Commentary Race

What Black Women in West Philadelphia Had to Say About Women’s Equality Day

Jasmine Burnett

Rarely, if ever, are Black women interviewed in the neighborhoods where they live and asked about a policy’s impact on their lives. As such, I felt it was high time for me to ask Black women in my community about their lived experiences with, and connection to, the laws that secured their right to vote.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Rarely, if ever, are Black women interviewed in the neighborhoods where they live and asked about a policy’s impact on their lives. As such, on the days leading up to Women’s Equality Day, which is held each year on August 26, I felt it was high time for me to begin asking Black women in my community about their lived experiences with, and connection to, the laws that secured their right to vote.

When I think about Women’s Equality Day, I reflect on the power and significance of Black women exercising their right to vote. And I am reminded of the ways in which the fight for women’s equality was a “crooked room” for Black suffragettes. As they stood on the front lines of organizing for women’s voting rights, they were also fighting to end the lynching of Black men and women across the South. Today, Black feminist activists continue this intersectional work, of having to protect our bodies, lives, and families by voting against legislation that aims to take away our human rights at the same time that we’re fighting to end sexist and gender-motivated violence as well as racist, state-sanctioned violence in our communities.

Most people, including women, don’t know or care much about Women’s Equality Day, except those of us who live and breathe women’s rights work. The cause of this can be largely attributed to sexism, plain and simple. For Women’s Equality Day, there isn’t the same level of attention paid to it that is given to federally recognized holidays, and we don’t get a day off work to reflect on its significance in American history, or our position in society as women voters.

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So, I took to the streets of my neighborhood in West Philadelphia, interviewing two friends and eight other Black women. In this area, 75 percent of the residents are African American. It comes as little surprise that politicians and law enforcement have a challenging history with the Black community here.

Being new to Philadelphia, and this community, I was relieved to find that the Black women I spoke with understood the complicated history with the Women’s Equality Day and that it took a combination of the 19th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for Black women to have full access to the vote. These facts illustrate the Black feminist adage about how all the women are white, all the Blacks are men, and Black women, indeed, are brave.

I found during my interviews that I was not alone in thinking that voting matters. As Briana, 25, shared, “It matters for me to have a voice, and now that we have it, we should make sure that we use it.”

“It’s important that Black women have the right to vote,” added Audrey, 55. “But, a lot of them don’t take the opportunity to vote. They come up with a lot of excuses like, ‘Why should I do this, it’s not going to matter anyway?’ I always tell people, it does matter.”

Some Black women, as Audrey explains, are traumatized to inaction at the fear of being made visible. “A lot of Black women I talk to between the ages of 19 and 30 don’t vote at all. They come up with excuses of why they shouldn’t. I often talk to young women and tell them every vote counts, and their voice matters.”

But, having the right to vote is one thing, having the opportunity to exercise that right is another matter entirely, as has been made clear with voter identification laws that disproportionately affect women in this country. “We live with this idea of a post-racial, post-sexist society,” said Charmaine, 26. “There’s still a lot of work left that we can do, especially in Pennsylvania, which is trying to change the voter laws. The monster we are up against changes every year. We need to re-evaluate and adjust our tactics.”

Currently, there is a coalition of organizational leaders pushing new pro-women legislation. Called the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, the coalition has put forth a series of bills that will provide low-income women, women of color, and women veterans with access to a range of health-care options, economic protections, and safety accommodations at work and in their communities. While this is good news for women’s rights, at this point the leadership of this agenda is not reflective of the demographic population in Philadelphia, of which 44 percent are Black or African American. However, there is a women of color-led reproductive justice organization, based in Pittsburgh, leading in the policy discussions about the agenda.

The diversity of women’s health-care needs is addressed in the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health is promising because it provides protection for whether a woman’s rights will be respected, and whether or not her health insurance covers the range of her reproductive health needs. Charmaine provided some insight on health-care coverage and women’s reproductive health options when she said, “Even with Obamacare, you barely have [coverage of] birth control, based on who you work for, or an abortion if you can’t afford it because Medicaid doesn’t cover it [in most cases, as part of the Hyde Amendment]. I thought this was something that just happened in Texas, but now that I know that there isn’t [reliable] coverage [of reproductive health care services] in Pennsylvania, this just proves my point. People not only need health care, but they should get to choose what that health care is.”

When asked about the agenda she would set to improve the lives of communities of color in the state, Reagen, 32, responded: “If tomorrow I had the power to set priorities for all women in the state of Pennsylvania, rather than choose just one issue [such as education, health care, and equal pay] to start with, I would highlight the intersections between all of them. As Audre Lorde said, “We don’t live single-issue lives.” I think it’s rare for any one thing to be the deciding thing in a person’s life; it’s usually multiple things at once.”

However, Jillian, 30, believes that equal pay for equal work is an issue to lead this discussion: “First and foremost, equal pay for equal work is the most important to me. It’s almost like, why are we having the discussion about that, because it just seems like it’s common sense?”

The women I spoke with also made some interesting observations about their experiences in the workplace. Charmaine explained: “So, I’m a teacher. And the equal pay piece is the least important issue for me because I feel like our struggle at my job is larger than pay, though it is connected to that. For example, there are only six men that work in our school, and four of them are administrators.”

Glory, 29, added: “Having worked in [the field of] medicine for some time, I have seen that it’s just not equal in the workforce. I see the competition. And especially as a Black woman, I have found out that people who have the same exact experience, or even less experience were getting compensated a higher amount just because of who they were.”

On parenting and workplace discrimination, Samantha Jo, 32, had this to say: “One of my personal struggles right now is: Would I be supported being a trans woman of color while parenting? What would time off look like? What would bonding look like in order for me to stay home with my baby? These are concerns that are really present and of interest to me.”

It’s unrealistic to think that Black women could celebrate a day like Women’s Equality Day blindly and not reflect on the opportunities to build equality that meets all women where they are. Reagen, for example, provided some insight on how Black and undocumented women can connect through their shared experiences: “As much as I think the police won’t show up when I need them, I still can call them without fear of being deported. As a Black woman, I think there’s an opportunity for a stronger movement and a stronger ask with brown women who are unafraid and probably need some of that support. I might be in a small minority here, but I actually don’t think it dilutes anyone’s agenda. In fact, it actually strengthens both undocumented immigrant women and Black women’s agendas if we were to come together.”

Jillian added that Women’s Equality Day “is an important dayfor people to take the time to reflect that women are a commodity in the workforce right now—especially given the fact that you have a lot of Black women who are the sole providers for their families—it’s very important that we give light to that fact.”

“The majority of Black women are holding it down and holding their families down, not just with income but also working in what are considered male-dominated fields because of the limited options for work in our communities.” She went on to explain, “We are taking the initiative to have our voices heard, and taking steps to better ourselves.”

The experience of being a Black woman and having the right and opportunity to vote is indeed something to celebrate. However, I think we can all agree with Samantha Jo when she said, “Women’s Equality is a celebration of liberation, but it can be bittersweet sometimes.”

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.