A Road Map for Our New Governor to Improve Women’s Health and Economic Security

By Kate Michelman and Carol E. Tracy

Democratic challenger Tom Wolf defied a national tide and 60 years of Pennsylvania history in defeating incumbent Republican governor Tom Corbett on November 4. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. October polls showed 61 percent of voters believed the state was on the wrong track — as did 100 percent of advocates for women’s health and economic security. It’s little wonder that Tom Wolf won the vote of women by 16 points. Read more here…

Posted in economic security, Government, Pennsylvania, Women's health, Women's Law Project, WomenVote PA | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

FBI Releases First Annual Report Using Revised Definition of Rape

By Tara Murtha, WLP Staff

The FBI recently released the preliminary annual Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) statistics for 2013.

The statistics reflect data submitted voluntarily from 18,415 city, county, state, tribal, campus, and federal law enforcement agencies. While the data is not a complete picture of the number of crime reports to police in the United States, it is significantly closer to accurate in one area in particular: rape.

The 2013 UCR report is the first annual report to use the recently revised definition of rape. This  report represents a significant milestone in a long campaign to move national data on sexual assault reports to police closer to reality.

The UCR report numbers are important because the data informs policy, our cultural understanding of problems that must be fixed in society, and the amount of grant money allocated to fund advocacy organizations working on behalf of victims of sex crimes and to improve institutional responses.

Women’s Law Project led the charge to revise the FBI’s UCR definition of rape. In 2010, Executive Director Carol E. Tracy detailed the problem at a hearing before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs.

In 2011, the FBI’s Criminal Justice Advisory Policy Board voted in favor of changing the definition of rape in its Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Summary Reporting System (SRS) to reflect what the public understands to be rape, and to conform with state felony sex crime statutes.

Before the revision, the FBI defined rape as “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” It excluded many other variations of rape and all male victims. In other words, it was “narrow, outmoded, steeped in gender-based stereotypes, and seriously understated the true incidence of sex crimes.”

The FBI definition of rape had not been updated since the system was established in 1929.

The revised definition is “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

It encompasses male victims and offenders, includes drug-facilitated rape and reflects the various kinds of nonconsensual penetration of rape.

“This new, more inclusive definition will provide us with a more accurate understanding of the scope and volume of these crimes,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time. “The public has the right to know about the prevalence of sex crimes,” said Terry L. Fromson, Managing Attorney of the WLP.

The FBI projected that the number of rapes will increase by as much as 41.7% as the more inclusive definition is implemented.

This increase, however, does not necessarily mean that either more rapes are being reported or that rape is increasing.  It means that rapes previously recorded as lesser crimes are now being properly recorded as the serious crimes they are and reported to the public as such.

It’s important to note that though closer to accurate, the 2013 UCR rape statistics are still an incomplete snapshot: Not all law enforcement agencies have converted their records management systems to reflect the new definition yet.

According to a recent report in Slate, of the 18,415 agencies that reported to the UCR this year, 10,000 of them are using the revised definition of rape. That’s a 54% compliance rate.

Even as more law enforcement agencies convert to using the new definition, the statistics will still only reflect rapes reported to the police. Rape continues to be one of the most underreported crimes.

If you have any questions about how the new UCR definition of rape, or rape statistics and would like to speak to Carol E. Tracy or Terry Fromson, contact Tara Murtha at 215-928-5762.

Posted in Rape, Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women, Women's Law Project | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

October Roundup

B y Tara Murtha, WLP Staff

With a new Governor coming to Harrisburg, we have a lot of work to do to get ready for the next legislative session. In the meantime, let’s get up to speed on what went down in October, in case you missed it the first time around.

First, the good news: a new domestic violence shelter opened in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia city has long had only one emergency safe haven for victims of domestic violence. In recent years, advocates have watched, exasperated, as the number of women and children in desperate need of emergency shelter have been turned away due to a lack of resources. So we couldn’t be more pleased that the number of safe-haven beds in Philadelphia DOUBLED with the opening of a new shelter by Women Against Abuse named “Carol’s Place,” in honor of Women’s Law Project Executive Director Carol E. Tracy.

Another big win for women in Pennsylvania is the passage of a bill that stops towns from evicting domestic violence survivors for calling 911 for help.

Sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens, HB1796, titled “Protection for Victims of Crime from Certain Municipal Ordinances” was drafted in response to a situation so outrageous that it gained national attention.

Thanks to a so-called “nuisance property ordinance” that enabled landlords in Norristown, Pa. to evict tenants for calling 911, a domestic violence survivor named Lakisha Briggs was forced to choose between eviction and enduring physical abuse at the hands of an ex-partner, who would not leave the home she shared with her toddler.

It sounds like the kind of initiative everyone, even everyone in Harrisburg, could agree on. The problem was special interests kept trying to ride on its coat tails by tacking on unrelated, bad-news amendments. In the end, the bad-faith amendments were stripped from the bill, and it passed. Big thanks to everyone who called, emailed and tweeted your representatives… it worked.

Here’s something that didn’t work: Earlier in the month, anti-choice activists came to Philly to play video of what they claimed were “abortions in progress” on a JumboTron on Independence Mall. This particular group’s shtick is to try and filter anti-choice messages through the legacy of civil rights. Our friends at New Voices for Reproductive Justice Pittsburgh had something to say about that, and that something was very powerful indeed. We recommend reading it.

It’s important to remember that while anti-choice radicals can be loud, but they are not representative. In fact, a new poll shows that most Pennsylvanians support Roe v Wade, and recognize that abortion and contraception access—that is, reproductive public health policy—is not only a matter of women’s rights and economic security, an economic issue, too.

In Pittsburgh, New Voices urged the Susan G Komen Foundation to reject a donation from a Texas-based fracking company.

What else? Things are slowly but surely getting a little bit better for pregnant workers in Pennsylvania. We’re still calling for statewide protection of pregnant employees by way of a bill in the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health.

In the meanwhile, Pittsburgh followed Philadelphia’s example and passed a “reasonable accommodations” ordinance that will protect some local pregnant workers.

Back to Philly, we celebrated a new family court that finally opened up at 15th and Arch Streets. Women’s Law Project advocated for a new building for the last decade, and we were delighted to see it finally open.

Our work on equality for girls in sports was highlighted in The New York Times. Managing Attorney Terry L. Fromson addressed the stereotypes that inform discrimination in sports. “The Harrisburg Archdiocese relies on stereotypical generalizations about the differences between girls and boys and notions about safety and propriety that simply don’t stand up,” Fromson said.

Women’s Law Project is proud to have signed onto a letter to former Attorney General Eric Holder calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to renounce enhanced criminal penalties for pregnant offenders.

On the night stand: Katha Pollitt’s Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

What we’re doing in the middle of the night: Tweeting Congress! You can too with this cool new tool from the National Women’s Law Center. Click and issue, put in your zipcode, and voila!

Happy nocturnal tweeting, and have a great Thanksgiving!

Posted in Abortion, Abortion Access, Allegheny County, Athletic Equity, Childbirth, Contraception, Courts, Domestic violence, economic security, PA Legislature, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, pregnancy discrimination, pregnant workers fairness, Reproductive Rights, The New York Times, Title IX, Women's health, Women's Law Project, WomenVote PA | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

New Safe Haven Named “Carol’s Place” in Honor of WLP Executive Director Carol Tracy

By Tara Murtha, WLP Staff

Family violence cuts across race and class, and can happen to anybody. But Philadelphia’s poverty rate, lack of affordable housing and the economic downturn has created a situation that has made it extremely difficult for the most vulnerable victims to plan a route to safety.

Philadelphia has long had only one emergency safe haven for victims of domestic violence.

In recent years, advocates have watched, exasperated, as the number of women and children in desperate need of emergency shelter have been turned away due to a lack of resources.

In 2008, Women Against Abuse had to turn away 1,705 victims.

In 2009, the number swelled to 4,671.

By 2010, it was 7,474.

The economic downturn led, in part, to the spike in demand. After all, you can’t “just leave” when you have nowhere safe to go. Unfortunately, the economy was also the key reason Philadelphia had an insufficient number of beds for a city of its size.

The consequences of a lack of emergency safe haven are dire. In 2009, the city saw a 67% increase in the number of domestic violence homicides.

Recently, after years of work behind the scenes, a new emergency safe haven opened in Philadelphia. With 100 beds, the new shelter doubled the city’s capacity. The shelter is already full; children are sleeping in most of those beds.

Carol’s Place

On Friday, advocates held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the new safe haven. At the ceremony, Women Against Abuse Executive Director Jeannine Lisitski officially christened the safe haven Carol’s Place, after Women’s Law Project Executive Director Carol Tracy.


Julie Mostov, Carol Tracy, and Jeannine Lisitski; Photo by Coleman Yunger Photography

“I can’t tell you how honored I am to stand here today,” Tracy told the small crowd. “The Women’s Law Project and Women Against Abuse are partners in our mission to end family violence. Although I get much credit for it, of course I have a staff behind me, and a board of directors that supports me as well.”

Tracy was a founding member of the board of directors of Women Against Abuse in 1976. In that role, she helped secure the initial funding for the organization, which led to the opening of the first shelter in Philadelphia—one of the first in the Commonwealth–the following year.

That first shelter was just a row house with one toilet next to a noisy bar on a busy street. Within hours of opening, 12 families crammed into the three-bedroom house. People slept on the floor in hallways.

“What is so important is the determination of the women who are leaving, to get away and to escape from domestic abuse,” said Tracy. “That is our charge going forward. We’re working very hard in Philadelphia, not only to provide these kinds of resources but to figure out how to end it.”

In addition to, of course, Women Against Abuse and Jeannine Lisitski, Rep. Chaka Fattah, Councilman William K. Greenlee, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and Philadelphia Chief of Staff and Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison have all pitched in and championed the project.


Photo: Coleman Yunger Photography

“The path we’re on is a path of change and improvement, and it’s slow,” said Tracy. “But what we’re doing is bringing all our resources together.”

The new haven will provide shelter for 600 people a year.

Mixed Emotions

“Mothers and single women will finally be able to rest at night, knowing 24 hour security is on alert,” WAA Executive Director Jeannine Lisitski said. “Many of the women who live here are coming out of fear for their lives. They’ve been stalked. They’ve been threatened [and] they’ve been hurt and attacked, sometimes for years.”

Lisitski invited Councilmen Greenlee and Johnson to say a few words.

“When I learned there was only one DV shelter here in the city of Philadelphia, I understood that it was unacceptable,” said Councilman Johnson. “And it was somewhat embarrassing, because a city as great as a city of Philadelphia, we want to help a population that severely needed our help.”

Councilman Greenlee expressed mixed emotions.

“It’s a sad day that we will need to have shelters, it’s a sad day that we realize also we’re going to have to do more,” said Councilmen Greenlee. “But we do need to celebrate today. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep looking to that day, and maybe it’s well into the future, where domestic violence is a thing of the past.”

Councilman Greenlee did the honors of cutting the purple ribbon.


Photo: Coleman Yunger Photography

“I thank you for this honor,” Tracy told the crowd. “I thank you for all the support you’ve given me.”

Posted in Domestic violence, Family Violence, Philadelphia, Violence Against Women, Women's Law Project | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Women of PA, Get Informed and Vote on Nov. 4th!

This Op-Ed appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer

By Kate Michelman and Carol E. Tracy

Pennsylvania women have the power to change the future of their state, and their own lives, by voting in next month’s election. The question is, do they understand the high stakes that make their participation vital?

In the midst of political campaigns, with the inevitable preposterous claims and accusations flying around, it is easy to dismiss politics as a game, or to think that one vote won’t make a difference. That’s precisely what the people who hold political power in Pennsylvania hope you will think.

The reality is very different. The women of Pennsylvania, more than five million strong, can and should be the decisive force in electing the policymakers who will determine the laws on issues like economic security, reproductive rights, domestic violence, and education. These issues affect women more than they do men. And poll after poll shows that women care more about these issues than men do.

The reason our laws have been out of step with what would be best for women is simple:

Women have not voted as if their lives depend on it.

The women of the commonwealth need to think about these questions while deciding whether voting is worth the effort:

Is it time for equal pay to become a reality? Despite all the evidence of a pay gap between men and women, Pennsylvania hasn’t updated equal-pay laws in more than 50 years.

Is it time that so-called family-friendly values make their way to the workplace? Our elected officials talk a big game about support for families. Yet in most of Pennsylvania today, pregnant women don’t have the right to get a drink of water or take a bathroom break, and after giving birth, they don’t have the right to pump breast milk at work. Bills introduced to correct these discriminatory practices have languished in committee for months.

Is it time to stop discriminating against poor and working women? For four years, the Pennsylvania legislature has passed measure upon measure that disproportionately burdens poor and working women. Nowhere is this clearer than in the area of reproductive health. The simple truth is that women cannot control their own lives if they can’t control their own reproductive decisions.

You don’t need to take our word for it. Experts repeatedly confirm that Pennsylvania’s record on women is abominable. The Center for American Progress recently gave Pennsylvania a C-minus grade on women’s issues, ranking us 28th among the 50 states in the treatment of women.

Things can be different.

The Women’s Health Caucus, a bipartisan, bicameral caucus of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, led by Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny) and Sens. Judy Schwank (D., Berks) and Chuck McIlhinney (R., Bucks), is addressing a wide range of legal and policy barriers to improve the health and rights of women through the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health.

The agenda is a bold, pro-choice, pro-woman state legislative package designed to proactively address the health needs and concerns of women in our state.

The first two phases of the agenda include bills that, if passed, would provide protections for pregnant women, female veterans, victims of domestic violence, nursing mothers, and much, much more. Pennsylvania recently held a hearing to review evidence of the gender pay gap and consider corrective legislation.

Many other bills have been introduced and are awaiting action. Whether these legislative initiatives become reality depends on the lawmakers and politicians we vote into office. They are the ones who will pass these bills.

Here’s the bottom line: If women want to make progress in Pennsylvania, they cannot stay home this November and wait for 2016 to vote.

In 2008, 64 percent of registered female voters turned up at the polls to cast a vote for president. Then, for the gubernatorial election in 2010, only 44 percent of registered female voters showed up. In Pennsylvania, unmarried female, minority, and young voters fail to vote in midterm elections at a rate almost twice that of older, married, male voters.

This means women aren’t represented in elections that decide who is governor, who sits in the General Assembly, and who represents us in Congress. Meanwhile, it’s the results of mid-term elections that have the most direct impact on our lives.

With so much at stake, women need to take action. Taking action means becoming educated on the issues and voting.

WomenVote PA (www.womenvotepa.org), the education and mobilization initiative of the Women’s Law Project, was formed to do just that – provide women with a resource to learn about the issues directly affecting them and encourage them to exercise their hard-earned right to vote.

The message to the women of Pennsylvania is simple:

Don’t let your silence this Election Day dictate the outcomes for the coming years.

If you stay home this November, your apathy will be read as approval, and nothing will change. Get informed and get to the polls. Spread the word among friends, neighbors, and coworkers that voting does matter and will make a difference. Just think what we could accomplish for Pennsylvania’s women if that happened.

Kate Michelman is cochair of WomenVote PA, president emerita of NARAL Pro-Choice America, and author of “With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose.” Carol E. Tracy is executive director of the Women’s Law Project (www.womenslawproject.org) and cochair of WomenVote PA.

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Anti-abortion activists exploit civil rights messages while omitting King’s family planning legacy

Guest Blogger:  La’Tasha D. Mayes, executive director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice, an organization building a social change movement in Pennsylvania and Ohio dedicated to the health and well-being of black women and girls.

An anti-abortion group calling themselves “Created Equal” is in Philadelphia today with the sole purpose of blitzing tourists and residents with what the Philadelphia Inquirer described as a “high-tech assault.” They have a 10-foot-tall screen on Independence Mall where they are broadcasting a video that opens with black-and-white footage of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for equal rights at the 1963 March on Washington, then cuts to full-color “gruesome close-ups of the bloody remnants of abortions.” Willing or not, tourists, residents, children and families will be forced to view these images.

Created Equal takes a specific jab at the African-American community by co-opting the legacy of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This tactic shamelessly exploits the political struggle of black Americans to achieve their human rights and fully manifest that noble ideal of being “created equal.”

In doing that, they omit the important legacy of Dr. King’s support for family planning. When he received the Margaret Sanger award in 1966, Dr. King said,

“There is no human circumstance more tragic than the persisting existence of a harmful condition for which a remedy is readily available. Family planning, to relate population to world resources, is possible, practical and necessary. Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.”

For the last several years, the anti-abortion movement has stigmatized and shamed black women in particular through unsuccessful attempts to filter their abortion-restricting agenda through the legacy of the Civil Right movement. It is imperative for black communities, women and abortion providers, who are the targets of these tactics, to understand the deceptive nature of this cultural and political attack.

On their website, the Columbus, Ohio-based group explicitly advocates against “consensual” communication. On Facebook, the group revealed they intend to broadcast not only pictures, but also footage of “abortions in progress.” Assaulting passersby with (sometimes doctored) bloody imagery is nothing new for anti-abortion groups, while at the same time shouting racially motivated epithets to women of color exercising their human right to abortion care.

An incoherent message

Relevant history and public health data persuasively highlights the need for women to have access to safe abortion services; lacking a rational argument, anti-abortion advocates have long relied on communication styles designed to incite emotions, rather than appeal to logic.

Over the years, the anti-abortion advocacy has become more and more incoherent — for example, working to restrict access to both abortion and birth control, while threatening to cut welfare benefits for mothers whose pregnancies are not the result of rape or incest. As the political tactics and restrictions for women have grown increasingly invasive, the bloody images have grown bigger. At the core of the anti-abortion agenda is the condescending belief that women do not have the capacity to make important decisions about their bodies.

Still, it is not the lack of basic respect for their targets and profound misunderstanding of why women have abortions that we find most disturbing. It is the audacity of these activists to co-opt the imagery and words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to spread a message — and policies — that disproportionately hurt black communities.

Video reports show the young activists staging similar spectacles in other cities. There is not a black person or person of color in sight. And yet, the group attempts to hijack the imagery, language and legacy of the civil rights struggle that continues today.

Black Americans articulate their ideas about abortion in African-American Voices on Sexual Health, a poll conducted in June 2013. Regardless of personal feelings, 80 percent of black Americans agree that abortion should remain legal and safe. This statement applies to those who identify themselves as conservative (74 percent) and religious (76 percent).

As anti-abortion advocates continue to shut down abortion clinics through strategic state regulation and red tape, it is our bodies — the bodies of working and poor women, disproportionately women of color and young women — that have carried the very real burden.

The fight in Philadelphia

Nowhere do we know this more acutely than in Philadelphia, where the grand jury report charging former doctor Kermit Gosnell with hundreds of crimes noted that his flagrant abuses went unnoticed in large part because his victims were mostly poor women of color.

It is at the intersection of race and gender that New Voices Philadelphia has begun to organize black women and girls to advance reproductive justice. We believe that we each have the human right to control our bodies, sexuality, gender, work and reproduction.

Reproductive justice is a movement that is 20 years old. Black women coined the term “reproductive justice” to affirm the full lived experiences of women of color. Reproductive justice is the work that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have supported as part of the civil rights legacy. Depicting Dr. King as anything other than a reproductive justice champion is an affront to black women, our families, and our communities, and it is utterly disrespectful to his great sacrifice.

Posted in Abortion, Abortion Access, Reproductive Rights, Women's health | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Victory: Bill to Protect DV Victims from Eviction Heads to Governor’s Desk

By Tara Murtha, WLP Staff

We asked for your help, you gave it. We heard about all the phone calls and emails. Now, together, we achieved a huge victory for the rights of domestic violence survivors in Pennsylvania, who can no longer be legally evicted from their homes for calling authorities for help when they need it.

The background:

Sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens, HB1796, titled “Protection for Victims of Crime from Certain Municipal Ordinances” was drafted in response to a situation so outrageous that it gained national attention.

Thanks to a so-called “nuisance property ordinance” that enabled landlords in Norristown, Pa. to evict tenants for calling 911, a domestic violence victim named Lakisha Briggs was forced to choose between eviction and enduring physical abuse at the hands of an ex-partner, who would not leave the home she shared with her toddler.

But after passing through the House, this good faith bill was hijacked by one bewildering amendment after another. First, a bad sick day amendment was the problem. Then, a pro-gun amendment was tacked on to the bill the same day domestic violence advocates traveled to Harrisburg to remember the victims of DV murdered in Pennsylvania last year—many of them with a gun as the weapon.

Following the lead of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, we called out for supporters to contact their senators and ask to drop the amendments and pass the bill—and that’s just what happened an hour ago on the floor of the Pennsylvania Senate on their last day in session.

They listened.

“No woman or man should have to risk their life, or their family because they’re scared of being evicted,” Senator Judy Schwank said.

“Do I need to remind us when we all saw a few weeks ago the senseless beating of a woman in an elevator?” asked Senator John Rafferty, Jr., before pointing out that this victory is an example of the good work that can get done when both sides of the aisle come together to cooperate on important issues.

In the end, the bill passed the Senate unanimously.

“I am glad that you colleagues in the Senate decided to do the right thing and remove the paid sick leave preemption language from House Bill 1796,” Senator Vincent Hughes, an advocate of the bill, told Women’s Law Project. “We must do everything we can to protect the victims of domestic violence and this version of the bill is a step forward instead of a step backwards.”

Next, it heads to the desk of the Governor to be signed into law.

This bill is the third initiative of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, a bipartisan, pro-active and pro-choice legislative package designed to secure reproductive rights and promote economic security. (The first two successes were a bill to study state programs targeted to help working families, and a bill that criminalizes so-called “revenge porn.”)

The majority of Pennsylvania voters support the Agenda, a fact reported by ThinkProgress this morning. But support isn’t enough. We need to keep voting and speaking out to make it happen.

We hope you will continue to help us advocate for the rest of the Agenda, and help us spread the word about the great progress we are making here. But for now, let’s celebrate. We couldn’t have done it without you. So thank you!

Posted in Domestic violence, PA Legislature, Violence Against Women | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment