by Mark Thomas, Development and Outreach Coordinator
15 October 2012
Haifa – Former US Congressional Representatives Connie Morella (R-MD) and Patricia Schroeder (D-CO) came together with a group of feminist activists in Haifa to discuss their life’s work to promote the status of women. The round table was an event of the Middle East Partnership Initiative, hosted by Shatil and coordinated by Kayan-Feminist Organization, Isha l’Isha and the MEPI Alumni Association Local Chapter in Israel. Participants also included representatives of the US Embassy and women’s rights activists from a diverse group of civil society organizations in Israel. Fortunately, anyone bracing for the ideological polarization and barbed partisan rhetoric of this latest season of US campaign politics was to be pleasantly relieved. Instead, those in attendance encountered a pair of long-time friends and experienced political activists deeply devoted to the advancements of women’s rights the world over.
The guests of honor were introduced by U.S. Embassy Cultural Attaché Michele Dastin-van Rijn. Ambassador Constance (Connie) Morella represented Maryland’s 8th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives from 1987 to 2003. For four years, she served as Permanent Representative to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). She is currently on the faculty of American University as Ambassador in Residence for the Women in Politics Institute. Connie was appointed the US Permanent Representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Active in the League of Women Voters, Connie has been an vocal advocate of women’s rights. Dissenting with much of the Republican Party’s contemporary platform, she is in favor of gun control, gay rights and preserving women’s right to abortion.
Patricia (Pat) Schroeder represented Colorado in the United States House of Representatives from 1973 to1997. A member of the Democratic Party, Schroeder was the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado and the second youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She specialized in women’s rights and reforms affecting the family, such as women’s health care, child rearing, expansion of Social Security benefits, and gender equity in the workplace. She was a vocal pro-choice advocate and a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.
The former Congresswomen had just arrived from Cairo, where they met with Egyptian women frustrated with the ongoing marginalization of women at the hands of the various political parties, principally the religiously conservative ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood. Pat quoted Hillary Clinton, known to have remarked that wherever men obtain power, they will attempt to roll back women’s rights. She highlighted that American women also continue to face discrimination, as evidenced by recent statements by politicians in the US concerning “legitimate rape,” trans-vaginal probes (pertaining to new abortion rights legislation) and the women’s reproductive health organization, Planned Parenthood.
As an attorney in 1964, Pat represented Planned Parenthood. If you had asked her then, she remarked, she would never have suspected that forty years later, women’s rights activists would still be fighting these same battles. She recalled the work that she and Connie had done with fellow political pioneer and US Congressional Representative Olympia Snow regarding gender mainstreaming of the National Institute of Health. Before their intervention, the NIH neglected to collect health statistics on women, dismissing women as having “varied metabolic rates” and being therefore unreliable in measuring the impact of United States health policy. At the time, Pat said, women “of child-bearing age” were commonly denied employment. They also faced flagrant, gender-based discrimination in the acquisition of credit. Pat and her contemporaries fought in the halls of US government to challenge such antiquated realities.
“Men of both parties,” she said, “are not very supportive of women. They will do whatever they can to prevent you from [organizing].” She mentioned that her friend and colleague, Rep. Debbie Schultz (D-Fl), “has had all kinds of terrible things said about her” during her tenure as Chair of the Democratic National Committee. She stressed that in the face of such ubiquitous opposition to the advancement of women, it was critical for women’s rights activists to present a united front by organizing above limiting party affiliation.
In 1972, Connie Morella was a professor at Montgomery College in Maryland. It was then, she said, that “the women’s movement put the movement into me.” Connie revealed that she and Pat are great long-time friends, having worked together over many years for the protection and promotion of women’s rights. As a woman’s rights activist in the 1980s, she finally decided that to be effective, she needed to leverage her influence and impact. “If you don’t have a seat at the table,” she said, “you might just be on the menu.” In 1986, she contested the open seat in Maryland’s 8th Congressional district, becoming the first woman to hold that seat and the unlikely Republican representative of a heavily Democratic community. In the US House of Representatives, she advocated the Equal Rights Amendment in the states, expanding protections of women’s right to fair credit, education and employment.
At the time she took her seat in 1986, Connie was one of only 23 women among 435 elected members of the US House of Representatives. (When Pat Schroeder was elected in 1972, she was among only 14 women in the lower house of Congress.) Connie pointed out that although there are now 75 women in the House of Representatives, women Democrats outnumber their Republican colleagues nearly 2 to 1, evidence, she believes of her party’s continuous shift away from women’s issues.
A highlight of her career, she said, was the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, a landmark piece of legislation that provided substantial budgetary allocations for the prosecution of crimes against women, set mandatory minimum penalties and paved the way for women to pursue recourse in civil courts. In 2000, the law was amended to include human trafficking, an issue of personal priority for both Connie and Pat.
The women had come to Haifa, they said, to talk about their experiences as women’s rights advocates and to share their practices. “When a woman anywhere is elevated,” Connie said, women everywhere are elevated.” She stressed that for women to succeed, they need to narrow their focus to their most important issues and then put together feasible work plans. That team, she said, should include civil society and the press. An effective strategy for dissemination, she stressed, “is critical in getting the word out.”
As the conversation was opened to questions, I asked the women if they had seen Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s excoriation of opposition leader Tony Abbot. In a winding and frank rebuttal, she rebuffed Mr. Abbot as a Tar’tuffian opportunist and pathological misogynist. Though criticized by local media, Gillard’s speech became an overnight sensation on social media networks, in particular among feminists. I wanted to know if as members of Congress, either woman felt she would have had such latitude to speak her mind.
Connie responded that in her estimation, the tone of US politics is decidedly more reserved. Members of the House are introduced as “right honorable gentleman,” she said, and such heated exchanges rarely take place on the floor of the Congress itself. In this sense, politicians are compelled to consider their words carefully and therefore tend to keep things on a more even keel. The real sparring, she said, is typically done outside the hall.
Pat pointed to a broad and pervasive vernacular for the denigration of women to which there is no male equivalent. Terms like “femi-Nazi,” for example, are quite common in the parlance of American punditry. Women, Pat said, are also commonly framed according to their gender in ways that do not apply to their male counterparts. After years of this double standard, Pat had had well enough. Turning the tables on her good friend and then Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil, Pat lavishly introduced her colleague at a public event not as a distinguished public servant, but as a devoted husband and loving father. Her exaggerated praise of his domestic credentials finally forced his lighthearted objection. “Ok, Schroeder!” he laughed, “I get it.”
Dr. Sarai Ahrony, women issues scholar and member of the the Isha l’Isha community, followed that when it comes to international and intergenerational exchanges, participants often fall into patterns of surface-level questioning. She encouraged the group to think radically, to ask even naïve questions about the system in the United States. “There are profound cultural and generational differences here,” she said. “How can we learn from this encounter in a deeper way?”
Hedva Eyal, Women and Medical Technologies Project Coordinator at Isha l’Isha, returned to a point in the conversation in which the former representatives had spoken about their impassioned work to involve more women in politics. “All women?” Hedva inquired. “Or do you seek feminist women in politics?”
Connie responded that she seeks the involvement of all women, “irrespective of political affiliation.” Just getting women to participate, she emphasized, is the most critical aspect of the process. The most important first step, she said, was allowing women to believe that they can influence the outcome. Connie spoke about her involvement in Project 2012, a non-partisan initiative in the United States to encourage women’s participation in politics. The program, she said, had yielded 163 women on upcoming ballots across the country.
“In this room,” Hedva continued, “we are political women. I don’t think that I want all women. I want progressive, feminist women. This is one of the tensions, I think.”
“I back women who back women’s issues,” Pat clarified. She reiterated the need to rise above party limitations and described her work with the US-based Casey Foundation to build political movements through cooperation between minority stakeholder groups. She explained the concept of “network weavers,” whose job it is to work between stakeholder groups in order to prevent dissolution of consensus and other forms of backsliding common in political movements. In Arizona, for example, she pointed to recent successes in bringing black, Latino and poor white constituents together in durable coalitions to overcome shared obstacles there.
Asked about some of the specific tools she and her cohorts are utilizing, in particular concerning the consolidation of functional, issue-based networks, Pat spoke about a powerful new strategy known as “convening.” These large-scale public encounters are designed to empower new stakeholders, or “delegates,” with the tools they need to activate as organized constituencies. Taking a bottom-up approach to community mobilization – in contrast to the more conventional targeting of seasoned activists and civil society executives – skill sets are built directly with grassroots stakeholders most affected. Each year, she said, the foundation recognizes excellence in cross-constituency work.
Connie stressed the importance of developing robust infrastructure and soliciting support for the networks. Organizations such as Vital Voices, she highlighted, are helping activists fine tune their platforms to ensure they can offer concrete solutions backed by consensus.
The group discussed recent proposals in the Israeli Knesset to monitor and limit foreign-based support of NGOs, an ironic sentiment in Pat’s estimation, given that the vast majority of Israeli political financing is procured abroad. Hedva stressed, however, that money is only a part of the equation. The core of activism, she said, was “still about getting people out onto the streets.”
Participants observed, that in Israel – generally a more religiously conservative society than the United States – women face persistent barriers to political involvement. Connie asserted that women in the US still face challenges of traditionalism when it comes to striking a balance between work and family. But, she added, an increasing number of women are delaying marriage and finding ways to strike a necessary balance in their lives. Pat was keen to add that women are more educated and living longer than ever before. Part of the solution, she said, is in expanding our horizons when it comes to how we perceive the capacities of older women. “In my experience,” she said, “it’s not retiring. It’s rewiring.”
Shirin Batshon, Legal Department Coordinator at Kayan-Feminist Organization, highlighted that although there are extensive efforts aimed at getting women from the private to the public sphere, there is a discernable lack of effort in bringing men from the public sphere to the private. This kind of equality, Michele responded, requires a legislative framework to support it.
Security was mentioned as the most significant barrier to women’s involvement in politics in Israel, not because women cannot come into positions of leadership, but because of resistance to their gendered critique of generally accepted concepts of security. Pat’s husband, James, recalled that in the 1960s and 70s, prominent figures in the American equal rights movement consistently held up Israel as a paragon of gender equality, a society in which women had achieved equal status in the military and other key social institutions. Hedva responded that though this notion remains deeply rooted in the Israeli national mythos, it was never the case. Even in the military, she said, the majority of women were assigned traditional gender roles as cooks, childcare providers and secretaries. Pat introduced the concept of ‘code-red’ politics, in which specific issues obfuscate prioritization of women’s equality. To take back the security issue, she said, activists must develop a critical mass for political action.
Asked about local priorities, Shirin enumerated several core issues facing Arab women in Israel, including unequal pay, domestic violence, and the denial of family unification rights, which has left many women in Israel without status, lacking basic legal protections and at risk of deportation should they file a complaint. Without residency, Shirin said, victims of domestic violence are essentially punished for being abused.
Regarding the trafficking of women for the sex industry, a priority issue for both of the former Congresswomen, Sarai spoke about Isha l’Isha’s own groundbreaking intervention. I had prefaced our discussion of local issues with the observation that although Israeli legislation may be considered relatively progressive, there remain stark gaps between the law and rights actualization on the ground. Under sustained local and international pressure, the state was compelled to take practical steps to enforce its own laws. In the decade that followed, incidents of trafficking women for the sex industry plummeted. Since then, Isha l’Isha Program Coordinator Rita Chaikin has travelled throughout the former Soviet Union, educating civil society organizations and state legislatures about the successes brought about by civil society in Israel.
Hedva introduced an emerging focus of this movement concerning reproductive trafficking. The discourse, she admitted, commonly gravitates toward the issue of free choice, which has unfortunately forestalled effective coalition building around this issue.
Concerning abortion, participants spoke of recent public statements in Israel that might indicate potential for backsliding on this issue. As a Republican advocate of abortion rights, Connie admitted she was an “extinct” species. “I raised a big family, I’m a Catholic and I am pro-choice,” she said. “I know what it means to be picketed… But if you can establish credibility through your hard work, you can overcome opposition [from within]. But there are ever fewer people willing to stand up, which may explain why women Democrats now outnumber women Republicans two to one.”
Asked about the enduring (and utterly dysfunctional) two-party system despite a US population of over 310 million, the representatives agreed that the situation looked increasing dire. Pat pointed to the evolution of political action committees, or “Superpacs,” in US politics. “When a mere 17 donors are responsible for over 90% of political spending, you have a plutocracy,” she said. Evidence, the two friends agreed, of the importance of working outside one’s party.
(Pictures courtesy of Labibah Harash-Mousa (MEPI Alumni Assn.)
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