Women and the Fight for D.C. Voting Rights
||Wednesday, May 4, 2011
On the afternoon of April 11, Corryn Freeman set out to get arrested for the very first time. After the federal government made D.C. autonomy a pawn in its last-minute budget compromise, Freeman stuck a DC Vote temporary tattoo on her cheek, sat in the path of U.S. Capitol Police, and accepted a pair of handcuffs for the District of Columbia. Forty others joined her. “It was exhilarating,” Freeman says.
The excitement began to fade when police transported Freeman, 21, and her fellow detainees to a warehouse and forced them to wait "until an obscene hour" for their arrests to be processed. Inside the building, police "divided the men on one half of the room and the women on the other" and instructed the genders not to converse. That seriously limited Freeman's discussion group: While 29 protesters populated the male side of the room, only 11 women sat across from them.
What accounts for the civil disobedience gender divide? D.C. hosts a majority-female population, and last month's budget compromise hit them the hardest. While all D.C. citizens lost their right to dictate the destination of their local tax dollars, the real burden fell on low-income District women who were stripped of necessary Medicaid funding for abortions. So where were they?
Close by. When Billie Day, a past president of the D.C. League of Women Voters, sat down to join the mass arrest, she says she saw no shortage of women who could pile on the police blockade. "That was one of the dynamic things about the group: There seemed to be a diversity of age, of gender, of race," Day says. "When one was sitting there looking out at the crowd, it really did seem like the whole city had come together on this.”
But by the time it came time to book them, women made up less than 30 percent of the handcuffed. And in media coverage, it was the arrested who really counted: The group was later dubbed the "DC 41."
Freeman, number 22, speculates that the whole reproduction thing could have something to do with it. Lopsided parental obligations may encourage female activists to be more risk-averse when deciding whether to spontaneously spend the night behind bars. Women "may have families. They may be mothers. They're more likely to have an obligation to go back to their homes and take care of that," Freeman says. "That’s the only thing I can think of." As a DC Vote intern, Freeman says she had prepared in advance for the possibility of arrest with a couple other members of DC Vote staff, both men. "We knew we were down," Freeman says.
Complicating arrest parity: District women are outnumbered in the political establishment that formed the core of the April 11 protest. D.C. hosts one of the least gender diverse councils of a major U.S. city. Men also outweigh women on the board of DC Vote (the organization's small staff is majority-female). Though Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and Ward 3 councilmember Mary Cheh bowed out of the event, D.C.'s female reps were actually comparatively well-represented in the April 11 action: Two of D.C.'s three female councilmembers participated in the arrest, compared to four of the ten men on the council.
Of course, you didn't have to be an institutionalized voting rights activist to get arrested by U.S. Capitol Police that day. But there's evidence that the political gender gap in U.S. government offices—and high-visibility political actions—starts young. Five days following her arrest, Freeman organized a youth protest to coincide with D.C. Emancipation Day that ended up looking "about equal," gender-wise. A handful of protester were arrested that day, too. None of them were women.
At 5:30 p.m. today, DC Vote may begin to remedy that disparity. The organization will host a "DC women's protest" in Upper Senate Park at 200 New Jersey Ave NW. The protest presents a key opportunity for additional voting rights arrests (even if their impact has waned since the DC 41 spike). And the roster is stacked with prominent women: Councilmembers Alexander, Bowser, and Cheh are scheduled to speak at the event, along with a dozen District activists, including Freeman and Day.
The women's protest raises another representative challenge for D.C. voting rights advocates: How exactly to address those "women's" issues. The protest coincides with the return of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act [PDF] to the House floor, which aims to compromise both D.C. autonomy and women's reproductive rights in one fell swoop. The act would narrow the legal definition of "rape" to exclude victims of non-forcible assaults while expanding the term "federal government" to include the government of the District of Columbia.
Abortion rights activists across the country are paying close attention to the bill, and many have even taken notice of its home rule implications. Since the federal government stripped D.C. of its right to cover abortions with local Medicaid dollars on April 14, the DC Abortion Fund has raised $52,000 from donors nationwide to bridge the local gap. The fundraising push helped D.C.'s low-income women secure emergency abortions—and raised national awareness about D.C.'s lack of autonomy. To DC Abortion Fund president Tiffany Reed, who is scheduled to speak at today's event, abortion and voting rights form a natural alliance in the District. "We are a progressive city," Reed told me over e-mail. "Access to abortion services is not a controversial issue here."
But the partnership remains a delicate one for DC Vote. The organization doesn't take a position on issues—other than to say that D.C. should be free to take its own position on issues. "We’re glad that in their efforts to get the word out, the pro-choice community has included the District’s disenfranchisement in their talking points," DC Vote communications manager Leah Ramsay told me yesterday. But the organization's publicity materials take care not to endorse the pro-choice position. "No matter your political party or position on abortion, you can agree that Americans in DC should be afforded the same democratic rights to a say in the laws that govern them as every other citizen," the press release read.
Sitting in the warehouse following the protest, Freeman says the female protesters on the front lines managed to find plenty of common ground. “We talked about how upset we were at Barack Obama and Harry Reid," Freeman says. "We talked about how we all hated John Boehner."