In this Episode:
This Women’s History Month, we’re wondering: What will it take to achieve a society that prioritizes—and achieves—true equality? Our answers to those questions are the Majority Rules: a series of rules, created by Supermajority, intended to guide us to our ultimate goal of gender equality.
Today, we’re diving into Rule #1, “Our lives are safe.” Our country continues to deny safety to women, and especially women of color. From physical to mental and emotional harm, women are consistently the target of violence, causing many to fear for their safety. So, we’re asking: how can we create a better world, a world where all are safe?
- Ms. magazine x Supermajority Ed Fund: The Majority Rules
- “When Women Are Safe, We Will Finally Be Free,” Alicia Garza, Ms. magazine, Mar. 1, 2023.
00:00:12 Michele Goodwin:
Welcome to 15 Minutes of Feminism, part of our “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. magazine platform. As you know, we report, rebel and we tell it just like it is, and in fact, we count our minutes in feminist terms too. And I couldn’t be more pleased than in this time and Women’s History Month to bring to you a collaborative series that we are doing with Supermajority on Supermajority’s rules. And in fact, we are diving into Rule #1, “Our lives are safe.”
And to quote Alicia Garza, co-founder of Supermajority’s Education Fund, safety is our most fundamental need. But our country denies it to women, especially women of color, with an estimated 81 percent of women in the United States experiencing sexual harassment or assault during their lifetime—a statistic that is astonishing, and even made worse for women of color. It’s clear that the need for change is evident and from physical to mental to emotional harm, women are consistently the target of violence, causing many to fear for their safety. So we’re asking questions about how can we create a better world, a world where all are safe.
And so helping you to sort out these questions and even more set that record straight is a very special guest. Shannon Watts is the founder of Moms Demand Action, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the nation. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook that horrific tragedy, Shannon, a former stay-at-home mom as she describes herself set into action. She was a communications executive before then, and she started a Facebook group fighting for the establishment of public safety measures that protect people from gun violence. And from there Shannon founded Moms Demand Action, an organization that now has a chapter in every US state and 10 million supporters.
Shannon, I’m really so pleased that you’ve taken time to come onto our show as we are lifting up the special campaign with Supermajority, and I want to start off with asking you about the following. The early months of 2023 have been marked by a tragic surge in mass shootings. As someone who has dedicated years of her life to advocating for protection against gun, what’s your current view of the state of gun control and how we rein in what has become a terror that Americans live with day by day?
00:02:59 Shannon Watts:
Well, you know, I think when people look at this issue they think about mass shootings, which are prolific and horrible, but at the same time it’s important to remember that they’re about one percent of the gun violence in this country. Much of the daily gun violence that kills over 100 people and wounds 200 more and disproportionately impacts black and brown Americans is carried out with handguns and it includes gun homicide, gun suicide, domestic gun violence, unintentional shootings, really the daily gun violence that’s carrying at the fabric of our communities in this country.
I think so often people also look at this issue and feel hopeless or they think there’s no way to force change and it’s simply not true. There has been a seismic shift in American politics on this issue in the last decade. When I started this work, about a quarter of all Democrats in Congress had an A rating from the NRA. Today none do, and in fact last summer we passed the first federal gun safety legislation in a generation, in over 25 years, and 15 Republicans signed onto that bill.
When you ask about how we stop the scourge of gun violence in this country, it’s very clear when you look at the patchwork state makeup of state laws, right? Some states, mostly blue states, have incredibly strong gun laws. The data shows they have less gun violence and less gun deaths. That’s pretty intuitive. And then you look at red states. They’ve weakened their gun laws and they have rising rates of gun violence and gun. So we know how to fix this issue. We know how to save lives. You can have a country with high rates of gun ownership but low rates of gun violence and that’s what we need to work on.
00:04:58 Michele Goodwin:
I’m so impressed by the leadership that you have shown, especially as you are the founder of Moms Demand Action, which is the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country. So I’m wondering if we could just take a step back. What inspired you to found the organization?
00:05:24 Shannon Watts:
You know, I didn’t really know I was founding an organization. I was so outraged by the mass shooting at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut in December of 2012 that the next day I went online and looked for something like Mothers Against Drunk Driving but for the issue of gun safety. What I found were think tanks run mostly by men, some one-off city and state organizations, again mostly run by men. I knew that I wanted to be part of a badass army of women. That’s who I’ve seen get so much done in this country…
00:05:58 Michele Goodwin:
I love that. I absolutely love that.
00:06:03 Shannon Watts:
…for over a century, right, all the way from prohibition up to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. That’s who forces change, women and moms.
And so I started a Facebook page that just said it was time for women to rise up against the gun lobby in this country and to protect our families and our communities, and if you know anything about women, you know that they were going to make that happen. They took my Facebook post and they ran with it and created what is now the largest grassroots movement in this country. We are twice as large as the NRA now with 10 million supporters, and what we’ve achieved is nothing less than miraculous in just a decade.
00:06:44 Michele Goodwin:
It is amazing. I love to hear that. Twice the size of the membership of the NRA. And you’re absolutely right. When women set upon doing something, women change the world, and we know this, and perhaps that’s also the reason why we’re still dismantling laws that have held women back, because women are a force when they seize the opportunity, when given space to be able to lead.
So I’m wondering then, given what was your inspiration and how you got to work, what’s your sense in terms of articulating why it’s so critical for women like moms and also non-moms to speak out against gun violence? Why are women an important ingredient in the conversation of addressing this incredibly important issue?
00:07:41 Shannon Watts:
Well, and to be clear, I mean, it’s really Black women who have been at the forefront of this issue for decades, standing literally on the streets of their communities to stop bullets with their body, and you know, we stand on their shoulders. I think it’s really important that white women understand, when they come to this issue mostly because of a mass shooting, that this work is much more holistic than that, that we have to unlock funding for community violence intervention programs, that we have to make sure we are stopping gun trafficking and that we’re listening to communities and understanding what they need and what they want and that we’re using our privilege and our political power to stand shoulder to shoulder with all women who are suffering from the horrific tragedies inflicted on this country by gun violence.
Look, women only have certain levers of power that they can pull. We’re only about 25 percent of the 500,000 elected positions in this country.
00:08:50 Michele Goodwin:
That’s still a tragedy.
00:08:52 Shannon Watts:
It’s a tragedy, and you know, the saying is when you don’t have a seat at the table you’re probably on the menu. And so given that about 80 percent, 75 percent of our lawmakers are men, most of them white men, we aren’t making the policies that protect our families and communities.
So the levers of power that we can pull are using our voices, we’re more than half of the country’s makeup, but also our votes, right? Especially swing voters, you know, women in those states where we can really make a difference, and you know, this…yes.
00:09:29 Michele Goodwin:
You know, one of the things…yes, so one of the things that you’re talking to, and I really appreciate it, the lens that you’re bringing about to say that, look, as white women are concerned about mass shootings, which is the sort of random, if you’re in your synagogue and movie theater, grocery store, and that kind of palpable fear, school, right, that is like a Russian roulette, but yet understanding that for some communities it’s less of a Russian roulette and it’s every day that that fear is truly palpable, and really helping people to understand that the issues and concerns of black and brown women should also be the concerns of white women too.
00:10:10 Shannon Watts:
Yes. Absolutely, and you know, I say that as a white woman who started this organization because I was afraid my kids weren’t safe in their schools, and it’s such an important opportunity to learn more about the issue and to advocate for holistic solutions that will save the lives of all Americans. I think that’s a big part of what we do.
00:10:34 Michele Goodwin:
And all Americans and all American kids, right? That you know, all kids’ lives matter. Black kids’ lives. Right? Like all together, right? That if white moms can advocate and think about protection of their children in the suburbs, that there should be just as much care about children in the cities too.
00:10:54 Shannon Watts:
Yeah, and Jessica Valenti, the feminist author, talks about this, I think so well, and says, you know, white women bring a lot to activism. They believe the system works and so they know how to leverage it, right? If you need a permit, call a white woman because she trusts that the system works. She knows how to do it. She knows how to make things happen.
00:11:16 Michele Goodwin:
There’s so many memes online about that, but that is so true, right? But you’ve also said something too that’s really important about the political process and that we have to pay attention to the political process when we’re thinking about these issues because voting matters, and you know, it makes me think, in the wake of the Supermajority campaign and the concern to thread together issues that, you know, one can’t be a kind of single issue voter, right? That if you care about reproductive justice then you should care about this issue too, right?
00:11:53 Shannon Watts:
Absolutely. I mean, look, I think when we hold lawmakers accountable it is incredibly important. And so you know, for me the top issue that I’m going in on is gun violence when I go into the polls. Now, you know, none of us lead single issue lives, but our theory of change has been if lawmakers do the right thing, we’ll have their back, and if they don’t, we’ll have their job, and that includes not only…
00:12:20 Michele Goodwin:
You know what? I love it, all these sayings. I’m hoping that the right now listeners write these down. These are great and snappy. You can tell these to your friends, your girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, grandparents, the rest. I love it. Continue on, Shannon. They’re fabulous.
00:12:36 Shannon Watts:
Yeah. Well, you know, not only are we making sure lawmakers lose their jobs if they don’t vote the right way on this issue, we’re actually taking them, and so another saying we have is, you know, when you close the door on a woman, we will come in the window, and we’re doing just that by running for office ourselves, you know?
00:12:53 Michele Goodwin:
I love it.
00:12:55 Shannon Watts:
And so over 140 Moms Demand Action volunteers were elected to office just in November at all levels of government, and as a result we flipped Michigan and Minnesota and Maryland and Massachusetts to have what we call a gun sense trifecta, right, a legislature and a governor who will do the right thing on this issue.
00:13:17 Michele Goodwin:
Wow. Well, I certainly appreciate your fearlessness, and especially as we think about the Supermajority campaign and the Supermajority’s rules which we are co-sponsoring at Ms. Magazine and Ms. Studios, and what we’ve been talking about is rule number one, our lives are safe, and that is so incredibly important when we think about the lives of women, our children, our families.
In light of the very difficult issues that you work on with regard to gun violence, which touches then mass shootings, individual shootings, accidental shootings and always it just tears at my heart, stories about a three-year-old picks up a gun and shoots and kills his mother, right? You know, I mean, and when we think about it, suicide as well, right? I mean, as we understand gun violence, it has so many manifestations because of these very outrageous, out of control kinds of laws and lobbying which has basically given, in some ways, a hierarchy of rights to owning a gun, wielding a gun, being able to take a gun almost any kind of where depending upon what state, community, county you’re in, and in fact, when you sort of think about it, there are more restrictions on an individual’s speech, an individual being able to access reproductive healthcare and so many other things than it is for guns.
But in light of all of that, I always ask my guests what they see as the silver lining going forward in light of some, you know, really tragic circumstances that we live within our country.
00:15:15 Shannon Watts:
Absolutely. You know, I wouldn’t wake up and do this work every day as a full time volunteer for a decade if I didn’t think we were winning.
Now, to your point, I mean, gun violence is now the leading cause of death among children in America. Homicides are the leading cause of maternal death in this country, nearly 70 percent of which are carried out with a firearm. So when you’re working on an issue where literal lives are on the line, you want it to go as quickly as possible.
What I’ve learned having done this for a decade now is that Congress is not necessarily where this work begins, it’s where it ends. We’ve made significant progress, but a lot of the work we’re doing is in school boards, in city councils, in state houses to build the momentum that will eventually get Congress and the president to be able to create wholesale change at a federal level. We’re all only as close as the safest state right now with the weakest gun laws.
But that said, you know, we have a track record of stopping the NRA’s agenda 90 percent of the time every year for the last seven years. We’ve passed hundreds of good, lifesaving gun laws at all levels of government. We’ve sent secure storage information home with nearly 8,000,000 American families. And so this progress is made, you know, sort of incrementally because that’s the way the system is set up, but I think it’s incrementalism that really leads to revolutions.
00:16:45 Michele Goodwin:
I am so very grateful that you’ve taken time to join me today and I am so grateful for the work that you and others who’ve been working with you have been doing, shedding light on an issue and in a method and way that is so holistic, that is so inclusive, that pays attention to what’s happening on the ground and what’s also taking place in the political sphere and landscape. It’s really a pleasure to have been with you, Shannon, and I hope that we get the opportunity to speak again about these issues. We need you to come back because you are a force of nature and I’m just so grateful for the work that you’ve done in founding Moms Demand Action.
00:17:30 Shannon Watts:
Oh. Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.
00:17:35 Michele Goodwin:
Thanks a lot.
Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of On the Issues with Michele Goodwin at Ms. Magazine. I want to thank each of you for tuning in for the full story and engaging with us. We hope you’ll join us again for our next episode where you know will be reporting, rebelling, and telling it just like it is.
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This has been your host, Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling, and telling it just like it is. On the Issues with Michele Goodwin is a Ms. Magazine joint production. Michele Goodwin and Kathy Spiller are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal, Oliver Haug, and also Allison Whelan. Our social media content producer is Sophia Panigrahi. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandy Phipps, editing by Wil Alvarez and Natalie Holland, and music by Chris J Lee.
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