Two important demonstrations took place in New York last Saturday: one in support of Wisconsin public workers and the other in defense of Planned Parenthood. I have a personal interest in both: I grew up in Milwaukee, and I got my first diaphragm from Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger clinic in 1967. (I had to come to New York to get one because birth control was illegal in Massachusetts, where I went to college.)
Both demonstrations were responses to the assault by Republicans on the human rights and living standards of the working class—in Wisconsin, the new Governor is trying to do away with collective bargaining under the pretext of saving money, and in Washington, anti-abortion Congressmen voted to defund family planning for the poor, as well as Planned Parenthood.
But, though both demonstrations were aimed at the same enemy, they were blocks apart—three blocks, specifically, the distance between City Hall Park and Foley Square.
What would it take to bring labor and the women’s movement together, so that unions would be on board for reproductive rights, and the women’s movement would put more of its energy into supporting unions?
The proposed cuts in reproductive health services would clearly harm the working class. As a New York Times editorial explained:
The egregious cuts in the House resolution include the elimination of support for Title X, the federal family planning program for low-income women that provides birth control, breast and cervical cancer screenings, and testing for H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases. In the absence of Title X’s preventive care, some women would die. The Guttmacher Institute, a leading authority on reproductive health, says a rise in unintended pregnancies would result in some 400,000 more abortions a year.
An amendment offered by Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, would bar any financing of Planned Parenthood. A recent sting operation by an anti-abortion group uncovered an errant employee, who was promptly fired. That hardly warrants taking aim at an irreplaceable network of clinics, which uses no federal dollars in providing needed abortion care. It serves one in five American women at some point in her lifetime.
Similarly, support of public workers is clearly in women’s interests, even if narrowly defined in terms of union membership. Most nurses are women, as are 82 percent of public school teachers, while AFSCME, the public workers’ union, is 56 percent female. Not surprisingly, AFSCME, the teachers’ unions, and National Nurses United are actively coordinating protests against Republican union busting.
So a coalition between the reproductive rights movement and the labor movement would make sense. What prevents it from happening?
Apart from tunnel vision, the biggest obstacle is the climate of opinion around abortion, which is so ossified and polarized that it has become impossible to have a civil public discussion of the subject. (Not that it’s easy to have a civil public discussion of anything in these dis-United States.) Frances Kissling, formerly the head of Catholics for Choice, wrote a Washington Post op-ed recently, suggesting that we will not be able to fight the right-wing offensive effectively until the reproductive rights movement agrees to regulation of third-trimester abortions. She also recommends that we become more proactive in our relationship to the state and call on the “government to provide resources that women need, from subsidized birth control to better prenatal care.” This op-ed has been extremely controversial within abortion rights circles.
Obviously, Kissling knows that a changed approach to third-trimester abortions won’t make any difference to people who are ideologically opposed to all abortions; she is trying to find a way to reach the vast numbers of people who are in the middle. While I have my doubts that third-trimester abortions are the key, I agree that we desperately need to open up discussion and think creatively about strategy.
One approach that might prove fruitful is that of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, who frame right-wing attacks on abortion as an organized distraction against much more sweeping and destructive corporate and governmental attacks on women’s health and living standards in general. This kind of broad strategy could help map out a common ground between reproductive rights and the labor movement.
Also on Saturday, I attended a conference organized by the Women’s Learning Partnership, featuring some very experienced activists from Afghanistan, the Middle East, and North Africa. I went to hear them speak on what’s happening there.
Their joy over the revolution in Egypt and Tunisia was mixed with serious concern. One speaker referred to a young Egyptian woman in Tahrir Square who told reporters that this revolution was not about women; it was about Egypt. “That is what we said in Algeria,” said the speaker. “That is what we said in Iran. And look what happened. Now we know that women’s issues must be part of the discussion from the very beginning. But there are no women on the committee drafting the new Egyptian constitution.”
Others asked for solidarity and spoke of the need to raise international pressure around women’s human rights. Sakena Yacoobi of the Afghan Institute of Learning was particularly urgent about the security needs of women in Afghanistan; the minute a woman starts being politically active, said Yacoobi, she gets followed around by Islamists who threaten her and her family. “We need your help on this,” she said.
But North American activists also felt the need for help. More than one referred to being inspired by the democratic upsurge in the Middle East at a time when many feel that our own democracy is being held hostage by the rich. As one speaker said, “It is time to stop talking as if women in the South have problems and women in the North have answers. We both have problems.”
U.S. women need to get better at making such connections—between North and South, between abortion rights and labor rights. We need to learn how to link constituencies across traditional issue and national lines. The Egyptian demonstrators who sent solidarity messages and pizzas from Tahrir Square to Madison are an example of the nourishment such connections can bring.