Women, Money and Power

A sterling lineup of women mixed passion and good-natured humor at yesterday’s “Women Money Power” forum in Washington, D.C. Organized by the Feminist Majority on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, the forum, which was streamed live, brought together hundreds of women across the age spectrum–from 8th grader Isabella Gelfand, who addressed an enormous banquet hall during the celebratory lunch, to feminists in their 90s.

I was most struck by two trends: the emerging generation of energized young feminists and the calls for coalition-building by women who have been in the trenches for decades.

If anyone required proof of the law of unintended consequences, she need look no further than the galvanized young women who feel directly threatened by the right wing’s multi-pronged attack on reproductive rights. I can only assume that those who dreamed up “personhood amendments” and vaginal probes for abortion-seekers did not foresee the sleeping giant they would awaken. As Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke explained, young women who had assumed contraception was theirs for the asking are suddenly realizing, ”I don’t actually live in a post-feminist world.” Fluke received a standing ovation in honor of the battle scars she earned when targeted by Rush Limbaugh (“Flush Rush” was a popular slogan at the day’s event).

At the morning’s session on “Bishops, Politicians, and the War on Women’s Health,” Fluke spoke of the flood of email support she’d received. “There’s so much happening on campuses,” she said. “We need to harness that energy.”

She urged the crowd to encourage young women to run for political office. “There will always be another war,” she said. “There will always be a next step.”

As compelling was the saga of Callie Otto, co-founder of Catholic University Students for Choice. Otto said she had no idea when she transferred to Catholic University–the only Vatican-run university in the U.S.–that students could be expelled for engaging in sexual relations. She described a friend who was sexually active and fearful of becoming pregnant, but too ashamed to get contraception.

When Otto began receiving daily emails urging her to volunteer for the annual anti-abortion March for Life, she asked to be removed from the list. A priest replied, saying he’d pray for her, but that he couldn’t remove her name. That sparked Otto and a friend to organize the pro-choice group, standing just off campus and handing out condoms–which, she said, were received by students with the excitement of children on Christmas morning. The Feminist Majority, NARAL and Planned Parenthood have supported the group’s efforts by providing both condoms and leadership training.

Planned Parenthood Vice President for Public Policy, Advocacy and Communications Dawn Laguens shared the story of the group’s outreach to a Christian group that runs health centers in Nigeria. The centers refused to offer family planning services, considered morally wrong by church leaders. But Planned Parenthood volunteered to work with the group anyway, doing physical labor such as painting maternity centers while opening up a conversation around reducing maternal mortality. Over time, the Christian group came to regard family planning as central to its mission of protecting the health and well-being of local people. “We’ve got to make room for a lot of people to participate in the fight,” said Laguens.

The theme of finding common ground and organizing a mass movement was echoed throughout the day. At the 25th anniversary Feminist Majority lunch honoring “2012 Fearless Trailblazers,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the longest-serving woman in Congress in U.S. history, was honored for her years of standing up for working families and for reaching across the aisle to welcome women in a bipartisan way. “It is time to organize, … time to mobilize, [to ensure] that we do not lose the gains we have fought so hard for,” Sen. Mikulski said.

Also honored were Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Rep. Carolyn Mahoney (D-N.Y.), and Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO and the highest-ranking African-American woman in the U.S. labor movement. Baker told the crowd we cannot achieve success if we see ourselves only as part of a single movement, whether it be feminist, labor, civil rights or student. Only by working in a coalition, she stressed, could gains be made.

Significantly, added NOW President Terry O’Neill at an afternoon session on voter mobilization, the AFL-CIO recently passed a resolution supporting women’s access to contraception and acknowledging that the unprecedented attacks on workers’ rights have disproportionately affected women.

Also in that session, aired live on C-SPAN, Melanie Campbell, convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable, said her group was organizing a “Power of the Sister Vote,” aimed at registering 100,000 new African-American women voters. She and others said they were mobilizing to fight back against voter suppression laws that are being considered in 30 states. Many older (or “seasoned,” as she put it) women, Campbell noted, do not have a birth certificate or other identification that may now be required to vote. Defending the right to vote may even lead to jail time as in the old days of the civil rights movement, she said. “Can we say we’re ready to fight?” she demanded. The audience cheered their assent.

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Beth Baker is a long-time freelance writer in the Washington, D.C. area and author most recently of Old Age in a New Age (Vanderbilt University Press 2007).