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.