Friday, December 19, 2008

Over a bowl of chili at lunch, I scanned the Des Moines Register. An article about a girls' high school bowling championship caught my eye. Bowling is now a sanctioned sport for women in 80 Iowa high schools, the 10th such sport for women. When I started teaching in Iowa in l975, track was the only women’s sport and then only because Title IX forced high schools to offer girls athletic opportunities.

That same year, Tom answered a knock at our apartment door one night and there stood several high school boys holding a huge trophy. Schools didn’t sanction bowling at that time so these kids asked Tom, who was Booster Club president, to make a personal donation so they could attend the state bowling league championship. He was their sole sponsor, so their arrival to present him with the state bowling trophy was a surprise.

Bowling is good exercise, it’s fun and helps people understand teamwork and the ups and downs of competition, which is a part of our everyday lives as adults.

In the article, Lincoln High School girls spoke about the fun of competing in the state championship and their pride in the recognition they’ve received. These women are learning a life-time sport, something they can do with a date, a spouse or life-partner; something they can do with their children someday, or a great way to enjoy a night out with friends.

The assistant director of the Girls Athletic Union says that this sport reaches 40% of students who are not involved in their schools in any other way. That’s the best part. Team sports are one more alternative to premature sexual activity, one more esteem-building activity. We’ve come a long way.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Diana Rodrigez grins at her dad who sits next to her when a sentence she has cut from another document magically appears on the computer monitor before her. The Computers for Youth teacher switches between English and Spanish to accommodate the diverse parent-child population gathered at Leonardo da Vinci Middle School in Corona, Queens, New York on a Saturday morning for a first lesson in technology.

Another dad in the front of the room yawns. He’s just gotten off work and would normally be home asleep, but he has to attend the class in order for his son to take home the free, refurbished computer offered to families by this program that puts parents together with their children to learn some basic word processing skills.

The director of the program, Kavita Gilchrist, says that many of the 700 6th graders at this school will attend one of the Saturday morning classes with a parent so they can access the computers, even though the program can no longer offer Internet access.

In front of Diana a boy can’t get the hang of the double-click. He tries again and again, his third finger awkwardly getting in the way. I am reminded not to assume that all 6th graders in this country have mastered the double-click or the right-click.

I have to listen carefully to understand a teacher talking in another room to a group of Spanish-speaking families about the importance of parents monitoring what children are accessing on the computers. In Spanish, he explains My Space and Facebook and tells parents that these 6th graders are too young to have an account.

In most cases these families will be unable to afford to hook up to the Internet, but the software downloaded already into the computers will allow children and parents to access language skills and math skills that already are boosting test scores for the children in this low-income neighborhood, according to Principal Lisa.

What does this have to do with reducing unintended pregnancy among women 18-30? When you give girls opportunity, you nurture dreams of extended education and job opportunities. You offer them choices about when, how often and even if to have children.

It’s the joy of opportunity I saw on the face of Diana Rodrigez, and I saw that joy mirrored in the face of her father, who had made a sacrifice to be there and make sure his daughter had that opportunity.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Fifty-eight years ago, a 23-year old women gave up her job as a secretary and entered a home for unwed mothers in Pittsburgh. On December 13, she gave birth to my husband, then left him behind in the orphanage in care of the Catholic nuns. Four months later he was adopted by Bud and Dolly Vilsack. The way they described it to him, they chose him as they might a holiday turkey—the plumpest baby—and took him home to join his older sister Alice.

When I met my husband as a college freshman 40 years ago, he told me he was adopted. Maybe because we were 17 when we met, we always assumed that his birth mother was our age when she discovered she was pregnant in l950. Sometimes we imagined where she might be and assumed she had born other children, but Tom was never curious enough to go looking for her. He was satisfied with his Pittsburgh family. Despite his father’s financial woes and his mother’s alcoholism, he always knew he was loved. His dad died in our senior year of college and his mother died just before our first son was born in l977. His sister died suddenly a few years later. None of them lived long enough to know him as the Governor of Iowa or as a candidate for president.

It was during a campaign announcement tour that we stopped in Pittsburgh in November 2006. A few weeks after his name and picture appeared on the news he received a letter from the nuns who had cared for him before his adoption. They said they had information he might want about the circumstances of his birth. They couldn’t reveal the name of his birth mother because she had never given them permission to do that, but they would give him any other information they had.

His political advisors suggested he could find out himself or read it in the newspaper one morning. The letter arrived near his birthday. His birth mother took the assumed name Gloria when she entered the home for unwed mothers. She was 23 and a secretary. She was the oldest of 5 children in a Catholic family with an Irish surname. His mother didn’t leave the home right away after his birth. Considering our assumptions, this news was shocking.

Did she think about keeping him, Tom wondered? Marriage must not have been an option. Could her family afford to help support them? Did they consider their oldest daughter a bad influence on the other children? Could she afford to raise him on her own? We’ll never know. If she’s still living she is now 82 years old.

Coincidentally, finding Gloria coincided with a new job for me as executive director of The Iowa Initiative to Reduce Unintended Pregnancies, an organization dedicated to creating a national model for how states and the federal government can invest in pregnancy prevention among adult women 18-30. When I held a press conference in January to announce the goals of the organization and my association with it, I mentioned Gloria’s story, and said that she would motivate me every day as I travel the state educating people about the high rate of unintended pregnancy among adult women, which most voters and decision makers know little about.

Rather flippantly, a reporter said to me afterward, “Well, your husband turned out all right, didn’t he?” “Yes,” I said, “he did; but how did she turn out?” It was l950. She had to quit her job and enter a home for unwed mothers. She had to give up her financial security. Did she further her education? Did she marry; have other children? Is she surrounded by a covey of grandchildren who love her? How was her life changed by the decisions she made? We won’t know.

But I do believe, knowing my husband and what he’s accomplished, that Gloria must have been an intelligent woman with a great deal of potential. I do believe that all of us have the opportunity to give women a chance to reach their potential by assuring that they have the information they need and the access they need to the newest birth control methods, so they can control their own fertility and plan their futures.

This holiday season, I honor all the Glorias whose lives were changed by their unintended pregnancies, and I honor the difficult choices they made.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

What Do You Talk About With Your Hairstylist?

My hairdresser says that when she was in school to become a stylist she was taught that clients are more apt to share personal information with the person who cuts, colors and styles their hair, because people respond to the human touch. Because barbers and hairstylists actually touch us, we tend to trust that person and reveal more about ourselves. Asking hairstylists and barbers to share healthcare information didn't start with birth control, however. Other studies have proved that barbers and hairstylists have helped to spread info about diabetes and cardio-vascular disease.

Our researcher Mary Losch at the University of Northern Iowa's Center for Social and Behavioral Research will be keeping data about this project so we can determine if using hairstylists to inform l8-30 year olds about long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARC) works. Our website provides a comprehensive list of all contraceptives so that people who know little about the new technology will have an overveiw of each method.