By ANN MONTAGUE
Last year the largest protest in the history of this country brought 4 million women into the streets. A march that was originally organized as a women’s protest on the first day that President Trump sat in the White House, Jan. 21, quickly morphed into over 600 marches in cities and towns across the country.
The determination of women in every corner of the country to make a statement against the “Misogynist In Chief” and to exhibit their anger at the ongoing rollback of women’s rights was on display. The national organizers had no demands for the marches so every woman made up their own. The shock of the media and the women themselves at their numbers meant they could not be ignored.
Most young women at the march in Washington, D.C., had never before been in a demonstration of 60,000 to 80,000 people. One woman commented, “Early on there was so much wrangling about march permits, but when you have this many women, we just went wherever we wanted. There was no way we could be blocked. I felt so free.”
After the march, many thought it had been a one-time expression of women’s anger that was sparked by the election of a president. But they had not listened to Angela Davis, who was the last speaker and quoted Ella Baker, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
Less than two months later, women hit the streets again on International Women’s Day, March 8. These actions were organized by International Women’s Strike, U.S. in solidarity with over 50 countries where women were planning strikes on that day
In the United States the organizers began to explain and popularize their platform calling for a “Feminism of the 99%” and clearly addressed economic inequality, racial and sexual violence plus imperial wars abroad. Thirty cities and towns across the U.S. saw rallies, marches and meetings. There were also strikes of women in paid and unpaid work.
Few people knew that what had started out as a reaction to an election would soon explode in a completely different direction.
Tarana Burke: “#MeToo is now a movement”
After millennia of experiencing misogyny exhibited by bullying, sexual harassment, and violence, women started speaking out, and when they did it became a deluge with no end.
The hashtag #MeToo was started 10 years ago by Tarana Burke. She is program director for “Girls For Gender Equity.” As a survivor of abuse she wanted to find a way towards healing for young girls of color. She explained on “Democracy Now!” that someone had said to her “me too” and it started changing the healing process within herself. These two words were “about reaching the places that other people would not go, bringing messages and words of encouragement to survivors of sexual violence where other people wouldn’t be talking about it.”
The cascading catalyst was when Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was criminally investigated after dozens of women started coming forward. Burke is not surprised by the outpouring of allegations but, “it is important to realize that for every R. Kelly or Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein, there is an owner of a grocery store, coach, teacher, neighbor. We don’t pay attention ’til it is a celebrity. We need to keep talking, but this is not about a hashtag—it is not a moment, it is a movement.” She encourages people to look at the numbers: “This is a pandemic.”
It soon would become clear how deep and pervasive this pandemic is throughout the society. Burke’s hashtag democratized the struggle as it gave voice to all women who had not been heard. The victim or the perpetrator did not have to be famous, it was now all about women speaking and listening to each other.
It was also shocking to union members when actions of top levels of union leaders were exposed. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) were accused by Mia Kirshner of “inadequate protection against sexual harassment and abuse in the film industry.”
When it was revealed that SEIU Executive Vice President Scott Courtney was put on leave and then resigned for abusing his power over women staff members who were his subordinates, a number of SEIU staff said, “Finally! What took so long?” Courtney was a top-level strategist for the Fight For 15 campaign. Soon afterward, two other top staff in Chicago resigned. When the phrase, “this was an open secret” came out, it was clear to SEIU staff and union members that having an ethics policy (SEIU has a comprehensive one) means nothing. Members now need to empower staff, as staff have empowered them to take on abusive worksite managers.
There is an even deeper meaning here for all unions. At least half of all SEIU members are women. There are many women on staff and in leadership positions. In the last few years there has been an affirmative action plan in place to increase the number of people of color in leadership positions at all levels of the union. But as so many unions, white men still dominate in the top levels. They are the chief strategists. Just as on corporate boards, that is where the power lies, and when women on staff speak up about abuse, those at the top circle the wagons and “protect” the organization.
This, of course, is not unique to SEIU. In most unions those men are the same ones who do not really believe in an organizing model with rank-and-file control and decision making. Business unionism not only makes for weaker unions; it has left harassed and assaulted staff members as victims.
When the accusations continued to spread and started hitting members of Congress, noted feminists started warning that there would be a backlash against women speaking out. It is now clear that the movement is getting stronger regardless of apologists (Democrats and Republicans) for the abusers. “Listen To Women” will be a major focus of the marches this year.
A year of attacks on social programs
The first attack from the White House came the first day of Trump’s presidency as four million women were in the streets. He made a statement to the women of the world that his first executive action would be to eliminate funding for programs that fight global maternity mortality.
Trump reinstated the federal “Global Gag Rule” from the Reagan era. This is the international version of the Hyde Amendment—the bipartisan law that bars federal funds from being used for abortion services. This prohibits international NGOs from receiving funds if they even speak to patients or provide pamphlets that mention abortion. The rule is in effect even in countries where abortions are legal. Many small NGOs as well as international aid groups depend on that money to fund their operations. This measure is detrimental to women’s health services worldwide.
In March Trump issued an executive order to revoke the 2014 Fair Pay and Workplaces Act, which ensured that federal contracts were awarded only to companies with no history of unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment, or discrimination complaints.
In May Trump’s first budget threatened to slash government programs largely used by poor women and children. The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program was cut by $200 million. This program ensures health and nutrition for mothers, newborns, and young children. The program remains in place but is greatly hampered by the cuts.
President Trump issued an administrative rule that eliminates the requirement that all insurance company plans cover birth control.
There have been persistent attacks on Planned Parenthood, starting with a move to eliminate Title X funding. This is a federal subsidy to organizations that offer services related to contraception, pregnancy care, fertility, and cancer screenings for persons with low income. Previously, there was a rule that barred states from withholding funds from organizations just because they offer abortion services. In April a bill was passed that put an end to this provision, basically giving states the freedom to defund Planned Parenthood.
States continue women’s rights restrictions
Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed two bills that he calls “Pro-Life Insurance Reform.” This legislation prohibits insurance providers from “forcing” any policy holder to purchase general health insurance that pays for elective abortions. If a woman wants insurance to cover abortions, she must now purchase a separate policy. The bill does not provide exceptions for rape or incest. At the signing, Gov. Abbott announced, “This ensures that no Texan is ever required to pay for a procedure that ends the life of an ‘unborn’ child.”
The second bill expands reporting requirements for complications resulting from abortions. Within three days of treatment, doctors must report the patient’s birth year, county, race, and marital status.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMasters issued an executive order to direct state agencies to block women from getting preventive care at Planned Parenthood clinics.
In Pennsylvania, on Dec. 18, Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed an anti-abortion bill that had passed the state legislature. Wolf told a crowd at Philadelphia City Hall, “This legislation is an attempt to criminalize the decisions that women must be allowed to make about their own health care.” It passed the House earlier in the month by 120-70 and passed the state Senate last February, 32-18. Republicans can still try to override the veto, but appear to lack the two-thirds majority to do so.
Pennsylvania’s Senate Bill 3 would have banned abortions after 19 weeks of pregnancy (with minimal exceptions such as to prevent the death of the mother), four weeks earlier than the current law. It also would have restricted doctors from “causing the death of an unborn child by means of dismembering the unborn child and extracting the unborn child one piece at a time from the uterus through the use of various instruments. This describes the dilation and evacuation method, which is the most common abortion procedure in the second trimester
Federal judges have already issued injunctions against this restriction in states such as Texas, Alabama, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
According to Planned Parenthood, the Pennsylvania bill would have contained the most vigorous time restrictions in the country. It was seen as a bellwether for passing similar bills in other states. It was opposed by the Pennsylvania Medical Society and the Pennsylvania section of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Among their concerns is that women often receive a critical ultrasound around the 20th week of pregnancy that can detect abnormalities that, in many cases, can be life threatening to the fetus. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reports that delivery before 23 weeks of gestation typically results in death.
2018: women to march in local areas
This year, the marches will be decentralized. Women will turn out in U.S. cities and towns on Jan. 20 and 21, reflecting their increased anger, activism, and resistance over the past year. Some women still believe that an electoral strategy is the way towards change, but transformative change has always come about through the pressure of social movements independent of elections. Women have seen their issues immobilized and their time wasted by politicians and then used as fund-raising ploys.
The women’s marches this year will be a time to organize and to make our demands visible and clear. The economic demands of the women on strike in December at the Christian Care Home in Ferguson, Mo., are a significant example. After striking for 25 days in 20-degree weather, they received “illegal” replacement notices from the board of Christian Care Homes right before Christmas.
The demands for justice by the Indigenous women who will be marching together in the Women’s March in Phoenix, Ariz., are particularly notable. They are asking women to wear red to raise awareness of the missing and murdered indigenous women. Some 84 percent of Native American women experience violence in their lifetime. The marchers are also connecting their violence “to the struggle of the continued assaults and desecration of Mother Earth.”
Sadly, what most women demonstrators will hear from the rally platforms is a call for them to go all out to elect Democrats in the mid-term elections or run for office themselves—in this same big business party. The movement that we clearly need, however, must be fiercely independent of both of the political parties that are bought and paid for by the bosses. A movement must be built that can stand on its own and demand all that we need from whomever sits in the legislature and in the White House.
One important effort in that direction is the organizing that has begun for the International Women’s Day action in New York City. The organizers, in solidarity with global actions in 2018, call themselves the International Women’s Strike NYC, and describe themselves as a coalition of grassroots groups and labor organizations. They state their goal as bringing together as many people as possible under a militant feminist banner.
What does militant feminism mean to them? They say: “We would like next March 8th to be a day of action and visibility by and for working class women: women of color, immigrant women, Muslim women, queer and trans women, sex workers, domestic and care workers, and mothers.
“We want to continue recovering the radical history of the International Women’s Day by striking, marching and protesting together to demand free health care for all, including free abortion, contraception, and reproductive care; to oppose the Trump administration’s xenophobic and Islamophobic policies; to protest tax cuts for the rich; to demand social provisioning, environmental justice and a liveable minimum wage. We hope that next March 8th will contribute to build a feminism for the 99%, in solidarity with working women, their families, and their allies throughout the world.” Women around the country should follow their example.
Photo: Salvatore DiNolte / EPA