My historical detective work on #Emergency Contraception coverage in New York Times

Over the past two weeks there has been a robust discussion on the International Consortium for Emergency Contraception listserv about reporting in the New York Times discussing recent findings on how emergency contraception works.  According to this article, “an examination by The New York Times has found that the federally approved labels and medical Web sites do not reflect what the science shows. Studies have not established that emergency contraceptive pills prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the womb, leading scientists say. Rather, the pills delay ovulation, the release of eggs from ovaries that occurs before eggs are fertilized, and some pills also thicken cervical mucus so sperm have trouble swimming.

It turns out that the politically charged debate over morning-after pills and abortion, a divisive issue in this election year, is probably rooted in outdated or incorrect scientific guesses about how the pills work. Because they block creation of fertilized eggs, they would not meet abortion opponents’ definition of abortion-inducing drugs. In contrast, RU-486, a medication prescribed for terminating pregnancies, destroys implanted embryos.

The notion that morning-after pills prevent eggs from implanting stems from the Food and Drug Administration’s decision during the drug-approval process to mention that possibility on the label — despite lack of scientific proof, scientists say, and objections by the manufacturer of Plan B, the pill on the market the longest.”

I’ll let scientists comment on the emerging scientific consensus on this and comment on what this says about historical research. While researching my book, I’ve spent countless hours reading and re-reading FDA transcripts and I have no recollection of any such objections from the manufacturer of Plan B, which at that time was Women’s Capital Corporation.  Shortly after this article appeared,  Newsweek Senior Editor Sarah Blustain contacted me to find out more about the FDA’s decision. She asked whether this was a political compromise imposed on the manufacturers of Plan B by FDA.  I told her that I didn’t recall any of this so went back and looked at the transcripts available on the FDA website.  I couldn’t find anything in the original New Drug Application for Plan B filed by Women’s Capital Corporation.  After some further digging, I found the relevant discussion in a transcript from a joint meeting of the FDA Non-prescription Drug Advisory Committee (NDAC) and the Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs (ACRHD) held on December 16, 2003. However, I didn’t find any objections from scientists who presented on behalf of the manufacturer of Plan B.  The relevant section starts on page 288 of the PDF version.  First, Dr. Joseph Stanford, a member of the ACHRD asks:

“I understand, again, that the data that we have on mechanism of action for Plan B is imperfect, incomplete, but I think it’s a
critical issue for those women who want to understand how it works and have informed consent for use. So along those lines I have a question from Appendix 6 from the sponsor’s book. They list all of the answers to Question 7 about — after they
showed the women the package, they said, “Without looking at the label, tell me what Plan B is used for,” and then classified answers as either correct and acceptable or correct but not acceptable or not correct and not acceptable, and they list them
verbatim. And among the ones that are listed as correct and acceptable are a number of women who said that — one of them is, for example, an abortion type  thing for the day after. One was them was to kill a fertilized egg, and basically showing that some women had that understanding, and it was classified by the company as a correct and acceptable understanding of
what the product is for. And so I’m just wondering for the FDA did they also classify those particular answers as correct
and acceptable for what the product is for.”

NDAC chairman Louis Cantilena  then called Karen Lechter from FDA Dr. Leonard Segal answered, “Dr. Lechter unfortunately had to leave, and I don’t know that I can actually specifically address how she did hercalculation in her review on that particular issue. My assumption is though that she probably followed the sponsor’s categorization.” Chairman Cantilena answers, “There were a few tables that she showed in her presentation where she had asterisks where there was, you know, a difference between her, you know, assessment and the sponsors. But I don’t recall if that specific issue was asterisked or not.”

Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice from ACRHD says, “I think that one of the things that Dr. Stanford is getting to — and you can tell me if I’m wrong — is a matter of informed consent such that the patient is as fully informed as possible based on all of the information that we know about how this product works.

So I guess I would ask the sponsor first.  When you’ve done surveys, if you have — and you may not have this information — in women who have taken emergency contraception and then you’ve asked them the question of how they  perceive, first of all, the medication worked, besides one of these studies because during that time, I think when you are dealing with that immediate issue of needing emergency contraception or even within the first couple of weeks while you’re waiting for that cycle to come, your perception of how it works may be different than when you sit down and really think about it.  So I think that’s one point.

And then, you know, even with my background, having a lot of experience with infertility and giving a lot progesterone, et cetera, and I’ve reviewed the literature, there is some data out there that really does suggest at very high dosages that there may be the possibility that you’re interfering with the implantation.

And so I guess my comfort level would definitely — I would definitely be a lot more comfortable making sure that the patient or the woman who makes that decision is as informed as possible that there potentially is a possibility that still gives that woman enough information to make an informed decision and not dilute any of her rights in deciding to proceed with this medication.”

Dr. Carole Ben-Maimon, one of the physicians presenting on behalf of Women’s Capital Corporation, answered:

“We are very sensitive to the fact that there are differing views not only of how this could potentially work, but also when pregnancy begins.  And so there are actually statements in the labeling with regard to the implantation issue in order to provide women information so that they understand and that they know that this could potentially prevent implantation.

Again, we believe the data is overwhelming.  We believe the medical definition, which is that pregnancy starts at implantation, is a critical point to keep in mind, but we are sensitive to the issues that others — the opinions of others.”

In other words, not only was there no objection from those representing Women’s Capital Corporation, they actually provided the information about possible effects on implantation that went into the label for Plan B. Now, this doesn’t meant that there weren’t objections from someone either from WCC or elsewhere — but I can’t find this in the official record.

So what’s the point here?  Well, what bugs me about the New York Times coverage is that it grossly oversimplifies the FDA approval process and assumes that anyone who worked for FDA or served on its advisory committees were only there to enforce the political will of the Bush administration.  In fact, the committee members mentioned above are respected members of the reproductive health community who were asking important, nuanced scientific and ethical questions that had nothing to do with the culture wars over reproductive rights.  (Dr. Montgomery Rice, for example, is Dean of Morehouse School of Medicine who has worked extensively on health issues affecting women of color — and we historians of women’s health all know how poorly women of color were and sometimes still are treated by medical researchers — e.g. the field trials for the original contraceptive pills in Puerto Rico and Haiti).  So, naturally informed consent would be a critical concern for her.

I would be interested to find out whom the NYT reporter interviewed for this story. I don’t think anyone is purposely trying to rewrite history but they may have selective memories.

Blog for International Women’s Day 2012: the Girl Scouts have always had a feminist agenda

via Gender Across Borders.  The theme for 2012 is“Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures” and Gender Across Borders asks us to address one or both of the following points:

  • How can we, as a culture and as members of the global community, involve, educate, and inspire girls in a positive way?
  • Describe a particular organization, person, group or moment in history that helped to inspire a positive future and impact the minds and aspirations for girls.

Since it’s the 100th anniversary of Girls Scouts of America, I’ve decided to use this organization as the focus of my post.

By now most of you have heard of the  accusations by Rep. Bob Morris (R-Indiana) and other conservatives that the Girl Scouts have a “radical feminist lesbian agenda” (and if you haven’t, here’s an article that summarizes the issue, and Stephen Colbert’s hilarious commentary)

Those of us who remember our days in the Girl Scouts are naturally puzzled by this statement — seriously, what’s radical about selling cookies or singing songs by the campfire?

However, it is true that since it’s beginnings the Girl Scouts of America in 1912, the organization has promoted a feminist ideology for girls, although the term “feminism” needs to be placed in historical context. According to Rebekah Revzin, Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts of America during a time of significant change in women’s social and political roles. Low’s life was a microcosm of the southern women’s movement: raised to be a good southern belle, her disastrous marriage impressed upon Low the necessity of training girls and women to be self-sufficient.  Furthermore, Low’s disability (she was deaf in one ear) ensured that the Girls Scouts were ahead of their time for promoting inclusion for girls with disabilities.  The organization welcomed girls from various racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds as well.  Revzin observes that while a significant portion of Girl Scout literature focused on traditional notions of femininity, the literature also contained “a significant amount of material that challenges the more conventional feminine doctrine espoused at the time.” The most persistent theme that runs throughout Girl Scout literature is the notion of self-sufficiency: “Because traditional view of women, particularly in the South, implied that dependent or weak women were more desirable, the Girl Scout emphasis on female self-sufficiency appear particularly progressive” Revzin argues.  Providing for oneself included “cultivation of the body through physical activities that further empowered girls by giving them a sense of strong physical ability.” This support for physical fitness, says Revzin, “attributes a ‘natural’ desire for outdoor exercise to young girls, an innovative idea for its time.”  In order to ensure that girls would be economically as well as physically self-sufficient, the Girls Scouts “advocated professional careers for women.” The Career section of the handbook advised girls to pursue occupations that traditionally been reserved for men — physician, stock broker, managers, accountants, architects, even fire chief!  Revzin concludes that the Girl Scouts was more than a social club for girls: the leaders and participants aspired to go beyond “true womanhood.” Many of the “new women” of the early twentieth century “began their path toward social activity and political participation under the guiding influence of the Girl Scouts of America. These young women desired a forum in which they could express their independence, take part in outdoor activities, and provide help to others.”  Although the GSUSA never explicitly endorsed feminism, the organization “did advance women’s place in the public arena and their right to lead strong independent lives.”

Today, the Girl Scouts continues to empower girls — see its latest campaign, To Get Her There. In honor of its 100th birthday, Girl Scouts is also “setting out to raise $1 billion to achieve, in five years, a generational leap in opportunities for girls. This initiative will ensure that every girl in this generation will have the opportunity and the tools and the access she needs to reach her fullest potential. That is our promise. Together, we can make 2012 the Year of the Girl.”

Yet another reason to buy some cookies. . .

Silent Sentinels Past and Present

via Maddow Blog.  Here are photos of demonstrators outside the Virginia state capitol earlier this week. They are protesting a bill that would require women seeking an abortion to first undergo a medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound.

According to their Facebook page:

The Capitol ground rules say that we cannot assemble, hold signs, chant, yell or protest. We think silence in the face of this struggle and their unconstitutional rules presents the strongest response to their assault on women. Please come out and stand up for our rights and for the rights of all women in VA to choose the best reproductive route for themselves. These people are used to signs, yelling, chanting etc. It is not new. They are not used to silently being stared at and having to look us in the eye. It gives us the power.

I’m about to do my annual screening of the HBO film “Iron-Jawed Angels” that describes the actions of the “silent sentinels” by the radical women’s suffrage organization the National Women’s Party:


Help Save Rutgers-Camden

Dear Readers,

This post is by my friend Janet Golden at Rutgers University Camden.  Please help save her campus and sign the petition.


My life as a historian scholar-teacher came to an abrupt end last week when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced that he was going to amputate my university Rutgers Camden and hand it over to Rowan a comprehensive university 20 miles away.  At that moment I became the historian-activist-scholar-teacher and began working 14-hour days to save my University alongside my wonderful colleagues and students, our staff, our proud alums and the many residents of Camden, one of America’s poorest cities, that we serve and assist in so many ways.  My union Rutgers AAUP-AFT has stood up for us, and people from around the world have signed our petition

and I hope you will and will pass it along.

My colleagues have written editorials, given interviews, called the Governor and all our legislators and legislative leaders.  Our students have spoken up, organized, and as I write are preparing to go to Trenton to witness the hearings on the issue that begin on Monday.

Severing Rutgers Camden from Rutgers will weaken the Rutgers University system, it will cost the taxpayers millions and it will deprive the residents of Southern New Jersey the opportunity to get an education from a top quality university that carries a name is known around the world.  More information can be found on our website

Please help us by signing the petition and sharing it with everyone you know

If you live in NJ please contact elected officials using the following information

And, if you are a blogger and fellow scholar, please post this blog so others will know about what we are facing and how they can help.

Janet Golden, Ph.D.

Professor of History


#HERVotes Blog Carnival: Extend Unemployment Insurance!

via HERVotes.

Why extend benefits, you might ask?  Isn’t the unemployment rate down? Well, yes the overall unemployment rate decreased from 9.9 percent to 8.6 percent.  However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Women’s Law Center, the unemployment rate for single mothers was 12.4 percent, up from 12.3 percent in October 2011 and 11.7 percent in June 2009. And African-American women’s unemployment rate in November was12.9 percent, up from 12.6 percent in October 2011 and 11.7 percent in June 2009.   In addition, among women age 20 or over, 5.1 million were officially unemployed and another 2.8 million were not in the labor force but wanted work.  So if there ever was a “mancession” it appears to be over — and the recovery is clearly favoring men.

Now, some of you might be asking — why don’t those single mothers just go on welfare?  Well, let me remind you about the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act that was passed during President Clinton’s administration.

Debates about welfare “reform”exposed gender discrepancies in our country’s economic safety net.  As historian Linda Gordon observes in her book Pitied but Not Entitled, unemployment insurance was set up within the Social Security act as an entitlement program for (mostly) male workers.  The assumption was that men had to support their families, so they needed the income security that unemployment benefits provided. Initially, larger categories of employment — e.g. domestic service, agricultural jobs — were excluded from the social security and unemployment systems.  These of course were occupations where women and men of color tended to be clustered.

The Social Security Act framed women as objects of pity who needed to have their domestic roles protected.  What later became Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) started out as “widows pensions” so that women who lost their husbands could support their children without having to work outside the home.  Female recipients were frequently subjected to “morals tests” to ensure they were sufficiently worthy of relief. Later these benefits were extended to divorced and never-married women (and not surprisingly, what was already a controversial program became even more unpopular).

Because of reforms in the 1990s, there is no “welfare” anymore: the program is called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, with the emphasis on “temporary” — There is a maximum of 60 months of benefits within one’s lifetime, although some states have instituted shorter periods.  How many of these single mothers have already run through the 5 year lifetime limit? What happens when their unemployment benefits run out as well?  The answer isn’t pretty — see the other reports in the #HERvotes Blog Carnival.

Thoughts on Bachmann’s “Viral Politics”

via Student Activism(among many others).  At Tuesday night’s CNN/Tea Party Republican presidential debate, Michelle Bachmann chastized Texas governor Rick Perry  for his 2007 support of a mandatory state program vaccinating girls against Human Papilloma Virus — a sexually-transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer.  during the debate, Bachmann called the vaccine  a “government injection,” and Perry’s decision as “a violation of a liberty interest.” She also suggested that Perry’s support of mandatory vaccination was payback for Merck’s support of his campaign (Perry’s former chief of staff was a lobbyist for Merck). After the debate, Bachmann went even further:

“When you have innocent little 12-year-old girls,” she said, “that are being forced to have a government injection into their body — this is a liberty interest that violates the most deepest personal part of a little child. … A little girl doesn’t get a do over — once they have that vaccination in their body, once it causes its damage, that little girl doesn’t have a chance to go back.”

Student Activism says he was “gobsmacked by the language itself — the use of such heavily loaded molestation imagery to describe a non-invasive, voluntary medical procedure.”

I wasn’t going to get mixed up in this but because I contributed to the volume picture at left, and I’ve been getting links to articles about this asking for my thoughts, I’ve decided to weigh in after all.

I agree that Bachmann’s rhetoric is outrageous (especially since she shows little  concern for women who have been sexually assaulted, or those who need basic reproductive health care like pelvic exams or cervical cancer treatment).

Even the conservative paper  Wall Street Journal has condemned Bachmann’s “viral politics” and demagoguery, calling this “the kind of know-nothingism that undermines public support for vaccination altogether and leads to such public health milestones as California reporting in 2010 the highest number of whooping cough cases in 55 years.”

Wow, it’s not often I agree with the WSJ!  It’s also not often that the WSJ critiques a Republican candidate — obviously Backmann is beyond the pale (and I bet Perry’s ties to Big Pharma is a plus for the pro-business publication).

At the same time, I’m going to plug my and my colleagues’ work in Three Shots of Prevention and suggest critics get it and learn about the multiple moral, ethical, and scientific questions regarding HPV vaccines.

Update:  I’m addressing Dr. Pete’s comments here rather than in the comments section.  First, I and others who work on adolescent health issues acknowledge that there is a qualitative difference between young children and teenagers.  One of the keys to successful adolescent health care is involving teenagers in the process (and as they age, asking Mom and Dad to step out of the room). In other words, girls (and boys) who are being offered the HPV vaccine should be part of the conversation about whether or not to receive it.  So individual liberty includes teenagers too, not just parents. The imagery used by Bachmann in her remarks does not acknowledge the developmental differences between teenagers and younger children.




Speaking of Rosie — Governor of Maine decides to literally whitewash her and other workers from state history

via Inside Higher Education.

If the Republican assault on academic freedom weren’t bad enough, now we have an example of a Republican governor’s assault on artistic freedom, and a literal whitewash of state history.  Last weekend, Governor Paul LePage of Maine ordered that the mural of state workers (panel at left) be removed from the state’s Department of Labor building.  Employees returned to work on Monday to find the conference room where the mural was located replaced with white walls and fresh spackling.  All this because of one anonymous fax from a “secret admirer” [one of the Koch brothers perhaps?]  that complained the mural was too pro-labor and reminded him/her of “North Korean propaganda.”  What?  It’s the Department of Labor for crying out loud — isn’t it supposed to be pro-labor?

Naturally, Judy Taylor, the artist who was commissioned to paint the mural finds the decision horrible, and labor leaders in the state are outraged.  In an interview for the Portland Herald, Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, called the decision “insulting to working people, petty and shortsighted.”

“It seems the governor is much more interested in picking fights with labor than creating jobs that people so desperately want,” he said. “We believe their story deserves to be told on the walls of the Department of Labor.”

Ralph Carmona, spokesman for the League of United Latin American Citizens, is troubled by the decision to rename a conference room now named after labor leader Caesar Chavez.

The really bad news is that his decision to remove a civil rights icon’s name from the Labor Department reflects an underlying pattern of actions and words that affect all Mainers,” he said.

That pattern includes LePage’s comment to the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” saying that women might grow “little beards” if they are exposed to the chemical Bisphenol-A, and a statement that he would go after union rights, Carmona said.

“What is next, the burning of books or the end of Labor Day as a holiday?” said Jose Lopez, director of the Latin American league. “When you add it all up, he is talking about business in a narrow sense that excludes Maine people and the public interest.”

Lynn Pasquerella, president of Mount Holyoke College, on Tuesday sent a letter to Governor Paul LePage criticizing this decision.  She and many students and alumnae are upset because the mural includes a panel of distinguished MHC alumna Frances Perkins (left), Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the first woman to hold a cabinet position.  According to Pasquerella, “the timing for this decision could not have been worse. Friday, March 25, marked the 100th anniversary of the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. This event strongly influenced Perkins’s lifelong commitment to the well-being of working men and women, as well as to working children in those days of rampant exploitation. But on an even larger scale, the Great Recession we are now struggling through–and which has hit Maine particularly hard–has numerous historical parallels with the Great Depression. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first woman presidential Cabinet member, figured prominently in leading us out of that cataclysm.

I was particularly surprised to read that you were influenced by an anonymous fax comparing the 11-panel mural to North Korean political propaganda, because the act of removing images commemorating Maine’s history itself conjures thoughts of the rewriting of history prevalent in totalitarian regimes. If the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. is housed in the Frances Perkins Building, why can’t she be honored with a conference room in Augusta?”

Why indeed.  As Civil Rights heroine Fannie Lou Hamer once said, is this America?

Blogging for Emergency Contraception

via Back Up Your Birth Control.  Today is the 10th annual national day of action for Back Up Your Birth Control, a media campaign sponsored by the National Institute for Reproductive Health. I’ve agreed to blog to raise awareness about this.

Because I’m a shameless self-promoter, I’m also going to start with an update on my forthcoming book, The Morning After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States.  The page proofs will be arriving in a couple of weeks.  Meanwhile, here’s the blurb that will appear on the publisher’s website, catalog, and the book cover:

“Since 2006, when the “morning-after pill” Plan B was first sold over the counter, sales of emergency contraceptives have soared, becoming an $80 million industry in the United States and throughout the Western world. But emergency contraception is nothing new. It has a long and often contentious history as the subject of clashes not only between medical researchers and religious groups, but also between different factions of feminist health advocates.

The Morning After tells the story of emergency contraception in America from the 1960s to the present day and, more importantly, it tells the story of the women who have used it. Side-stepping simplistic readings of these women as either radical feminist trailblazers or guinea pigs for the pharmaceutical industry, medical historian Heather Munro Prescott offers a portrait of how ordinary women participated in the development and popularization of emergency contraception, bringing a groundbreaking technology into the mainstream with the potential to radically alter reproductive health practices.”

I had to stop somewhere, so the book shortchanges the most recent developments — especially the most recent efforts to use of social media to raise awareness of EC. [BTW, the Back Up Your Birth Control campaign has a Facebook page and you can find related posts on Twitter using #backitup and/or by following @nirhealth).

The use of the Web to promote EC originated in the early 1990s with the emergency contraception website at Princeton. The Back Up Your Birth Control Campaign began amidst the battle to get the FDA to approve Plan B as an over-the-counter drug.  What’s interesting to me as a historian is the use of graphic artist J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It” poster, which he created for Westinghouse under the sponsorship of War Production Board (this image should not be confused with the Norman Rockwell painting “Rosie the Riveter” that appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post May 29, 1943, and is still under copyright.  The Rockwell paiting was recently acquired by the Bentonville Museum in Arkansas, founded by Wal-mart heiress Alice Walton and the Walton Family Foundation — oh the irony!).  Personally, I like the Rockwell image better, but do you think the Waltons will allow anyone to use it without paying major $$ — not bloody likely!  “We Can Do It” does not have such copyright restrictions, so various groups use it freely.  (for more on these images and American popular culture, go here).  It’s become a feminist icon of female empowerment, but this article demonstrates that “during World War II the empowering rhetorical appeal of this Westinghouse image was circumscribed by the conditions of its use and by several other posters in its series.”

Returning to EC — the history of the various awareness campaigns over the years is fascinating but was nearly impossible to illustrate in the book because, like many of us, the organizations that created these images didn’t preserve them once they were no longer useful.  Others put them on their websites, then discarded the original files.  Then there’s the problem of finding the copyright holder and getting permission from him/her.  Here’s an image that I couldn’t use because there was no digital file that had a high enough resolution for reproduction — it also nicely sums up my frustrations with the whole process:

image courtesy of Canadian Federation for Sexual Health

So, here’s a recommendation for the Back Up Your Birth Control Campaign — back up your “born digital” materials and preserve your digital heritage!

Women’s historians and Dukes v. Wal-mart, or what we learned from the Sears case

image courtesy of @ACLU via twitpic

via New Deal 2.0. which in honor of women’s history month, has a series of posts on “the surprising story of how women became citizens — and how their economic lives have evolved along with their rights.” Yesterday’s post considers the oral arguments that will be made before the U.S. Supreme Court  in the Dukes v. Wal-mart Stores, Inc. case “that will determine the power of women — and all Americans — to stand up to employer abuses.

While I wait to see what the SCOTUS says in this case, I’ll reflect on another case involving a retail giant — Sears — that happened 25 years ago when I was just a wee Clio graduate student at Cornell.  In the Fall of 1986, the hot topic among those of use studying women’s history was the recently decided district court case, EEOC v. Sears, in which two prominent women’s historians, Rosalind Rosenberg  and Alice Kessler-Harris served as expert witnesses.  Rosenberg, testifying on behalf of Sears, argued  “Men and women differ in their expectations
concerning work, in their interests as to the types of jobs they prefer or the types of products they prefer to sell. . It iss naive to believe that the natural effect of these differences is evidence of discrimination by Sears.” In other words, the reason that men were in high paying commission sales jobs (e.g. automotive, appliances) was because women chose other areas to work.

Kessler-Harris countered, “What appear to be women’s choices, and what are characterized as women’s ‘interests’ are, in fact, heavily influenced by the opportunities for work made available to them . . . Where opportunity has existed, women have never failed to take the jobs offered. . . . Failure to find women in so-called non-traditionall jobs can thus only be interpreted as a consequence of employers’ unexamined attitudes or preferences, which phenomenon is the essence of discrimination.”

Unfortunately for the EEOC who filed on behalf of female employees, the court believed Rosenberg and declared that Sears did not discriminate based on sex.  As Ruth Milkman observed in her analysis of the case in Feminist Studies in 1986, “Historians, even feminist historians, frequently disagree with one another. But it is difficult to imagine a forum less tolerant of the nuanced, careful arguments in which historians delight than a courtroom.”

This may explain why, to my knowledge at least, there haven’t been any women’s historians speaking about the Dukes case.  Then again, maybe like me, they’re waiting to hear what happens with the Supremes.  Based on early reports, things don’t look encouraging.

I am William Cronon, and so are you if you teach at a public instititution

via Tenured Radical, who reports on the chilling case of University of Wisconsin Professor William Cronon whose post regarding the role of conservative advocacy groups in formulating anti-union legislation at his new blog, Scholar as Citizen, have gotten him in hot water from the state’s Republican leaders.  The GOP in that state has requested all copies of Cronon’s emails sent from his university account under the state’s open records law.

As a guide to other academics — especially those at public institutions — TR has put together what she calls “the Walker Rules of Electronic Communication and Knowledge (WRECK):

  • Your university email account belongs to the university. While Bill Cronon is being persecuted by a bunch of right wing Republicans determined to reduce the American working class to pre-industrial conditions, technically your employer can enter your email account whenever it chooses.  This means that we should all be careful what we say when we write from, or to, an edu address.  In fact, it isn’t such a terrible idea to add your gmail or yahoo account to the signature line of your university account requesting that all personal communication be sent there.
  • People (including students) who work in IT can get access to your university email through the web server whenever they want to.  They shouldn’t, and they probably don’t, but they are capable of it.  Don’t put anything in an email that you would not want circulated.  This includes personal matters (sex), conflict with colleagues, and correspondence about personnel cases that reveals any information that you, the department, the referees, or the candidate might consider private.
  • The computer you are assigned by the university belongs to the university, and they can search it at any time.  They can also search your office without a warrant. According to FindLaw, unless you are covered by a state law or a union contract that prohibits such searches, “Employers can usually search an employee’s workspace, including their desk, office or lockers. The workspace technically belongs to the employer, and courts have found that employees do not have an expectation of privacy in these areas.  This is also the case for computers. Since the computers and networking equipment typically belong to the employer, the employer is generally entitled to monitor the use of the computer. This includes searching for files saved to the computer itself, as well as monitoring an employee’s actions while using the computer (eg, while surfing the internet).”  Does this mean that we should all be thinking about buying a home computer for all activities we wish to ensure privacy for — downloading pornography, getting divorced, blogging?  Maybe.  And technically, the university could prohibit you from blogging on the computer they provide, although arguably this would be an infringement of academic freedom.
  • You can’t be sure you have erased something from a computer or a server. In fact, according to Daniel Engber of Slate, you can be pretty sure that you can’t erase anything permanently, even if you use a utility like Evidence Eliminator.  And even if you could, those emails that you sent are now on someone else’s computer, someone else’s server, and so on.  They are retrievable.
  • The Republican Party is owned and operated by vicious thugs who abuse their power to make us all into corporate servants and lackeys for capitalist special interests. This has nothing to do with computers:  I thought I would just throw this in.  But we are reminded that there is a long  history for this sort of activity in the United States:  in the late 1830s, for example, the southern slaveocracy pushed for national legislation to censor abolitionist literature. When they didn’t get it, beginning with South Carolina, they passed state laws that allowed local officials to seize these materials and open the mail of private citizens.  The parallel is obvious, isn’t?  Freedom to have absolute power over labor > constitutional right to free speech.  It’s a good thing the Grimke sisters didn’t have an email account.”

Now, some other mischief-makers in the academic blogosphere have put together a plan to get back at the Wisconsin GOP by suggesting we all forward all sent mail to Governor Scott Walker (that’s, Mark Jefferson (that’s and GOP State Party Chairman Brad Courtney (that’s To contact other members of the state party leadership, go here for their addresses.