International Women's Day: Celebrating Where We Are And Gearing Up For Where We Must Go

While Republicans continue to chip away at women’s rights at home, increasing rights for women around the world is having a huge impact.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and celebrations took place all over the world. Perhaps none were more prominent than the event at the U.S. Department of State where First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave out “Women of Courage” awards for the fourth year in a row. They recognized 10 individuals selected by U.S. embassies around the world as examples of grit and bravery in the global struggle for basic human freedoms and women’s rights. The recipients’ stories are inspiring, if bone-chilling. They need to be heard by American women, whose status as full and equal citizens is being challenged just about every day by outspoken priests, pundits, and politicians who are questioning long-established rights to family planning and other women’s health programs.

Access to safe and reliable contraception has helped make possible the hard-won gains that women in the United States have achieved during the past 40 years in education, employment, and participation in public life. And no irony was lost in the fact that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives marked International Women’s Day by holding another in what has been a constant drumbeat of hearings on some piece of legislation that would roll back fundamental reproductive rights and further politicize women’s health.

Meanwhile, largely unnoticed over in Foggy Bottom, Secretary Clinton handed awards to an Afghani woman persecuted under the Taliban who now runs the one radio station in the country that teaches women about their rights, and to a true heroine from Burma, recently freed by the military regime after 11 years in prison simply because she had campaigned for civilian government, who is now back advocating for women, ethnic minorities, and political prisoners. Recognition also went to a 27-year-old architect from Libya who has became a clarion voice of her country’s liberation movement, to two women’s rights activists protesting the state sanctioned oppression of women in Saudia Arabia and Sudan, and to a women’s affairs minister from the Maldives pressing for laws against domestic violence and female genital cutting. In conferring this prize, Clinton remarked in no uncertain terms to spontaneous applause, “[W]e thank you for improving lives and sending the message that domestic violence is not a cultural practice, it is a crime.”

Rounding out the group was a Turkish parliamentarian who has become an international voice on the rights of the disabled and a Pakistani NGO leader from the country’s most conservative provinces who has challenged a local ban on women seeking political office. And finally there were a Brazilian police official once kidnapped by Rio street gangs and a Columbian journalist once tortured by arms smugglers, both still determined to campaign openly against the endemic violence women still face even as their countries experience modernization and growth.

Ceremonies have indisputable value. Placing compelling human faces on the courage with which ordinary women around the world fight the many indignities they endure as a daily matter “isn’t just the right thing to do,” as Secretary Clinton often says and repeated yesterday in her brief remarks, “it’s also the smart thing to do.” Clinton has long stood firmly behind the fundamental principle of the global women’s movement, to which she memorably staked a claim in Beijing in 1995: Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are the right of every woman.

But in the years since, she has also repositioned the issue not just as a moral imperative, but as a strategic condition of success in U.S foreign policy if our aim is to meet the world’s most critical security and development challenges. She rarely misses an opportunity to remind her audiences that investments in women’s rights and opportunities have immediate pay offs — that when women gain equality of opportunity and when their labor is formalized, it’s not just the women who benefit. Poverty declines, economies expand, public health improves, more children are educated, the conditions for democratic practice are secured, and conflict subsides. The evidence is no longer anecdotal. Hundreds of empirically driven studies demonstrate a direct correlation between the improved status of women and the stability and well-being first of their immediate communities and eventually of entire countries and regions on which U.S. national security depends.

But honoring the work of individuals, however worthy, can also make complex matters seem deceptively simple, as though we can change a very messy world one woman at a time. The vulnerability of women around the world, as we are seeing all too well in our own country today, is deeply embedded in the very real assaults of globalization on economies and cultures. As academic feminists like to remind us, we cannot ignore the deep “intersections” of gender, race, class, and power. Women’s rights must be placed within a comprehensive human development framework that promotes social justice and well-being for all, along with women’s full citizenship. And this is a tall order.

Yesterday, this exact point was made by Laymah Gbowee, the feisty and outspoken Liberian who won the 2012 Nobel Prize for organizing market women to help bring peace to her war-torn country. “These women are working very hard. And yes, we can give them all the verbal support, we can give them all the honors,” she said, “but until we continue to make it possible for them to work through resources, their issues will continue to be issues for politicians to use to make themselves look good when it’s elections time.” She concluded, “It’s time for us to support our sisters, not just leave them with honor.”

Secretary Clinton spoke directly to that challenge, promising that next week, at a gathering in Washington of all U.S. ambassadors, she will issue the “first ever” secretarial policy directive on gender in an effort to institutionalize a permanent concern that U.S. resources be allocated in new ways. Complementing a recently released USAID gender policy, this directive will mandate specific steps toward promoting gender equality and advancing the status of women and girls in all aspects of U.S. national security and foreign policy and will require that budgets and expenditures be analyzed from an explicit gender perspective. Together with the creation of permanent high-level staff positions, including a Global Ambassador for Women’s Rights, the aim has been no less than to transform a diplomatic bureaucracy and culture long either indifferent or outright hostile to recognizing women as potential agents of change.

Just how this new way of thinking can work, however, was beautifully illustrated in a speech earlier this week at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York by the Obama/Clinton appointee at USAID, Administrator Rajiv Shah. He beckoned his audience to observe a common pattern in the age of the populations of the fastest growing and most stable countries in Latin America and East Asia today, where the percentage of workers between the ages of 15 and 64 is much larger than the percentage of the very young or very old. This phenomenon is a consequence of the demographic dividend that has resulted from decisions made collaboratively with the United States during the 1960s and 1970s in places like Thailand to expand access to voluntary family planning, to improve child survival, and to offer education and formal work opportunities to women and girls. Falling birthrates left behind just enough working-age men and women to grow economies in an orderly fashion, without placing them under too much strain. And the promising news is that at least several countries in Africa today are poised to follow.

Which leaves us with what may be our greatest challenge today: how to explain this phenomenon to a crop of Republican presidential contenders and members of Congress who are poised to take away the very benefits of U.S. support for reproductive health at home and abroad that made these gains possible. A tall order, indeed.

Ellen Chesler, a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, has a chapter in a new book published this week by Seven Stories Press in collaboration with Human Rights Watch, The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Ellen Chesler: The Long History Of The War Against Contraception

For those surprised about the recent fervor over Obama’s contraception coverage decision, a look at its deep roots.

Republicans for Planned Parenthood last week issued a call for nominations for the 2012 Barry Goldwater award, an annual prize awarded to a Republican legislator who has acted to protect women’s health and rights. Past recipients include Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, who this week endorsed President Obama’s solution for insuring full coverage of the cost of contraception without exceptions, even for employees of religiously affiliated institutions. And that may tell us all we need to know about why President Obama has the upper hand in a debate over insurance that congressional Tea Partiers have now widened to include anyone who seeks an exemption.

It’s a long time ago, but it is worth remembering that conservative avatar Goldwater was in his day an outspoken supporter of women’s reproductive freedom — a freethinker who voted his conscience over the protests of Catholic bishops and all others who tried to claim these matters as questions of conscientious liberty and not sensible social policy. With Goldwater on his side, Obama sees a clear opening for skeptics wary of the extremism that has captured Republican hopefuls in thrall to the fundamentalist base that controls the GOP presidential primary today. Holding firm on family planning — even if it means taking on the Catholic hierarchy and other naysayers by offering a technical fix that would have insurers cover costs instead of the churches themselves — is a calculated political strategy by the Obama campaign, not a blunder as it has been characterized by many high powered pundits, including progressives like Mark Shields of PBS and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post.

Recent public opinion polling on the subject is worth reconsidering. For years, it has been perfectly clear that a substantial majority of Americans see the value of expanding access to contraception and reliable sex education as essential tools to prevent unwanted pregnancy and abortion and to help women balance the competing demands of work and family. But unlike a zealous minority on the other side, these moderates have not necessarily privileged these social concerns over important questions of economics or national security that mattered more to them at election time.

That’s what seems to be changing. With his now-famous “nope, zero” response last spring, President Obama simply shut down Republicans in Congress who wanted to defund family planning as part of a deal to reduce the federal deficit. The action elicited a sudden surge in his popularity, especially in the highly contested demographic of women voters between the ages of 30 and 49 who voted for him in 2008 but wound up frustrated by failed promises and disappointing economic policies. Campaign polling has since uncovered a big opening for Obama with this group because they are furious over Republican social extremism. An astonishing 80 percent of them disapproved of congressional efforts to defund Planned Parenthood last spring. Polling among Catholics in response to last week’s controversy shows identical patterns, with 57 percent overall supporting the Obama “compromise” to ensure full coverage of contraception, according to reporting by Joe Conason in The National Memo, and cross-tabs demonstrating much higher margins of support from Catholic women, Latinos, and independent Catholic voters — all prime Obama election targets.

If the numbers are so persuasive, why then have Republican conservatives strayed so far from the greater tolerance of the Goldwater age? Why have they allowed the family planning issue to tie their candidates up in knots in 2012? The answer is in just how outsized the influence of a minority viewpoint can be on a political party, so long as it represents the base of that party’s support.

A bit of history going all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal is instructive. Back then, birth control was still illegal in this country, still defined as obscene under federal statutes that remained as a legacy of the Victorian era, even though many states had reformed local laws and were allowing physicians to prescribe contraception to married women with broadly defined “medical” reasons to plan and space their childbearing.

The movement’s pioneer, Margaret Sanger, went to Washington during the Great Depression, anticipating that Franklin Roosevelt, whose wife Eleanor was her friend and neighbor in New York, would address the problem and incorporate a public subsidy of contraception for poor women into the safety net the New Deal was constructing. What Sanger failed to anticipate, however, was the force of the opposition this idea would continue to generate from the coalition of religious conservatives, including urban Catholics and rural fundamentalist Protestants who held Roosevelt Democrats captive, much as they have today captured the GOP. It was Catholic priests, and not the still slightly scandalous friend of the First Lady, who wound up having tea at the Roosevelt White House.

The U.S. government would not overcome moral and religious objections until the Supreme Court protected contraceptive use under the privacy doctrine created in 1965 under Griswold v. Connecticut. That freed President Lyndon Johnson to incorporate family planning programs into the country’s international development programs and into anti-poverty efforts at home. As a Democrat still especially dependent on Catholic votes, however, Johnson only agreed to act once he had the strong bipartisan support of his arch rival Barry Goldwater’s endorsement and also the intense loyalty and deft maneuvering of Republican moderates like Robert Packwood of Oregon in the Senate. Packwood, in turn, worked alongside Ohio’s Robert Taft, Jr. in the House and a newcomer from Texas by the name of George H. W. Bush. Bush would remain a staunch advocate of reproductive freedom for women until political considerations during the 1980 presidential elections, when he was on the ticket with Ronald Reagan, accounted for one of the most dramatic and cynical public policy reversals in modern American politics.

Reagan had supported California’s liberal policies on contraception and abortion as governor, and Bush as Richard Nixon’s Ambassador to the United Nations had helped shape the UN’s population programs. But Republican operatives in 1980 saw a potential fissure in the traditional New Deal coalition among Catholics uncomfortable with the new legitimacy given to abortion after Roe v. Wade and white southern Christians being lured away from the Democrats around the issue of affirmative action and other racial preferences. Opposition to abortion instantly became a GOP litmus test, and both presidential hopefuls officially changed stripes.

Fast forward to 1992 and the election of Bill Clinton as America’s first pro-choice president, coupled with the Supreme Court’s crafting of a compromise decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that put some limits on access to abortion but essentially preserved the core privacy doctrine of Roe v. Wade. The perceived double threat of these political and judicial developments unleashed a new and even more powerful conservative backlash that took aim not only at abortion, but at contraception and sex education as well.

Exploiting inevitable tensions in the wake of profound social and economic changes occurring across the country as the result of altered gender roles and expectations — changes symbolized and made all the more palpable by Hillary Clinton’s activist role as First Lady — conservatives, with the support of powerful right-wing foundations and think tanks, poured millions of dollars into research and propaganda promoting family values and demonizing reproductive freedom, including emotional television ads that ran for years on major media outlets. A relentless stigmatizing of abortion, along with campaigns of intimidation and outright violence against Planned Parenthood and other providers, had a chilling effect on politicians generally shy of social controversy. And Bill Clinton’s vulnerability to charges of sexual misconduct left his administration and his party all the more defensive.

Since the welfare reform legislation of 1996, aptly labeled a “Personal Responsibility Act,” not only has access to abortion been curtailed, but funds for family planning programs at home and abroad have been capped. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated to the teaching of sexual abstinence, rather than more comprehensive approaches to sex education. Just as tragically, U.S. programs addressing the crisis of HIV/AIDS — admirably expanded during the presidency of George W. Bush — were nonetheless made to counsel abstinence and oppose the use of condoms and other safe sex strategies, leaving women and young people all the more vulnerable to the ravages of the epidemic.

Empirically grounded studies over and over again undermined the efficacy of these approaches, which also flew in the face of mainstream American viewpoints and basic common sense. With Barack Obama’s election they have largely been revoked, enflaming the conservative base that put them in place and has lived off the salaries supported by government funding for faith-based social policy.

Even more disheartening to conservative true believers is the promise that the Affordable Care Act will vastly expand access to contraception by providing insurance coverage for oral contraceptives. This guarantee, endorsed by all mainstream health advocates, also includes emergency contraception, popularly known as the morning-after pill, that holds the promise of further reducing unwanted pregnancy and abortion and was meant to offer common ground in an abortion debate long defined by a clash of absolutes. The strong dose of ordinary hormones in emergency contraception act primarily by preventing fertilization, just like daily contraceptive pills, but in rare instances may also disable a fertilized egg from implanting by weakening the uterine lining that it needs for sustenance, causing opponents to vilify it as an abortifacient.

Supporting the Obama policy changes, on the other hand, is a new generation of progressive activists in reproductive health and rights organizations, energized by the intensity of the assaults against them, and now well-armed to educate and activate their own supporters by using traditional grassroots strategies and more sophisticated social networking. No institution has been more important in this effort than Planned Parenthood, with its vast networks of affiliates and supporters in every state, millions more supporters online, and a powerful national political and advocacy operation based in Washington D.C. that has been put to use to great effect in recent months.

The strength of the Planned Parenthood brand, coupled with the organization’s demonstrated ability to rally hundreds of thousands of supporters when it is attacked, has helped overcome traditional political reticence on reproductive justice issues. The Planned Parenthood Action Fund is already out with a strong new appeal warning politicians that women are watching. “Enough is enough. Back off on birth control,” is the new advocacy mantra.

Mindful of the numbers — and with the added ballast of what now amounts to a daily drumbeat of progressive television talk and comedy that delights in pillorying Republican prudery — Democrats are intensifying their resolve to take on this fight. Two things we can be sure of: Whoever emerges from the bloodbath of the GOP contest will try and backtrack from the birth control extremism of the primary. And Obama supporters, backed up by the advocacy community, will in turn stand ready to pounce on this inevitable flip-flopping.

Both sides may well summon the spirit and words of Barry Goldwater, who cautioned against allowing faith-based extremism to gain control of the Republican Party. “Politics and governing demand compromise,” he told John Dean, who reports on the conversation in his 2006 book, Conservatives Without Conscience. “But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know. I’ve tried to deal with them.”

Ellen Chesler is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author of Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

A New Year’s Resolution To Make Women Full Partners In Peace And Security

A new National Action Plan aims to fully integrate women in diplomacy and defense, but holding on to the progress they’ve already made may be a greater challenge.

The abuse of women protesters in the streets of Cairo earlier this week shocked many onlookers and met with sharp rebuke from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “The systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform, and is not worthy of a great people,” she said in a speech at Georgetown University on Monday. “As some Egyptian politicians and commentators have themselves noted, a new democracy cannot be built on the persecution of women, nor can any stable society.”

Quite ironically, the headlines from Cairo coincided with Clinton’s release Monday of a U.S. National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace, and Security. The detailed plan is meant to integrate women as full and equal partners by applying gender considerations as a tool of analysis across all U.S. diplomatic, defense, and development policies. The NAP brings the U.S. into compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and four subsequent UN resolutions adopted since 2000 as a global framework for more effective conflict resolution and sustainable peace-building. It also institutionalizes priorities long promoted by Clinton personally, even before she became Secretary of State.

Clinton traveled to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, and it was there that she delivered the landmark speech of her years as First Lady. In no uncertain terms she staked a claim for the fundamental principle of the global women’s movement — that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are the right of every woman. Drawing a direct corollary between societies that oppress women and states that fail on a larger scale, she also memorably repositioned women’s rights not just as a moral imperative, but as a necessary condition of success in U.S. foreign policy — not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do if our aim is to meet the world’s most critical security and development challenges.

In the years since, Clinton’s increasing prominence as a diplomat in her own right has provided her a powerful platform for these core beliefs. As a consequence, large numbers of individuals around the world, including many elected officials and professionals in diplomacy, development, and defense who simply never thought this way before, have come to agree that investing in women and working to secure their rights are among the most effective tools we have to consolidate democratic transitions in fragile states, to maintain regional peace and security, to spur economic growth and reduce poverty, to improve public health and well-being, and to address dire challenges the world faces to sustaining our fragile natural environment.

The NAP represents a quantum expansion of this effort because it moves beyond diplomacy and aid to incorporate U.S. defense policy and personnel, whose scale and reach is so much greater. Under-Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and Admiral Sandy Winnefeld were in the audience when Clinton spoke on Monday, and U.S. military strategies in Afghanistan, including the Marine Corps’s Female Engagement Teams and the Army’s Cultural Support Teams, which both send women soldiers to support ongoing combat operations by engaging women in local populations, were cited as examples of the virtues and success of enhanced gender integration and awareness.

Clinton seized the occasion of the release of the NAP to call for a redoubling of efforts in several critical areas:

First, to invest in conflict prevention strategies including early warning systems that monitor increases in violence against women as an indicator of instability and future widening conflict, while also putting women and girls at the center of U.S. efforts to secure countries through programs in food security, public health, and economic entrepreneurship.

Second, to strengthen protection for women and girls in conflict situations, with greater focus on greater legal accountability for rape and sexual violence and on enhanced training of foreign militaries, police, and justice systems to support women victims of violence and find them safe shelter — much as has occurred as a result of federal funds made available to American cities to reduce high incidences of crime over the past four decades.

Third, to mandate participation of women in conflict resolution and peace processes, as has been successful in some small countries in recent years, including most prominently Liberia, Darfur, and Kosovo.

Fourth, to support many more women-led civil society organizations in post-conflict relief and reconstruction efforts, especially in refugee situations where they are most vulnerable.

Translating good intentions into effective operational plans is in itself an accomplishment worthy of note and celebration, especially in this holiday season. So let us all give three cheers for the leadership of Secretary Clinton and so many others who have worked hard on these efforts in the Obama administration. But as with so many worthy resolutions made at the coming of a new year, those announced this week face innumerable obstacles to their realization.

First, of course, is the sad reality that universal standards for women’s human rights offer no sure cure for violations that persist with uncanny fortitude and often unimaginable cruelty, as the situation in Egypt reminds us. With harsh fundamentalisms resurgent in many countries, women and girls will remain vulnerable despite improved U.S. intentions and indeed, in part, perhaps because of them. Their rights will remain an arena of intense political conflict as a response to the social dislocations that inevitably result in the short term from opening greater opportunity to women and from the larger assaults on traditional cultures of many real injustices of modernization and globalization.

Even in the U.S. decades of substantial progress by women have fueled a fierce backlash, so much so that America continues to reside in the unlikely company of Iran, Sudan, and Somalia as the only UN member states that have failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, commonly known as CEDAW. President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty shortly before leaving office in 1979 and sent it to the Senate for ratification, where it has remained in limbo ever since, held hostage by three obstacles: the high bar of 67 votes needed for U.S. ratification of international treaties; the hostility of U.S. conservatives to multilateralism in general; and, of course, their historic contempt for women’s rights agreements of any stripe. Failure to be party to this visionary accord compromises the sincerity of America’s global efforts on women’s rights, if not necessarily the effectiveness of some of the specific bi-lateral agreements and policies the Obama/Clinton team has put in place.

No matter how noble the intentions of Secretary Clinton and President Obama in the larger arena of women’s rights and foreign policy, the prospect for lasting impact thus remains tethered to political realities. In the likelihood that the U.S. Congress remains locked in partisan combat, resources to expand innovation in diplomacy, development, and even in defense policy simply will not exist. And making better use of what we have, of course, will require that whoever replaces Hillary Clinton, who has announced she will not return for a second term, is a foreign policy leader of comparable intellect, energy, and commitment to women’s rights.

And that, sad to say, is an awful lot to hope for, even as we head into these days of good cheer.

Ellen Chesler is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author ofWoman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Personhood Defeat Shows Americans Don't Want To Criminalize Women's Choices

Due to grassroots organizing and education, the amendment went down to decisive defeat. Politicians take heed.

Tuesday’s solid defeat of the Mississippi Personhood amendment is a victory against extremism and for women’s health and rights, but it is also a big win for progressive political organizing. Voters in the state that Gallup ranks as the most conservative in the nation soundly rejected the move to grant legal status to embryos from the moment of fertilization. The law would have banned abortion without exceptions and directly challenged Roe v. Wade, but it also threatened some forms of birth control and emergency contraception that may result in the loss of embryos, as well as infertility treatments that make use of them.

What’s most interesting about this win is that just ten days ago polls projected exactly the opposite outcome. That was before the Mississippians for Healthy Families Coalition, a local campaign supported strategically and financially by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the ACLU, hit the ground. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the PPFA board.) According to Planned Parenthood, the campaign raised $1.5 million dollars, opened four offices across the state, deployed 50 full-time staff, and recruited nearly 1,000 volunteers, most of them in a classic get out the voteoperation that made more than 400,000 phone calls and knocked on some 20,000 doors. This tireless effort closed a 31-point gap in just 10 days of active campaigning, possibly establishing a record for voter turnaround in this country.

When it was all over, even outgoing Republican Governor Haley Barbour, a reliable conservative, expressed misgivings about the amendment as government gone too far. (Though in what is now becoming classic behavior for GOP officials and candidates confused about how much they must pander to the party’s right wing, he then reversed himself and said he would vote for it.) The state’s voters, and especially its women, were smarter. Once they understood that the law would have threatened birth control and mandated government intervention in decisions that ought to be personal, including the right to end a potentially life-threatening pregnancy, wise citizens of all political stripes simply voted against it.

The Mississippi victory ought to be viewed as an omen for next year’s presidential and congressional campaigns. For years it has been perfectly clear that a sizable majority of Americans don’t want to criminalize abortion or compromise access to contraception and sensible sex education. But unlike the determined minority of anti-choice and puritanical extremists on the other side, these folks have never privileged social concerns in the voting booth. Perhaps understandably, what’s mattered more to them are economic issues or considerations of national security, and they have moved back and forth between Democrats and Republicans depending on which party’s leadership inspired the most comfort in these zones.

At a briefing in Washington last week I was privy to early polling by the Obama campaign, which has uncovered an important shift, especially among voters between the ages of 30 and 49, who supported the president in the last election but are now abandoning him out of frustration over failed promises and disappointing economic policies. While they also express little confidence in Republican alternatives on these matters, they are deeply concerned by the party’s apparent capitulation to its base of right-wing social extremists. The decision by Congressional Republicans early this year to defund Planned Parenthood is wildly unpopular and apparently registered an astonishing 85 percent disapproval, giving Obama a big opening to win back this group.

Planned Parenthood has shared its own polling with supporters, which demonstrates a solid 65 percent overall approval rating for the organization across the country. And these numbers simply leap off the charts when sorted by age, race, or gender. Support from women, minorities, and young people registers over 80 percent. This is not surprising, since they are the principal beneficiaries of the organization’s services in 800 health centers in all 50 states and online, where some 2 million users now visit the PPFA website each month. One of every five women in America has or will use its services at some point in her lifetime. And beyond the health care it provides, the organization’s political action committee is demonstrating its effectiveness. (Which, of course, only makes anti-choice Republicans even crazier.)

No surprise then that the Obama administration and Democrats in general have suddenly found religion on matters of women’s health. With his now famous “nope, zero” response, the president simply shut down John Boehner’s effort to sacrifice public funds for family planning as part of the deal to reduce the federal deficit and prevent a government shutdown last spring. All of the Republican presidential hopefuls this year, however, have since taken the money back out of their proposed budgets in order to curry favor with conservatives who care about these issues and vote on them in Republican primaries. And all of them supported the Mississippi Personhood amendment. When it comes time for a general election, whoever wins the primary will have a lot of explaining to do.

Dare I say that on this particular “morning after” our erstwhile Republicans, ironically enough, may finally be seeing the value of a “Plan B” that can make the consequences of impulsive, unwise behavior simply disappear?

Ellen Chesler is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author ofWoman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

A Woman With A Plan: The Real Story Of Margaret Sanger

Birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger is back in the news this week thanks to GOP presidential candidate and abortion rights opponent Herman Cain, who claimed on national television that Planned Parenthood, the visionary global movement she founded nearly a century ago, is really about one thing only: “preventing black babies from being born.” Cain’s outrageous and false accusation is actually an all too familiar canard — a willful repetition of scurrilous claims that have circulated for years despite detailed refutation by scholars who have examined the evidence and unveiled the distortions and misrepresentations on which they are based (for a recent example, see this rebuttal from The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler).

It’s an old tactic. Even in her own day, Sanger endured deliberate character assassination by opponents who believed they would gain more traction by impugning her character and her motives than by debating the merits of her ideas. But when a presidential candidate from a major U.S. political party is saying such things, a thoughtful response is necessary.

So what is Sanger’s story?

Born Margaret Louisa Higgins in 1879, the middle child of a large Irish Catholic family, Sanger grew into a follower of labor organizers, free thinkers, and bohemians. Married to William Sanger, an itinerant architect and painter, she helped support three young children by working as a visiting nurse on New York’s Lower East Side. Following the death of a patient from a then all-too-common illegal abortion, she vowed to abandon palliative work and instead overturn obscenity laws that prevented legal access to safe contraception.

Sanger’s fundamental heresy was in claiming every woman’s right to experience her sexuality freely and bear only the number of children she desires. Following a first generation of educated women who had proudly forgone marriage in order to seek fulfillment outside the home, she offered birth control as a necessary condition to the resolution of a broad range of personal and professional frustrations.

The hardest challenge in introducing Sanger to modern audiences, who take this idea for granted, is to explain how absolutely destabilizing it seemed in her own time. As a result of largely private arrangements and a healthy trade in condoms, douches, and various contraptions sold under the subterfuge of feminine hygiene, birth rates had already begun to decline. But contraception remained a clandestine and delicate subject, legally banned under obscenity statutes, and women were still largely denied identities or rights independent of their relationships with men, including the right to vote.

By inventing the term “birth control,” Sanger brought the practice — and by implication, women’s entitlement to sexual pleasure — out into the open and gave them essential currency. She went to jail in 1917 for opening a clinic to distribute primitive diaphragms to immigrant women in Brooklyn, New York, and appeal of her conviction led to a medical exception that licensed doctors to prescribe contraception for reasons of health. Under these constraints she built a network of independent local women’s health centers that eventually came together under the banner of Planned Parenthood. She also lobbied for the repeal of federal obscenity statutes that prevented the legal transport of contraception by physicians across state lines, which were struck down in federal court in 1936.

Sanger sought and won scientific validation for various contraceptive methods, including the birth control pill, whose development she supported and found the money to fund. In so doing, she helped lift the religious shroud that had long encased reproduction and secured the endorsement of contraception by physicians and social scientists. From this singular accomplishment, which some still consider heretical, a continuing controversy has ensued.

Sanger always remained a wildly polarizing figure, which clarifies the logic of her decision after World War I to jettison “birth control” and adopt the more socially resonant term “family planning.” This move was particularly inventive but in no way cynical, especially when the Great Depression brought attention to collective needs and the New Deal created a blueprint for bold public endeavors.

Some have falsely charged that Sanger defined family planning as a right of the privileged but a duty or obligation of the poor. To the contrary, she showed considerable foresight in lobbying to include universal voluntary family planning programs among public investments in social security. Had the New Deal incorporated basic public health and access to contraception, as most European countries were then doing, protracted conflicts over welfare and health care policy in the U.S. might well have been avoided.

Having long enjoyed the friendship and support of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Sanger also had ample reason to believe the New Dealers would fully legalize and endorse contraception as a necessary first step to her long-term goal of transferring responsibility and accountability for voluntary clinics to the public health sector. What she failed to anticipate was the force of opposition family planning continued to generate from a coalition of religious conservatives, including urban Catholics and rural fundamentalist Protestants, that held Roosevelt Democrats captive much as today’s evangelicals have captured the GOP.

The U.S. government would not overcome cultural and religious objections to public support of family planning through its domestic anti-poverty and international development programs until the late 1960s, after the Supreme Court protected contraceptive use under the privacy doctrine created in Griswold v. Connecticut. At this time, Planned Parenthood clinics became major government contractors, since there were few alternative primary health care centers serving the poor. Today, one in four American women funds her contraception through government programs, many of them still run by Planned Parenthood — a number likely to rise under the Affordable Care Act.

Sanger’s eagerness to mainstream her movement explains her engagement with eugenics, a then widely popular intellectual movement that addressed the manner in which human intelligence and opportunity is determined by biological as well as environmental factors. Hard as it is to believe, eugenics was considered far more respectable than birth control. Like many well-intentioned reformers of this era, Sanger took away from Charles Darwin the essentially optimistic lesson that humanity’s evolution within the animal kingdom makes us all capable of improvement if only we apply the right tools. University presidents, physicians, scientists, and public officials all embraced eugenics, in part because it held the promise that merit would replace fate — or birthright and social status — as the standard for mobility in a democratic society.

But eugenics also has some damning and today unfathomable legacies, such as a series of state laws upheld in 1927 by an eight-to-one progressive majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, including Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis. Their landmark decision in Buck v. Bell authorized the compulsory sterilization of a poor young white woman with an illegitimate child on grounds of feeble mindedness that were never clearly established. This decision, incidentally, was endorsed by civil libertarians such as Roger Baldwin of the ACLU and W.E.B. Dubois of the NAACP, both of whom Sanger counted among her supporters and friends.

For Sanger, eugenics was meant to begin with the voluntary use of birth control, which many still opposed on the grounds that the middle class should be encouraged to have more babies. She countered by disdaining what she called a “cradle competition” of class, race, or ethnicity. She publicly opposed immigration restrictions and framed poverty as a matter of differential access to resources like birth control, not as the immutable consequence of low inherent ability or character.

As a nurse, Sanger also understood the adverse impacts of poor nutrition, drugs, and alcohol on fetal development and encouraged government support of maternal and infant health. She argued for broad social safety nets and proudly marshaled clinical data to demonstrate that most women, even among the poorest and least educated populations, eagerly embraced and used birth control successfully when it is was provided.

At the same time, Sanger did on many occasions engage in shrill rhetoric about the growing burden of large families of low intelligence and defective heredity — language with no intended racial or ethnic content. She always argued that all women are better off with fewer children, but unfortunate language about “creating a race of thoroughbreds” and other such phrases have in recent years been lifted out of context and used to sully her reputation. Moreover, in endorsing Buck v. Bell and on several occasions the payment of pensions or bonuses to poor women who agreed to limit their childbearing (many of whom enjoyed no other health care coverage), Sanger quite clearly failed to consider fundamental human rights questions raised by such practices. Living in an era indifferent to the obligation to respect and protect individuals whose behaviors do not always conform to prevailing mores, she did not always fulfill it.

The challenge as Sanger’s biographer has been to reconcile apparent contradictions in her beliefs. She actually held unusually advanced views on race relations for her day and on many occasions condemned discrimination and encouraged reconciliation between blacks and whites. Though most birth control facilities conformed to the segregation mores of the day, she opened an integrated clinic in Harlem in the early 1930s. Later, she facilitated birth control and maternal health programs for rural black women in the south, when local white health officials there denied them access to any New Deal-funded services.

Sanger worked on this last project with the behind-the-scenes support of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council for Negro Women and then a Roosevelt administration official. Their progressive views on race were well known, if controversial, but their support for birth control was silenced by Franklin’s political handlers — at least until he was safely ensconced in the White House for a third term, when the government rushed to provide condoms to World War II soldiers.

Sanger’s so-called Negro Project has been a source of controversy first raised by black nationalists and some feminist scholars in the 1970s and later by anti-abortion foes. Respecting the importance of self-determination among users of contraception, she recruited prominent black leaders to endorse the goal, especially ministers who held sway over the faithful. In that context, she wrote an unfortunate sentence in a private letter about needing to clarify the ideals and goals of the birth control movement because “we do not want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.” The sentence may have been thoughtlessly composed, but it is perfectly clear that she was not endorsing genocide.

America’s intensely complicated politics of race and gender has long ensnarled Sanger and all others who have sought to discipline reproduction. As many scholars of the subject in recent years have observed, much of the controversy proceeds from the plain fact that reproduction is by its very nature experienced individually and socially at the same time. In claiming women’s fundamental right to control their own bodies, Sanger remained mindful of the dense fabric of cultural, political, and economic relationships in which those rights are exercised.

In most instances the policies Sanger advocated were intended to observe the necessary obligation of social policy to balance individual rights of self-expression with the sometimes contrary desire to promulgate and enforce common mores and laws. She may have failed to get the balance quite right, but there is nothing in the record to poison her reputation or discredit her noble cause. Quite the contrary.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. may have put it best in 1966, when he accepted Planned Parenthood’s prestigious Margaret Sanger Award and spoke eloquently of the “kinship” between the civil rights and family planning movements. Here is what he said, since it bears repeating:

There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist — a nonviolent resister… She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions. Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision; for without them there would have been no beginning.

Ellen Chesler is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author ofWoman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog