On Friday, December 3, WLP Executive Director Carol E. Tracy gave this speech at our annual party at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia:
WLP Executive Director Carol E. Tracy
My talk today is very different from the program we anticipated we’d be showing while preparing for our party throughout the fall. We were planning to show a video of Jennifer Childs, a wonderful writer and actress from 1812 Productions, doing her hilarious impersonation of Hillary Clinton singing “My Way,” complete with an overlay of a giant glass ceiling crashing.
We expected to host an evening of fun.
But since the election, there’s not much to laugh about.
I am outraged, and I am very motivated.
I’m a baby boomer. My childhood took place in the world that many Trump voters wish to take us back to a world of stark and virtually total racial segregation and strict and unbending rules about women’s place in society.
So let me say at the outset: we are not going back to that world. We are not going to let that happen.
I grew up watching the news on television as African-Americans were sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by police dogs. I grew up in a neighborhood and schools where “the N-word” was used regularly. I grew up in a world where women were tied to the kitchen, my mother among them; where those who did work outside the home could only work in jobs legally segregated by sex and race.
Women were supposed to get married – to men, of course! – and quit work after they married, or at least once they had children. If a teacher, for example, became pregnant she would have to leave the classroom when she started “to show,” as though being pregnant was shameful and immoral, with no guarantee that her job would be held for her if she wanted to return to work. Battered women were trapped in their homes; there were no resources, no supports, virtually no legal protections. Like rape victims, they were held responsible for their assailants’ behavior.
I grew up learning how to be a lady–apparently, not very well. I was told what to wear and how to behave. This was the experience of almost all women of my generation, and yet it sounds like another planet to young people. My undergraduate students were mystified when I told them that girls and women were not supposed to wear pants in public: to school, to church, to work. Even around the house, women wore house dresses. Back then, wearing pantsuits and kicking off pointed-toe spike heels were acts of resistance and liberation. But most of my students did not get the full of meaning and resonance of a “Pantsuit Nation.”
Of course, fashion is symbolic. Real liberation couldn’t come without reproductive freedom. I came of age when women took up collections for their friends to get abortions, some back-alley and some, eventually, safely in New York.
I came of age in the unprecedented era of civil unrest. I watched cities burn on television. I saw body bags being returned from Vietnam filled with boys my age. It was a time of wide-spread civil disobedience: some peaceful, some not. It was also a time of assassinations: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, President John F. Kennedy, The Rev. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy.
Those of us women who were around in the late sixties and seventies experienced social change for women– indeed social upheaval – in ways that the world had never seen. Women’s place in society, second-class at best, in every conceivable sphere, was deeply engrained in our laws and culture.
And then all hell broke loose.
1964 was the year that changed the landscape of employment opportunity for women. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was passed. Sex was added to the language by a racist representative as a last ditch effort to scuttle Title VII, in the belief that prohibiting discrimination against women was such a ludicrous proposition that it would kill the bill that was created to protect against discrimination based on color, national origin and religion. .
In 1965, the birth control bill was put on the market, allowing women to plan their reproductive and economic lives. Separating reproduction from sexuality was monumental.
Demonstrators calling for voting rights at the 1963 March on Washington (Photo: Marion S. Trikosko)
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally protected the right to vote for African Americans, resulting in the most formidable progressive voting bloc: African American women.
Title IX, prohibiting discrimination in education, enacted in 1972, blew open the doors to professional education – law, medicine, business – for women, and exponentially expanded athletic opportunities for girls and young women.
And 1973, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade.
Women taking part in a demonstration in New York demanding safe legal abortions for all women. (Photo by Peter Keegan/Keystone/Getty Images)
In less than a decade, the world changed for women.
It was the time of The Feminist Mystique, the founding of the National Organization for Women, and the spontaneous formation of women’s consciousness-raising groups.
All of this was against the background of a far more organized and effective civil rights movement advancing the rights of African Americans and a far more radical anti-war movement, in both of which many women participated.
During this time, women in small and large communities throughout the United States stepped up and called for an end to violence against women. There was no email, no Facebook, no Twitter – women just spontaneously came together and talked, and somehow all reached the same conclusion: to be free, women needed control of our own bodies, and that meant reproductive freedom, and freedom from violence and abuse.
The anti-violence against women movement wasn’t a policy proposal. It was a zeitgeist, a collective consciousness that was expressed in living rooms, community centers, makeshift women’s centers and church basements, and we demanded justice for women who were raped and abused.
These demands by grassroots feminists led to sweeping reforms in legal and other institutions and the creation of shelters, safe houses, hotlines and rape crisis centers, initially all staffed by volunteers. The gains made in dealing with violence against women were not the result of legislative action, advances in social science research, sophisticated legal analysis, or a Supreme Court ruling – it was women in local communities, talking to each other, developing strategies and mobilizing around these critical issues.
The advantage of doing movement work as long as I have is that it gives one a long view. More often than not, people I voted for did not become president. I have lived through Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes. Obviously, I did not vote for the current President-elect—just like the majority of Americans who voted did not vote for him.
Here in Philadelphia, we had Frank Rizzo as mayor for eight years. For those of you who don’t know about him, he said things as disgusting as Trump has said, but worse, he used his nightstick with ferocity against Black people in Philadelphia.
We have survived these administrations, but we have not come out unscathed. Indeed, countless harms have occurred to many people. Additionally, legal protections related to abortion, voting rights and others have diminished, and relentless, well-funded attacks on our new freedoms have been launched during these last four decades. Yet, we have not been defeated, and the spirit of resistance, and the movement for equality and social justice, has survived.
I don’t think any of us in the progressive movement is underestimating what is ahead of us. We are taking Trump and his appointments at their word. It’s going to be a long and potentially very dangerous four years.
It’s important to remember that much of the hate that was manifested during this past year was already present. I think many of us have buried this knowledge. One colleague told me after the election that she wondered if she made a mistake in bringing her African American daughter up to believe that she was living in a post-racial society, when she herself knew how deep and profound racism still runs. We know how rampant sexual assault is, we know that doctors and workers in healthcare facilities that provide abortion care are under constant threat, and some have been murdered in cold blood. We know that lesbian, gay, and transgendered people have been ridiculed, harassed and emotionally and physically harmed .We know how Muslims and immigrants have been bearing the brunt of hatred. Trump did not make this happen. He just took the scab off this festering wound.
For the last several years, it’s been clear that new or reinvigorated social movements have been developing: some are organized, some simply organic and collaborative, and all have amazing social media savvy.
“Black Lives Matters” has upended the discussion about race in America, and acts of racism are actually being videotaped. Women have stepped out of the shadows and publicly thrown down the shackles of shame historically associated with rape and sexual assault, from campus to Cosby to Fox News, and then presidential candidate Trump. The acceleration of the movement out of the closet for members of the LGBT community and toward legal and economic equality, such as same-sex marriage, has been staggering. The Reproductive Justice movement, led by women of color, eloquently shifted the focus from the ability to choose abortion to a broader understanding of reproductive oppression that includes intersecting experiences of inequality, such as economic justice, immigration status, and physical ability, and the struggle to raise children in safe healthy communities. Young white men are participating in social justice movements from “Occupy” to “Feeling the Bern,” representing a level of enthusiastic participation that I have not seen since the draft ended. Abortion Out Loud is a refreshed movement to remove the stigma associated with abortion, which we know one out of three women will experience in their lifetime.
Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia
I have often wondered what the confluences of factors were that made so much happen in the 60s and 70s, and what it would take to light such a fire again. I think a new confluence of factors is clearly present.
I think Donald Trump and his voters lit that fire.
I see clarity, and I see opportunity.
So what are we going to do? The Women’s Law Project is going to do what we have always done: protect, defend, and advance the rights of women.
No matter what the differences that might occur among leadership in Congress and our General Assembly here in Pennsylvania, we can be sure we know the one issue that will be used to unify our opponents: limiting access to abortion.
The WLP team will ramp up our work to meet new challenges to support women and abortion care providers.
We will continue our groundbreaking work that has transformed police practice for responding to sexual assault in Philadelphia, a project that catapulted our work to national prominence.
We will put our hearts and souls in the Pennsylvania Campaign for Women’s Health, a collaboration of 55 local, state and national organizations working together to improve women’s health and economic security in Pennsylvania. The Campaign advocates for bills supported by Pennsylvania’s pro-choice Women’s Health Caucus, and also serves as an educational campaign, informing concerned citizens, like yourselves, about the health and economic status of women in Pennsylvania and opportunities for improvement.
With our allies, in the coming year, we plan to organize “People’s Hearings on Pregnancy and Women’s Health” throughout the state of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvanians will testify about what it is like here under the current status quo—which, if you don’t know, is extremely poor compared to the rest of the country. We will hear testimony about the hypocrisy of the so-called “pro-life” movement and lawmakers who provide so little support to pregnant women, withhold money to fight the Zika virus, and care so little about the health, education and welfare of America’s children. Women will tell their stories of why they chose abortion, and the hardships encountered trying to maintain a healthy pregnancy.
We will hear stories about what life is like for minimum wage workers and for low-wage women workers who nevertheless are the major breadwinners for their families: women who do not have paid sick days, paid family leave, or access to decent childcare.
Many of these women, particularly those who are white and nonurban, have consistently voted against their self-interest. We have to reach out to them and do more to bring them to progressive causes. Our collective failure to do so cost us heavily in this election.
They will talk and we will listen. Just this week, we were invited to speak in a friend’s living room. Thirty-one women and two men gathered: a cross section of millennials, Gen X-ers and boomers. We had an invigorating conversation, and a totally unplanned but spontaneous outcome was that at least three women decided they would run as committee people in Philadelphia
You never know what might come out of women’s living rooms!
To that end, we are going to turn our office into a living room. We will talk, we will listen to each other and we will develop action plans. More on that soon.
We encourage all of you to open your living rooms, to strategize, to mobilize; to add to your weekly “to do” lists the calls you will make, the letters you will write, your posts to Facebook and Twitter, the meetings you will organize and attend, the marches and demonstrations you will join. We cannot afford to let a week go by without doing something.
I am personally unforgiving of those who voted for a person who spewed such hateful rhetoric. I know that only 26% of the eligible voting population voted for him; that he lost the popular vote by more than 10 million votes; that the first woman presidential candidate of a major party earned more votes than any previous white male candidate.
I have to believe that American is better than the outcome of this election. We know that much of the vote was a protest vote against gridlock and for a vague, if woefully misdirected, idea of change in Washington.
The result is members of our community are rightfully fearful. We will collaborate with other public interest law groups and allied social justice movements to protect the vulnerable. We will defend our communities, we will join the fight to keep Philadelphia a Sanctuary City, and we will continue to press forward.
We must not, and will not, let fear turn into silence or inaction.
In many ways it is appropriate that we are here at the Academy of Natural Sciences, surrounded by dinosaurs. It makes me think that we are experiencing the last throws of the flailing tail of a dying dinosaur; that is, white male supremacy. I’ve said that the benefit to being my age is that I have the long view, and this is it. White male supremacy is powerful, and it is destructive. But it is coming to an end!
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The Women’s Law Project is the only public interest law center in Pennsylvania devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls.