Good politics through strong collaborative movements, reproductive freedom and justice for all.
Nelson Mandela’s passing has elicited a flood of personal memories and tributes from people he touched across the world. I am one of those people. In elementary school in Dallas in the early 1980s, I was fascinated by the televised images of mock shanty-towns on US college campuses. Questions about the South African divestment campaign started me down a path that opened up a world of social justice and politically inspired change.
In 2003, I visited South Africa during the World Summit on Sustainable Development and spent weeks working alongside local organizers in townships around Johannesburg and learning about the strategies they used to thrive even under the oppressive apartheid regime. Everywhere I went, I was blown away by how powerful the women were. Vocal and forthright, they were often their communities’ spokespeople and leaders.
That experience of strong female leadership owed more than a little to the Constitution of 1996, put in place largely by Mandela. In its new Bill of Rights it listed not only race as impermissible grounds for discrimination, but “gender,” and then “sex” and then, uniquely, it also added “pregnancy.” And in case the meaning of that was not clear, the Bill of Rights went on (emphasis added):
Everyone has the right to bodily and psychological integrity, which includes the right
a. to make decisions concerning reproduction
b. to security in and control over their body; and
c. not to be subjected to medical or scientific experiments without their informed consent.
This official recognition that gender equality requires embracing reproductive freedom remains a high-water mark of international law. This important commitment was foreshadowed by a bill passed months before the constitution went into effect. The Choice on Termination of Pregnancy law—which replaced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world with one of the most liberal and humane—allows South African women full autonomy to decide when to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester, complete with financial assistance if required. (Abortion is also allowed within widely defined exceptions in the second trimester.) With this act, President Nelson Mandela transformed the lives of millions of South African women.
In the Jewish tradition we have a saying we repeat at every Passover Seder: “dayenu,” or “it would have been enough.” It would have been enough for Nelson Mandela to put his life on the line in 1964 in the struggle for racial equality. It would have been enough for Mandela to inspire us through his twenty-seven years in prison. It would have been enough for him to lead successful negotiations with then-President de Klerk to abolish apartheid. But once he had become his country’s first black president, instead of resting on his laurels—or resting, period—he tackled the issue of abortion, which was considered even more controversial in South Africa at the time than it was here. Why would he do this?
In his famous April 20, 1964, “Speech from the Dock,” given just before he was sentenced to life imprisonment, he offered a clue:
I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
The simple answer, then, is that he had more left to do. Mandela acted, as he always had, not out of political calculation but with laser-like moral focus. He knew that for women to have full freedom and equality, we must have autonomy over all issues pertaining to our lives, especially our reproductive destiny.
Mandela’s intimate experience with poverty and oppression showed him that reproductive freedom was intrinsically tied to economic security. Thus, this Nobel Peace Prize winner known worldwide for his pursuit of human equality chose as one of his first acts of elected leadership to cement that fundamental cornerstone of women’s equality into law.
Although a solid, consistent majority of Americans support the protections outlined in Roe v. Wade, well-funded attacks on reproductive freedom are consuming an enormous amount of time and attention in our country. So I was fascinated to see in all the press coverage of Mandela’s death how little was said about his legacy of advancing abortion rights.
It’s been mentioned primarily on women-defined blogs and press, which is important, but not enough. Major network tributes and even mainstream progressive outlets have not seen fit to mention it.
Unsurprisingly, his legacy championing women’s basic freedoms is not lost on extremists in this country hell-bent on taking them away. With their typical tone-deafness, they opine:
“Nelson Mandela has the blood of preborn children on his hands … lots of them,” wrote anti-choice blogger Jill Stanek on Saturday.
“[I]t makes no sense for pro-life Christians to praise Mandela’s example considering what he did with that power once he became president,” wrote Paul Tuns, editor of the Canadian pro-life publication The Interim.
“The organization Keep Life Legal asked the question: “What about apartheid in the womb?”
One of the first things I noticed when I joined NARAL Pro-Choice America as president was how much these extremists depend on their aggressive public vitriol to stigmatize the medical procedure of abortion and silence the majority in this country who understand that reproductive rights are vital to the freedom and self-determination that makes us Americans. The anti-choice lobby trades in hatred and fear to frighten people into avoiding the issue so they can they win by forfeit.
In attacking the moral leadership of one of the world’s most beloved freedom fighters, these zealots have once again gone too far. But their slander is not the only reason we must talk about Mandela’s contributions to women’s freedom. We must go there, because he went there. If we want to honor Nelson Mandela’s commitment to a society “in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities,” we only do it justice when we loudly recognize that his vision of human dignity included women’s freedom to make their own decisions about when we have children.
Tribute after tribute has unfolded with this chapter deleted, leaving all the successes and gains for South African women invisible. I am not going to bow to that pressure to hold my tongue. I will praise Mandela loudly and proudly for refusing to leave women behind. And if enough of us do so, maybe someday soon all women can be assured the respect and freedom that Mandela fought to bring to the women of South Africa.
Jessica Valenti reports on the latest legal battles over birth control.
(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Barring an unexpected last-minute jolt of sanity, at midnight tonight the federal government will shut down all but its most essential services. Despite the Senate passing a clean bill last week to continue funding the government, the Republican-led House early Sunday morning chose to forsake their basic responsibility to keep our country functioning, and instead used the impending shutdown as a last-ditch opportunity to delay the Affordable Care Act—the president’s signature bill that would insure millions of Americans unable to afford healthcare on the open market.
But if the Republicans’ single-minded obsession with delaying or repealing Obamacare isn’t enough partisan politics, an amendment they rammed through in the dark of night added language that would give bosses the power to decide whether women who work for them should have access to birth control through their healthcare coverage. (They had help from two anti-choice Democrats: Jim Matheson of Utah and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina.) The combination of the two measures puts the budget bill back in the hands of the Democrat-controlled Senate, which will almost certainly strip out these outrageous provisions and send the bill back to the House, which has until midnight tonight to approve the measure or shut down the federal government.
Americans may be familiar with the Tea Party Republican’s obsession with crippling Obamacare before the insurance exchanges open tomorrow, October 1. What’s less known is their backward position that women’s birth control coverage—whether used for family planning or for medical necessity—should be decided by employers. Given that 99 percent of all women in this country use birth control at some point in their lives, this position puts anti-choice lawmakers not only outside the mainstream but in a different galaxy from the mainstream.
This is not new. In 2012, Senator Roy Blunt tried to pass similar language as part of a highway funding bill. The so-called “Blunt amendment” was stripped out by Senate Democrats then, but now it’s back as Republicans have decided that the budget fight is the perfect chance to renew their very real war on women.
Remember Republicans’ soul-searching after they lost big in 2012 thanks to the largest election gender gap in modern history? Apparently that search turned up empty, since the resolution they approved this weekend forces millions of American adult women to ask permission of their employers before they get their birth control pills covered in their health insurance like all other medications.
What’s more, the so-called “conscience clause” would also give employers control over coverage for pre-natal services. That’s right: these anti-choice legislators who claim to base their ideology on a “respect for life” want to take away from women the coverage that ensures healthy pregnancies. That’s not respecting life. It’s disrespecting women.
I’m not so sure this is a winning strategy for them. Case in point: the race for Virginia’s next governor. In the most widely watched campaign of 2013, Republican Ken Cuccinelli is losing the race to Democrat Terry McAuliffe among women by twenty-four points, according to a recent Washington Post poll. Much of this gap is driven by women aghast at Cuccinelli’s radical positions on choice, including his declaring “personhood” for all fertilized eggs, which would outlaw many forms of contraception and even in-vitro fertilization if taken to its full extreme. If Cuccinelli loses in November, it will be entirely because his radical positions are driving women to the polls to vote against him. Choice has become the issue in the race, and Cuccinelli has done everything in his power to hide his record.
Likewise, Republicans in Congress had better expect to pay a huge price in 2014 and beyond if they continue to pursue a radical agenda that attacks women. Yes, a huge part of the GOP caucus is elected from gerrymandered districts that reward extreme conservatism. But women—and in fact all Americans—are seeing more and more exactly what their party stands for. The more they pursue policies like the one that puts women’s family planning decisions in the hands of their employers, the more they drive themselves into the far fringe, a place they can expect to occupy for years to come if they don’t change tactics quickly. Americans want their elected officials to do their job and help our economy thrive, not play Daddy to grown women who are more than capable of making our own decisions.
But in the near term—the very near term—it’s the rest of Americans who will suffer the consequences of this anti-choice extremism and intransigence. The Republicans’s decision to pass a last-minute radical attack on women virtually guarantees a government shutdown tomorrow. That means troops see their paychecks delayed. It means national parks shut down. It means critical services come to an immediate halt.
Americans are not willing to live with this tradeoff. It’s time for anti-choice members of Congress to put extremism aside and do the job we sent them to Washington to do. As for the women whose lives they want to control, they’ll just have to let us make our own decisions. Hopefully they can learn to live with that.
John Nichols explains why the government shutdown is a powerful reminder of why DC should be a state.
(Courtesy of Flickr)
“A girl walks into a fake pregnancy clinic…” This sounds like the beginning of a joke, and what comes next is so outrageous that it might be laughable if it weren’t dangerous.
When Caitlin, a volunteer for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, entered a “crisis pregnancy center” (CPC), as these fake clinics are called, posing as a scared woman in need of help, she got just the opposite. The video below highlights the lies:
Caitlin was told in this facility that birth control pills are a form of “enslavement,” that they would give her cancer and that condoms don’t work because they’re “naturally porous.” But Caitlin didn’t get her lies straight up; they also came with a side of shame. The counselor also told her, “I don’t think you should be having sex because you’re not married.” And, worst of all, when this young woman tested the counselor’s response to an assault victim by telling a hypothetical story about being raped while intoxicated, she was told, “OK, well just don’t do it again.”
Taking a page from the junk science that fuels climate change denial and “reparative” anti-gay therapy, CPCs claim to be medical facilities but are nothing more than outposts of an extreme movement whose agenda is to—by any means necessary—frighten women out of having premarital sex and out of exercising their constitutional rights to terminate an unintended pregnancy. Caitlin’s experience was not an anomaly. NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia conducted an investigation of fifty-six crisis pregnancy centers in the state, and a full 71 percent of them shared bad information with women seeking their services, posing extreme danger, both physical and emotional, to the women who seek their services.
The obvious question is how these places stay open. In Virginia, part of the answer is Ken Cuccinelli, the current attorney general and Republican candidate for governor. He has said he was “proud” to help establish a “Choose Life” license plate as a state senator, the proceeds of which go directly to CPCs. (Similar plates fund CPCs all over the country, from Mississippi to Massachusetts.)
License plates aren’t the only way states divert money to CPCs. In June, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed a budget that diverts money away from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and sends it to crisis pregnancy centers. That’s money meant to help the most vulnerable families pay for things like food or clothing or rent, now paying for facilities to harass and misinform some of those very same women who might need that assistance. And North Carolina’s budget moved $250,000 out of the Women’s Health Fund, which provides care for the poor and uninsured, and sent it to the state’s largest group of CPCs.
I’ve written before about the extreme lengths these politicians go to in order to pass unpopular mandates that rob women of our constitutional rights. Knowing that these measures are out of line with modern American family values, anti-choice politicians bury them in budgets, call endless special sessions and attach them to completely unrelated bills. In North Carolina, anti-choice restrictions were plugged into a motorcycle safety bill, spawning a glut of “motorcycle vagina” jokes that had women around the country laughing for days—we have to laugh not to cry.
Colorlines exposed the disturbing campaign to target women of color and poor communities by crisis pregnancy centers. The in-depth report looks at how CPCs use deceptive tactics to lure women into their facilities and then, with no regard for the issues they face, shame them into thinking they have only one choice:
Fueled by a race-baiting, national marketing campaign and the missionary-like evangelism of its affiliates, Care Net has turned the complex reality behind black abortion rates into a single, fictional story.
We can and must educate women about their full range of choices before and after they are pregnant. We must support policies that reduce unintended pregnancies and increase access to abortion for all women. We must fight the efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and other high-quality health centers and fight to keep clinics that offer genuine medical services to women (and men!) when they need them.
While CPCs are the vehicle trying to rob women of our rights and our autonomy, the drivers are the politicians like Ken Cuccinelli who support them with special protections and taxpayer funds. Accountability starts at the ballot box. No politician who supports crisis pregnancy centers should see another term. That starts with making sure Cuccinelli loses his race for governor come November. This would be a victory not just for Virginia, but for women around the country.
How did the “opt-out revolution” affect men?
Every time an American woman walks into her polling place, she ought to give thanks to Susan B. Anthony, who wrote the constitutional amendment that allows her to vote. Anthony herself was arrested and convicted for the right we take for granted—that women are entitled to participate in our democratic process. Her advocacy for women extended to our education and even our right to own property. (She was also an early supporter of the temperance movement. No one’s perfect.)
I’m certain Susan B. Anthony would be aghast if she knew that her name was being used by a group of anti-abortion extremists to drive an anti-women agenda and roll back the rights she fought so hard for. Anthony knew that caring for women’s health was an important part of protecting their rights, which is why she opposed the criminalization of abortion. Since abortion was illegal in the nineteenth century, she knew the stakes. Women still sought abortions back then, but it was like playing Russian roulette with your life. There were horrible complications, infections, and many women ended up sterile. The unlucky ones died of botched abortions.
The Susan B. Anthony List (SBA) bears no resemblance to the legacy of the hero whose legacy has made all of our lives better. A new report from NARAL Pro-Choice America and American Bridge details the insidious goals of this so-called women’s organization. They make no bones about their plans: their president, Marjorie Dannenfelser says, “When we started about 20 years ago, you would not put the pro-life movement and the NRA in the same category…. That’s been my goal—to make this issue, which is so fundamental, have the strongest political arm they could possibly have. That’s the direction I see this heading in.”
They’ve got a big agenda: use the upcoming Virginia governor’s race as a “proving ground” to drive their anti-choice fundamentalism in a dozen states and in the thirty-three Senate races in 2014. We’ve seen how they support the most radical candidates running the most out of touch campaigns. When the rest of America—including the vast majority of Republicans—was denouncing Todd Akin for his mystifying comments that a woman couldn’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape,” the SBA List stood by him. Dannefelser called him “an excellent partner” and reaffirmed her organization’s support for his candidacy.
Richard Mourdock didn’t deny that rape could result in pregnancy, but he did say those pregnancies were “something God intended to happen,” and again SBA List stood by their man. They ran ads attacking his opponent, who now sits in the US Senate. Akin, of course, also lost.
They don’t stop with candidates. When the Virginia legislature proposed a bill in 2012 that would require women who need an abortion to get an unnecessary, invasive transvaginal ultrasound, Dannefelser took to the airwaves to praise the measure. “Really, this is a matter of giving a woman more information that she needs to make a decision that’s fully informed,” Dannefelser told Chris Matthews about the procedure, which involves penetrating a woman with a wand to give her an ultrasound that only confirms what she already knows. (The law eventually passed without the transvaginal ultrasound requirement, although it still forces women to undergo a noninvasive ultrasound that is just as unnecessary.)
While SBA List is a fan of unnecessary ultrasounds, the organization does not like it when women have access to the healthcare they need. The organization asked Republican presidential candidates to sign a pledge to defund Planned Parenthood, which would deny women access to cancer screenings, prenatal care and even regular check-ups.
SBA List styles itself a feminist organization that works to elect more pro-life women to office. (In fact, they supported some of the most radically anti-choice male candidates in 2012.) But their real agenda is as fiercely anti-woman as Anthony herself was pro-woman.
See thier work in this year’s Virginia governor’s race. They’ve committed a minimum of $1.5 million to help elect Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, an anti-abortion extremist in the mold of Akin and Mourdock. Six years ago, then–state legislator Cuccinelli sponsored the most extreme kind of personhood amendment, one that would ban many forms of birth control (not to mention miscarriages).
The Virginia governor race is a chance for SBA List to test strategies and messaging they can deploy nationwide in 2014, 2016 and beyond. Like most pro-life activists, they have focused their efforts on hiding the most extreme parts of their agenda and pursuing attacks on a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion care piecemeal. They conceal their radical agenda as concern for women’s health and safety. That’s why our report on the record and activities of SBA List is so important; we need to expose them now for who they are, before they help elect more candidates that threaten our rights and our lives.
Defending guys who question rape? Pushing invasive and unnecessary medical procedures on women? Thinking they know better then we do about what works best for our lives? It is difficult to imagine a more insulting attack on Anthony’s proud legacy.
The first couple is peddling black college graduates some seriously worn-out stereotypes on race and opportunity. Read Aura Bogado’s take.
Editor's Note: The following is the text of the speech given by Nation contributor Ilyse Hogue in her first public appearance as the new president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, at its fortieth anniversary dinner, in Washington, DC, on February 5.
Thank you all for coming out tonight to show your support for NARAL Pro Choice-America, for Nancy, and for this cause that is so central to building a country worthy of our ideals.
How many of you are at a NARAL event for the first time? Stand up! That's amazing! Round of applause. Welcome!
Now, how many of you in this room have been working with NARAL and the pro-choice movement for twenty years or more, stand up. Wow! Incredible.
Such rich history in this room—and so much new energy. With that combo, how can we not accomplish great things together?
One of the reasons we have gathered here tonight is to honor the great leadership of Nancy Keenan.
For the last eight years, Nancy has steered this organization with a steady hand and a clear vision through some very challenging times for our movement. We are all indebted to her for that.
And, on a personal note, Nancy, I cannot thank you enough for the grace and love you have shown in passing this charge to me.
Transitions like these are natural moments for us to take stock, to ask ourselves—how far have we come? where are we headed? …as individuals, as a movement, and as a country. Tonight we mark the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. Forty years ago, the basic freedom for women to decide if, when, how and with whom we have a family was enshrined into law.
It is unthinkable to many people today how fundamentally that changed women's lives. Before Roe, the lives of millions of bright and passionate young women were irreversibly altered because of choices they were not trusted to make. Before Roe, the leading cause of death for women of child bearing years in the United States of America was illegal abortion.
It is sobering to think how many people in this room carry memories in their hearts of lives lost too young… simply because the law didn't recognize what we know to be true—that women know best when we're ready to have a family.
I do not regret that my generation didn't experience the days of back-alley abortions. But I do regret that we don't all know the brave leaders who have fought for decades to put those days behind us. So many women have worked so hard to safeguard choice under the law. Because of them, our generations can write our own destiny like never before. We owe them all—you all—an enormous debt.
It is hard to start naming names, because I might never stop. But I do want to call out one more person: Before we had Nancy Keenan and before we had Kate Michelman, we had Karen Mulhauser to lead NARAL. Karen is here tonight and we thank you so much.
And so as we look forward from today, it's so important to recognize that we stand on the shoulders of giants. And our very first job is not to fall off—not to fall back into those dark days our opponents would wish on American women.
So, forty years later, how are we doing from up here on these shoulders?
Not so bad. As of two weeks ago in a Wall Street Journal poll, seven out of ten Americans support Roe. Seven out of ten. If this decision were on the ballot, they'd call that a landslide. It is so important to recognize when we are winning.
That's not to say we don't still have a political fight on our hands. We do, because on choice, as in so many areas, our politics lag way behind our culture. It often takes a while for some politicians to catch up with the realities of people's lives.
As Stephanie Cutter noted earlier, this election cycle both surfaced the true colors of our opponents—it's not just abortion anymore folks, now it's whether we can have contraception (or healthcare) or if we even know if we were raped—and we seized the opportunity to go on offense. In race after race, the anti-woman, anti-choice candidate was defeated, bringing us a record number of women in Congress. And a woman's right to choose was central to many of those contests.
Still, for too many women, these victories feel like an illusion. Those same opponents are scoring policy wins at the state level that have devastating impact on women and girls. In my home state of Texas, the defunding of Planned Parenthood means almost half of poor women in that state are going without basic healthcare, much less being able to decide for themselves how to handle an unwanted pregnancy. In Arkansas, just yesterday, the House voted to ban abortion after twenty weeks of pregnancy with no exemptions for rape or incest.
So the basic fight, for our basic freedom, is still with us. Women's work is never done.
Yet, as we stand here on the shoulders of giants, we also must look out over the horizon and anticipate the world yet to come. To ask how we build a movement that supports an evolving set of women's choices, some that exist today but were unheard of forty years ago. Some that we can hardly imagine even tonight.
The world is changing—fast. Women are attending college in record numbers. Women in the United States are choosing to have fewer children and are starting families later in life. Demand for fertility treatment is up—modern technologies now not only help us avoid having families at the wrong time, but help us to have families at the right time. Two thousand twelve was not only a milestone for women in government; it was also a milestone for women in business. Two thousand twelve brought what was once unthinkable when we witnessed the appointment of the first pregnant CEO to run a Fortune 500 company.
And still our politics lag behind our possibilities. Paid sick days, equal pay, family leave—these are the kinds of things women need to make the choices that let us thrive and to thrive in the choices we make. And what we know is that when women thrive, communities thrive, marketplaces thrive and our country thrives.
In 1995, at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Hillary Rodham Clinton proclaimed to the world that “women's rights are human rights.”
She went on to say, “We need to understand that there is no formula for how women should lead their lives. That is why we must respect the choices that each woman makes for herself and her family. Every woman deserves the chance to realize her God-given potential.”
Secretary Clinton's words are as applicable today as they were almost twenty years ago. Choices are expanding in an ever-changing world. Our challenge in the coming decades is not just to beat back those who would restrict those choices but to marshal the millions of women who want to define what these new choices mean for us.
Women are thinking bigger thoughts and dreaming bigger dreams for our families and for our futures than ever before. But we cannot do that unless our foundational rights are secured. And those foundational rights will not be secure until we challenge our political leaders to match policy to the real lives of real women today.
This is our charge as a new generation of women leaders, standing up here on these giant shoulders to think hard about how we can be giants too. I really hope you'll join me.
Michael “Heckuva-job” Brownie has been making headlines the past couple days with his “expert” assessment that President Obama may have jumped the gun with his pre-emptive warnings about Hurricane Sandy. We’ll never know how many lives were saved because officials across the Eastern seaboard sounded the alarm early and got people out of harm’s way. But I’m gonna guess that a Romney campaign that has gone to great lengths to keep any memory of the Bush administration in a dim corridor far from voters’ consciousness is not pleased with Brown’s uninvited intrusion into the political discourse in the final days of a close election.
Michael Brown is best known as the hapless FEMA director that George W. Bush made famous when he commended the guy for doing a “heckuva job” during Katrina as the Lower Ninth Ward sank on national television. His re-emergence during Sandy would be laughable, except for one thing: it reminds us that the outrage we experience in moments of tragedy are too often nowhere to be found in the cold calculations that lead to election messaging.
In 2005, for a moment in time, a stunned nation peered at itself in the mirror after Hurricane Katrina. We began to have an honest conversation about the intersection of poverty, racism and callousness that allowed an entire population to languish in misery while a president flew over in his plane and claimed to understand their plight. While the legacy of Katrina played a role in diminishing confidence in Bush’s leadership, the 2008 election was litigated more over the plight of Iraqis and not over how to prevent another Katrina.
Similarly, in 2011, Troy Davis was put to death for a murder that it seems dubious at best that he committed. Amidst nationwide vigils and protests about the racial inequity of the US criminal justice system, the Supreme Court denied the last appeal from Davis and his lawyers to stay the execution. He was killed by lethal injection on Wednesday, September 21. “I Am Troy Davis” became the anguished rallying cry of a public paralyzed by injustice.
And for months early this year, the murder of Trayvon Martin catalyzed a national conversation about American’s obscene gun laws and the tolerance we have for the epidemic of murder of young black men. Hoodies, skittles and iced tea became the macabre symbols for a life that was lost way too early. While vigilantes like George Zimmerman remain free, gun control has meritted only the slightest mention in the presidential race, despite the best efforts of groups like Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
On his show last Sunday, Chris Hayes did a must-watch riff on what the election would be like if the South Bronx was the “swing state” upon which the election hinged. Instead of an auto bailout, we might be having a national conversation about homelessness, or stop-and-frisk or racial disparities in our prison system.
Instead, these critical issues are relegated to the sidelines in our nation’s most watched election spectacle because hard political calculation demands a more expedient route to winning a majority in the Electoral College. Given the importance of Ohio in winning the 2012 contest, we’ve spent far more time in these final weeks understanding the fine points of a relatively modest—albeit important—government investment in a key part of our manufacturing base than on the life-and-death issues that affect millions of people in this country.
Along with long-standing groups like League of Young Voters and Color of Change, a new loose-knit group of courageous and committed activists has decided that this is the year to take action. Threading the pragmatic task of building visible political power with the passion of pursuing a deeply moral cause, Hoodie Vote was formed a few months ago to give young people of color an organizing structure that allows them to participate in the election while showing their allegiance to correcting racial inequity in our culture.
Hoodie Vote Co-Founder and National Coordinator Trell Thomas tells me:
I wanted to start the Hoodie Vote movement because I saw a huge need for young people—particularly young people of color—to be involved in the political process. I saw the correlation between young people and fashion/culture and the need make a difference in what they viewed as a “real” way. I also was very touched by what happened to Trayvon Martin so much so that I got in a van full of strangers for a twenty-one-hour ride to Sanford, Florida, to be a part of the march because the cause was one that I believed deeply in.
I swore that I would not let Trayvon be forgotten. The thing about the situation with Trayvon, the hoodies, this movement and the political process is that people voted on the “stand your ground” law that ultimately ended in the death of an innocent young man, and if we forfeit our right to vote who’s to say that there won’t be another Trayvon? I wanted young people to make that correlation. I wanted them to know that it is much bigger than a presidential seat, there are issues that affect you locally in a real way.
So why not send a message on this election day in our hoodies? Why not show people that we matter, that we care, that we are involved. We aren’t robbing, killing or looking suspicious in our hoodies. We are making a difference, changing the world in our hoodies! I see this as a way to continue to turn tragedy into triumph and to bring more positive out of such a negative situation.
Hoodie Vote has taken off, with groups on fifty campuses around the country and a handful of celebrity endorsements. Even Russell Simmons has gotten in his hoodie to support the emerging movement.
These committed activists are playing the long game. We’ve got miles to travel before we see national leadership embrace the embedded racism and poverty that plagues our inner cities. But as Hoodie Vote’s Trell noted to me in his comments, “We will not be bitter because of this, we will be better!” We would all do well to learn from this spirit.
I spent a half-hour yesterday cutting and pasting the presidential debate transcript into Word and then using the search function to look for the term “women.” When the ABC transcript came up empty, I tried the CNN one. When that also returned no results, I decided to change my search parameters to “woman”—i.e., singular. Booyah! I got four, count ’em, four hits! All four were in anecdotes about a “woman I met…”
Perplexed, I went to recheck the debate schedule. Maybe there wasn’t any mention because a future debate was dedicating time to the topic? Nope. Economics and foreign policy are where these debates are headed.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who noticed. My e-mail inbox is full of outreaches from women’s groups who note that Romney’s extreme positions were neither defended or challenged. From stalwart NARAL to new on-line group UltraViolet, women’s groups are once again left to point out that women were left out of the debate.
To be honest, I am annoyed as I write. Women are 52 percent of the population, so dedicating one section of one debate to “women’s issues” would be absurd. But the complete absence of discussion about the enhanced barriers women face in a bad economy is staggering. The economic and social well-being of women is integral to that of the country, and highlighting this, and forcing Romney to defend his regressive policies on everything from choice to the economic fairness for women is not only good political strategy, it would start to open up a real conversation about closing the gap on gender-based inequality. How hard is it to go from anecdote to analysis?
Here are these four women the candidates met along the campaign trail that merited mention in Wednesday’s debate:
The Unemployed Woman—Mitt Romney spoke of an Ohio woman who had been out of work for six months. Accordingly to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national average time of unemployment is almost eleven months, so this woman was faring OK among her peers. But she’s right to be concerned. Women continue to recover from the recession more slowly than men, largely due to the loss of public sector jobs. The private sector has added 3.5 million jobs since the recovery started, but only 28.8 percent of those have gone to women, and they are likely to be paid seventy-seven cents per the dollar for their male counterparts. The Romney/Ryan “jobs” plan would result in millions more jobs lost, the bulk in the public sector. Even if Unemployed Woman was able to buck the trend and get a private sector job, she shouldn’t expect to be paid like the boys in the office, since Romney refuses to confirm his support for equal pay.
The Foreclosed Woman—Romney met a woman in Nevada facing foreclosure after her husband lost his job. Foreclosed Woman is probably not alone, but she’s going to have a challenge organizing a meet-up. Gender-based foreclosure stats are extremely hard to come by, as I learned after asking several organizations leading on this issue for a breakdown. What we do know is that predatory lenders pushed subprime mortgages on women at a much higher rate than on men, despite women’s having a generally higher foreclosure rate. African-American women fared the worst; they were 236 percent more likely to receive a subprime mortgage than white men. Neither candidate have a serious plan to deal with the human and economic impact of the record foreclosures, but given Romney’s stance on regulation and allegiance to trickle-down economics, it’s safe to assume he would let the banks run amok and certainly principal reduction would become a distant dream.
The Uninsured Woman—Romney also encountered an uninsured woman along the course of his travels. This is not shocking given the 19 million adult women nationally who were uninsured in 2011. Some of this is because of cost; some women have lost their jobs; some are unable to get coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Women of color make up half that number, despite their making up roughly a third of the population. Repealing the Affordable Care Act as Romney has said he would do his first day in office would be disastrous for Uninsured Woman, who will benefit from Medicaid expansion and from access to traditional insurance through the elimination of surcharges based exclusively on gender.
The Back-to-School Woman—President Obama told one story of a North Carolina woman who went back to school at the age of 55 and was able to get a better job as a result of it. Women are more likely to enroll in and graduate from college than their male counterparts. This is true across all ethnicities. We know that more adults went back to school as the recession hit. Adults and regular-aged students alike depend on Pell Grants for their college education, a program far more likely to be preserved under an Obama presidency than a Romney one. Romney has also been an advocate for profit-driven universities, which by some estimates are funded up to 90 percent with taxpayer dollars while proving disastrous in terms of graduation rates and employment stats post-graduation.
Apparently, none of the women on the campaign trail approached the candidates with a question about reproductive choice. So allow me to assert that all aspects of our lives get categorically more difficult when we lose control over decisions about family planning and reproduction.
We’re less six weeks from two party conventions that spent the better part of their allotted time paying homage to the critical role women play in American families, in the American workforce and certainly in deciding American elections. President Obama is clearly the leader on issues as they relate to women, and the Democrats have made hay with the Republican War on Women. As the election moves into the final stretch, we need to be more visible in the conversation, not less.
Be sure to also check out Bryce Covert’s take on the “invisible women.”
Image: Steve Brodner
The news of Mitt Romney’s remarks at a closed-door fundraiser that were leaked by Mother Jones has been dominating since it broke yesterday. The scandalous content appears plentiful enough to keep pundits and political junkies glued to Twitter for the remainder of the cycle. And let’s be clear: between Romney’s callous “wait-and see” approach to the Middle East peace process, his instrumental view of Latino voters and his parasitic characterization of those who are too poor to pay income tax, he painted a devastating picture of himself as a leader and a person.
The line from the video that is the source of the most fascination is when Romney claims that he cares not at all for the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes and freeload off the government, since they are sure to be Obama voters anyway. The statement is a window into the cynical and meanspirited worldview that would guide this candidate’s policies and priorities were he to win in November. This alone should give every voter pause, regardless of partisan affiliation.
But there’s a reason right-wing blogger and CNN contributor Erick Erickson’s first tweet after seeing the leaked tapes expressed joy:
Dammit!I’m just now seeing these Romney secret videos. We need that guy on the campaign trail!
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) September 17, 2012
A year ago this week, a small band of committed activists achieved a goal that had eluded the established political organizations and the progressive nonprofit sector: they successfully shifted the national conversation away from one about cuts and austerity to one about our nation’s yawning economic inequality. “The 99 percent versus the 1 percent” became the rallying cry for an reinvigorated movement, and Occupy Wall Street ushered in a new era where political fantasy gave way to economic reality in shaping the public discourse.
While the glory days of Occupy faded with winter, the movement left an indelible imprint on our collective consciousness: despite partisan claims to the contrary, most residents in this country have far more in common than we have that drives us apart.
(A big shout out to those committed activists who retook Zuccotti Park for the anniversary of Occupy. For more on this, see Nation reporting here.)
Panicked by the need to respond to the growing sense of outrage about a rigged system built by some of their architects, right-wing leaders cast about for a way to change the conversation back to their own advantage. It was this desire that drove Erick Erickson to start the “53 percent movement.” In launching his campaign, Erickson called the protesters “whiners,” and sought a new social division—one that pitted the 53 percent of Americans who pay federal income taxes against those he claimed were “free-loading” activists. Despite his entreaties and the cheerleading of the right-wing echo chamber, their manufactured meme could not compete with the much more resonant, organic and accurate 99 percent rallying cry.
Still, the mathematical and rhetorical trick has remained in the back pocket of a GOP desperate to change the subject back to their hobbyhorse of the deficit. They see their opportunity in the resurrection of the 47 percent argument, despite how the moment presented itself.
There is now, as there was then, much to take issue with in the 47 percent statistic. Those 47 percent of Americans live below the poverty or are unemployed or are elderly, many of whom have paid taxes their entire life. Those 47 percent also almost certainly pay some form of taxes: be it payroll taxes, income taxes, state taxes, property tax or sales tax. And there is emerging an even more in-the-weeds debate about whether or not these 47 percent are actually more likely to vote for Romney or Obama, an answer we’ll never find because it’s different depending on how you count. It is tempting to jump on these arguments—passionate as we all are for getting the ever-dwindling facts out to our fellow Americans.
But doing so will cede the home field advantage to the GOP. This certainty accounts for Stuart Varney’s crowing that it’s about time we get back to talking about how “half of the population is living off of the other half” during Fox and Friends’s morning coverage of the tapes. It is the same reason that Brian Kilmeade on the same network stated unequivocally that Romney should be stumping on this issue all the time. If we’re spending time talking about what half the population does or does not get or do, we inevitably draw attention away from the fact that the GOP is running a candidate whose entire life experience and political vision is shaped by being part of the top tiny fraction of this country’s wealth at a time where most Americans are struggling to get by.
So, while the campaign can’t be happy about the GOP-patented guerrilla tactics now coming back to bite one of their own, early pronouncements that the election was won last night are premature and irresponsible. If Romney’s camp can weather this storm and find themselves washed up on the beaches of the 47 percent versus the 99 percent, they might have chance of not getting voted off the Island. This election—and more important, the fight for economic opportunity—remains about the genuine struggles and solutions that benefit all but the most privileged in this country. Romney’s dismissal of half of those folks doesn’t change that fact.
A full timeline of the right’s campaign to move the 47 percent meme is provided here by Media Matters for America.
For more on Romney and the 47 percent, read John Nichols on how the presidential candidate himself belongs in that number.
Eva Longoria strode on stage at the Democratic National Convention tonight looking every bit the international star that she is. She didn’t have an empty chair, but she carried a sharp analysis and a disarming sass. She spoke of her modest upbringing in Texas and how, while college was not optional in her family, the money was sparse. Eva took what jobs she could—fast food, mechanics, aerobics—to pay for college and then pay back her loans. Her family believed that the opportunity America would offer if she got her degree was a worthy investment. Pivoting from the personal to the political, Eva drew a sharp line between the candidates with the thunderous applause line: “The Eva Longoria who worked at Wendy’s flipping burgers—she needed a tax break. But the Eva Longoria who works on movie sets does not.”
In the theater of modern conventions, party platforms are pro forma, but party pizzaz is paramount. This is the reason the Republicans were so thrilled to have a star like Clint Eastwood that they didn’t bother to vet his bizarre performance last week in Tampa. The Democratic National Convention is the final dress rehearsal for the last two months of the campaign, where they take the narrative for a spin and the audience response is like real-time market-testing. And Longoria was there to appeal directly to key target demographics and leave them feeling better about an administration that’s lost some luster in the long slog of the last four years.
Young people voted in record numbers in 2008. Even more, this is the group that gave the long-shot candidate a rock-star status that helped propel him from a long-shot candidate to the White House. But with their economic prospects dim because of the recession and payments due on college loans, their participation this cycle is far from assured.
Just under 60 percent of young voters say that they will definitely vote this fall, a twenty-point drop from this time four years ago. The president is leading Mitt Romney by a secure margin among the under-30 set, but still a significantly lower number than 2008. Being outspent three-to-one by outside groups, the Democrats need a high turnout election to secure the margin of victory. While there’s time for that to change, the campaign can’t afford to take any chances.
Hence, the final night of #DNC2012 was star-studded. Set between a national anthem by Marc Anthony and a set by the Foo Fighters, Mary J. Blige brought down the house with her cover of Bono’s “One Love.” In between, Eva was joined by actress Kerry Washington, who built on the story John Lewis told earlier in the evening.
“So many struggled so that all of us could have a voice in this great democracy and live up to the first three words of our constitution: We the people. I love that phrase so much. Throughout our country’s history, we’ve expanded the meaning of that phrase to include more and more of us.
Today there are people trying take away rights that our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought for: our right to vote, our right to choose, affordable quality education, equal pay, access to healthcare. We the people can’t let that happen.”
Next up, Scarlett Johansson conjured an image of the magic of her first trip to the voting booth, reminiscing, “When I was a little girl, my mother—a registered Democrat—would take me into the polling booth, and tell me which buttons to press and when to pull the lever. Is that even legal? I remember the excitement I felt in that secret box, and feeling like my mom’s vote wasn’t just about the candidate, it was about our family—and all the families just like ours.” Scarlett seemed familiar with studies showing that a firm commitment to vote increases the likelihood of actually following through. She implored, “You know who I’m voting for. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for. I’m here to ask you to commit to vote.”
It wasn’t just the movie stars on parade tonight in Charlotte. Internet sensation and son of two lesbians, Zach Wahls spoke to the crowd about how much it meant to him to have a president who recognizes his family as equal. Dreamers and young vets told their stories and implored their peers to step up and engage.
The Republicans don’t need angry white men, but they squandered their opportunity anyway with Clint Eastwood’s performance last week. The Democrats knew they needed to gin back up the enthusiasm that drove the youth vote in 2008, and the star power out tonight took their responsibility seriously and delivered a sober message. And Eva did it without the chair.
Michelle Obama’s singular mission last night was to convince Americans that she and the president deeply understand the real challenges facing Americans today, and she aced it. With a relaxed grace that wowed the convention hall, she spoke in personal terms of a common American experience and voiced a deep belief that a shared connection allows her husband to fight for all of us, but especially the women. Against a backdrop of the GOP assault on women’s rights and an economic recession disproportionately affecting women, her words offered a handhold for the slipping hope that ran rampant just four years ago.
While she never mentioned either Romney by name, the obvious juxtaposition of the couples’ lives and core beliefs was woven silently into anecdotes and stated principles throughout the speech. The emotion in her voice was audible as Michelle recounted watching her father struggle to dress himself every morning for his physically demanding job at the water plant. The family needed the money despite his progressive multiple sclerosis. The painted image automatically conjured up a comparison with Ann Romney’s idyllic upbringing as the privileged daughter of a small town mayor.
When Michelle relayed the constant worry of her parents as they scraped and sacrified to afford the small portion of college tuition not covered by federal grants and loans, we were remided of Ann Romney’s description of how tough it was to live off of Mitt’s stock portfolio while they were newleyweds in college. Working moms around the country chuckled with camaraderie when Michelle said date night for her and Barack as parents was dinner or a movie because “as an exhausted mom, I couldn’t stay awake for both.” Ann Romney’s full-time mothering was no doubt exhausting, they must have been silently musing, but since she didn’t have to juggle a job as well, she might have gotten both dinner and a movie. And in a final blow, Michelle deftly but gently cut the heart out of of the GOP narrative and Mitt Romney’s top selling point when she said softly that for Barack “success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”
While Michelle was the main event, the entire evening was a veritable paean to the women voters this campaign needs to win. If the convention stage was the floor of the House, what are commonly referred to as “women’s issues” would be front and center in a Democratic offensive to rebuild the middle class and own the principles of equality and justice.
With female leaders of labor, government and health advocacy speaking all night long, the crowd was primed as the evening wore on. The men also paid homage to the women who got them to the stage, and pledged to fight for a better future for everyone’s daughters. Julian Castro, the young mayor from San Antonio, delivered a standout performance based largely on his life story of being raised by his mother and grandmother. It was a moving nod to the immigrant experience being made possible by strong women.
By the time Lilly Ledbetter took the stage, the crowd erupted in a frenzy something like teenage fans at a Jonas Brothers concert. The notorious blond grandmother from Alabama sued all the way to the Supreme Court after discovering male counterparts at her tire factory earned more than she did. Smart and sassy, Ledbetter summed up the real-life impact of a twenty-three cent pay gap: the ability to take the family to the occasional movie and still have pennies left over for the college savings account. Ledbetter scored one of the best responses of the night when she mused: “Maybe twenty-three cents doesn’t sound like much for someone with a Swiss Bank account….”
Women across the board say that economic concerns are top of list to get their vote, but nine out of ten say it is critical a candidate understand women. “Understanding women,” I heard consistently as I wandered the hall, means not making abortion and jobs separate issues. With two income households a necessity and reproductive health central to economic security, convention promises will remain just those until—in the words of one older male delegate from New Hampshire—“we stop talking about these as women’s issues. They are economic issues and family issues.”
The women at the convention are fiercely defensive of their president. One Virginia delegate told me with an evangelical zeal that “people forget the patient was bleeding. Our country was on the ER table and losing life fast. Now, the bleeding has stopped and the healing can begin.” Women effortlessly list Obama’s accomplishments on healthcare, on choice, on financial reform. They sing his praises as a father and a husband. And they organize like people with the threat of a Romney/Ryan presidency hanging over their heads.
But even on this night of homage to women, the wage gap wasn’t the only one on display. The women’s Congressional delegation lined up behind Nancy Peolsi as she spoke from the stage appeared appallingly sparse. Though not every member was meant to be accounted for, the image is a graphic reminder that women still only make up 17 percent of federal elected positions. Those numbers qualifies the United States for a spot at seventy-third place in the world for female representation in government, tied with Turkmenistan. A delegate from Colorado told me conspiratorially that there’s always a fight with local party leaders to get money to women candidates in enough time to make a difference in viability.
While the Ledbetter Act has become the president’s signature legislation with women, there is widespread frustration that the Paycheck Fairness Act still languishes in Congress, even if most of that rancor is reserved for the GOP. And one African-American delegate from Nevada fervently wished aloud that the president and Democrats would just speak up about the fact that the wage gap is far higher for women of color than white women. “Painting over the race part of inequality doesn’t help,” she said of her work to get other women of color involved in the campaign.
Kathleen Sebelius’s concise summation of the real time impact on women’s lives from Obamacare was impressive in content and delivery. But no speech provided a genuine analysis of why we are losing substantial ground on reproductive choice, most of them instead settling for the easy win against the GOP villain. Governor Deval Patrick’s rousing line about Democrats’ much-needed pivot to offense requiring more spine met with genuine, if surprised, appreciation. But with no stated solutions on how to stop the war on women other than to re-elect Obama, that offensive still looks daunting. Women haven’t forgotten that the Stupak amendment restricting federal funds from going towards abortion happened on the Democrats’ watch. “It’s not a matter of blame,” one woman from Illinois explained, “it’s a matter of strategy.”
But none of that was top of mind tonight as Michelle took the stage. She connected beautifully with almost every woman in the room while she spoke of her daughters, her concern for their future and her primary role as Mom-in-Chief. The distance yet to travel was most evident in what she didn’t say. Her own success as a lawyer, a dean at the University of Chicago and a hospital administrator was notable in its absence. Her impressive professional biography would have to wait another cycle for the political culture to catch up with reality. Meanwhile, she more than fulfilled her core job as first lady, which is to remind us of her husband’s humanity, his dedication and her abiding belief in his ability to continue to lead this country forward. And we believe her. Because while Ann Romney shouted out last week in Tampa, “I love you women,” Michelle Obama is one of us women.