WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Erika Kates, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women.
Erika Kates, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women working in two major research areas: Gender & Justice and Women’s Economic Development through Education. Learn more about her>>

Local and Global Perspectives on Human Rights, Drugs, Crime, Women and Children

122115blogLocal and Global Perspectives on Human Rights, Drugs, Crime, Women and Children

Substance abuse among women in Massachusetts is increasing dramatically. It is also a worldwide problem. Locally and globally we need to work for a public health model that is responsive to human rights concerns and effective in protecting families and communities.

The United Nations will be holding a General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in New York in April, 2016. In preparation, a Global Civil Society Survey was conducted in spring 2015 to identify key areas of concern. Among the five areas to emerge from this process are drugs and health; drugs and crime; and protecting the human rights of women, children and communities in drug-related penal policies. Penal Reform International (PRI), based in the United Kingdom, is spearheading the collection of suggestions on alternatives to incarceration, and Andrea Huber, PRI’s policy director, forwarded me a request for input to this process.

This focus could not be timelier in terms of my work. For the past two years I have conducted research into women, crime, drugs and children in Massachusetts. I have analyzed caseload data of women seeking substance abuse services through the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, focusing primarily on mothers, and identifying those that are justice-involved. In 2013 alone, there were 33,000 admissions of women to treatment. Of these, almost one half had children under 18 years of age. Almost 30 percent of women’s admissions had some blogpullquoteDrugsWomenform of justice-involvement (mostly probation). However, comparisons between justice-involved and non-justice-involved women revealed few differences on demographic and other characteristics. For example, their ages, maternal status, the number of children they have, their children’s ages, and the percentage living with their children.

Also, I talked with women in residential addiction treatment houses--some of which permitted children to live with their mothers--and asked them about their history of treatment, the pros and cons of having their children with them in recovery, and whether justice-involvement had helped or hindered their recovery efforts. Although some women acknowledged that being arrested and locked up for a brief period of time might indeed have saved their lives, they had not experienced effective treatment while incarcerated; and over time their addictions had worsened. Women on probation face a different type of problem. If they experience a relapse they are caught up in negative, escalating sanctions. They are likely to be incarcerated--not because their original offenses warranted prison sentences--but because they have broken their conditions of probation. On the other hand, women in treatment facilities funded by the Department of Public Health are more likely to be encouraged to think about how and why they lapsed and to learn from those experiences.

These differences of approach between the public health and criminal justice paradigms are crucial because the average number of relapses for people in treatment in Massachusetts is around eleven. Gradually, the realization is growing that the criminal justice response to addictions, especially for women, is unworkable. Another reason to support the public health paradigm rather than justice-involvement is because of the universal lack of trauma-informed, effective treatment in prisons for women.

These findings clearly support the NGOs around the world that recommend treating health and human rights as the corner of international drug policy and call for a public health response through the following statements: “Civil society has clearly expressed the need for a public health response to the problems associated with drug use.” “There is a need for gender-sensitive services for women who use drugs...and to support pregnant women and women... with children.” [We need to] “Add a human rights lens to the drug policy conversation and include a gender lens.”

Erika Kates, Ph.D. is a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College; she leads the Massachusetts Women's Justice Network.

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Remembrance, Recognition, and Reconciliation

ReconciliationPhoto1Remembrance, Recognition, and Reconciliation

When Nelson Mandela died, many of us reflected on his efforts at reconciliation. We wondered how anyone who had endured nearly three decades of imprisonment and witnessed the denigration of his people could emerge from his cell and talk about reconciliation with his jailors. For example, when did he first think about taking this action? How long had it taken him to come to his decision? And how did he convince others this would be a worthy path to take? Think of the process involved. First we need to acknowledge our painful memories, then we need to take some form of action in recognizing (validating) those memories, and finally we have to engage those who hold responsibility for inflicting the pain.

These thoughts were with me in an immediate and personal way around the time Mandela died, when I took a trip to London and Berlin. In London, where I grew up, a close friend had become involved in events commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport. Between 1938 and 1939, more than 10,000 children, mostly Jewish, were provided with visas to enter Britain. Parents made the decision to put their children on a train to England to prevent their extermination by the Nazis. They entrusted their children to strangers to save their lives, and most were never reunited. In 2003, a statue at Liverpool street station had been dedicated to the Kindertransport, depicting five children carrying small suitcases, a teddy bear, and a violin.

A few days after I arrived in London, over 250 people gathered at the statue for the 75th anniversary. I was there because my friend’s mother is blogpullquoteMandelaReconciliationone of the few surviving ‘Kinder.’ It was a somber occasion, both a tribute to the courage of those who survived and the generosity of the (mostly non-Jewish) families that took these children into their homes and raised them.

The process of remembrance and recognition has been a long journey for many Kinder. Like other survivors of Nazi persecution many did not speak about their experiences for decades; but as they aged some felt compelled to tell their stories to family members and others. Organizations encourage such acts of remembrance, providing support so they can speak out and educate others. In 2013, this recognition was recently taken to another level when Prince Charles met and talked with surviving Kinder, and a ceremony at the Houses of Parliament commemorated the November 1938 debate that resulted in the Kindertransport.

Berlin was a different experience. Both my parents were born in Germany: my mother in Berlin, my father in Leipzig. As Jews they were lucky to escape to London before war broke out. I knew that except for one brother and his wife, my mother’s family did not survive. Eleven members were killed in Auschwitz, Riga, and Sobibor. Because the Nazis kept detailed records of their persecution and slaughter of Jews and others, I had been able during a previous visit to find the address in Berlin from which my grandmother had been taken (along with the date of transport, her destination, and the date of her murder). I was interested in placing a Stolperstein at this address.

A Stolperstein is a brass plaque, about the size of a small brick that is placed in the sidewalk next to the building from which a person was taken to a concentration camp and killed. It bears the simple facts recorded in the Nazi records: the person’s name, date of transport, destination, and date of murder. Stolper means to stumble, and the stones are raised to make them noticeable. They were the idea of performance artist, Gunter Demnig in 1996, and he is still responsible for making them. His intent was that their presence would remind people constantly as they go about their daily business of a past many of them would rather forget; and specifically, to name the people who perished. There are now about 6ooo in Berlin alone, and volunteers keep the stones clean and shiny. A month before my trip I had contacted a woman, Hannelore, who assists with these installations in the Schoeneberg neighborhood where my grandmother Marie Driesen had lived, and informed her I wanted to arrange for a Stolperstein for my grandmother.

ReconciliationPhoto2A week before my trip she informed me a Stolperstein for Marie Driesen was already in place, and that its installation had been arranged by a current owner of an apartment at the Schoeneberg address. Two weeks later my husband and I were warmly greeted by Hannelore and the owner, Baerbel. We looked at the Stolperstein in the sidewalk, and then sat at a table in Baerbel’s apartment and talked. We learned that around 1938, 37-39 Belziger Strasse had been designated as a Jewish building. This meant that all Jewish residents in the building were forced to take in other Jews as lodgers, and Jews from other buildings were forced to move into the apartments; measures that made it easier for them to be rounded up later. Baerbel, a retired geologist, had worked tirelessly to obtain documents on the 22 Jewish residents taken from that building, and she had a huge binder with files on each one. But she went further; she asked the 52 current residents to contribute to the cost of installing Stolperstein for them. Not a single person refused, and the installation had been filmed by local television.

Such installations are taking place all over Germany; and as families travel from abroad to gather round the stones they engage in conversation with strangers--neighbors and passersby--to remember, recognize, and, openly acknowledge this history and their loss. And yes, these steps approach reconciliation.

On the few previous occasions I have visited Germany I have felt very uncomfortable. This time I found a new respect for those who had the dedication and personal courage to take on the responsibilities of a previous generation. In the 1950s, the German government made a move towards reconciliation by paying nominal monetary restitution to victims’ families, and more recently has built museums and memorials. But the Stolperstein have grown out of the next generation’s sense of their nation’s shameful history. Its grassroots efforts profoundly affect local residents, entire neighborhoods, cities, and the nation; and they offer people like me a sense of gratitude and hope. I think that is a good definition of reconciliation.

Erika Kates, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

 

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More than the Gender Wage Gap

SocialJusticeDialogueBox NewSocial Justice Dialogue: Eradicating Poverty

More than the Gender Wage Gap…On Many Fronts the Economic News is Not Good for Women

In spite of attention-grabbing headlines like, “The Richer Sex: How the Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love, and the Family" (Liza Mundy, 2012), on many fronts the economic news is not good for women: and indeed for the poorest, the news is getting worst.

It is not good news when we examine:

  • PovertyBlog The gender wage gap that continues at all educational levels. In 2012, the median annual earnings for womenworking full-time were 76.5 % of men’s earnings and had barely changed since 2001. This is evident in the gap between the median earnings for women and men with Associate’s degrees ($42,300 and $55, 600, respectively), and continues through earnings for those with Ph. D. degrees.

  • Racial/ethnic disparities among women. The gender wage gap is smaller between African-American and Hispanic men and women (89%), but it is much larger when compared to white men (64% and 53%, respectively). Although the median earnings of Black, Hispanic, and White women with less than a high school diploma are almost equal (around $380), the median weekly earnings of White women with Associate degrees is $678, compared to $595 for Black women and $611 for Hispanic women.

  • The incidence of family poverty, particularly among households headed by women of color. In 2012, 18.4% of all families with children under the age of 18 lived in poverty. However, almost 49% of Hispanic, 47% of Black, and 38% of White single-mother households with dependent children lived in poverty.

  • blogpullquoteGenderWageGapThe inadequacy of full-time, year-round minimum wage earnings to support a family. In 2009, single mothers earning the hourly minimum wage of $7.25 earned just over $15,000--well below the poverty level of $17,285 for a family of three. These earnings are far below the median U.S. family income (almost $50,000) and the median earnings of dual earning households (over $78,000).

  • The erosion of public benefits for the poorest families. The greatest income gap emerges in the discrepancy between the amount of income received by families with federal cash benefits known as TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) and the federal poverty level. In 2012, not a single state’s TANF benefits for a family of three brought the family up to 50% of the poverty level, i.e., $8,641 per year. For example, the Massachusetts TANF benefit for a mother with two children under the age of 18 was $7,400 a year. Even when the value of food benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is added to TANF, only one state (Alaska) brings its families up to 80% of poverty level.

  • The erosion of opportunities for economic advancement through education for low-income mothers. The ‘welfare reform’ policy of the mid-1990’s diminished access to education for TANF recipients. Prior to TANF, forty-eight states had counted participation in postsecondary education for periods ranging from 24 to 72 months; post-1996, women have had difficulty participating in even 12-months of vocational training. Instead, welfare-to-work programs have shunted women back into the same low-paid jobs without benefits they had previously.

 

The earnings and wealth gap is not a recent phenomenon; it has been growing steadily for three decades. However, only recently has it become a topic of general interest, particularly as the gap between the very rich and the very poor accelerated during a time of deep economic recession. This inequality gap has seeped into the national consciousness as it became a rallying cry for the “99 percent” movement, and trickled into the 2012 presidential debates.

Clearly, at the Wellesley Centers for Women an account of economic inequality is incomplete without the concerns outlined here: the inequalities among women, including the deep poverty of vulnerable families headed by women. In addition, we must address the often overlooked and alarming educational divide that exacerbates these economic concerns by eroding the possibility of social mobility through education, particularly for the poorest women. While access to college has become a mantra of the current administration, we must become more aware of and concerned with the educational divide as it affect low-income mothers – both in and out of the workforce.

Erika Kates, Ph.D. is a Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, working in two major research areas: Gender and Justice with a focus on women, and low-income women’s access to education.

Sources:
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. March 2013. The Value of TANF Cash Benefits Continued to Erode in 2012. Washington D.C.: CBPP.
U.S. Census Bureau. Current Population Survey. 2012.
U.S. Census Bureau Statistical Abstract of the U.S. 2012 (based on 2009 data) Tables 692, 703.
American Association of University Women. Fall 2013. The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap. Washington D.C. AAUW.

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Orange is the New Black

OrangeIsTheNewBlackBookWhat can a good-looking, white woman with a Smith College degree and middle-class upbringing teach us about prisons in America?

When she was in her 20s, Piper Kerman was persuaded by her lover Norma--who was involved in an international drug ring--to carry a suitcase of drug trafficking money into the U.S. She was not caught at the time, but was arrested five years later as part of an investigation into the drug kingpin, a Nigerian, and his coterie of mules and couriers. A further five years elapsed as she waited for the Nigerian to be extradited from the U.K. to face trial in the U.S., where she was expected to testify against him. When it became clear that he was not going to be extradited, her ‘hotshot’ lawyer advised her to plead guilty to a lesser charge of money laundering to avoid being charged with conspiracy to smuggle drugs, and receive a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years. Thus, ten years after her offense she was sent to the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut to serve a 13-month sentence.

She writes about her personal journey in surviving incarceration in the book, Orange Is the New Black (now also a Netflix video series). The help and support she receives from her fiancé, family, and friends in New York, Massachusetts, and California are critical; they visit frequently, write constantly, and send books and money. Equally important, though, are the women she gets to know in the prison who teach her lessons in perseverance, creativity, spirituality, and collegiality. Wary and mistrustful at first, she allows herself to become close to some women, is grateful for the lessons they teach her, and is profoundly changed by her experience.

blogpullquoteOrangeNewBlackThese lessons are realized just a few weeks before her scheduled release date, when she encounters Norma in the Chicago Correctional Center where she has been transported by “Con Air” to give testimony against another major player in the drug scheme. She overcomes her anger at Norma’s betrayal as together they cope with conditions far worse than the federal prisons from which they have come. In the Correctional Center, Kerman is horrified by the ‘crazy’ women and indifferent staff; the idleness and lack of daily structure; lack of daylight and exercise; inedible food and filthy conditions; and the inability to escape the constant noise and light.

Certainly, the picture she paints of the Danbury prison is not without criticism: there is only one psychiatrist for 1,400 inmates; drug treatment is not available so women are sent ‘down the hill’ to the main prison for it; and most of the guards, including those conducting strip searches, are men. But the prisoners generally have steady work, exercise, opportunities to prepare food, create their own entertainment, and to celebrate birthdays and other milestones.

Understandably, her experience is focused on herself. This book’s value is that it offers a rare autobiographical account of life in prison as experienced by a woman. Although she mentions the scale of incarceration in the U.S. -- the average daily population is around two million people, of which 211,000 are women--any references she makes to other prisons and the larger context are largely parenthetical to her account, and she provides only a brief appendix with a list of organizations to contact for information.

As someone who has conducted research on women in prison and facilitates a group working to expand alternatives to incarceration for women (the Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network) I would like to underscore five of the disparities and concerns she discusses.

1. A tribal community. Kerman has no illusions regarding her atypical class and racial status. She observes that race is an organizing factor in the ‘tribe’ mentality of the initial prison reception area, and becomes less of a factor later on in women’s efforts to choose compatible, long-term bunkmates. However, race and ethnic distinctions are the sharpest dividing point within corrections. While Black men are imprisoned at a rate of 3,074 per 100,000, compared to the rate for non-Hispanic white men at 459 per 100,000, women are also divided racially. Black women are imprisoned at a rate of 133 per 100,000 compared to 47 for non-Hispanic white women.

2. Federal prisons and the rest. Although Kerman comments on how federal prison is an improvement on the Chicago jail, she misses the opportunity to educate readers about the small percentage of women held in federal prisons (7%) compared to state (46%) and local (47%) institutions; or how the number of women in prison has grown 400 percent since the 1980s.

3. One bad choice. Kerman is perplexed by a system that treats her harshly for making one bad decision. Yet her experience in successfully entering a plea for a lesser charge compares starkly to the experience of Elaine Bartlett, an African-American woman from the Lower East Side, who also made one serious mistake. In agreeing to her boyfriend’s request that she transport an envelope of cocaine to an upstate New York motel, she sees an opportunity to buy presents and food for Christmas for her four children. When caught in a ‘sting’ operation, she is unable to plea bargain and receives a mandatory minimum drug sentence of 16 years in Bedford Hills, a New York maximum security state prison.

4. Families. Kerman mentions that 80 percent of women in prison have children and describes how some women in Danbury forgo visits to spare their children the shock of seeing their mothers in prison. Yet, left to wonder where their mothers have gone, many children experience anger, anxiety, and depression. However, women who make this choice not to maintain regular contact with their children are vulnerable to having them adopted after 15 months. The children who are brought to visit by grandparents and other family members often travel several hours, and find the experience intimidating: few prisons have child-friendly visiting rooms with toys; children may be searched; and snacks may be forbidden.

5. The ‘snakepit’ of pretrial detention. She is shocked to find out that almost all the women in the Metropolitan Corrections Center have not been sentenced, but are awaiting trial. Prior to this, her skilled lawyer’s intervention and her ability to post bail had allowed her to avoid pretrial incarceration and to carry on with her work, life, and love for five years prior to being sentenced. Nationally, about 60 percent of the incarcerated population in local jails is held pretrial.

The book’s title, Orange is the New Black, adopts a sophisticated sartorial tone taken from a New York Times Style Section. It is ironic that few of Kerman’s fellow inmates would understand the title and that she wears the orange uniform only for a few days at the end of her sentence when she is transported to testify in Chicago, and is held in the pretrial unit. Certainly her experience is atypical, but it highlights a broken and biased system that is especially hard on women and has serious consequences for the next generation.

Note: The Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network, the Wellesley Centers for Women, has selected the pretrial issue as one of its two priorities for action, 2012-2013; and a Briefing Note with recommendations for change is currently being circulated to policy makers. We found that women are held pretrial for an average of 60-77 days, depending on the facility, because they could not pay or were denied bail--often a bail as small as $50. The results are devastating; although they have not yet been tried their children are displaced; they likely lose their homes, possessions, and jobs; and any medical treatment they need is disrupted. In addition, women from five counties are transported to the isolated medium security state prison because their counties have no facilities for women. The Awaiting Trial Unit is the most overcrowded in the state system, operating at 300-400 percent of capacity. Although federal and state statutes are clear that no person should be excluded from bail because of inability to pay, about half of the women are held because they cannot pay bail. And women may be denied bail for not complying with a probation requirement, i.e., they are imprisoned for an offense that initially did not warrant a prison sentence.

Erika Kates, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. She is a leading member of the Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network.

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Human Rights Month: Women Prisoners

womenprisonsNewHuman Rights Month: Women Prisoners

Massachusetts Corrections guidelines permit shackling women prisoners by one foot during birth and according to testimony given to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary in September 2011, women have left the hospital after giving birth shackled at their waist, arms, and legs. Such practices have been deemed a violation of the United Nations Convention against Torture, yet in a national study by the ACLU, such practices have been outlawed in only 18 states. Also, each year hundreds of women are held in the Massachusetts state women’s prison awaiting trial in the most overcrowded unit in the state, deprived of programs and family contact, because their counties cannot hold them, and they could not pay bail as low as $50.

Both situations run counter to the Bangkok Rules adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 2010. Officially termed the United Nation Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders,” they expand government’s efforts to comply with international minimum standards for the treatment of offenders by emphasizing the special circumstances and needs of women. Certainly, the Rules impact was evident at an international conference, Women, Crime and Criminal Justice Practice: Diversion, Dignity, Desistance and Dignity, held at the University of Cambridge, January 2012. The U.K. participants reported on changes in the policies and practices affecting women offenders in the wake of a scathing report on the treatment of women prisoners issued in 2004, and participants from 18 countries spoke of the challenges of working with female offenders and their reform efforts.

Although the average daily count of women prisoners in the U.S. is over 210,000, compared with 4,000 in the U.K., 2,000 in Italy, and 700 in Sweden, the circumstances and needs of women offenders throughout the world are remarkably similar. These include reproductive health and pregnancy; mental illness and substance abuse (often as co-occurring disorders); the separation from  dependent children for whom they have sole custody; experiences of violence andblogpullquoteWomenPrisoners trauma; lack of education and training; sexual victimization by criminal justice personnel; and restricted eligibility for state benefits.

Many people in the U.S. believe that discussions of human rights belong in third and fourth world cultures; for many it is indeed surprising that a handbook, Treatment of Women Prisoners, based on the Bangkok Rules and written by advocates in Sierra Leone, could benefit women in the U.S. However, I recommend that policy makers, advocates and criminal justice personnel read this handbook or others like it together with recent ACLU reports on these important topics.

The Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network (MWJN) platform for change in 2013, will focus on the reducing the numbers of women held in the state’s pre-trial unit and women’s health needs. For more information on the MWJN’s work, email ekates@wellesley.edu, and to learn more about the Bangkok Rules and ACLU efforts refer to:

ACLU (2012). Briefing Paper: the Shackling of Pregnant Women & Girls in U.S. Prisons, Jails, and Youth Detention Centers. Washington DC: ACLU (2012). Briefing Paper: the Shackling of Pregnant Women & Girls in U.S. Prisons, Jails, and Youth Detention Centers. Washington DC: ACLU

Mahtani, S. (2012) United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners: A Handbook.  Freetown: Sierra Leone. Advocaid.

Pradier, C. (2012) Penal Reform and Gender: Update on the Bagkok Rules.  DCAF (Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces).

Erika Kates, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College, who directs the Gender & Justice Project on Women Offenders.

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Caution, White Knight

whiteknightCaution, White Knight

Half the Sky is a two-part documentary film that aired on PBS stations beginning October 1 and 2, 2012. The film’s themes are 1) the ubiquitous violence against women that is perpetrated throughout the world, especially during and in the aftermath of war, and 2) the efforts made by courageous women- many of whom have experienced violence personally, to overcome this oppression. The film features U.S. women with celebrity status – Eva Mendes and Meg Ryan among others – to draw attention to these themes. The inspiration for the film was a book with the same title, co-authored by the husband-and-wife team of New York Times correspondents Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and began with their efforts to explain the “disappearance” of thousands of girl babies every year in China, where traditionally boys are favored.

As a lifelong researcher in the area of the concerns of women in poverty I think this film has great value in drawing the viewing public’s attention to the oppression of women worldwide. However, as a social scientist and activist I have serious concerns about the ethics of making of this film, especially in the case of the two girl rape victims in Sierra Leone; Kristof’s so-called “encounter” with a three-year old girl rape victim and his interview with a 13-year old girl raped by her uncle. Both girls experienced traumatic events likely to leave profound and long-lasting effects on their lives. They are, as all trauma-informed literature states, vulnerable to being re-traumatized in any situation where there is a male and they feel insecure, and their experiences are complicated by cultural norms and deference to locally influential men. It was insensitive at best to have a white adult male taking the lead in talking one-on-one with these girls. Further, the lack of privacy -- showing the girls’ faces and broadcasting their undisguised voices -- likely endangered the girls and their families, if not immediately then at some point in the future. There are many ways in which the film’s message could have been equally well transmitted but with more consideration shown for the victims.

I recommend these readings to help shed light on the complex issues we should consider in aiding women and advancing their security:

Erika Kates, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College.

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