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SUNDAY, JULY 6, 2014

Jamie Tobias Neely: Policy change should focus on women, families’ needs

I took an unscientific poll at a recent family reunion and discovered a trend: More men in our family suffered from “produce-drawer blindness” than women. In other words, hungry members of the family with Y-chromosomes were considerably less likely to pull open refrigerator produce drawers than those without.

Bags of carrots, bunches of radishes and boxes of blueberries were all more likely to shrivel and grow mold when men were left to their own devices. It appears there are certain areas of the fridge they just don’t see.

The same seems true in our national life. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against requiring corporations to provide contraceptives that failed to align with their owners’ religious beliefs. The majority of the men on the court agreed with that ruling. The three women, however, opposed it.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan can see the ramifications of denying various forms of contraception to women. They see the world in a different way than most of the men on the court.

And, no, these contraceptives are not methods of abortion, no matter how often conservatives claim the contrary. This case opens the door to another corporation denying coverage for vaccinations, simply because they’re allowed to use religious superstition as a justification for ignoring science and endangering public health.

Years after the women’s movement made profound changes in our country, the dominant American culture frequently remains oblivious to the realities of the lives of women and the impact of public policy on those lives. The collective culture seems to hold in its psyche a memory of a time that never really existed for most families but was richly described in early television sitcoms. It was the era of middle-class women living adult lives primarily engaged in homemaking and motherhood. The structures of that mythical time seem to live on regardless of the real needs of today’s families.

The White House recently sponsored a summit on working families. Perhaps it’s no surprise that it didn’t get much publicity. We work hard in our country to keep those needs invisible. But today nearly three out of every five families with children in the U.S. have two working parents. Women like Michelle Obama, Jill Biden and Sally Jewell brought attention to women and children’s issues such as workplace flexibility, family leave and access to child care.

Produce-drawer-style blindness extends elsewhere. A 2010 study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that three to six months after a birth, 42 percent of new mothers and 26 percent of new fathers showed signs of clinical depression.

A recent article in the New York Times described the social isolation, tedium and sleep deprivation that seems linked to these numbers. But readers chided the Times for casting the problem primarily in medical, rather than societal, terms.

It’s absolutely no wonder that young mothers and fathers experience high rates of depression given how little we do to support them in the U.S. A United Nations labor agency study released in May showed that of 185 countries studied, only three (Oman, Papua New Guinea and the United States) fail to provide paid leave for new mothers.

It’s difficult to know how to combat this kind of oblivion. Our family’s strategy involves heightened awareness and discussion of produce-drawer blindness. Whether that increases the collective health and well-being of all of our family members remains to be seen.

But that’s got to be the place to start. At our house, we can’t afford to skip the disease-fighting nutrients that vegetables and fruits provide.

Neither can this country afford to ignore the health needs of women, children and families. That’s a collective cost to society we simply cannot bear.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former member of The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board, is an associate professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is

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