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A Coalition for Survival

For years, feminism has been declared dead. Yet this April saw the largest protest march in U.S. history--for women's rights. What got all these people into the streets?

Carolyn: According to the organizers of the March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C. this April, more than a million people participated in it, which makes it the largest protest march in U.S. history. Its principal sponsors included not just Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, but the Black Women's Health Imperative, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). You were a co-director of the march. How did the march become so big and diverse?

Loretta: When Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority, and NARAL first decided to do the march early in 2003, they called it the March for Freedom of Choice, and it was going to focus narrowly on abortion.

But people in the women's health movement thought it should focus on access issues as well. What's the point of having a legal right if you can't afford to pay for it and there are no abortion providers in 83 percent of U.S. counties?

And women of color said, “Here are those white girls planning a big event again, wanting us to participate, but they didn't ask us.” The organizers were catching it from two fronts within the ranks. So they approached Sistersong, a national network of 30 women of color organizations, at our conference in November 2003, and asked us if we would endorse and participate in the march.

We said yes, conditionally. Among our conditions was that the march had to be broadened. Instead of the March for Freedom of Choice, it had to be renamed the March for Women's Lives, indicating that women's lives are threatened by more than the attack on the legality of abortion. Women face a number of human rights abuses, from poverty to lack of immigrant rights. Women of color feel that our right to have a child is threatened just as much as our right to terminate a pregnancy, because of population control efforts. One example of the  threat to our right to have a child is the provision in the welfare legislation that if you have another child while you're on welfare, your benefits are reduced.

Once we broadened the march's message, and broadened the issues that we were marching for, many more groups came forth to participate. The most important of these groups was the NAACP, which in its 95-year history had never participated in a women's rights march. The march became about human rights, the right to have a child, the right to be free from police surveillance. We were marching not only against attacks on women's rights domestically, but against the war in Iraq and its devastating effects on women, against the global gag rule [President Bush's executive order forbidding any clinics that receive U.S. international aid from offering or even mentioning abortion]. Once we connected all the dots, then the march developed traction.

Carolyn: What do you think is the significance of this march?

Loretta: At least two-thirds of the marchers were young kids. So first of all the march demonstrated that the torch has been passed to the younger generation. And of course all those million people who attended saw that they were not alone. We also sent a message to the president and to Congress that here's a million voters whom you ignore at your own peril.

The march helped build a broader coalition, especially in support of women's rights, but also for progressive issues generally. It brought people together who normally do not work together. For example, many of us who worked on the march are now joining the NAACP to get them to increase their work on gender issues. The tremendous turnout of Asian and Pacific Islander women (perhaps the largest assembly in history) created new working relationships between this important population and predominantly white feminist organizations.

Carolyn: There is always controversy about protest numbers, and the Park Service no longer publicly gives estimates of crowd size. What evidence do you have for the size of the march?

Loretta: The Park Service, which always undercounts, told us privately that we had 800,000 people. Here was one of the payoffs of a program the Feminist Majority organized five years ago. They created a task force on women in law enforcement, to deal with the discrimination that women in law enforcement face. So we had allies within the Park Service police and the D.C. police and got information from them.

Further proof of the size of the march is that the Metro system said 300,000 additional riders passed through the turnstiles on Sunday. We also had 1,400 buses and an untold number of cars and trains and airplanes.

Carolyn: You've called for a “progressive coalition for survival.” What do you mean by that?

Loretta: We're experiencing a multi-issue attack on gay rights, women's rights, youth rights, and the environment. Someone in the Bush administration even called those who participated in the march “terrorists.”

Given that multi-issue attack, we can't afford single-issue politics. Otherwise we remain what I call the divided and the conquered. We have to pull together a super coalition that connects our own dots, that uses the human rights framework, so we can say, I work for women's rights, but I'm really working for the human rights of women. I work for young people, but I'm really working for the human rights of young people. I work for gay rights, but I'm really working for the human rights of gays and lesbians.

We have to get over our organizational turf issues, our beliefs that nobody understands our issues the way we understand them. A coalition for survival will focus on what we have in common, not what divides us.

The march was representative of that. People came who were against the war, for women's rights, for civil rights, for union rights, for gay and lesbian rights. We had all those different voices represented, portraying a unified message. Many voices, one movement, that's what a coalition for survival is.

Carolyn: How did you become a feminist activist?

Loretta: I am an accidental feminist. In 1969, when I was 15 years old and in high school, I got pregnant. At that time my high school had a policy of expelling pregnant girls. I successfully fought for my right to stay in school. I couldn't spell the word feminist, but I got angry. How can you tell me that because I have a baby, I need an education less than anyone else? That became my first feminist act, even though I didn't know that's what it was.

In 1978 I started volunteering at the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. The D.C. Rape Crisis Center was the first rape crisis center in the country, founded in 1972. In 1979 I became its executive director and only the third black woman to head a rape crisis center. The reason I was drawn to volunteering at the rape crisis center was that at 11 years old, while I was on a Girl Scout outing, I had been kidnapped by a soldier and taken into the woods and raped.

I didn't enter feminism through any theoretical philosophy. Stuff just kept happening to me. Twenty-five percent of black girls are raped, and I was in that 25 percent. How many pregnant teenagers are there? I was in that percentage. My commitment to feminism was born out of the feeling that what happened to me shouldn't happen to another person.

But it wasn't until 1985 that I used the word feminist about myself. I used to say, I'm not a feminist, but... But violence against women is wrong. I'm not a feminist, but pregnant girls shouldn't be kicked out of school. In 1985 I went to the UN World Conference for Women in Nairobi and heard discussions by women from all over the world, talking about how feminism was saving women's lives. That persuaded me I needed to use the f-word about myself.

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