Ms. Magazine

spring 2003
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this is what a feminist looks like

Features
The Feminist To-Do List by Gloria Steinem
Ms. Poll Feminist Tide Sweeps In as the 21st Century Begins by Lorraine Dusky
Affirmative Action on Trial by Teresa Stern
Women on Death Row by Claudia Dreifus
In the Thick of Life at 70 by Jessica Chornesky

Special Action Alert
Women Take Action Worldwide
Listing: Coalitions and Groups
National Council of Women's Organizations Statement on War with Iraq
NCWO Partial Members List
Why Peace is (More Than Ever) a Feminist Issue
by Grace Paley

Writing of War and Its Consequences
Ghosts of Home by Patricia Sarrafian Ward
Tales from an Ordinary Iranian Girlhood by Marjane Satrapi
Snow in Summer: LA, CA, 1963 by Helen Zelon

News
Pat Summitt's 800th Victory
Augusta Golf Club's Red Face
National Map of Priest Abuse
Women Warriors
Lesbians with Strollers
Kopp Trial
Trouble in Herat, Afghanistan
Reproductive Rights in Poland
Health Clinics in Guatemala
Congolese Women for Peace
Global Good News Round-Up
The Opposite of a Nuclear Bomb

Departments
Lower Breast Cancer Risks by Liz Galst
The Making of an Activist by Gloria Feldt
Nature Conservancy Gains by Rachel Rabkin
Harvard Stumbles on Rape Rules by Lorraine Dusky
The Bush Overhaul of Federal Courts by Stephanie B. Goldberg
My Friend Yeshi by Alice Walker

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Claudia Dreifus is a political journalist whose most recent Ms. article, "Berlin Diaries," recounted her trip to Germany to investigate the fate of family members during the Holocaust. Her most recent book is Scientific Conversations.


Women on Death Row
A Special Report by Claudia Dreifus

 

Indeed, she closely followed the situation of the late Gary Graham (aka Shaka Sankofa), another Texas inmate, executed in June 2000, who many thought innocent. "When they'll execute someone under those conditions, "Brittany notes, "I realized, at that point, it doesn t matter whether I'm guilty or innocent, this has now become a very political thing... At this point, they're just killing to kill."

When, after an attempted breakout by some men on the Huntsville death row, Texas imposed new harsher conditions on all death row inmates, Holberg wrote to Kathleen O'Shea's newsletter:

"Since this occurred, you would not believe the treatment we are given. Just two weeks ago, we were informed that not only would we be strip-searched for our one hour of recreation a day, but also when taken for a shower. So for the last two weeks, we have been stripped no less than six times a day. This is every day, sometimes at times like 2:30-3 a.m., and we never leave the building or our cells for that matter."

It took guts to complain. And the authorities didn't like it. But Brittany Holberg spends a lot of time seeking small justices. Spend a few hours with Brittany, and one begins to think that inside prison, this hard luck girl/woman finally grew up. Unless she is totally shucking me, this is not a vicious person.

As she speaks about the possibility of a mediation process with her victim's relatives once her appeals are settled, the idea of killing her seems utterly pointless. Who could it possibly serve? No one, except perhaps the prosecutor who numbed the good citizens of Amarillo into feeling a bit safer about crime when he brought them a death sentence.

Brittany is the symbolic witch they'll all burn in the hope of expiating a larger, far more complicated problem from their midst. By sacrificing her, they won't solve that problem. In fact, they will extend the cycle of violence, and produce a whole new generation of crime victims among Brittany's relatives. If Brittany is executed, then little Mackenzie will be left to join the ranks of the families of murder victims. Witch-burning or no, the killing will be just as traumatic for her, an innocent, as it was for A.B. Towery's children.

As I write this, there are some 3,514 men and women on death rows in 37 states from California to Texas to Florida. Almost all of them have mothers and wives, partners, lovers, daughters, children, friends, grandmothers. Count the numbers. This violent circle reaches far and wide. And it is here where women bear the heaviest burden of this deadly epidemic. They bear it stoically, often silently. But the cost to them is huge.

I am sitting in a Delaware restaurant with Barbara Lewis, a Wilmington pharmaceutical worker whose son, Robert Gattis, 41, has been languishing in jail for almost 13 years, 11 of them on death row.

Little Delaware, the second smallest state in the union, has the highest per capita execution rate in the country topping that of Texas and Florida. This is a state that had public flogging laws on the books until the 1960s.

"My son has had six dates set to die," she tells me over coffee. Ms. Lewis's sensitive face reflects her 60 years. "That's been a reality since he was sentenced. They told me they were going to do it how and when. There aren't words to describe this. No one understands what it is like for somebody to bind your child and put him to death. There's no clean way to do it. It's killing me, slowly."

For more than a decade, Ms. Lewis's existence has centered on her weekly visits to Robert. She is his lifeline to the outside world, his last connection to humanity. She has three other children, several grandchildren and a job she must keep, lest the entire family go down in flames. Her bedtime prayer is, "Oh Lord, help us all to keep going."

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