Categories
Women Warrior-Ancestors

Janet Benshoof  Fierce Defender of Women’s reproductive rights dies at 70. 

 

 

On December 19, 2017 Janet Benshoof, who for 40 years fought for the reproductive rights of women, died of uterine cancer.  She was 70.  Her death followed the cancer diagnosis made only a month before.  The New York Times described her as a “dogged defender of women’s rights.”  The following discussion with Ms. Benshoof is envisaged based on sources where she spoke about her life and work.

 

You have championed many causes but you are best known for your life-long advocacy for women’s rights.  Could you describe the arc of your career?

I began my work at South Brooklyn Legal Services, bringing class action law suits on behalf of low income residents. It was there that I first saw the debasement of poor women and understood that they bore the brunt of poverty, notably manifested in their health and the health of their children.

 

You have never been afraid of being on the front lines of controversial battles.  Have you ever been arrested?

Yes.  In 1990 I traveled to Guam to protest the enactment of a especially heinous anti-abortion law.  At a press conference I said, “Women who are pregnant and seeking an abortion should leave the island.”  I was subsequently arrested for “soliciting” women to have abortions.  After the charges were dismissed the Governor continued to demonstrate his vacuous paternalism when he said that I “had not been nice.”  I wish that was the worst criticism I’ve received.

 

You worked for 15 years at the ACLU as part of its Reproductive Freedom Project, joining that effort four years after the Roe v. Wade decision. Can you tell us why the Project was so important to you?

After the watershed victories leading up to and including Roe v. Wade, we confronted an anti-choice backlash that persists to this day.  Every year has been marked by a methodical, systematic effort to dismantle the decision and to take away the reproductive rights of women.  Despite a continuous and strong fight over this entire time, women’s rights to control their bodies have steadily diminished.  The Trump administration is now mobilizing a comprehensive frontal attack with aggressive efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, and the ongoing efforts to dismantle Affordable Care Act requirements for private health insurance plans such as coverage for contraception. These and so many assaults will of course limit access to reproductive healthcare services, especially for poor women.

 

In 2005 you took your fight for women’s reproductive rights to a global stage. What motivated you to found the Global Justice Center?

Having worked for most of my career fighting in the U.S. for women’s rights, I saw the urgency of moving that fight to a global stage. The Center’s intent is to fundamentally transform the landscape of reproductive health and women’s rights worldwide.  We have already strengthened laws and policies in more than 50 countries, with a focus on the atrocities women face.  Just last month we called for the European Commission to ensure that abortions be included in the medical care offered to women and girls, especially in areas where rape is used as a weapon of war.

 

I’ve heard you described as “a brilliant legal mind,” “having a “sharp sense of humor,” and “acting with great courage in the face of injustice.” How would you respond?  I’m flattered but I haven’t really focused on compliments.  It would have distracted me.  It’s not about me after all; it is about the intentional degradation and marginalization of women.

 

What work has given you the greatest sense accomplishment and pride?  

First, our fight with the Food and Drug Administration’s approval in 1996 for the use of the morning-after pill as an emergency contraceptive to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Second, the cases I successfully argued before the Supreme Court.   And finally, to have had my dear friend Ruth (Bader Ginsburg) officiate my wedding to Arthur.

*****

Thank you Janet for your leadership and fire.

Interview envisaged December, 2017

Categories
Women Rising In Resistance

Why I Am Not a Feminist

Book Review:  Why I Am Not a Feminist by Jesse Crispin

 

I’ve been thinking recently of “feminism.”  It’s a slippery word; is it a political movement, a set of beliefs? an ideology? Is it largely a movement in developed countries? Is it grounded in the white middle class? Why is it often discussed as first, second and third “waves?”

And as I ask myself these questions, I ask a final one: Am I a feminist? 

 It wasn’t until I had read Crispin’s book that I felt a beam of clarity about what “feminism” is and is not.

And it wasn’t until I finished the book that I had an answer to that final question.  No I am not.

So here’s the deal: I love this book.  It is an unapologetic polemic against the traditional, palatable brand of “feminism” that she argues has abandoned its earlier, radical roots.  She argues that feminism has been made a very fashionable and universal notion.  But it is a problem.  “Making feminism a universal pursuit has accelerated a process that has been detrimental to the feminist movement: the shift of focus from society to the individual.  What was once collective action and a shared vision for how women might work and live in the world has become identity politics, a focus on individual history and achievement, and an unwillingness to share space with people with different opinions, world views and histories.”

Crispin rejects this universal feminism.  Here are a few of her specific reasons.

 

  1. “Feminism is a narcissistic, reflexive thought process.
  2. Feminism is a fight to allow women to participate equally in the oppression of the powerless and the poor.
  3. Feminism is an attack dog posing as a kitten with a drop of milk on her nose.
  4. Feminism is a bland reworked brand of soda, focus group tested for palatability and inoffensiveness.”

Crispin goes on to argue that this universal, comfortable feminism will always be toothless.  Because a “feminism that springs from self interest, that is embraced because it more easily gives access to power—rather than being embraced out of any social awareness —- will necessarily be part of the system of power and oppression, and meaningless as a way toward universal human rights.  Feminists are participants in this system and they are benefiting from it.”

Most reviews of the book find things to pick at.  Here is my favorite:  her arguments are weak and are widely dismissed by young feminists… No kidding, what a surprise. Other critics suggest that Crispin’s positions need more work, especially regarding the specific actions women should take to dismantle the patriarchy.  Well okay, but I think her call to arms is a good first step.  You have to recognize the problem, after all, before you can solve it.

I conclude this little “mini book review” with my favorite passage: her comments directed to men who might be reading the book:

“It is possible you have some questions or concerns with what I’ve written here, and you would like me to address them for you.  If so, then here is my response.  Take that shit someplace else.  I am not interested.  It is not my job to make feminism easy or understandable to you.  It is not my job to to nurture and encourage your empathy.  It is my job to teach you how to deal with women being human beings.

********

I’ve only touched the surface of her arguments.  Please, get it at your library.  It is 151 pages of gloves-off punches.

Categories
Women Rising In Resistance

600 Female Artist Stand Together in NYC

What do 600 women artists convened in the Brooklyn Museum look like?

Like this:

Held last October at the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art, “Now Be Here #2” was an acknowegement of the power of women artists. Organizers said it was the largest group portrait of female and female-identifying artists in New York.

Kim Schoenstadt, an organizer of the event, was eloquent in her remarks. “I hope that our white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy is on the way out and that we are ushering in a new era. . . Each moment captures not only those who are in attendance but reminds me of those who have come before us and those who have come after. … That artists see each other, look each other in the eye, and are present together creates a real reminder to support one another.”

I relied on the fabulous online publication, Hyperallergic for this post.  Go here for more inspiring detail on these women artists.

Categories
Raising Up Women Artists

Belkis Ayon Afro-Cuban Collographer

Ayón (1967-1999) was a incredible Cuban printmaker who specialized in the technique of  collography.   She is known for her spectacularly detailed allegorical collographs drawn from the Afro-Cuban secret,  men-only society of Abakuá.  Her work is largely monochromatic, consisting of dark silhouettes and ghost-white figures with oblong heads and empty, almond-shaped eyes. She was born in Havana, Cuba in 1967 and died in 1999 by suicide.

Ayon was a Cuban artist known only recently in the U.S. and woefully underrepresented on Wikipedia.The following is based on an entry I wrote and  published there.

 

A central theme of Ayon’s art is the mythology of Abakuá, a secret, exclusively male association. The fraternal association began in Africa and was brought to Haiti and Cuba through slave trade in the 19th century. Ayón researched the history of Abakuá extensively, with special emphasis on Princess Sikan, the only female figure in the religion. According to a central Abakuán myth, Sikan once accidentally captured an enchanted fish, which imparted great power to those who heard its voice. Upon taking the fish to her father, he warned her to remain silent, never speaking of it again. She did divulge the information to a leader of another trip, however, and was sentenced to death as her punishment. Imposed silence is major theme throughout Ayon’s work, as evident in the lack of mouths in all of her figures. Ayón was the only prominent artist to devote her art to the Abakuán society. Because the society had very few visual representations of itsmyths, she was free to create her own interpretations. Numerous Abakan rituals are represented in her colographs, many of which draw on Christian as well as Afro-Cuban mythical traditions. This was in sharp contrast to the atheistic anti-religion position of the government Cuba at the time. Known as a master of collography, Ayón perfected the technique by painstakingly attaching materials of widely differing textures (e.g.vegetable peelings, bits of paper, acrylic and abrasives) to a cardboard substrate. The resulting elaborate collage was then run through a hand cranked printing press. The resulting prints were spectacular.  She often painted or carved these images. creating intricate patterns and embossments that added even more depth, texture and relief. An example of her exceptional detail is (Untitled, (Sikan With Goat)) for which she cut and placed hundreds of pieces paper on cardboard to represent individual scales on a figure of Sikan.Her later work was very often large, almost human in scale. To create these prints she joined as many as 18 sheets together.

 

Ayón is best known for working mainly in black, white and shades of grey. In these prints stark and haunting white figures are dramatically contrasted with dark images and backgrounds. Notable examples are “Longing” (1988), “Resurrection” (1998) and “Untitled (“Black figure carrying a white one”) (1996) She did use vibrant colors in some early work and studies for new prints. A notable example is La Cerna, the study of which portrayed bright pink, red, yellow and green figures. Other examples of bright colors early in her career are “Nasako Began” (1986), “Syncretism I” (1986) and “Careful Women! Sikan Careful!! (1987).

Ayón sometimes mixed images the Abakuán and Christian religions, for example “Giving and Taking” (1997). In this work she depicted a Christian priest or saint with a white halo and a red robe next to an Abakan figure with a black diamond behind his head and clothed in black. She also replaced men with female figures, for example in La Cerna where she portrayed some of the disciples at the Last Supper with females. She also replaced Jesus with the image of Sikan. By raising the importance of women and depicting them is such controversial ways, her bold work defied the society of Abuka, if not the Cuban government itself.

 

Categories
Women Warrior-Ancestors

Aleta Jacobs Trailblazer and Rabble-Rouser

Aletta Jacobs

A ferocious trailblazer and rabble-rouser Jacobs was born in Sappemeer, Netherlands in1854. Her life was a series of “firsts.” She was the first woman to be admitted to the University of Groningen, the first to graduate from medical school, and the first woman in the country to become a medical doctor. What impresses me about Jacobs is the bravery and intensity that she brought to each of her passions: women’s health, suffrage and world peace. In each of these three areas was brave, radical and relentless. Without doubt she was a Woman Warrior of the Highest Distinction.

Women’s Health

Early in her education Jacobs displayed her enduring concern for women’s health and reproductive justice, issues typically ignored by most male doctors in her time. Upon her graduation she began her private practice and from the start it was clear that she would defy the expectations of her male colleagues. Many visited her in the early days and offered their suggestions; one being lower charges in order to signal that she was not pretending to to be the equal of her male colleagues. In her memoirs she tells the story of healing the wife of a prominent Dutch businessman. He strongly reproach her for not lowering fees. “Whatever possessed you to do such a thing!” To this she replied, “Did you ever dream of asking a cheaper, less reputable doctor to treat your wife? I suspected that your sole concern was the best possible treatment and that that was why you decided to consult the only woman doctor in Holland.”

 Soon after she began practicing she opened a free clinic for women unable to gain access to medical treatment. It was through this work that she saw how women suffered at the face of the society in which they lived.

It was common, for example. for women to have multiple pregnancies, resulting in multiple health problems. These included miscarriage,    gestational diabetes and anemia. In response,Jacobs opened what is often cited as the first birth control clinic. Working with a colleague in England she learned of the pessary, known later was diaphragm. She distributed these devices to a growing number of women in Holland and was vilified for this work. Of course she carried on undaunted.

Jacobs saw other forms of suffering. Sales women in Amsterdam, for instance, were required to stand all day without breaks. She waged a campaign for stores to provide benches and seats behind counters, for more frequent breaks. But the most controversial of all was her public outcry on behalf of prostitutes’ health.   She recalled seeing a prostitute in her university shunned and maltreated. “This woman made me confront the tragedy of prostitution and I have always felt intense sympathy fir its victims the world over, particularly in terms of the humiliating way in which governments control these women’s bodies. Aletta campaigned to abolish prostitution as a legal institution, and although this was never accomplished, her work has been cited as a factor in the significant decline in the incidence of sexual diseases in Holland the early 20th century.

Suffrage and Pacifism

Jacobs’ fight for female suffrage stemmed from her own personal experience. Rejected by her application to vote in 1882, she began a succession of appeals, culminating at the Netherlands Supreme Court. Again her plea was denied, the reasoning being that women lacked full citizenship or civil rights in the country. Her public outrage was recounted widely in the press. Members of Parliament were so threatened by newspaper coverage of her outrage that they actually amended the constitution to state that only men were enfranchised to vote.

This personal quest for her right to vote was just the start of her leadership in the suffrage movement. She quickly become known throughout Europe and the U.S. and was introduced to other proponents including Carie Chapman Carr, president of the newly formed International Women Suffrage Alliance. With Catt she traveled traveled to South Africa, China, Japan and Jerusalem, (among other countries) to speak with women about suffrage and women’s rights.

The outbreak of World War I began yet another of her crusades as she knew that women were more likely to propose meaningful proposals for peace than men. Her tireless work and personal invitations led to the convening of The Women’s Peace Conference, also known as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) The meeting was held in the Hague and was attended by 1200 women from 12 countries on both sides of the war, including Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Poland, Belgium and the United States. At her request, Susan B. Anthony chaired the proceedings. The success of the
conference was foundational; the WILPF exists today and continues to advocate for women’s rights worldwide.

Aged 74 at her death, at the age 74 Jacobs was known throughout the world for her unyielding and ferocious demands for women’s health, suffrage and peace. She left countless irate male misogynists in her wake.   A true WOMAN WARRIOR, we are indebted and profoundly grateful to Jacobs for impassioned and relentless work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Raising Up Women Artists