I’m back in San Francisco after a trip to New York in a week where a lot has happened in politics, everywhere in the world.
I was on the plane headed back to San Francisco when I received the first tweets about the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, being deposed by the former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. It’s one of those times you don’t want to be surrounded by a plane full of strangers; instead you want to talk about what’s happened. I looked around at people on the plane. Everything seemed so normal and yet…just in the winged time of a plane trip there’d been a change of prime minister in my country.
Giving her farewell speech, Julia Gillard spoke of her belief that, “Being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership .” She also said that, as a result of her being the first woman prime minister, it would be easier for the next female prime minister, and easier again for the next female prime minister after her.
Since Gillard has said she will not re-contest her seat at the September Federal elections, it remains speculative as to what she’ll do next, at a relatively young age. Many other women leaders, older than Julia Gillard, have left their role as prime minister or president of their country and have gone on to international leadership positions. This includes Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, now heading the United Nations Development Program, and Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, who became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and is now heading her own international, and highly effective, Climate Change Foundation.
Meanwhile, in the United States it’s been a week of Supreme Court rulings, one ruling resulting in marriage equality taking a great stride forward when the Supreme Court held that the federal government could no longer deny recognition to legally married same-sex couples. It was also the week of an 11 hour filibuster by Senator Wendy Davis in the state senate in Texas in order to thwart draconian abortion legislation introduced by Texas Republicans that drew national attention and citizen action across America.
Wendy Davis, stood for 11 hours without being able to take a break or sit down in order to stop this legislation being passed before the pumpkin deadline of midnight. She was cheered on by hundreds of supporters who filled the Capital Building and who broke into song (‘Eyes of Texas’) when it was clear that the bill would not be passed by the end of the special session. The passing of this law would have meant that even women who had been raped would be unable to secure an abortion and it would also defund Planned Parenthood thus vastly reducing access to contraception for women who are poor. This was also after a Texas Republican state senator, Jodie Laubenberg, caused outrage when she said that rape crisis kits could ‘clean out’ a victim thus suggesting that a kit designed to assist forensic testing could morph into an abortion procedure.
Even as many women and men celebrated a tenuous victory in Texas (the Governor of Texas proposed a new special session to get the legislation passed), others were gearing up in the state of Ohio where sweeping new anti-abortion legislation was being pushed through by Ohio Republicans.
“This bill that we defeated in Texas was part of a much bigger narrative,” Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards said in an interview The New York Times columnist, Gail Collins. “This opposition had been growing for months with the attacks on Planned Parenthood, the closing of women’s health centers, a whole series of events that just hit the tipping point and really lit a fuse in the state of Texas. This wasn’t just an isolated incident or isolated piece of legislation.”
As Collins says, ‘State-level abortion battles are a bit like a game of whack-a-mole—even if one is defeated, another immediately pops up somewhere else.’ In the case of Ohio, the legislation is so extreme that even rape victims and those women carrying babies with deformities that would not likely survive a full term pregnancy would be refused an abortion.
During this same week, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg continued to demonstrate the power of dissent, as she had, memorably, in the Lilly Ledbetter case where she read her dissent from the bench and included in it her advice on how to protect future Lilly Ledbetters’. The first bill that Barack Obama signed as President became the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. In major Supreme Court rulings for the 2012-13 term, Justice Ginsburg has been in the minority for the following Supreme Court decisions: striking down part of the Voting Rights Act; letting stand a race-conscious admissions program in Texas; ruling against human rights groups; reporters and lawyers being able to challenge a government surveillance program; ruling that the police can collect DNA samples from arrestees; ruling that companies can avoid class actions through arbitration agreements.
In response to the majority Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act, Justice Ginsburg again chose to summarize her dissent from the bench, demonstrating the depth of her disagreement with the majority ruling. She called on Congress to ‘correct this Court’s wayward interpretation’, as it had with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. “For a half century, a concerted effort has been made to end racial discrimination in voting. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, progress once the subject of a dream has been achieved and continues to be made….The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective.” “The court errs egregiously,” she concluded, “by overriding Congress’s decision.”
In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg evoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr. “The great man who led the march from Selma to Montgomery and there called for the passage of the Voting Rights Act foresaw progress, even in Alabama,” she said. “’The arc of the moral universe is long,’ he said, but ‘it bends toward justice, if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion…’”
What some people don’t know is that King paraphrased his quote from an original quote from Theodore Parker, published in the 1850s. Parker said “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
Parker’s words are compelling in encouraging us to view every act of moral courage as one that expands the sphere of justice. As ethicist Jonathan Parker has said, ‘In other words, morality shows a preference toward truth and justice that far exceeds the countervailing arc of immorality and injustice.’
Ginsburg’s evocation of Martin Luther King Jr’s words in her dissent brings to mind an article written by Peniel E Joseph, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy in The New York Times on June 11th 2013 about an event that took place 50 years ago. In June 1963, President John F Kennedy, responding to the racial segregation in Alabama, instructed the National Guard to peacefully enroll two black students at the University of Alabama over the Governor of Alabama’s strident objections.
Kennedy spoke on national television on the evening of June 11th ‘when he asked “every American, regardless of where he lives” to stop and examine his conscience.’ The president spoke about the race revolution sweeping the land and Joseph reports that ‘Kennedy not only reported the revolution but invited Americans of all backgrounds to engage in the kind of civic activism that reflects the tough work of democracy. “A great change is at hand and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.” Kennedy then announced comprehensive civil right legislation to secure school desegregation and to address other civil rights abuses occurring across the country.
The civil rights bill was finally signed into law by President Johnson on July 2nd 1964 after Kennedy’s assassination. As Joseph says ‘without the moral forcefulness of the June 11th address the bill might never have gone anywhere… Kennedys’ words anticipated some of the key themes found in King’s soaring March on Washington address two months later. And that shared moral force, that commonality of thinking between the two speeches…reminds us of…when presidential leadership and grass roots activism worked in creative tension to turn the narrative of civil rights from a regional issue into a national story promoting racial equality and national renewal.’
Holding governments and corporations to account for laws and behavior that should never be tolerated is critical. Ensuring that governments uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is essential. Ensuring that people know their rights and how to seek justice when their rights, or children’s rights, have been violated is one of the most important actions we can take at this time.
Last week we heard of a 12 year old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her father, uncle and godfather in the San Pedro prison in La Paz. She is now pregnant. This in a prison where hundreds of children are taken to be close to their parents who have been sentenced to prison for their crimes and where these children are required to share space with murderers, rapists, gang members and drug dealers. This happened in a country where cocaine usage and dealing is so widespread that it is normalized and mainstreamed into everyday life and where even visitors to this prison could buy cocaine while the police turn a blind eye.
How is it that innocent girls are locked up, and then further violated by criminals while other criminals remain on the streets and are protected by the normalizing of the drug trade in that country?
“The problem is not that children are inside prisons – the problem is that there are no state policies for the protection of children,” says Yolanda Herrera, president of the independent Human Rights Assembly. “It is traumatic to live in a place like this,” said Stefano Toricini, a volunteer for an Italian non-governmental organization who has provided counseling to children at San Pedro for the past decade. “The kids live in a state of constant psychological pressure, and the culture of violence that pervades. “
At least in Bolivia, women can now use a new law that was promulgated on March 9th 2013 which broadens protection of women against various forms of violence and establishes the eradication of violence against women as a priority of the State. The law also includes the crime of ‘femicide’ – in which a woman is murdered due to the fact that she is female, with a prison term of 30 years without pardon. This in a country that has the highest gender based violence in Latin America.
This comprehensive law was made possible due to the courageous, brilliant and persistent work of women’s rights organizations working with the government to ensure its effective content, drafting and passing. This is why the work of the Global Fund for Women is so important in sustaining the work of women’s rights organizations over many years to ensure the adoption of the necessary legal frameworks to protect women against violence, trafficking and gender-motivated killings and to ensure the prosecution of perpetrators.
It also again speaks to the potent fusion of grass roots activism working in creative tension with political and government leadership to get laws passed to secure justice, equality and renewal.
There are so many other battles to be fought in this regard. Such as justice for undocumented women farm workers, and their daughters in the United States and many other countries where many women and their daughters have been sexually harassed and/or raped in the field by other workers and by supervisors and managers. Even when undocumented women do summon the courage to take their case to court, they’re often laid off from their jobs at this time and they must secure legal support and be prepared to go the long mile to have their case heard in court. And even if the company settles out of court, the perpetrator is not subject to criminal action in the US and so he remains free and at large.
Without companies being held to account by governments for the protection of their workers’ human rights while they are working, women farm workers, and their daughters, will continue to be vulnerable to abuse. Without governments committed to protecting all their citizens and not just the powerful, not just those financing political campaigns, not just those who voted them into power, not just those who comprise the majority ethnic or religious group in a country, not just those of one sex or sexuality, we will not see justice for women and girls – or indeed peace in our time.
We can take note of the power of disruption and the power of dissent to realize a different world. We can take heart from those who have worked so long for women’s human rights and who are inherent parts of this moral arc curving toward truth and justice.
I was glad to have a weekend back in Sausalito. As I walked the coastline, I saw a man juggling on the top of a cliff top with the ocean as a backdrop. Nearby, a man balanced rocks on top of each other – I held my breath. It was a fine balance. He smiled at me and gave me one of his postcards
I walked on to the houseboat arts collective where two girls were selling lemonade that they’d made. “Would you like some lemonade? It’s fifty cents a glass,” one of the girls asked me. “Sure, I’d love some,” I said smiling.
I walked along further to my favorite street where, in a shop front window, there was a black and white photo of a young girl facing a wide inviting space. I was transfixed. “Can you please tell me about this image?” I asked the woman in the shop. “It’s a picture that my husband took of our daughter, Audrey, at the Museum of Modern Art,” she said. ’I'm so glad you like it’
So, ‘Audrey at the MoMA’ affirmed for me an image of a girl’s innocence, hope, humanity and happiness – a blank canvas for her to run towards, hopscotch, encircle or complete in any way she chooses.
“Cut not the wings of your dreams, for they are the heartbeat and the freedom of your soul.” Flavia
“The best protection any woman can have … is courage.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Jane Sloane – San Francisco