Ten Women’s Health Heroes Who Inspired Us in 2013
Written by Tara Culp-Ressler
This past year included an overwhelming number of attacks on reproductive health and freedom, including some of the harshest abortion bans this country has seen since Roe v. Wade. However — despite the persistent attempts to silence, shame and police women and their bodies — there is one positive benefit resulting from the ongoing War on Women. It gave rise to several champions who didn’t back down from fighting for the issues that matter. Here are ten people who inspired us in 2013:
In April, Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores (D) took to the floor to advocate for overhauling her state’s abstinence-only education policy. In order to explain her support for the issue, Flores shared her own personal story of receiving inadequate sex ed as a teen. Flores explained she accidentally got pregnant when she was 16 years old and decided to have an abortion. She said she didn’t regret her choice, but she did want other young women in Nevada to be more educated about how to prevent pregnancy. “We prevent this by giving them the information and the resources that they need, so they don’t have to go to their dad and say, ‘I need $200 for an abortion,’ ” Flores noted.
Thanks to the shame and stigma that surround abortion, it’s still rare for public figures to talk openly about their decision to end a pregnancy, and Flores’ decision to share her story was very brave. The lawmaker received hate mail and death threats — as well as an outpouring of support from women’s health advocates, who rallied behind her with the #FierceFlores hashtag.
In October, the Kansas City Star published a remarkable investigative piece about a sexual assault case in Maryville, Mo., involving a high school football player and a young victim — one that bore some striking resemblances to the infamous rape case in Steubenville. But there was one notable difference. Although victims of sexual assault typically remain anonymous in the media, the Maryville victim, Daisy Coleman, wanted to share her story publicly. She allowed the Kansas City Star to use her real name, and later appeared on CNN with her mother to recount the details surrounding her sexual assault.
Thanks to a pervasive rape culture that tends to place the blame for sexual assault squarely on the shoulders of the victim, the individuals who speak up about being raped are typically harassed and shamed. Coleman experienced that, too — even before she started talking to the media, she was bullied and ultimately driven out of her small town. But she refused to be silenced.
“Since this happened, I’ve been in hospitals too many times to count. I’ve found it impossible to love at times. I’ve gained and lost friends. I no longer dance or compete in pageants. I’m different now, and I can’t ever go back to the person I once was,” Coleman, who was just 14 at the time of her assault, wrote in a powerful op-ed in October. “That one night took it all away from me. I’m nothing more than just human, but I also refuse to be a victim of cruelty any longer. This is why I am saying my name. This is why I am not shutting up.”
Rev. William J. Barber II, the president of the NAACP in North Carolina, spearheaded the biggest progressive protests of the past year. Barber partnered with other clergy, progressive activists and grassroots leaders to lead thousands of people in weekly “Moral Monday” rallies against North Carolina’s far-right legislature. They demanded economic and racial justice, access to health care and education, and voting rights. And they rallied against proposed abortion restrictions in the state, pointing out that lawmakers were wasting their time attacking women’s health while leaving important policy priorities undone.
In July, dozens of women’s health activists — including the president of the Planned Parenthood affiliate in North Carolina — got arrested in an act of civil disobedience against a proposed abortion bill at a Moral Monday protest. At that time, those activists brought the total number of activists arrested for protesting the state’s GOP-controlled legislature up to more than 700.
“When we started Moral Mondays and the first group went to jail, the women were at the front line,” Barber explained in an interview over the summer. “The sisters are here, the sisters have been here and the sisters are here to stay.”
State Rep. Wendy Davis (D-TX) rose to national prominence after working to defeat a stringent package of abortion restrictions in the Texas legislature. Davis filibustered the legislation for over 11 hours without sitting down, taking a drink of water, leaving to go to the bathroom, or straying off topic. Thousands of people from across the country tuned in to watch and spread messages of support under the #StandWithWendy hashtag. The pink sneakers she wore that night on the floor have become iconic.
Davis certainly did not work alone — her efforts were supported by thousands of pro-choice activists who protested at the capitol for weeks, and ultimately helped delay the legislation with a “people’s filibuster” — but she did become the nationally-recognized face of the backlash against Texas’ harsh bill. Thanks in no small part to the momentum that began with her filibuster this summer, Davis is currently running for governor.
Sarah Slamen was one of the thousands of Texas who rallied at the capitol this summer with Wendy Davis. During a hearing on the anti-abortion legislation in the middle of July, Slamen delivered an impassioned speech against the measure. “Thank you for every hateful statement degrading women and girls to sex objects, and brood mares, and bald eagles, and leather wallets, like your eloquent pro-life supporters have done today. Thank you for being you, Texas legislature,” Slamen told the Republican lawmakers in the room. “You have radicalized hundreds of thousands of us.”
State troopers removed Slamen from the room while she was in the middle of speaking — a silencing tactic that ultimately backfired, since her testimony went viral. Later that month, she appeared on MSNBC to deliver the rest of her speech that got cut off.
“I’m privileged as a white woman from a middle-class background to be able to have attended all of those hearings,” Slamen pointed out during her TV appearance. “Women with two and three jobs, the 20 percent of women who might be living in the rural communities of Texas who can’t get to the capitol, caregivers, they can’t get to the hearings and stand up for their rights, and it’s obvious that all the Republicans on that committee don’t care about the right to their health care either. So someone had to say something.”
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) has been a longstanding champion of reproductive freedom during her time in office, and made national headlines last year for disclosing the details of her own sexual assault while advocating for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). She’s also repeatedly blasted anti-choice activists for attempting to use race as a wedge in the abortion debate.
This year, Moore has continued to sponsor legislation to advance women’s health, and she’s had no patience for opponents of reproductive health and autonomy. After the House of Representatives passed a national 20-week abortion ban in June, Moore took to the floor to slam the right-wing talking points on the scientifically-disputed notion of fetal pain. “This bill is an abomination! Plain and simple, at its foundation, at its heart, is utter disrespect for the dignity and health of women,” she said. “Now we have a bill that is born of ignorance and disregard for medical science in every way, shape, and form — no concern for the biology, physiology, sociology of the woman.”
Moore has also sharply criticized the craft chain Hobby Lobby for filing a lawsuit against Obamacare’s birth control mandate, a case that’s making its way to the Supreme Court. “I am very confident that the Supreme Court will rule on the side of women… I mean, enough already,” she said last month. “Women’s health is not some arts and craft project.”
After her public school hosted a mandatory abstinence education assembly — during which a conservative speaker allegedly told students “if you take birth control, your mother probably hates you” and “I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous” — Katelyn Campbell stepped up to say something. The West Virginia teen believed that religious-based, slut-shaming assemblies didn’t belong in her public school, so she filed a complaint with the ACLU. Even after Campbell’s principal threatened her, she refused to back down.
Campbell’s activism inspired people across the country. Strangers started petitions in her honor, students advocated at board meetings on her behalf, and Wellesley College — where Campbell had already been accepted — issued public statements of support. “I feel like I’ve been given an opportunity here to make a change,” Campbell explained to ThinkProgress in April. “No one should have to feel alone or afraid of repercussions for doing the right thing. If I was able to succeed in the socially conservative state of West Virginia, then anyone can.”
Campbell is currently taking classes at Wellesley, and continues to advocate for better reproductive health policies in her home state. She recently spoke out against imposing harsh restrictions on West Virginia’s abortion clinics.
Tamesha Means is taking on one of the most powerful institutions in the world — the Catholic Church. With the help of the ACLU, Means is suing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for failing to provide adequate reproductive health services in its religious hospitals. It’s a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, going straight after the Bishops for the consequences of their anti-abortion policies rather than suing an individual hospital for negligence.
Means’ water broke when she was 18 weeks pregnant, and she was rushed to the closest hospital for emergency care. But, since that hospital is Catholic-affiliated, it didn’t tell Means that abortion was an option to end her doomed pregnancy. She was repeatedly told there was nothing that doctors could do, and was sent away several times in pain. Eventually, she developed an infection, and finally delivered a premature child that died within hours of birth.
“I was in terrible pain,” Means explained in a recent interview with the Washington Post. “I was tired. I was frustrated. I still had no answers as to why they did nothing to help me, why they didn’t go ahead and induce my labor when they knew my baby wasn’t going to make it. They left me in pain for those days.” Depending on the outcome of her legal challenge, she could help spare other women from undergoing similar painful experiences.
In April, Julie Burkhart re-opened the clinic that used to house Dr. George Tiller’s former practice. Thanks to Burkhart, the women who live in Wichita have access to abortion services for the first time since Tiller was gunned down in 2009. It hasn’t been an easy road, though, as anti-choice activists have done everything in their power to prevent the new clinic from opening to the public. Burkhart has been subject to personal harassment; protesters have picketed outside her home and distributed flyers referring to her as a “killer.” In April, an anti-choice activist was even caught on tape suggesting that it would a “blessing to the babies” if Burkhart was shot, just like her predecessor.
Burkhart ended up tightening the security at her clinic. But she’s stood firm, repeatedly speaking out about Wichita women’s right to accessible reproductive care.
“A year and a half after we lost Dr. Tiller, we were really able to say, ‘Okay, this is going to be hard, this is going to be challenging — probably the biggest challenge of our lives — but we’re going to get this done,’ ” Burkhart told Mother Jones in February. “Here we live in a pretty good-sized city, Wichita, with a metropolitan area of around 650,000 people. It’s like really, come on. We’re a town that used to have three abortion clinics. Shouldn’t we be able to have at least one ob-gyn practice that offers abortion care? We realized we just needed to pick up the torch and do it.”
As a male Republican legislator from a red state that’s particularly hostile to women’s health, Rep. Doug Cox (R-OK) may seem like a strange addition to this list. But Cox, who is a practicing physician, has done his part to stand up against persistent attacks on reproductive freedom. In May, Cox published an op-ed sharply criticizing his colleagues for pushing so many abortion restrictions that intrude women’s private lives. “What happened to the Republican Party that I joined? The party where conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater felt women should have the right to control their own destiny?” Cox lamented. “What happened to the Republican Party that felt that the government has no business being in an exam room, standing between me and my patient?”
The GOP lawmaker isn’t afraid to speak out against proposed abortion restrictions in Oklahoma — pointing out that abortion is already a safe medical procedure, and additional legislation to make it more inaccessible will ultimately force women to seek out illegal alternatives. “We keep passing stuff like this, they’ll be done in back alleys with coat hangers, people,” he pointed out in February.
Cox was the recipient of Planned Parenthood’s Barry Goldwater Award this year, an annual recognition of an outstanding public official in the Republican Party who has demonstrated a commitment to women’s health issues. The national organization pointed out that Cox has argued against more than 160 anti-choice measures during his time in the state house.
This post was originally published in ThinkProgress