I stand with you

StandWithPPIn September, my Facebook feed became saturated with the #IStandwithPlannedParenthood campaign. People I haven’t seen or heard from in over 10 years were talking about going to Planned Parenthood and how it helped them. I wasn’t surprised by all the support—Planned Parenthood has helped me too. But I was surprised to see a post from one of my closest friends where she shared her experience going there for an abortion. I realized that during that time period I had seen her almost every day. I had sat with her in class, done homework with her, and gone out for meals, all the while having no clue that this was going on in her life.

I debated for a long time whether or not to bring it up, but I eventually did. I told her how bad I felt that I hadn’t noticed that something so difficult was going on in her life. She said it was hard to go through alone, but didn’t talk about it because she was ashamed, embarrassed, and thought no one would understand. Of course that made sense to me, I’ve had those times too. I felt that way about the time a guy I was dating in college assaulted me, even though I know that’s fairly common. It was a sad moment when we realized that we could have been supporting each other. Then we got mad. Why didn’t we feel comfortable talking to each other? Gah, patriarchy had been wining!

But ever since that time, we’ve been using our experiences to fight against the patriarchy. She’s using her experience to demand that health, reproductive care, and options are widely available. My experience has been a slow burning fire that keeps me committed to my work in the domestic violence movement. Instead of standing by ourselves, we are standing side by side.

Living in a state of freedom

You may wonder why I’m always blogging about emergency contraception (EC) and birth control. What does it have to do with domestic violence? Why would an advocate need to talk about this with a survivor of abuse? And why should domestic violence programs have EC, pregnancy tests, and condoms available on site?

If you have never experienced it, it might be hard to understand how birth control sabotage, or reproductive or sexual coercion, is an incredibly powerful way to exert power and control over someone. Imagine someone flushing your pills down the toilet or poking holes in a condom. What about stopping you from getting to the clinic to get your Depo shot? Or forcibly pulling out your IUD by the strings? If you’re in an abusive relationship, negotiations around birth control and whether to have—or not have—children might happen without your opinion being respected or even considered. The harm of this may be invisible to an outsider, but when survivors of abuse are not allowed to make their own decisions about pregnancy, they lose control over the trajectory of their life and their connection to the abuser. And they have to constantly weigh the risks of any act of resistance, any attempt at independence.

Domestic violence advocates know that survivors coming to their programs are experiencing a range of abusive behaviors. But even if they are experiencing reproductive or sexual coercion, it is usually not something they bring up. If we want long-term solutions for survivors and their children, then we need to bring it up. Offering EC and birth control information, and having it available on site, is a liberatory act.

We need to offer it because Plan B or Levonorgestrel (emergency contraception) is effective within five days after unprotected intercourse and is available to anyone, no matter age or gender, without a prescription. We need to offer it so that survivors know we are comfortable talking about sex, birth control (especially forms that are less likely to be felt by a partner), and reproductive health. We need to offer it because access to timely information and practical help can change the circumstances of someone’s life. And we need to offer it because advocacy is about supporting someone to determine their own life—to live in a state of freedom.

A flock of birds and the words "I'm Free"

Futures Without Violence Leadership Award

Futures Without Violence recently presented me and the organization I work for the Futures Without Violence Leadership Award at the National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C.  Futures Without Violence called out how our “efforts bridge the gap between advocates and health care providers, and create programs that have improved the lives and safety of countless victims of abuse.” What follows is the speech I gave when presented with this honor.

Leigh-award

I want to thank Futures Without Violence for this award. I also congratulate the other recipients and thank you for your transformative work.

It is humbling to receive this award and I share it with all of you. Each one of us works every day for women, children, and men to have the access and care they deserve.

We are a mighty group and I am so proud to be here with you.

After so many years of advocating for survivors of abuse and working for policies and practices that are shaped by their experiences, I find myself circling back to some of the most important foundations we have.

Self-determination, liberation, bodily-integrity, the freedom to do the things we want—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone.

When I think about what it means to do advocacy, what comes immediately to mind are my twin daughters, Basha and Rebekah.

Four years ago, they were Bat Mitzvahed. And as part of the ceremony, they had to write and deliver speeches about the Torah passages that marked their day.  Reflecting on the teachings and finding contemporary meaning.

Two young women with two singular perspectives. Basha talked about Glee (which she watched obsessively at the time). What she took from the show was not just the drama, fabulous singing, and the outfits—what she took were lessons about bullying and homophobia and young people’s experiences both of injustice and of justice.

Rebekah wrestled with her understanding of living an ethical life. What she came to realize is the importance of having an integrity that allows you to be whole, and directs you to live—publically as you do privately.

I am grateful my daughters had this experience. To think seriously, to speak seriously, to have adults listen and take them seriously.

Fast forward to 17, Basha and Rebekah have helped to organize a Feminist Union at their high school. Every week 30 teens show up, 1/3 of them boys, to hang out and talk. They talk about street harassment, rape culture, healthy relationships, international feminism, and gender equality.

That my daughters have had these experiences is a remarkable gift. It is all we want for every girl and every boy. In my work, and our Coalition’s work, we see the power of partnerships that give women and girls, men and boys, the opportunity to exercise their choices, to write their own futures. And, have lives filled with dignity.

I am so very proud to be a part of this movement—and believe that all of us, together, are creating a world of health and happiness, and justice and hope.

Thank you.

What does it take to believe a woman?

We bring you this post from the Executive Director of a domestic violence program in rural Washington.

The domestic violence agency I work at often buys supplies that our clients need but can’t always afford, like diapers, toiletries, and contraceptives. Easy access to birth control supports a survivor’s control over their body, and promotes their safety and independence. Recently, I walked into our community’s only pharmacy to buy some Plan B. The young woman behind the counter asked me for ID and went into the back room.

planb2Her: Here you go, all set.

Me: What did you do with my ID?

Her: Checked to see if you are over 18.  (I think this is funny – I’m 39.)

Me: There are no restrictions on buying Plan B, so you don’t need to know my age. I work at the local domestic violence agency and for my clients, being asked to show ID can be scary if their abuser monitors what they are doing and checks public records. It is also scary for people who are worried about their immigration status.

Now the pharmacist comes out and joins the conversation.

Pharmacist: That’s not true. On the Plan B package it says “For Women Over 17 Years of Age.”

Me: It’s old packaging (wondering just how old the packaging is). The law has changed. Plan B should be able to be purchased as over-the-counter medication. I don’t have to show identification.

Pharmacist: That’s not true and it is my choice how to dispense it.

This same conversation continued over a few more visits. I brought in articles and the new federal regulations—none of it seemed to matter to the pharmacist. Then my town gathered a small team of community members interested in women’s reproductive health services that were available locally. One community member went back to the pharmacy, and while the same “it’s just not true” argument ensued, another visiting pharmacist broke into the conversation and said we were right. He confirmed the changes in law we had already shown the local pharmacist.

This pharmacy—the only place in town to buy Plan B—is now in compliance with the law. And while I’m very happy about that, I still find it frustrating that my local pharmacist would not listen to what we were saying (read: what we women were saying) and would not change the pharmacy’s practice until a man said our information was correct. How many laws that affect women’s health are ignored when women are telling the truth?

Catalyst for change: Shirley Chisholm

“At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.” – Shirley Chisholm

471604-01-main-270x350The late, great Shirley Chisholm was recently commemorated with a stamp, so I decided an in-person trip to the Post Office was in order. As I placed my order at the counter, the woman next to me asked who this Shirley Chisholm was. I’m always surprised at how few people seem to know about her. So I’m taking the opportunity to spread the word here.

It is often hard to wholeheartedly admire a politician, but Chisholm is one that I do. When I watched the 2005 documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, I was captivated by her dynamic presence and unwavering vision. As I learned more about her, I couldn’t help but wish that we had more politicians and leaders like her.

She represented New York’s 12th Congressional district for fourteen years, prioritizing issues of poverty, education, and women’s health and reproductive freedom. She deliberately hired women for all of her office positions, half of whom were black women. She was whip smart and had the ability to incisively cut to the heart of the matter; at the same time, she was also known for being warm and kind, with a great sense of humor.

Among her many notable accomplishments:

  • She served on the Education and Labor Committee. She worked on a bill to give domestic workers the right to minimum wage, worked to revoke the Internal Security Act of 1950 (a McCarthy-era holdover), and pushed for increased spending on social services, education, and health care. She authored the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972, which would have implemented a national childcare system; it passed the House and the Senate but was unfortunately vetoed by Nixon.
  • She taught politics and women’s studies at Mount Holyoke and Spelman, after her retirement from Congress.

In her own words, “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.”

Leadership

women-graduatingFrom an early age, I always thought to myself that education was “my way out.” I thought it would give me a voice, power over my choices, and freedom. I saw it as a way to equalize myself to boys and men. For the most part, things pretty much worked out how I imagined—I found my voice, I have more power over my choices, and I have the experience of freedom.

But lately I’ve been wondering, what if I focused less on trying to achieve what men have and more on how to develop myself to achieve what is most important to me? What if every girl and every woman did the same? What if each and every community valued educating girls to fulfill their goals?

What would women, as leaders, achieve? How would our communities be different? I imagine a whole new world of possibilities. And I am interested in hearing what you think!

High school football highlight

Did you happen to see that Ike Ditzenberger was hospitalized with severe pneumonia? For those of you who don’t know Ike, he is a local teenager here in Washington State who attends high school in Snohomish. The video of his touchdown during a high school football game a couple of years ago went viral, and he won the Seattle Children’s Inspirational Youth Award. Check out his acceptance speech—it’s well worth the 5 minutes of your time.

What caught my attention with his recent near-fatal health scare, was how his teammates have been with him every step of the way. Ike experiences the beloved community—with his team and their opponents, in his school, and with family and neighbors. Imagine if every teenager had this. Imagine.

Let’s NOT talk about Michelle’s dress

First all-woman delegation

In the wake of Election Day, women emerge victorious! History was made in the U. S. Senate when women secured more seats than ever before. In New Hampshire, they added two female Representatives and a Governor to their two women Senators for the first all-woman delegation. Let’s hear it for strong, smart women leaders! What an incredibly inspiring thing—especially for our young women and men—to experience. Progress!

*(insert record scratch)*

And then I see the “news” about Michelle Obama. Apparently, she committed a fashion faux pas on election night and wore a repeat dress. Even Sasha and Malia were not immune from fashion commentary. The point is—I saw nothing in the news about the First Lady’s prospective work for the next four years. Nothing about how she might continue her ground breaking work on the health of our youth, or how she could expand her work on food justice for the poor (OK, maybe that’s just my wishful thinking…) Anyway, there was nothing of substance discussed. But women have secured more seats in the Senate than ever before, you say. This is progress. What’s the harm in a little fashion commentary?

By focusing on what important, smart, powerful women are wearing and how they look, we are sending the message to young girls: this is what you should spend your time, energy, and money on. Don’t listen, girls and boys!

It’s time to move forward, and what better inspiration than last week’s election results. We have work to do and ground to gain, but we are headed in the right direction. Women’s voices will be better represented and that creates both policies and a culture where women are more respected, have more good choices available, and are ultimately safer.

Unplanned Parenthood

I was an accident.

My mother would never say that, but let’s face it. My older brother was hell on wheels as an infant and when he turned 6 months, I can’t imagine my mother thinking “oh, wow, I’m getting good at this―I think I’ll have another!”

But 9 months later … ta-da!

That was 1953. I know that unplanned pregnancies were a big part of my parents’ generation, but I kind of assumed by now they were ancient history. Wrong. I just read that 65% of pregnant women surveyed said their pregnancy was unplanned.

What sparks my interest in this whole thing is Traci’s great post from last week and, serendipitously, a visit from a dear friend. I’ll call her Suzie.

She’d just been to visit her niece―let’s call her Kelsey. Kelsey is in her mid-20’s and lives with her fiancé who’s in his late 30’s. Things sound bleak. Kelsey slapped her boyfriend on the butt and he “spanked” her in retaliation leaving bruises and mass confusion. Another time he choked her when they were arguing. Kelsey was asking Aunt Suzie if she should stick with the plan to get married.

Um ….. NO!

Even if Aunt Suzie can’t persuade Kelsey to call off the wedding, they have got to have a heart to heart about the pregnancies. Kelsey has been pregnant twice―neither one intended (at least on her part). She miscarried the first, and terminated the second. It sounds like it’s time for some Aunty-strength advice about getting stealth birth control.

There are countless private battles going on behind closed doors where women are fighting for their sexual health and reproductive autonomy. But each battle is part of the larger war on women’s sexuality, family planning, and access to contraceptives. At least we’ve had one win: the Obama administration just decided to require health insurance companies to cover birth control.

But WE have a lot more work to do. Luckily, the accident of my birth has me here now doing just that.

My choice? Healthy families.

I don’t think I can read one more article about how Planned Parenthood is being defunded. So I’m writing about it instead. (Don’t test the logic of a woman seven months pregnant!) It seems that there are a few misconceptions out there about what Planned Parenthood spends most of their time doing (hint—it’s not abortions). 

This makes my heart heavy. I personally owe my ability to plan for my family to Planned Parenthood. And they’ve been vital to many women’s ability to stay healthy.

What does this have to do with violence in relationships? A lot. Many abusers sabotage birth control or make the consequences of not having sex too scary. This limits a woman’s choices around getting pregnant and increases her risk of sexually transmitted infections. Basically, this kind of abuse can affect a woman’s plan for her life and overall health.

For a lot of uninsured folks, Planned Parenthood is one of the only times they see a medical professional. I’m not an expert on how Planned Parenthood screens for abuse, but I have been to clinics in Georgia, North Carolina, New York, and Washington State, and can say that there was information in all those clinics about local domestic violence programs. I fear that the defunding of Planned Parenthood will mean one less place a survivor of abuse might get help.