Sunday, October 25, 2015

Beyond Voting; Chicago Women's Efforts to Protect and Strengthen Women's Rights

I have new sympathy for Sara who was supposed to be writing accounts of the trip for The Suffragist (the CU’s newspaper). She could also earn a bit more money writing articles for a Portland, OR paper. But they were logging long miles, often leaving before light and reaching their next city in the evening. Receptions, speeches, dinners, and interviews with reporters ate into her time as well, so when she had a scrap of time she really wanted to write to her kids, and (of course) Erskine. She poured out her heart to Erskine, often writing 10-15 page missives in which she jumbles tales of the trip, comments on his letters to her, complaints about her health, advice on the publication of his upcoming book of poetry Poet in the Desert, and always, always, how much she loves and misses him. Frances Joliffe was supposed to make the trip but it was really Erskine who occupied that fourth seat, if only his spirit.

Anyway, I can attest that it’s hard to block out time to write- we can barely get laundry done, and I have no idea how they did that. I’m afraid my blogging’s taken a back seat, as it were, to travel, doing my own advance planning (no Mabel Vernon to help me there), research, and meetings with local people. We’re currently in Columbus OH, heading to Toledo, and on to Detroit tomorrow. I’ll try to catch you up on where we’ve been.
We reached Des Moines on a Sunday, which was unfortunate since it meant I couldn’t visit the library or archives, and had no local meetings set up. On the way to Clinton the next day we detoured through Iowa City so I could visit the Iowa Women’s Archives (IWA) and lunch with Curator Kären M. Mason. 
IWA Founders Louise Noun and
Mary Louise Smith

It’s purpose is to “document the experiences and achievements of the women of Iowa,” and though it’s only been around since 1992 they’ve built up quite a remarkable collection. Not a ton of stuff on suffrage history, as of yet, but who knows what’s still lurking in someone’s attic? Anyway, I thought it was a great model. The IWA was established by two women, Louise Noun and Mary Louise Smith. Louise was an art collector, and auctioned a Frida Kahlo painting “Self-Portrait with Loose Hair” to endow the archives, which seems fitting somehow.

Frida Kahlo's self-portrait, auctioned
to endow the IWA

By the time they reached Des Moines Sara had come down with a bad cold, and  the doctors told her she had to have some rest in order to recover. Knowing that Chicago was coming up and would be a big event, Sara decided to wait a day or two and take the train to Clinton. The Swedes drove on by themselves, stopping in Cedar Rapids.

They then pushed on to Chicago, where Mabel Vernon had organized a grand event on the steps of The Art Institute of Chicago. They were staying at the old LaSalle Hotel, and at the appointed time 50 automobiles (all driven by women) met them there and escorted them up the broad sweep of Michigan Avenue to the steps of the Art Institute. There they were joined by Mayor Thompson and his wife and about 1,000 other suffrage supporters, mostly members of the Political Equality League.
The Envoys in Chicago- The Day Book, 11.20.15.
Looks cold, doesn't it?

I should note that Illinois had weirdly granted women the ability to vote in Presidential elections only; not in any state or local elections in which you might think they’d have more direct interest. This was a strategy suffragists used throughout the weary years of struggle for voting rights. If they couldn’t convince men to give them full suffrage they’d go after voting in municipal, state, or presidential elections. They could use the partial rights as a foot in the door to full suffrage later on.

In Chicago I had the good fortune to speak with three amazing activists for women’s rights, all working on different issues. I came away feeling more hopeful than I had after being in red states for a while.

Maria Socorro Pesqueira, President & CEO of Mujeres Latinas en Acción
I spoke by phone with Maria Socorro Pesqueira, who is President & CEO of Mujeres Latinas en Acción (MLA.) MLA’s roots go back to 1973, when the civil rights and feminist movements were being dominated by white women.  A group of Latina activists decided to form their own organization to address the issues within the Hispanic community. They empower women through a range of services, from helping domestic violence survivors and rape victims to training women to be entrepreneurs and work toward economic self-sufficiency. They recognize that Latina women are often the decisionmakers in their households and they try to nurture and encourage those strengths. Registering women to vote is also a big focus.

Maria’s also focused on helping the next generation of kids avoid some of the pitfalls their parents encountered, so MLA provides youth programming as well. They have a youth curriculum which (among other things) provides “medically accurate” sex ed, and which challenges stereotypes about Hispanics in the media. “How often do you see a white gang banger in the movies?” Maria asked me. “They’re almost always people of color. We need to push back as a community and say ‘that is not who we are and that is not what we will embrace.’”

MLA encourages young Latina women to “own up to being independent”; to do well in school, to go to college, and to choose partners who will support them in their lives. This can mean challenging their families’ culture so MLA has mother-daughter and mother-son groups to work that through. There’s so much more work than one organization can do, and funding is always an issue, but MLA is battling away and is making a difference.

I next had lunch with Kaethe Morris Hoffer, Executive Director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE.)  Kaethe told me that as a child she’d gone to a feminist summer camp in Vermont where we would sing songs about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Tubman (among others.” She actually sang me one of the verses! Who knew that such a thing existed?  I would have sent my daughter there.

It isn’t surprising, then, that Kaethe went on to spend her life working for women. In high school she got trained by Planned Parenthood to serve as a peer educator on birth control. “Teachers would actually invite me into their classrooms and I’d give a talk on birth control,” she told me. Can you imagine how much more effective that would be than having weird Mrs. Robinson or someone recite you the facts, or those static-y film strips they showed us when I was in school? Amazing.

It wasn’t long before girls started sharing their stories of being pressured for sex and of being raped, so Kaethe decided to work on those issues. She majored in Women’s Studies in college and after considering an MSW opted to get a law degree instead.

CAASE’s mission is to address “the culture, institutions, and individuals that perpetrate, profit from, or support sexual exploitation”; basically domestic violence, rape, prostitution, and sex trafficking. CAASE provides prevention, policy reform, community engagement, and legal services. Kaethe described progress CAASE and its allies have made in Chicago to build a toolbox that decriminalizes prostitution and shifts the focus to what she referred to as the “demand side.” The power differential in prostitution is very clear, Kaethe pointed out. Women are in the sex trade to survive. Many are victims of sexual exploitation from an early age, starting with their families. CAASE has done research that shows that the majority of men use prostitutes only occasionally- once a month. “This is discretionary spending,” says Kaethe. “They aren’t homeless or missing meals because of this. They have the cash and that’s how they choose to spend it.”

Among many other things CAASE has begun trying to reduce the demand side by providing a four-part series in high school; done separately with the boys and girls. “We try to unpack messaging around sex-trafficking- media, social attitudes and stereotypes, and ways to say no,” she says. They do pre-post tests with the boys asking about their interest in visiting a strip club (as a proxy for prostitution, and because the high school parents would lose their s*&# if they asked them about their interest in hiring a prostitute.) In Pre-tests the boys almost all indicate strong interest in visiting a strip-club, but in the post-tests this is reduced dramatically.  Furthermore, they say they’d be willing to talk with their peers re: their reasons for saying no. This seems like an amazing model and I’m glad to hear that they’re being asked to share their curriculum with others.

Talking with Kaethe made me feel hopeful that there actually is progress being made despite the numbers of women who are still abused and trafficked. Changing attitudes and laws and policy is slow work, but it can be effective. A case in point is sexual harassment in the workplace. Did you know that the US Supreme Court only ruled against this in 1986? That’s just 30 years ago! And the case that they heard was a woman who had been raped repeatedly by her boss over the years, and had to put up with it in order to keep her job.

Nowadays, people gripe about the annual mandatory sexual harassment training at their workplace, but it’s been successful in changing workplace behavior. Unless you’re in the military chances are you aren’t going to be raped at work, and you can bring a complaint against co-workers who use demeaning language or pat you on the butt. So kudos and thanks to Kaethe and all of the other amazing women who work to make women’s lives safer, at home and at work!

Anne Ladky, Executive Director
of Women Employed
My last interview was with Anne Ladky, Executive Director of Women Employed (WE), another organization with roots in the 1970s civil rights era. Anne moved over to Wein the late 1970s from working with the National Organization for Women, and has been with it ever since, giving her a great perspective on efforts to win equal opportunities for women in the workplace.   

Early on WE targeted two groups of women; secretaries (largely with high school or AA degrees) and those who were college-educated. They tried for a long time to partner with labor unions to represent clerical workers, but sadly without success. The unions simply weren’t interested in going beyond their traditional, male-dominated professions.

For women coming out of college they used classic grassroots organizing strategies to pressure businesses to expand the jobs available, so they wouldn’t get stuck in low-level positions. “We ended up having to go to the government to do that through affirmative action. Government action was essential to making that happen,” says Anne.  We hear so many negative things about affirmative action (and about government) that it was refreshing to be reminded of what a critical role the federal government especially has played in identifying and protecting women’s rights.
Next time you hear of a bunch of dopey conservative men deciding behind closed doors that women can’t get access to birth control or abortion, you can trace their lineage right back to the guys who were denying women voting rights. It took concerted action, and often by the government, to change the laws giving women the freedoms and protections from abuse that we enjoy today. But those changes were made only as a result of pressures that people like Anne Ladky and her colleagues brought to bear.
These days WE is focused on making workplaces fairer for working women, especially those with families, and in helping women succeed in post-secondary education so they can get access to higher paying jobs. Fairness centers around things like increasing the minimum wage, paid sick time and family leave, and predictable schedules.

We discussed that a lot of big companies these days use a “variable scheduling” approach which treats workers like just another input into whatever products they sell. This is especially true in retail. So, for example, say you work for a coffee shop chain. In one week they might have you work two 6-hour shifts and three 4-hour shifts. The following week they think will be slow, so maybe they just schedule you for three 5-hour shifts. And by the way, be prepared to work until 11pm one night and be right back in at 6am to open the next morning. If you’re a parent, try scheduling child care (good luck with that), and also paying bills when you don’t know from one week to the next how much you’re going to earn. It’s a crazy system. And all of it helps companies ensure that they keep their hourly workers in part-time status so they don’t have qualify for health insurance.

Anne says WE and others are making some progress on raising awareness of this issue. It’s kind of like the women in the west who had voting rights and didn’t realize their eastern sisters didn’t have them. Most professional women have never worked in a job that gave them unpredictable hours and income, and we need to wake everyone up to what an awful bind that puts women and their families in. Fortunately, there’s increasing research that shows that variable research costs employers money because of employee turnover and poor morale. (I might be tempted to spit in the occasional grande skinny half-caf latte as I made it for my employer who didn’t give a damn that my kids were sick and the rent was due next week.)

Thanks again to Anne, Kaethe, and Maria, and to all their colleagues across the country who are working to help women have a better chance for themselves and for their families!

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