Iowa justices side with sexism

January 3, 2013

Rachel Cohen highlights the hypocrisy of a decision in a sex discrimination case.

IF MY pants are bulging, it means your clothes are too revealing, said the dentist to his dental assistant.

Yet according to the Iowa Supreme Court, it wasn't Fort Dodge dentist James Knight who was out of line. In fact, the all-male justices voted 7-0 to uphold the legality of his decision to fire Melissa Nelson, his employee of 10 years, because he found her an "irresistible attraction."

The court ruled against Nelson's gender discrimination suit, which asserted that her boss wouldn't have fired a male employee on the same grounds. Yet Knight's attorney called the case a victory for family values.

In fact, both Nelson and Knight are married and have children. Thirty-two-year-old Nelson stated that she was "stunned" to be fired because she had always viewed her 53-year-old employer as a father figure.

But Knight viewed things differently. He warned Nelson's husband that he was becoming too "attached" to her and "feared" he would soon start an affair with her--a surprising concern given Nelson says she was uninterested. Apparently, Knight's "family values" don't include valuing what women think about him.

Melissa Nelson with her daughter
Melissa Nelson with her daughter

Knight says he consulted with his wife and their pastor, and the three agreed that the best course of action would be to fire Nelson, consigning her to unemployment in the midst of a rotten economy.

Knight explained in court that he's a very religious and moral man, and only acted in the interest of protecting his marriage. But as is so often the case, Knight's determination to impose his "family values" came before Nelson's right to stay in a job she worked at for a full decade.

The double standard that sets Knight's supposed "family values" over Nelson's job has a deeper implication--that women who work don't really need their jobs. But the outdated, reactionary assumption that women's natural place is in the home also clashes with years of bipartisan attacks on poor and working class women. For instance, since 1996, federal welfare programs have been eviscerated by a "reform" law signed by Bill Clinton that requires recipients to work. Some 75 percent of welfare recipients are single mothers, who must work--often at poverty wages--an average of 30 hours per week to qualify for assistance.

The right-wing rallying cry of "family values" really only serves to value some families while punishing others. Women deserve the right to decide whether to work, whether to raise kids and how they wish to dress, without losing their livelihood if their choices don't conform to someone else's "values."

THE IOWA court's decision also expands on other recent legal precedents that endanger the rights of working women.

In a previous lawsuit, a regional appellate court upheld the firing of a female employee accused of engaging in "flirtatious conduct." In both cases, the underlying logic is deeply sexist and the impact is to reinforce already widespread gender discrimination in the workplace.

For starters, who gets to decide what "irresistible" looks or acts like? But more importantly, when bosses and judges are given the power not only to define these standards, but to use them as justification for denying women jobs, they carry out a cruel hypocrisy.

Everywhere, practically from birth, women and girls are bombarded with appeals to meet narrow beauty standards and reminders that their value to society is judged by their attractiveness to men. Many service industry jobs openly require female applicants to be "attractive" and to uncomplainingly endure leering and harassment on the job.

Knight's legal victory also recalls the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in 2011 in favor of Wal-Mart when the retail giant faced a class-action suit alleging rampant discrimination on the basis of gender. In that case, the Supreme Court declared that the 1.5 million plaintiffs couldn't demonstrate bias because no official company policy spelled it out in as many words. The result is a precedent for sex-blind "justice" that mirrors color-blind laws and practices invoked as the criminal injustice system incarcerates almost 1 million African Americans.

As Nelson's attorney Paige Fiedler put it, the Iowa justices "sent a message to Iowa women that they don't think men can be held responsible for their sexual desires and that Iowa women are the ones who have to monitor and control their bosses' sexual desires. If they get out of hand, then the women can be legally fired for it."

It's not hard to follow the logic on display here to the example of how victims of sexual assault are treated by the criminal justice system. Across the country, even when a rape case defies the odds and results in an arrest or even an investigation, convictions are rare--as low as 2 to 9 percent of all incidents of rape, according to statistics.

Rather than ensuring equality under the law, the U.S. justice system perpetuates the same inequalities that frame our lives outside the courtroom.

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