, including WPS.

What rhetoric does exist involves areas where women and girls are categorized as vulnerable creatures, objects in need of protection, rather than as important actors in generating shifts in policy or culture. Human trafficking, for instance, remains in the list of diplomatic priorities.  As for women in the military, in addition to his ban on transgender service members, Trump stated that rape was a natural result of putting men and women together.  This new policy rhetoric threatens to undermine advances made in gender and military service and gender and human rights.


A Force to be Reckoned with, or a Fire Deprived of Oxygen?

It is, of course, important to remember that international policy does not rise and fall with just one man— or woman – and that some logical constituents of a stronger military do not support Trump’s policy directions.  For example, 121 retired generals wrote a letter to Congress in February 2017 voicing their concern about aid cuts as they directly relate to security concerns.  Similarly, Senator Lindsey Graham said Trump’s proposal to cut the diplomacy and aid budget by one-third would “gut soft power” and “put a lot of people at risk.”

Indeed, many have commented on the consolidating power Trump’s election has had, particularly around women’s rights.  The Women’s Marches were the largest in the US since the Civil Rights movement, and there were more than 673 sister marches worldwide.  Not necessarily because of Trump, but perhaps more indicative of the rising force of the women’s movement in this era, feminist activism in Poland, across Latin America, and in Ireland and South Korea, are bringing women’s issues to the fore.  Thus, the era that brought about the WPS Agenda may have laid a strong foundation from which the rights movement can thrive, even in the face of a misogynistic Administration.  That said, a movement and agenda deprived of oxygen— in this case, political will and funding— will face a more challenging path forward.

— Barbara Frey is the Director of the Human Rights Program in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota and Lindsey Greising is an independent immigration lawyer

— Photo by UN Photo/Logan Abassi

Too Costly? The Fight for Trans Health Care in the Courts and Legislature

by Lars Z. Mackenzie
September 26, 2017


On July 26, 2017, President Trump caused a national uproar with three tweets announcing a ban on transgender military service. Trump declared, “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” Responses ranged from displays of trans patriotism to analyses of the true costs of trans health care. The Washington Post, for its part, reported that the U.S. military spends five times as much on Viagra than it would on transition-related procedures. Policies that seek to restrict the use of federal funds for trans health care using this “tremendous medical cost” rhetoric send a broader message of disapproval for medical procedures that many conservatives deem to be morally questionable.

While trans health care costs have not been proven to be particularly financially burdensome to insurance providers, any money spent on gender transition is generally considered an inappropriate use of federal funds.

In this way, restrictions on publicly-funded trans health care mirror another policy, the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which restricts access to abortions for public health insurance recipients. The justifications come in similar packages: tax-payers should not foot the bill for morally questionable medical procedures.

Arguments that trans health care is too expensive and burdensome have long circulated in legislative debates. In Minnesota, lawmakers have grappled with these questions since the 1970s, and their experiences can help us anticipate what we’ll see if the promised Medicaid and Medicare cuts materialize and states gain greater autonomy in restricting reproductive and trans health care access for low-income Americans.




On November 14, 2016, the U.S. District Court in Minnesota overturned a ban on transition-related surgical procedures for Medicaid recipients. The court ruled in favor of OutFront MN, a statewide LGBT rights organization working on behalf of a 63-year-old trans man from St. Paul, granting Minnesotans who use Medical Assistance (MA), the state’s Medicaid program, access to gender affirmation surgeries.

Hailed as a victory, the ruling actually reverts Minnesota law back to a 1977 ruling granting broad MA access to transition care (and making Minnesota the first state to cover gender affirmation surgeries under its Medicaid program). However, since 1995, the Minnesota legislature has chipped away at that once-progressive policy. Let’s take a look.

Beginning in 1968, the University of Minnesota’s Medical School performed state-funded surgeries on transsexual adults, free of charge. By the mid-1970s, the funding for this program had run out. A 45-year-old trans woman (referred to as “Jane Doe”) had received hormone therapy, a prerequisite for surgery, through the University clinic, but was unable to undergo her surgery before the program ended. In 1977, Doe petitioned the Hennepin County Department of Public Welfare (DPW) to cover her surgeries as a MA-covered individual. Her request was approved by an officer for the county, but later reversed by the statewide DPW. The state argued that because she could not “prove that the requested surgery would allow him [sic] to become self-supporting,” the procedure would not be covered by MA (Doe v.  State of MN 1977). The Supreme Court of Minnesota reversed this decision, citing that the requirement “to be self-supporting” was illegal on the grounds that it would not be required as pre-authorization for any other type of medical procedure.

The Doe ruling fundamentally changed trans Medicaid access in Minnesota. The MA handbook had explicitly prohibited “transsexual surgery,” an exclusion that the Supreme Court declared violated Title XIX of the Social Security Act (as it was the only excluded procedure, even if deemed medically necessary by a physician). By striking this exclusion, the Supreme Court of MN enabled trans Medicaid recipients to apply for coverage for surgeries, so long as they could prove that the procedures were medically necessary.

From 1977 until 1995, trans Minnesotans insured under MA could access insurance coverage for gender affirmation surgeries.

For the most part, these procedures went unnoticed by the public or policy-makers. Then gender and sexuality protections began to emerge in the Minnesota state legislature. In 1993, that body amended the Human Rights Act, making discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal (and broadly including gender identity and expression under the umbrella of “sexual orientation”). The amendment sparked backlash, especially against trans people. Suddenly, gender affirmation surgeries were under public scrutiny.

In 1994, the MN legislature introduced the first bill that would have denied any state coverage of transition procedures. By 1995, it passed a bill that successfully removed transition surgeries from the state’s Medicaid coverage, and, by 1998, hormone therapy was banned, too.

Legislators provided no economic rationale to justify these change; instead, Republican State Senator Jerry Ralph articulated a moral logic: although the total cost of transition-related health care billed to MA between 1995-1998 totaled just $20,000, Senator Ralph stated, “I don’t think that’s a lot, but I don’t think it’s something many of our tax payers want to be paying for with their taxes.”

Restrictions soon multiplied. In 2005, the legislature adjusted the 1998 amendment, removing the restriction on hormone therapy access but categorically excluding any Medicaid recipient from coverage for “sex-reassignment surgery.” The state estimated it would save $15,000 a year. Thus, as in 1998, transition care was excluded following an irrational economic justification. And it continues to shape Medicaid legislation. In May 2017, West Virginia Senator Robert Carnes suggested that his state could save money by refusing to cover “transgender surgery,” despite the fact that Medicaid there already excludes transition-related procedures. Determined to be unnecessary, excessive, and burdensome to state health care budgets, trans health care is targeted as an easy cut to Medicaid programs, even when this care is already excluded. And in the meantime, low-income trans people are positioned as underserving recipients of public assistance.

The argument that MN tax payers would not want to fund gender affirmation surgeries with their tax contributions also echoes Hyde’s logic in curtailing federal funds’ use in abortion procedures recently affirmed by the 1973 Supreme Court (passed just 11 months before the Doe decision).

Congressmen opposed to abortions used the only mechanism they had—a fiscal one—to obstruct what they saw as an immoral procedure. People with private insurance or those who can pay out-of-pocket can access gender affirmation surgeries and obtain abortions, the prohibitive costs of these procedures cause significant burdens to those who cannot use their insurance to pay for them. Legislators declare that the moral costs are too high, devaluing the health care needs of already marginalized populations.

So long as trans health care is framed as cosmetic, not medically necessary, or an excessive burden on state health and human services budgets, trans Medicaid recipients face impossible decisions about their health and wellbeing. Only 18% of low-income trans people have undergone any type of gender affirmation surgery. One in 3 trans people report that they’ve put off medical care because they cannot afford it. Elected officials have actively created a climate in which trans lives are devalued.


What to do? 

Without support at the federal level, it is up to the states to demonstrate that all people deserve broad access to health care. The Affordable Care Act makes categorical exclusions of transition-related care illegal, but its future is unsure, and the current Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, has resisted this provision, signaling that states may opt-out. States can forge ahead, though, by creating protections for transition-related care under state Medicaid laws. Some states have already taken steps in this direction. Similarly, abortion coverage might also be changed at the state level, but just three states voluntarily pay for medically necessary abortions for Medicaid recipients today.

As debates about the ACA continue, federal legislators must refuse the rhetoric that trans health care is too costly to find protection in any new iteration of “repeal and replace.”  Trans health is too easily framed as an “easy” cut, despite the small impact it would have on health care budgets. But morality-based justifications for restricting abortion and transition care access to low-income people are—and always will be—indefensible.


-– Lars Z. Mackenzie is a PhD candidate in Feminist Studies at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him @larszmac.

— Photo by Reina Gossett

Strengthen, Not Dismantle, Title IX

by Alesha Durfee 

September 20, 2017


In the United States, almost 20 percent of women and two percent of men will be raped during their lifetime. At highest risk of sexual assault are those aged 18 to 24.

Title IX, originally passed in 1972, forbids discrimination in education based on gender and is intended to ensure equal access to educational opportunities for all students.  Title IX has been used to combat sexual harassment and violence on university and college campuses. In 2011, the Department of Education provided colleges and universities with guidelines for handling cases of sexual violence that occur in the college setting or between college students.

Those Title IX guidelines are under fire from the Trump administration, however. Spearheading this effort is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who on September 7 gave a speech at George Mason University where she called for a dramatic restructuring of the program, saying it has “failed many students.

After DeVos’ speech, some commentators applauded the Department of Education’s new direction. Andrew Miltenberg, a defense attorney for many students who have been defendants in Title IX proceedings, said, “Title IX was meant to be a tool for fairness, not a means for colleges and universities to micromanage students’ sex lives.”

To characterize the critically important provision of resources and responses to sexual assault survivors on campus through Title IX as universities “micromanaging student sex lives” is an example of how the rhetoric of the Trump administration has obscured acts of violence and distorted Obama-era policies, minimizing sexual violence and the impact it has on survivors.

The “micromanagement” of my “student sex life” occurred on the night of November 17, 1991. I had decided to walk back to my dorm from the store rather than wait 50 minutes for a bus. That decision has shaped the trajectory of my life.

As I walked through a dimly lit residential area, I was knocked down from behind and groped. My attacker talked to me softly as he started removing my clothes. My efforts to physically resist were useless, so I screamed, he ran, and I ran.  Luckily a young single mother at home alone with a preschooler did the unthinkable—she opened her door to me, even though (or perhaps because) I was hysterical. The mother called the police, who came to her house and started asking me questions, even though I was crying and nearly incoherent.

Why was I walking home alone? Didn’t I realize how dangerous it was? What did he look like? How could I not know what race he was? Why did he stop? Didn’t I have any injuries? Why were my clothes still intact? Didn’t anyone see anything? What evidence did I even have that the “alleged assault” occurred?

Horrified, the mother asked for a female officer. When rebuffed, she stopped the interrogation and got me some water. I will always be grateful to her for her kindness. The police wrote down the address of my dorm, put me in the back of the police car, and dropped me off outside of my building—in full view of the other students living in my dorm, who could only assume that a sobbing girl getting out of the locked back door of a police car on a Friday night had certainly violated the law.

And that was it.

That was the extent of the “investigation” into my victimization.

No officers walked me to my room. No detectives contacted me with questions. No photos were taken, nor was going to the hospital for a forensic exam an option (I didn’t have health insurance anyway). I was never given a report number or a copy of the police report that I hope exists.  No victim advocate called or visited.  No employee of the university checked up on me. No one explained that there was crime victim’s compensation, and that the state would help pay for badly needed care.

I stayed in bed for three days, floating between nightmares and flashbacks. I was far from home and couldn’t imagine who to ask for help. I racked up unexcused absences in my classes. With no resources, no follow-up, and no health insurance, I handled the rest of my sophomore year in college spectacularly badly. I dropped out of school for over a year. It is a wonder that I ever went back, much less that I made it through a PhD program and eventually became a tenured professor.

I’ve never shared my story publicly, even though I teach about and conduct research on domestic and sexual violence. Sexual assault is a highly stigmatizing crime.  Most survivors fear harsh and negative reactions if they disclose their abuse.

But it is because of this history that I’m motivated to speak out about the comments made by DeVos and others last week. My attack was not one that most college students (overwhelmingly, college women) experience. I didn’t know my attacker, and I don’t know if he was a student. It didn’t happen at a party or in a space where I felt safe. I hadn’t been served alcohol or drugged.  There was only one assailant. Someone stepped in at a critical moment to stop the attacker from returning and completing the assault.

But there are many parallels between what I experienced and what others have described that highlight the importance of critical components of the current Title IX system— the damage caused by the experience and my reticence to come forward, the officers’ focus on the lack of physical injury and refusal to investigate, and the need for survivor-centered support throughout the process of seeking justice.

I’m sure that if DeVos heard my story, she would agree that my assault was “reprehensible” and that justice was not served. As she notes, “acts of sexual misconduct are reprehensible, disgusting, and unacceptable.” I sincerely appreciate her strong words on sexual violence.

At the same time, it has taken me 26 years to be able to write my narrative. And I am white, cisgender, now middle-class, middle-aged, and well-educated, and have studied the law and sexual assault.

My narrative is shaped by so many layers of privilege. Many survivors of sexual violence do not have the privilege that I do, and are judged for not having stories that conform to societal stereotypes of blameless victims and clearly reprehensible assailants. Real life (and real victimizations) are always so much more complicated than rhetoric can possibly allow for.

I’m fairly certain that if DeVos had talked to me in those three days after the assault, or even the three years after the assault, she would have found me a far less sympathetic victim. Would that have made me a less worthy victim? Would my case have been seen as frivolous? Without a coherent story, witnesses, or evidence, would I have been one of those examples where “if everything is harassment, then nothing is[i]”?

DeVos and Title IX critics have focused on a number of aspects of the system they believe need to be changed.  Primary among them is the burden of proof used in Title IX cases. Title IX, like other civil rights laws, requires that sex discrimination, which includes sexual assault on campus, be proven by the preponderance of the evidence.  The preponderance of the evidence standard is used for most civil and family law cases in the United States—from domestic violence protection orders to multi-million dollar lawsuits. It means that the judge, commissioner, or whoever is adjudicating the case believes that it is more likely than not that the disputed events occurred. This standard is especially appropriate in cases of sexual violence, where the acts occur in private and there may be little physical evidence. Title IX adjudications are not criminal trials.  They do not pose the threat of incarceration.  They should not be treated as such.

DeVos also decries the lack of legal representation available to students in Title IX proceedings.  I agree that both students should have representation. But the lack of representation for either or both students does not justify abandoning the current system.

Instead, it highlights the lack of resources dedicated to Title IX investigations. This problem mirrors a larger crisis in access to justice in America.  “Meaningful” access to the courts — the ability to attend, participate in, retain legal counsel for, and fully understand court proceedings — “is increasingly out of reach for many Americans”. According to the Center for Law and Public Policy, since 1996 legal assistance in the United States has been “substantially curtailed” and, in some regions, “completely dismantled”. The Trump administration proposed completely defunding the Legal Services Corporation in March 2017. Perhaps DeVos’ concerns about students who have to, “without any legal training whatsoever”, “prepare an opening statement, fix exhibits and find witnesses”, should be used as a justification to increase funding for legal services across the United States. This way, millions of Americans who have to file for divorce, file for protection orders, defend their right to housing, and represent themselves in other matters involving their most basic human needs, can also have help navigating a complex and confusing civil legal system.  The solution to the lack of representation in Title IX proceedings is to provide each party with legal representation, not to jettison the process altogether.

DeVos and Title IX critics also decry the lack of training for the individuals administering the Title IX system, “who may or may not have any legal training in adjudicating sexual misconduct.” I agree with DeVos–“there is a competency gap here” when individuals who oversee these cases do not have proper training.  The same problem exists throughout the American legal system.  Judges, commissioners, justices of the peace, and others who adjudicate cases in the criminal justice and civil courts often lack current, comprehensive training on sexual and domestic violence. Why would we expect our universities and colleges to be any different?

DeVos should call for providing culturally competent, evidence-based training to anyone who oversees cases involving sexual and domestic violence, whether they be in the university/college, criminal justice, or civil legal systems.

This lack of training may be responsible for the incredibly low rate of help-seeking among college students who are sexually victimized. Only one in six college aged students get help from a victim-service agency[ii]. Just 20 percent of college students aged 18-24 report their sexual victimization to police, often because they feel that the “police would be insensitive and blame me.” That was certainly my experience in 1991.  Better training can help police to respond with greater sensitivity and less judgment in cases of sexual and domestic violence, enabling those students who want to use the criminal justice system to do so without the fear of being blamed for their trauma. Training has been and should continue to be an important part of Title IX.

In her speech, DeVos stated, “I wish this subject didn’t need to be discussed at all.” I wish it didn’t either. I wish sexual assaults didn’t occur. But they do occur, with shocking frequency, and we need to be thoughtful about how we address them. We should not dismiss the current process as a “kangaroo court” and abandon it altogether.  We should instead work to improve the process and ensure that all parties are well-informed, well-treated, and well-represented, so that the Title IX process provides a viable alternative to the criminal system.  We desperately need a process that is evidence-based, survivor-centered, respects the privacy of all parties, and provides resources (legal, medical, and mental health) to all parties involved. Abandoning the current system only makes it more likely that future college students will have experiences like my own.

Alesha Durfee is an Associate Professor at the School of Social Transformation, Arizona State University

— Photo by Wolfram Burner

Women in Prison: A Small Population Requiring Unique Policy Solutions

It is easy to overlook the presence of women in our prison system. After all, in Minnesota, women account for just over 7% of the prison population, a mere 737 individuals. And the same is true across the country, with women comprising just 7% of the estimated 1.53 million people held in state and federal correctional facilities. Given these small numbers, the path to reducing mass incarceration is generally framed through its impacts on men.

Fewer researchers work on questions such as whether the reasons women are imprisoned are unique, whether their rehabilitative needs are different, or whether the experience of prison impacts their outcomes differently than it does men.

In June, the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota hosted Women in Prison: Voices of Hope from Within Prison Walls. The event aimed to bring women’s unique challenges in imprisonment to the fore through dialog among researchers, practitioners, artists, and former inmates. Much of the discussion drew on participants’ expertise and experiences with Shakopee Correctional Facility, the sole women-only prison in Minnesota. Though several points were raised during the day-long discussion, two were particularly striking.

First, incarcerated women face a unique parenting struggle. Many women who are incarcerated have children, and many are the primary caregivers for those children. When a woman is imprisoned, if the father is not also a primary caregiver, the children must be placed with a relative or in foster care. Once an out-of-home placement occurs, the children’s “permanency clock” begins ticking. State and federal laws require close attention to this metric, designed to ensure that the best interests of the children are met by achieving a safe, stable, and permanent home as quickly as possible. In some cases, this means terminating parental rights. But as one panelist stated at the Robina event, “child protection timelines don’t work with prison timelines.”

One of the grounds for terminating an individual’s parental rights is abandonment (Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(1) (2016)), and while incarceration in and of itself is not sufficient to constitute abandonment, in order to maintain parental rights, incarcerated women must maintain a relationship with their children to the best of their ability through letters, cards, visits, and inquiries about the children’s welfare (see In re Children of Wildley, 669 N.W.2d 408 (Minn. Ct. App. 2008)).

But nearly two-thirds (61%) of the women currently incarcerated at Shakopee have been committed from outside of the seven-county metro area so the distances to the homes from which the women came may be too great for relatives to travel.

As a result, most incarcerated women in Minnesota are unable to receive visits from their children; cards, letters, and perhaps an occasional phone call are their only available means to maintain or restore a relationship. Additionally, the majority of women incarcerated at Shakopee are there for drug offenses (Figure 1) which adds an additional layer of difficulty. Many may be struggling to overcome addiction, and while they are engaging in recovery, it may be difficult to simultaneously work on family relationships. Yet failure to show progress toward overcoming addiction may harm their chances of reuniting with their children upon release.


Second, the incarceration rate of Native American women in Minnesota is significantly higher than other groups. At Shakopee, Native American women comprise 21% of the inmate population (Figure 2). Though individuals of all non-white races are over-represented in Minnesota’s prison population, the incarceration of Native Americans is dramatically disproportionate—Native Americans of all genders make up only about 1% of the Minnesota population. And the proportion of Native American women in the prison population outpaces that of men. In most facilities for male offenders, the percentage of men who are Native American hovers around 9 to 11%. Only at Oak Park Heights – Minnesota’s maximum security prison – do the numbers begin to approach the proportions seen at Shakopee, with 16% of the population there reported as Native American.

These disparities are not unique to Minnesota. Native Americans represent 23% of the prison population in Montana, 19% in North Dakota, and 29% in South Dakota. Panelist Autumn Cavender-Wilson attributed the disparity in Minnesota to the inter-generational effects of historical trauma. Judge Bruce Peterson discussed the need for culturally specific services, but it was noted that, given the number of Native American Nations, each with its own traditions and identities, it is difficult to ensure placement in a program that speaks appropriately to each Native American individual’s identity. Regardless of the reason for or challenges created by the disparity, far more work remains in uncovering and addressing the root causes of racially disproportionate incarceration of Native Americans in Minnesota and nationally.

Our participants raised other issues that also deserve attention and study. Like prisons around the country, Shakopee is well over capacity. And many women who are incarcerated have significant trauma in their pasts, raising questions about how we can better identify and treat such trauma before it results in criminal outcomes. Studying and developing policy solutions tailored to the unique issues of women in prison may not be attractive—it is unlikely that these actions would generate immediate, large-scale impact in the way that male-focused solutions might. But just as there is no magic bullet that will end and reverse mass incarceration, there is no limit to the power of an accumulation of multiple, small-scale solutions to targeted issues.

Kelly Lyn Mitchell is Executive Director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School.

— Photo of Challenge Incarceration rehabilitation program for nonviolent offenders by Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Food Stamps and Food Rights

Recent federal proposals to gut SNAP benefits and states’ calls to add paid employment and drug-testing as eligibility determinants are nothing new. They reflect longstanding concerns with dependence, waste, and fraud, as well as anxiety that black people, indigenous Americans, and immigrants might rise above abject status. They also reveal a widespread and longstanding suspicion of poor people—particularly poor women and especially poor women of color—as undeserving.

These attacks get repeated so often that it is easy to become numb to them.  Threatening to remove food aid has become commonplace.  This enmity can feel like a natural obstacle—as unmovable as a rock formation. It is difficult—but it is important—to remember that these attacks have not always been successful.  Indeed, countering them was crucial to the very creation of food stamps.  But it required a shift in the gender politics of food aid. The program does not, and perhaps never has, reflected the beneficence of the state.

Our modern system of food benefits emerged from public activism.  It required acceptance of women’s rights, and a move away from blaming women for their families’ hunger.

That wasn’t always how federal food aid worked.  The first federal “food stamps,” the earliest iteration of SNAP, were distributed in the 1930s. Given the longstanding suspicion that, in the midst of a depression, the poor might eat “too well”, these “benefits” were paltry. State and county participation was voluntary, and many counties erected additional barriers for enrollment. Participants often had to “buy” the stamps, so the poorest Americans could rarely access the benefits. Among goods supplied directly, surplus dairy and produce were sometimes withheld or distributed in public spaces (thus demeaning the recipients).

Racism and sexism were prominent in the applicants’ experience: local officials who screened potential participants could turn them away or put them through humiliation (and without federal oversight). For instance, food stamps were often denied in the summer, forcing sharecroppers to accept low-wage farm work, then allowed in the winter—to keep this seasonal work pool from moving away. Women of any race whose sexual or political habits were deemed unacceptable might also be denied, as could African Americans who registered to vote (the denial of aid served as retribution for their activism).

This early version of food stamps also failed by design: it was never intended to actually sustain hungry Americans, but to shore up prices and redirect farm surpluses.

As a result, federal funding for aid and access to needed food rose and fell in response to changes in farm production and federal policy. The programs were unpredictable and ultimately pretty useless.

This might seem similar to the system we have today; certainly, the same racialized suspicions are at play. But there are important differences: the expansive system that is under attack today (and for which so many are fighting) reflected a different historical moment. In the 1960s, rhetoric shifted from women’s dependence and need (and blame) toward a fundamental right to food. This era of social movement activism included activism around hunger.  Often led by women, these movements are why food stamps have become such a widespread and important system.

To understand this transformation, we need to leapfrog from the origins of food stamps in the 1930s to their expansion in the 1960s.  Then, groups of activists moving in civil rights and anti-racist circles articulated the notion that hunger (and what we might call food insecurity) had to be addressed should citizens ever move beyond immiseration. As Eldridge Cleaver famously said, “Black children who go to school hungry each morning have been organized into their poverty.”

In linking hunger to structural inequity, access to food emerged as a right.   Hunger emerged as a violation of rights rather than an unfortunate byproduct of poverty

We are learning more and more about this ‘60s-era anti-hunger activism. A group called  “Operation Life” used donations and USDA surplus food to operate a clinic and summer food program in Las Vegas. In Memphis, a group of poor women worked in concert with local physicians to treat hunger itself; their efforts nearly eradicated malnutrition-related illnesses among the children they served. Rural black sharecroppers turned to cooperative organizing and public gardens to offset hunger and unreliable incomes. The most famous of these efforts, the Black Panthers’ breakfast project, fed tens of thousands of children in dozens of cities—and became a major distraction to the FBI. Many of these programs emphasized what we might call food sovereignty—the right of people to feed themselves.

But not all did so. Predominantly white middle-class women organized volunteer groups to serve school lunches in many urban districts. When they realized how many children were unable to participate, a coalition of mainstream liberal groups wrote a devastating report on the failure of existing school lunch programs. That report revealed how widespread hunger remained among poor Americans.  These groups may seem distant from the Black Panthers, but they shared an activist culture and a vision of food as an economic right—a crucial first step in claiming one’s civil rights.

This era also made poor women’s food work, especially the work of African American women, visible. Even when men became the public face of anti-hunger programs, and even when there was genuine mixed-sex cooperation, it was often women’s work that energized the efforts.

As we are seeing in today’s struggle, it was often black women who spoke most often and most loudly about inadequate food in their communities. And it was their planning that brought the offerings from farms, community gardens, and free breakfast programs into daily survival strategies. These movements insisted that what might have been seen as work done for individual families was actually work that allowed people to make claims on each other and on the state. Women’s food work connected to struggles for autonomy and justice.

As a result, this era of anti-hunger programs detached food aid from earlier platforms intended to surveil and discipline women: not only did women not bear the blame for families’ poor nutrition, both they and policymakers came to understand that they had a right to communal and public support for food.

Media and congressional interest in hunger echoed the themes of these movements. Pressure on the Senate led to a subcommittee tour of Mississippi in the spring of 1967; the report and its publicity helped make Robert Kennedy a liberal icon, outraged both local and federal officials, and spurred a ten-state survey of hunger by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Even before the survey could be completed, the American public was exposed to horrifying instances of malnourishment through efforts like the award-winning CBS documentary “Hunger in America.” The 1968 film opened with a scene of a doctor attempting—unsuccessfully–to save the life of a baby whose mother had been malnourished.  Senators received a flood of calls, and families in the film received shipments of food from strangers. Ensuing investigations reinforced that hungry people, including African American and Chicano people, were in fact vibrant human beings, capable of full lives but stymied by a violation of their rights to life: hunger.

By 1969 even conservative senators were calling for expanded, accessible food stamp programs.  (Many have argued that fear of success of standalone food programs was another driver in federal response.)

Where the media often turned their cameras on hungry children, the policies enacted bore the imprint of their activist mothers’ work. School lunch and breakfast programs became federal mainstays—and crucial components of many households’ resources. Women’s activism changed the national conversation on hunger.

It would be hard to overstate the positive outcomes of food stamps and other hunger programs. Food stamps alone serve tens of millions of people, and  social scientists credit them with reducing overall poverty (particularly for children). This is because supplemental food assistance allows families and households to spend what money they have on housing, education, clothing, and other basic needs, and to remain above the poverty line. It is especially important that SNAP has been able to expand quickly during recessions—reaching as many as 47 million people during recent downturns.   And, beyond food stamps, free breakfast and lunch programs, WIC, and countless other efforts, however imperfectly, make a real difference; food is a crucial ingredient in “freeing people from poverty,” to paraphrase Eldridge Cleaver.

In ways that analysts have not always appreciated, funding food programs did not just depend on government anti-poverty efforts or on congressional interest, but on a broad public willingness to see the failures of food distribution as systemic rather than the fault of individual mothers.

As spokespeople, as lawyers, as policymakers, as grassroots community workers, as impoverished mothers, and as visible activists—these movements shifted the political position of women relative to food. Women’s activism and antiracist politics reframed food as a collective right and poverty as a collective failure.

Attacks on food stamps revive tired tropes that hunger, malnourishment, and a host of other health and social problems reflect women’s failures to cook or provision.  They echo racist claims that public assistance encourages the dependence and passivity of women of color. But history tells a different story of possibility.  Our most effective systems of food aid began outside of Congress, with antiracist and feminist social movements.  Regaining their rhetoric of food as a right, and their assertion of women’s rights, can be effective tools in the contemporary fight over food.

-– Tracey Deutsch is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota

— Photo of the Black Panthers Breakfast Program from Eater

Why Testosterone Ranges Should Replace Sex-Segregation in Title IX Sports

In the waning months of the Obama Administration, the Departments of Justice and Education advised schools and colleges that gender identity discrimination was to be considered a form of sex discrimination covered by Title IX (the federal sex non-discrimination law that applies to all federally-funded educational programming, including competitive college sports). Within a month of taking office, Trump’s administration rescinded that compliance letter, in a stroke erasing any explicit protection for transgender student-athletes. Perhaps, though, where the Obama Administration really went wrong was in not going further to name sex-segregated sports as a source of “gender identity” discrimination.

What is gender discrimination and how do sex-segregated sports trigger it? In my book, Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?  I use the term “sex identity discrimination” instead of “gender identity discrimination” because I think it is more precise. The traditional understanding of sexism in the U.S. involves stereotypes about what a person can and cannot do because she is a woman or he is a man. Sex-identity discrimination involves such stereotyping, but it also involves judgments about who does and does not belong in the very categories of female and male. With this refinement in mind, we reveal how people who may not self-identify as transgender can still be subject to sex-identity discrimination when others perceive them as not adhering to the gender norms associated with being a “real woman” or a “real man.”

Because an athlete’s self-understanding of their sex-identity may be at odds with an administrator’s judgment, we should be very careful about how, if at all, we invoke sex classification in sports policy.

In Beyond Trans, I suggest a liberation from the rote presumption that maleness and femaleness always—or even often—matters. More often than not, gender isn’t clearly or rationally linked to specific policy goals. When sex classification is relevant, the onus should be on policy makers to provide a clear definition of the terms “sex” and “gender” within the contexts of the policy, a clear statement of the policy goal at issue, and a clear explanation of why it is necessary to invoke sex classification in order to achieve the specific policy goal.

One of the legitimate policy goals at stake in competitive sports is “fair play.” There is a longstanding presumption that permitting men and women to compete against one another in competitive sports, especially sports involving physical contact, would not be fair—that men would always have a competitive advantage over women based upon “biological” sex differences. But not all sex-related characteristics provide a competitive edge in sports. For example, it matters nary a bit whether you have a penis or vagina, a beard, or soft skin for how fast you run or how high you jump.

Instead, when we get more specific, we can say that certain sex-related physiological features, such as muscle mass, lung capacity, and aggression, are relevant to ‘fair play.’ These mutable characteristics are affected by the amount of functional testosterone in an athlete’s body, not by the presence or absence of genitalia.

The NCAA has followed the International Olympic Committee  to decree that athletes wishing to compete as female must prove that their testosterone levels fall within the normal range for women. If their testosterone exceeds levels for female competition, the athlete must compete against males or will be excluded from competition. By adopting this administrative policy, the NCAA is effectively using hormone levels instead of sex identity as its sorting criteria. Perhaps the most logical next step would be to get rid of the sex markers altogether, leaving a simple division into categories based on testosterone levels. Consider that some transgender women use estrogen therapy to achieve some of the secondary sex characteristics associated with female sex identity, such as an increased ratio of fat to muscle and the production of additional breast tissue, just as some transgender men use testosterone therapy to achieve some of the secondary sex characteristics associated with male sex identity. Other transgender people don’t use hormone therapy at all, and some people identify as genderqueer, gender fluid, or non-binary rather than “transgender.” Further, a not insignificant number of people are born intersex, meaning that their chromosomes, hormones, and/or physiology are not dyadic (unequivocally “male” or “female”). With all of these possibilities present in the field of play, can a male/female dichotomy work as a functional policy? Taking gender and sex identity out of the game may level the field significantly.

If we were to replace sex-segregation with testosterone levels in Title IX sports, we would, of course, not be making a trivial change. Part of the sense of “losing tradition” is tied up with losing the social aspect of gender-based affinity that is considered formative to young athletes: girls and boys and women and men working together toward common goals and competing to achieve them. But this social aspect claim holds most validity at the recreational level. When it comes to elite competition such as NCAA Division 1 sports and Olympic play, competition takes precedence over all else. While it seems simple, it comes down to the single question of whether gender matters—and if it does, when, why, and how? Replacing male and female competitive sports with hormone levels seems, on its face, radical, but the NCAA and other elite sports organizations have already begun rewriting the rules in favor of fair play.


Heath Fogg Davis is Associate Professor of Political Science at Temple University. He is the author of Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? (NYU Press 2017), and serves on the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs in Philadelphia.  @heathfoggdavis


— Photo by nchenga nchenga