College Democrats host “Women’s Rights Under Attack” Panel
By Kate Delaney, Staff Writer
On Thursday evening, the Gettysburg College Democrats hosted a panel entitled “Women’s Rights Under Attack: Fighting Back in 2018,” featuring guest speakers Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a Pennsylvania legal center that fights to protect and advance women’s rights, and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, along with Kate Michelman, who served as president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Action League (NARAL) Pro-choice America, an organization that advocates for abortion rights and women’s right to choose.
The moderators of the evening were Ally Schultz ’20, and Lauren Cole ’19, who began by asking the women to explain a little bit about themselves and how they became involved in women’s rights. Tracy explained her role as Director of the Women’s Law Project, and her work to protect women and LGBTQ+ rights, mostly through getting rid of “the 1,243 pages of unnecessary regulations in Pennsylvania around abortion.” As to how she got involved in women’s rights, Tracy claims it all began with one thing—“I liked Elvis Presley.” Tracy was raised Catholic and attended a Catholic school, and at the time, liking Elvis was revolutionary due to his provocativeness. After expressing her love of Elvis, she was thrown out of class by her teacher. Ever since, she has taken up the charge for open female expression and empowerment. Tracy believes she was “born a feminist,” though her mother and family were not always supportive of her fight for abortion rights.
Michelman’s career followed a slightly different path. Her husband abandoned her after having three daughters, leaving her with nothing. She was “destitute on welfare, and didn’t know how to manage and support three girls” without her partner’s salary. Only after her partner had left did Michelman realize she was pregnant with a fourth child. Abandoned, alone, and without a steady salary, Michelman decided that “the most responsible thing was to not have a child.” At the time, she was living in Pennsylvania and abortion was absolutely illegal. For Michelman, she had two options, “a back-alley, illegal abortion or to appeal to a hospital to get a hearing for them to approve the abortion.”
Michelman spoke to no one about the process, but went to the hospital for a hearing, where she was met with four male physicians who interrogated her about her decision. She was even asked, “Did you disappoint your husband sexually? Is that why he left?” She endured the whole interrogation only to learn she’d have to come back for a second interview, but eventually her request was approved. She went to the hospital, all ready for the procedure, and was told that she needed to come back with written agreement from her husband. Ultimately, she got the procedure, but the entire process was incredibly demeaning to her as a woman. It was this event that caused Michelman to “realize discrimination against women and how it has been internalized.” In 1991, Michelman testified before a Senate committee in the Clarence Thomas testimony and publicly shared her experience with abortion for the first time.
The women were then asked to define feminism in their own words, and to explain how that definition has changed. For Tracy, that definition has not changed much. She believes in “dignity and equality of all people. Feminism needs an intersectional approach, and must realize that a class of people have been oppressed.” Michelman agreed, stating that “women are total equals and deserve the dignity and respect that every human being deserves.”
The discussion then turned to the Kavanaugh hearings of last week, and the likelihood of Brett Kavanaugh’s approval to the Supreme Court. Both women were asked what women stand to lose with the approval of Justice Kavanaugh. For Michelman, the country will lose the chance to have a justice “who respects women and the role of the court in protecting individual rights.” After Kavanaugh’s testimony, Michelman believes that “he is not a temperate person. He has been through a lot, but he lied. A person of little integrity is a danger to this country.”
For Tracy, the approval of Kavanaugh means putting Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court Case that affirmed the right to access safe abortion, in danger. “Right now,” Tracy said, “there are about 60 cases on abortion that could potentially get to the Supreme Court, and [if Kavanaugh is approved], there would likely be a 5-4 majority to overturn Roe v. Wade.” More likely, however, Tracy believes Roe v. Wade will simply be “regulated out of existence” as legislators will impose increasing limits on access to safe abortion.
However, the moderators pointed out that more and more women have been running for office, and questioned how this will impact Trump’s presidency. “Hopefully, it will have a positive impact,” Michelman stated. “Senator Feinstein and Senator Boxer came from Clarence Thomas’s case.” Mostly, Michelman hopes that more female candidates will even out gender representation on all levels of government.
Michelman and Tracy were also asked how best to support those who experience sexual violence and hopefully even prevent it in the future. Tracy pointed out that “rape evolved under crime against property, in which the property was the woman’s reproductive capacity.” This origin has created many procedural anomalies in the way sexual assault has been addressed. For a long time, rape had a very limited definition due to the way it began. Tracy noted that many people argue that these cases are a he-says-she-says, to which she responds, “Of course they are! You must investigate and you must not start out by assuming that the woman is lying.” For many years, women faced a great deal of shame at sharing their stories of sexual assault, but the MeToo Movement has radically changed this. Tracy stated that still “80% of sexual assault cases are not reported,” and that there are many issues in how these crimes are handled. However, there have been some improvements in the studies of the neurological effects of trauma in law enforcement, and Tracy hopes that this will lead to systemic change. Michelman agreed, adding only that “the role race plays is woven into the fabric of this as well. We have to tear it apart; it may seem like we are working on one thing, but it’s all connected. Poor women, young women, women of color, and the working class are some of the most common victims of sexual assault.”
At this point, the panel was opened up to questions from the audience. One member of the audience asked about the increasingly fraternal nature of our political parties, and how to prevent the public from making choices based on these fraternal connections. For Tracy, she challenged everyone to find an answer to this, as she does not believe there is one yet. Michelman agreed, stating that the issue is quite complicated, but everyone must “talk about our beliefs and where we came from, what motivates us to think the way we do.” She noted that the division in our country is quite remarkable now, but through slow progress we can improve. Tracy added that “some of the challenge…is that there are so many different media stations, so many different outlets, and social media, which is wonderful in some ways, but the individual human contact gets lost.”
Another audience member asked the women how to deal with those who are part of the feminist movement, but make racist or otherwise offensive comments. For both women, freedom of speech is incredibly important, and open dialogue is healthy. However, Michelman advised, “speak out and say these people do not represent your beliefs. People are afraid to criticize their own organization, but don’t remain silent.” Tracy agreed, stating “There is nothing stronger than speech.”
The women were then asked how a reversal of Roe v. Wade would impact transgender and non-binary citizens. Michelman stated that Roe v. Wade acts as “the final stop recognizing the right to privacy in making personal, sexual, meaningful decisions.” Tracy agreed, pointing out that the case was “the underpinning for marriage rights decisions.” Roe v. Wade is significant not only for women, but for many different groups in the United States.
A member of the audience then asked the women how to balance the necessity of believing women who come forward with the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Tracy pointed out that “this isn’t a criminal proceeding, so we are not taking away his liberty by believing Dr. Ford.” Both women agreed, however, that Senator Feinstein should have come forward with the allegation sooner, even without revealing the name of the accuser. Still, Michelman stated, “I believe her, I don’t believe him.”
When asked how to change the perception around taking women at their word, Tracy urged for “storytelling, conversations, and talks between sexual partners—we’re afraid to talk about sex in this country. This must change.” As far as long-term discussions, Tracy hopes that we will consider “getting rid of the electoral college, and looking critically at life-term appointments to the Supreme Court.” Michelman agreed, adding we must “take responsibility for acting in our own lives to speak out against wrongs.”
To close out the evening, the women were asked what Gettysburg College can do right now to work on this issue. Michelman encouraged the audience to “talk to everyone about registering to vote and voting. [Democrats] must send a message in November. There is no excuse not to vote.” Tracy added, “Stay engaged. Even if we don’t succeed in November, there is still work to do today. Don’t stop learning and reading, and nothing is more powerful than empathy. Respect people with different points of view, and be sensitive to victims of sexual assault at this difficult time for them.” Most of all, Tracy urged, “Don’t give up!”