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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

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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
Women Warrior-Ancestors

Courageous and Principled

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Women Warrior-Ancestors

“I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.” Shirley Chisholm, 2004

“I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.” Shirley Chisholm, 2004

 

Shirley Chisholm was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1968. She ran against civil rights activist James Farmer. She quickly became known for her work on minority, women’s, and peace issues. She represented 12th Congressional District, New York, 1969 – 1983 (7 terms).

In 1972, Shirley Chisholm made a symbolic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination with the slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed.”  She was the first African American whose name was placed in nomination at the convention of either major party for the office of president.

She was the first woman to run a campaign for the nomination of either major party for the office of president.

 Shirley Chisholm was born 30 November 1924 in New York but spent seven of her early years growing up in Barbados with her grandmother. She returned to New York and her parents in time to study at Brooklyn College. She met Eleanor Roosevelt when she was 14, and took to heart Mrs. Roosevelt’s advice: “don’t let anybody stand in your way.”

Chisholm worked as a nursery school teacher and director of a nursery school and child care center after graduation from college, then worked for the city as an educational consultant. She also became involved in grassroots community organizing and the Democratic party. She helped to form the Unity Democratic Club, in 1960.

Her community base helped make possible a win when she ran for the New York State Assembly in 1964. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm ran for Congress from Brooklyn, winning that seat while running against James Farmer, a veteran of the 1960s Freedom Rides in the south. She became the first black woman elected to Congress. She hired only women for her staff. She was known for taking positions against the Vietnam war. for minority and women’s issues, and for challenging the Congressional seniority system. In 1971, Chisholm was a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus. When Chisholm ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972, she knew that she could not win the nomination, but she nevertheless wanted to raise issues she felt were important. She was the first black person and the first black woman to run for president on a major party ticket, and the first woman to win delegates for a presidential nomination by a major party. Chisholm served in Congress for seven terms, until 1982. In 1984, she helped form the National Political Congress of Black Women (NPCBW). She taught, as the Purington Professor at Mount Holyoke College, and spoke widely. She moved to Florida in 1991. She briefly served as ambassador to Jamaica during the Clinton administration.

Shirley Chisholm died in Florida on 1 January 2005 after a series of strokes.

Autobiographies:

  • Unbought and Unbossed (1970)
  • The Good Fight (1973)