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Change Comes from Mass Movements

What’s at Stake for Women in 2004?

by NANCY WELCH

As the 1 million-strong March for Women’s Lives came to a close in April, a young woman who’d traveled from Vermont to Washington, D.C., said to me, "So now what do we do?" It’s the key question.

How we answer that question–especially in this election year–has everything to do with whether we will reclaim the gains of the women’s movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, or whether we will continue to lose ground.

Particularly when it comes to abortion rights, we have been losing. From the passage of the 1977 Hyde Amendment eliminating federal funding of abortions for poor women, to the flurry of 24-hour waiting period and parental notifications laws passed in the 1990s, we have been losing our hard-won right to control our bodies and our lives.

By the end of the Clinton presidency–which began with Clinton promising a constitutional amendment to guarantee reproductive rights–90 percent of counties in the U.S. offered no abortion services at all. In Nebraska, for example, a woman from a western town like Valentine faces an eight-hour drive east or west to find a clinic. If she heads east to Omaha, she faces an additional 24-hour waiting period once there. If she is under age 18 and heads west to Denver, she better bring proof of consent from both parents.

Such is the dismal state of abortion rights in the United States today. The most recent attack, the criminalization of late-term abortions–misnamed "partial-birth abortion" by the anti-abortion fanatics–isn’t a Bush White House aberration. It’s the continuation of a backlash that has spanned nearly three decades and five presidential administrations, including those of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Far from bucking the trend, Democrats have looked the other way or even promoted this rollback of our rights. Consider the 74 Democrats from the House and Senate who voted "yes" to ban third-term abortions.

We don’t know how presidential hopeful John Kerry and his running mate John Edwards might have voted. Neither bothered to show up. "So now what do we do?"

* * *

IF THE young woman asking that question listened to the official speakers at the March for Women’s Lives, she would conclude that the most we can hope for is to replace the Republican in the White House with a Democrat. That’s scant hope, however, when we recall that the last time a Democrat was in the White House, he sat silent while, state by state, women lost rights they’d hung onto through the Reagan-Bush 1980s.

Even more dreary is recalling how these losses took place without a single mass mobilization–because national women’s organizations feared alienating our "ally" in Washington. This time around, the Democratic presidential candidate isn’t even promising to safeguard abortion rights or to appoint judges who support women’s right to choose.

When Senator John Kerry became Candidate Kerry, he turned his back on what had been a good Senate record. Instead, he’s stumping for anti-choice votes by saying he’s "personally pro-life." The most he’ll promise pro-choice voters is that he’ll "uphold the law of the land"–though he recently told Fox News that the law of the land might need to include parental consent for minors seeking abortions.

To prove that he won’t stack the Supreme Court in favor of Roe v. Wade, Kerry even boasted that as a senator he voted to confirm arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. We can’t count on Kerry to defend our rights.

The victories of the civil rights movement weren’t won by activists staying home and hoping that Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson would do the right thing. The men and women of the Stonewall Rebellion did not wait for the next election to stand up for gay and lesbian liberation. And we can be thankful that those who built a vibrant women’s movement by the late 1960s didn’t step back, figuring they couldn’t win anything under Nixon.

Thanks to the strength of these social movements, Nixon-appointee Justice Harry Blackmun was no arch-conservative but actually wrote the majority opinion for Roe v. Wade. Thanks to the strength of these movements, we saw under the Nixon administration an expansion in social spending (the only expansion in the past 35 years) and an end to the military draft, plus passage of key environmental and workers’ safety legislation.

Nixon didn’t act because he was a friend to women, workers and the environment. He acted because mass pressure from mass movements gave him no choice. With the disintegration of these movements, what we’ve witnessed since the mid-1970s is a sharp right turn of both Democrats and Republicans.

Thousands of young women turned out for the March for Women’s Lives, showing that they’re frustrated and want to do something. If the veteran activists of their mothers’ generation answer that energy with the advice "Wait for November," we’re passing on to these women a losing strategy. More, we’re denying them knowledge of how our rights were won in the first place.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should tell these young women "Don’t vote." In fact, I’ll be voting for Ralph Nader and Peter Miguel Camejo, who are speaking up–without apology and without equivocation–for reproductive rights. But our history tells us we need to do more than just vote. We need to campaign around the issues Nader and Camejo are raising: abortion and immigrant rights; an end to the occupation of Iraq; money for jobs, health care and education.

Doing so, we can build a new a women’s movement, one that aims to last beyond November. This year shouldn’t be about taking back the White House. It should be about taking back our history. It should be about taking back our rights.