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Steve Haycox: Alaska lawmakers fail to protect women

Steve Haycox

In 1987, the novelist Tom Wolfe published his fantasy "The Bonfire of the Vanities," about a super-rich bond trader whose life and career are ruined by a careless judgment he makes after a chance encounter with a group of young men in the Bronx he perceives as street toughs. When several real incidents of a similar nature occurred in New York City over several months following the novel's release, Wolfe commented that it's no longer possible to write meaningful fiction because today's realities are more fantastic and dangerous than any novelist's story.

Reality in Anchorage this week evoked the memory of Wolfe's comment, when Judge Michael Spaan found he could give a convicted state probation officer only six months' jail time for demanding sex from women he was entrusted to supervise, and that not even for the extortion of their souls, but for a related petty bribery.

Readers of Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" were revolted by a comparable incident in that recent novel. Concluding that she can trust neither the justice system nor the people in it, Larsson's young protagonist takes matters into her own hands and wreaks a particularly satisfying if improbable revenge on her tormentor.

Some who read Larsson's trilogy may miss its feminist message because of the extreme violence he uses to emphasize the gross character of injustices against women. Larsson takes it for granted that women are disadvantaged, vulnerable and victims of men in contemporary life, modern society's protestations about the equality of women to the contrary notwithstanding. The women subjected to Officer Stanton's power and his presumption of the right to exploit them because of their pasts clearly do not feel very equal.

By the same token, retired judge James Wannamaker and everyone working in Partners for Progress must be profoundly disheartened. Wannamaker and Partners founded the Anchorage Wellness Court, working to rehabilitate incarcerated substance abusers and facilitate their productive re-entry into community. The three women who brought the case against Stanton had participated in the Wellness Court, which experience, because of Stanton, became a mockery of the perspective and commitment that court represents.

But the culprits in this case, aside from Stanton, are the people in Alaska state government who don't see the problem, or don't see it as a big enough problem to work on. Alaska law treats sexual assault as a crime of violence, meaning mainly the use of physical force. New thinking on sexual criminality, adopted in several states, recognizes that threat and intimidation, particularly against the vulnerable by those in authority, are as much an assault as physical abuse. A woman who consents to sex as an alternative to going to jail or having her child taken away has not made a free choice. Alaska law needs to catch up.

Alaska once was in the forefront on women's equality, granting voting rights and choice on abortion, and establishing a women's commission ahead of other states. The last state Legislature passed stronger laws to punish human trafficking and child predators, but the House failed to pass the Senate's bill re-establishing the now defunct Alaska Women's Commission, designed in part to strengthen laws protecting women against violence, equal pay, day care for working mothers, and women's health, especially related to reproduction. By the same token, ultra-conservative members of the U.S. House stymied renewal of the federal Violence Against Women Act, endorsed by Sen. Murkowski, which would have provided extra protection for, among others, Indian and Alaska Native women victims of domestic and other violence. Opponents did not like protection for same-sex married couples or temporary visas for women immigrants.

Equality for women is problematical in the United States, more than in a number of western European nations, especially in Scandinavia. Many will recall that after a brief euphoria, the 1972 equal rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution failed to pass the requisite number of state legislatures. Phyllis Schlafly, among others, argued that women neither needed nor wanted it. Perhaps a more representative spokeswoman today is Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown Law School graduate barred from testifying before a House committee on women's health. Her comment that "being a woman should not be a pre-existing condition" should ring loudly in legislative halls.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Steve Haycox