The first and only time I went to Grand Rapids, Mich., I was accosted in the zoo while walking with my then two year-old daughter by a grown woman dressed as a princess. Assuming that I lived close by, the princess lady asked me if I would like to sign my daughter up for etiquette lessons.
That was six years ago and etiquette lessons were about as foreign to my M.O. as training to be a mechanic. And yet, the fact that some little girls in this city were clearly expected to grow up to be polite, pretty and perhaps not much else did make me wonder at the time whether there were other scripts available for females in Grand Rapids.
I’m pleased to say that there are. In an election year in which woman power may well decide the presidential election, an inter-generational group of 12 women has launched its own chapter of Stop the War On Women Grand Rapids. They range in age from 30 to 75. They are nurses, lawyers, artists, and social workers. Some are married. Some are not. Some are parents. Some are not. Some are gay. Some are straight.
They aren’t protesting etiquette training. Instead, as my longtime friend Kathleen Ley put it to me, they were initially motivated by the “stunning avalanche of disdain and distrust for women in Michigan and in the United States and the legislation at the state and federal levels intruding on women’s health care choices.”
A case in point: a piece of anti-abortion legislation which was rushed through the Michigan House this summer which would require women whose pregnancy is terminated – even via miscarriage – to cremate fetal remains, fill out a death certificate, and work with a funeral director to dispose of the fetus. (The bill is due to be considered by the state Senate this fall.)
The coalition’s target is two-fold: First, women voters and people who care about abortion rights. And second, politicians of both parties – particularly in western Michigan – so that they know that people are paying attention to how they vote.
Indeed, as Ley points out, while the impetus for much of the “anti-women” legislation her group opposes comes from the Republican party, there are plenty of Democrats who also vote yes to these bills. For example, in the case of H4446 – a 2006 law that required all women seeking abortions to first have an ultra-sound – 57 Republicans supported this bill in the Michigan House and 21 did so in the Senate vs. 27 and 15 respectively for the Democrats.
When the so-called “anti-coercion legislation” (HB4799) – which requires doctors to give their patients a questionnaire to determine if the woman has been coerced or is the victim of domestic abuse before the abortion procedure – was up for vote by the full House last May, nine of the House’s 47 Democrats voted in favor of the bill. Numbers were similar when Michigan passed a ban on so-called “partial birth abortions” last year. (On other pieces of legislation of concern to Ley’s coalition, the vote has been more solidly along party lines.)
Despite those lopsided votes, one of Stop The War on Women Grand Rapids’ primary objectives is to free both parties in western Michigan from what my friend sees as the “stranglehold” that religious groups hold over politicians. “We are trying to show people running as Democrats that religious groups or those who call themselves ‘right to life’ are not the only voice on matters of conscience.”
While Stop The War on Women Grand Rapids began with a focus on abortion rights, it has since broadened to encompass a range of issues that extend to equal pay, violence against women and contraception.
“A lot of Republicans think that equal pay is fair and contraception is responsible. Some may be pro-life, but we are open to and attract women who might not otherwise support abortion except in the case of rape, incest and where the health of the mother is jeopardized.”
As testament to the bipartisan nature of their cause, one of the people the group frequently invokes at their rallies is Betty Ford - the wife of former President Gerald Ford and a much-beloved public figure in Grand Rapids – who was herself a staunch believer in women’s rights.
The group has also had a lot of traction with young women in their 20s who, according to Ley, are concerned that the privacy they’ve always known with regard to their reproductive health is at risk. (“Since when does my boss get to decide whether my insurance covers The Pill?” Ley paraphrases.)
Since its founding in April, the coalition has held a rally in the Rosa Parks Circle in Grand Rapids (“we stood up like she did,” says Ley) and it has subsequently bought 18 billboards and 16 bus-boards in western Michigan promoting their organization and its message. Ley also believes that its efforts have stalled some of the anti-woman legislation in Michigan. Members raise money at street fairs and have so far collected more money than they ever thought possible.
I asked Ley whether they planned to continue their work past November, as coalitions of this sort may exist legally for only the six months prior to an election.
“We’d love to go back to our day jobs,” quips Ley. “But chances are we will continue in some form.”
Delia Lloyd is an American journalist based in London who was previously the London correspondent for Politics Daily. She blogs about adulthood at www.realdelia.com and you can follow her on Twitter @realdelia.