Misery does not bring the revolution

This was written in response to comments I’ve heard from some progressives who have said that they could conceive of voting for Trump because the chaos and misery caused by a Trump presidency might inspire more radical action for change.

The theory that making the most vulnerable people suffer is a good way to bring about progress is one that conflicts with both historical reality and human decency. Expanding the right to vote and abolishing slavery (to reference examples I have heard of major social/political shifts accomplished by political activism) both took decades. Electing an egomaniacal real estate developer is not going to bring about “the revolution” — and, in the meantime, much progress will be lost, particularly by those who can least afford those losses.

To cite one example: Obamacare is not perfect, and not the solution that many progressives hoped and worked for (I include myself here), but a lot more people now have health insurance. Do we want to build on that, or see it destroyed in the naive hope that the destruction will cause the “rising of the masses”? But meanwhile — the most vulnerable will suffer.

Or can you imagine what will happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned by a Supreme Court packed with right-wing ideologues? As always, women with means will be able to access abortion care. But, while we wait for the masses to rise, poor women and young women will die. Or what will happen to voting rights, already gutted by this current Supreme Court, if we were saddled with a court even further to the right?

It is a luxury of those with some degree of privilege and/or security to wish for misery that will fall hardest on those least able to bear it.

© Rhea Hirshman 2016

Keep the guns, ditch the ammo

Once again, the National Rifle Association can be heard chanting its cynical mantra as it demands the right to unfettered firearms access for even the sketchiest of our fellow residents: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

I have pointed out, patiently, that people with spatulas do not kill people. People with tennis racquets do not kill people. People with garden hoses do not kill people. While most who own guns in this country never shoot anyone, guns are, in fact, used to kill people. Between 2000 and 2015, nearly 302,000 Americans died by gun violence. On average, in 2015, a toddler shot someone once a week. In that same year, nearly 800 children in the U.S. were killed by gunfire.

But today I had a revelation. The NRA has a point. Sort of. Guns do not kill people.

AMMUNITION kills people.

So I offer this compromise. Let those who feel the need or urge purchase as many firearms as they want. Let them stockpile and fondle arsenals; about 25 percent of gun owners possess five or more guns, with over five million Americans owning ten or more guns.

And then let’s regulate ammunition to the moon and back: background checks, purchase limitations, constraints on transfers, and so on.

After all, the Second Amendment, to which the NRA and its minions pledge absolute fealty, presents the right to “keep and bear arms.” It makes no mention of loading them.

I’m sure I’ll hear from the NRA any day now.

© Rhea Hirshman 2016




When progressives diss women

imagesWorking on a longer piece that I hope to publish in the next several days but, in the meantime, I thought I would post a comment I made in response to someone else’s comment on a New York Times column by Timothy Egan. Egan’s column, titled “Bernie’s Last Stand” elicited, as you can imagine, a wide range of remarks about the two Democratic presidential candidates. My interest here is not in arguing Hillary v. Bernie, but in highlighting an attitude about women’s rights that I see far too often, even among progressives.

Here is the original comment someone posted in response to Egan’s column:

And count me in the Bernie or bust camp. I will not vote for Clinton. If she were up against Bin Laden I’d be conflicted. And anyone who thinks abortion can be taken away in states where women wear shoes is delusional. If the barking religious zealot dog catches that car expect it to get backed over in short order. 

Here is my response:

The condescension in your comment is appalling, and you either: (A) have no idea of the degree to which Republican-controlled states all over the country have eviscerated abortion rights; or (B) haven’t paid much attention to whose feed are shod. If by the snarky remark about “states where women wear shoes” you mean states not in the Deep South, you need to do some actual research, as several of the states with the most extreme restrictions and/or lack of access are Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota (partial list).

Once again, the twin ideas that certain women are expendable, and that women’s rights (including reproductive rights) are not a “real” social justice issue, rear their disagreeable heads.

© Rhea Hirshman 2016



What would Bella do?

As we watch one of our major political parties at the brink of choking on the presidential candidacy of either an egomaniacal real estate developer or a nasty zealot whose own colleagues detest him, let us think about something more uplifting.

I give you Bella Abzug.

I still miss her.

The force of nature that was Bella Abzug died 16 years ago today, too soon, at the age of 77. The date of her passing — March 31 — marks the end of Women’s History Month and often falls during Passover, the Jewish celebration of resistance, liberation and renewal.

BellaBella — everyone called her that — was part of a wide-ranging sisterhood of Jewish feminists who worked both within and outside the system to transform American society and American Jewish life.

“Born yelling,” in 1920, as she described herself, this daughter of Russian immigrants grew up poor in the Bronx, N.Y., and went on to Columbia University Law School, one of only a handful of women of her time to obtain a law degree.

As a young lawyer, she began wearing her iconic bold hats, not as a fashion statement, but as a political one. “I began wearing hats,” she said, “(to) establish my professional identity. Before (I did) that, whenever I was at a meeting, someone would ask me to get the coffee.”

Prior to her election in 1970 as the first Jewish woman to serve in Congress, Abzug specialized in labor, civil liberties and civil rights law. One of the few lawyers to challenge the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, she subsequently helped found Women Strike For Peace, and vehemently opposed the Vietnam War.

In Congress, she fought for the Equal Rights Amendment, introduced the first lesbian and gay civil rights bill, and co-authored the 1972 Water Pollution Act and the Freedom of Information Act. By her third term, Abzug was voted by colleagues as one of Congress’ three most influential members.

Women’s economic equity was a central issue for Abzug. At a time when women who earned their own paychecks could be denied credit because of their gender, and married women could not obtain credit in their own names, she was responsible for passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Later, she made a mock American Express commercial describing how she had been told by American Express that her husband had to sign if she wanted one of their cards. It’s classic Bella; you can find it here on YouTube.

Bella’s admirers see her as the embodiment of the Jewish concept of “tikkun olam” — the idea that humans are meant to be the Divine’s partners in healing and repairing the world. To remedy injustice, she confronted the powerful, and did not stay in a woman’s “proper place.”

As she announced later in her career: “They used to give us a day — it was called International Women’s Day. In 1975, they gave us a year, the Year of the Woman. Then from 1975 to 1985 they gave us a decade, the Decade of the Woman. I said at the time, who knows, if we behave, they may let us into the whole thing. Well, we didn’t behave and here we are.”

Today, Women’s History Month winds down and, as we look towards the coming of Passover in April, I like to think of how the women who did not behave are central also to the Passover narrative. While the traditionally-told story offers only scant mention, the women’s seders that emerged during the 1970s celebrate the women without whom the transformative journey out of Egypt could not have happened. Bella, a regular participant in the gatherings of the original “seder sisters” (who also included Esther Broner, Phyllis Chesler, Grace Paley, and Gloria Steinem) sometimes brought the chicken.

During feminist seders, we speak of Moses’ mother Yocheved, who gave up her baby so that he could survive; of Miriam, Moses’ sister, who hid him, and later helped lead the Jews out of Egypt; of Thermutis, Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted the baby Moses, had him nursed by his own mother, and later became known as Batyah — daughter of God; and of Shifrah and Pu’ah, the midwives who disobeyed the orders to kill Jewish males at birth, instead hiding the infants, saving Moses and others, and making the flight from Egypt possible.

“At the feminist seder,” says author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a member since 1975 of the first recorded feminist seder group, “we don’t praise good girls; we praise rebellious women, wise women, quiet heroines and brash leaders.”

Bella was brash and wise, and definitely not a good girl. As Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro said at Bella’s funeral, “She didn’t knock politely on the door. She didn’t even push it open or batter it down. She took it off the hinges forever.”

© Rhea Hirshman 2016

Two thoughts about guns

A couple of thoughts as the gun debates rage.

On the “logic” of “More guns will make us safer.”

If more guns are supposed to keep down violent crime, why does the U.S. have the world’s highest per capita rate of civilian gun ownership and, at the same time, the industrialized world’s highest per capita rate of homicides committed with firearms? According to the “more guns = better/safer” logic, if so many people have so many guns, shouldn’t we have a really really really low homicide rate?

On the notion that the Second Amendment is absolute.

ConstitutionThroughout our history, there have been legislative and judicial tweaks — during administrations of all parties — to rights guaranteed in the First Amendment.

We have the right to freedom of speech — but not to yell “Fire!” in a theater when there is no fire, because that freedom is also weighed against the common good of public safety. We have the right to freedom of the press. Neither of those rights is absolute: at the same time that we have rights to freedom of both speech and the press, we also have laws that allow people who believe they have been damaged or unfairly tarnished to bring charges of slander (spoken) or libel (published). We have a right to freedom of assembly, but localities across the country are able to require permits for various kinds of gatherings. And so on.

The idea that the Second Amendment is inherently absolutely inviolable, not ever to be balanced with other considerations, is (1) absurd on its face; and (2) equally absurd if one equates gun ownership with “free speech” — since free speech has never been absolute because of the constant conversation about how to balance it against other rights.

© Rhea Hirshman 2016

These doors stay open

Over 20 years ago, in December of 1994, two young clinic workers were murdered and five other people wounded in a shooting rampage at a Planned Parenthood clinic outside of Boston.

At the time, I was staff writer for Planned Parenthood of Connecticut (now Planned Parenthood of Southern New England). When in early 1995 we began to plan the 1994-95 annual report, and as we took unprecedented steps to secure our own facilities, I thought long and hard about how to incorporate that December’s events into the document. With the support of both my supervisor, Susan Lloyd Yolen, and Patricia Baker, our executive director, I tossed out the usual format of reporting department by department. Instead, while the year’s essential statistical and programmatic information was included, I wrote an essay entitled These Doors Stay Open.

Today, in light of the latest assault on reproductive justice, I am posting excerpts from that report — text that remains heartbreakingly and infuriatingly relevant.

These doors stay open

The final Saturday of 1994 was a winter Saturday much like any other. At Planned Parenthood centers across Connecticut, patients came in for pregnancy tests and birth control, Pap smears and annual exams, test results and information.

But on that Saturday, the predictable routine of opening the health center, answering the phones, and checking in patients, was more than a day’s work. It was an act of courage and defiance. The day before — Friday, December 30 — two clinic workers in Brookline, Massachusetts were shot to death and five others wounded by a dangerous zealot who remained at large for over 24 hours before being captured.

On that Saturday, we in Connecticut honored those two young women in the best way we knew how. We opened our doors as usual, and saw our patients.

Escalating aggression

The Brookline shootings were the most recent example of escalating violence against Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health providers nationwide. Since 1993 we have seen the murders of five doctors and clinic workers, and the wounding of several others, as well as countless bomb threats, numerous clinic burnings and butyric acid attacks, and constant threats of violence to clinic personnel.

The attacks against Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health care providers do not come only in the form of bullets and bombs threats, and are not directed only against abortion providers. An increasingly conservative Congress is engaged in the unraveling of policies and programs that have, for decades, been part of the fabric of American life.

In this 30th anniversary year of Griswold v Connecticut (the 1965 Supreme Court decision overturning state laws that prohibited even married couples from obtaining birth control) family planning is still a political football. Far right members of Congress try to justify defunding family-planning services by linking them with abortion. Unconcerned with facts — that only about three percent of patient visits to Planned Parenthood health centers are for abortion-related services — they have mounted a full-scale assault on Planned Parenthood (the plaintiff in Griswold) in particular and family planning agencies in general.

Flawed contract

Are you concerned about teen pregnancy, AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, and violence? So is the radical right. But their solutions as outlined in the Christian Coalition’s “Contract with the American Family” include everything from abolishing federal support for the arts to defunding Planned Parenthood, which the Christian Coalition accuses of “indoctrinating America’s children into its ‘safe sex’ philosophy” and “undermining parental authority and the bonds between parents and their children.”

Ludicrous as these accusations sound, they are central to the right-wing agenda. Far from protecting families, this agenda denies America’s rich religious and cultural pluralism; demeans women; narrows choices for all American; and gives powers of moral dictatorship to the very government the radical right says it wants out of our lives.

“I’ll come if you need me”

This past year was not an easy one for Planned Parenthood of Connecticut. It was a year that saw staff cutbacks, major reorganizing, and continued uncertainty over health care reform. Our non-Medicaid patients, poorer than ever before, paid less for their care with us, while Medicaid reimbursements continued to be less than the cost of providing care. Significant resources were spent countering physical threats and political maneuvering from the radical right.

There is one place where Planned Parenthood and our opponents come together. They understand, as we do, that being able to control one’s own reproductive life is essential to women’s autonomy. But while we celebrate that autonomy, they are terrified of it. In the political arena they use undefined and charged terms like “family values” to keep us in our place. At reproductive health sites, they are using deadly force.

On the Monday morning after the Brookline shootings a call came in to PPC’s executive director. On the line  was a donor who had contributed generously over the years. Now she was asking, “What can I do to help? Do you need a receptionist? I’ll come to any clinic if you need me.”

We did not need her to serve as a receptionist on that particular day. But the trust of patients, the dedication of staff, the generosity of donors, and the backing of supporters are what keep Planned Parenthood going.

Nothing can protect us more than the outrage of ordinary people.

© Rhea Hirshman 2015











If a word doesn’t work, send it packing

Writing women – Version 2Seeing the tools of language handled deftly by others is one of the great pleasures of my life; for a writer, honing those tools is a process that lasts a lifetime.

Some people have better ears for music than others (my mother, a normally tolerant woman, emphatically dissuaded my tone-challenged father from singing in the house). Some have more natural athletic talent (one of my highly accomplished college buddies can still relive the trauma of having come perilously close to failing our college phys ed requirement). Some seem to know instinctively Continue reading