My state senator is Rhoda Perry. I first knew her as executive director of Thundermist Health Associates– the network of primary care clinics that was founded by volunteers operating out of a triple-decker in Woonsocket. I like her politics, she is a neighbor and an unpretentious, decent person.
I always vote for her, but I like to hear all sides, so in 2004 I attended the debate between Rhoda and her opponent, Barry Fain.
The candidates were cranking along, neither one charismatic enough to make me forget how uncomfortable it is to sit in a folding chair in a church basement. Then it happened.
Barry Fain– making a point that he was the more well-rounded candidate, said that Rhoda was alright on women’s issues, like birth control. He faltered as the audience gasped. I think he knew instantly that he had stepped in it. Rhoda won the election by a wide margin.
That Sunday I ran into Barry Fain when we were both buying newspapers from a guy who sold them out of the back of his car Elmgrove Avenue.
“I saw you and Rhoda” I said.
He shook his head, “That was a brutal debate.”
I laughed to myself. I admire Rhoda Perry, but a brutal debater she is not.
“Mr.Fain”, I said, “I’m not in any position to criticize someone for saying something they wish they hadn’t. I’ve said a lot of things I would say differently if I had a chance. But I am concerned about your plan to cut taxes.
I work, and pay property tax. It’s not my biggest concern. I earn decent money, I can go out to eat, I don’t worry about being able to pay my bills. We’re on Elmgrove Avenue. A few blocks over is Camp Street. People there are struggling. Are you going to cut the safety net give a little extra to the well-off?”
He was non-committal on that, I don’t think I was part of his base.
When he made that remark about birth control, for a moment I felt like I’d been slapped. Slapped back to the recent past when women had a place, and it wasn’t a place in our State House.
Birth control is being put back in its place of female troubles and ladies unmentionables–too indecent to include in wholesome health promotion. It’s a luxury, a vanity expense, a shameful indulgence.
I recall the women of my childhood, worn out from multiple pregnancies, wearing hand-me-downs. The harsh-tempered men, struggling to support their families. It’s not to say that there wasn’t love and happiness too, but few would choose that life given other options. Women and men alike sacrificed to raise their children. Family planning is not just a ‘women’s issue’.
How many children to have, whether to have children at all, when to have children– there aren’t many more important decisions we will make.
In other health decisions– controlling blood pressure, getting exercise, avoiding smoking– we do public education to engage the community in taking care of themselves.
It’s bizarre to single out one important aspect of health care for segregation and de-funding, when there is no public good in promoting unintended pregnancies. Why are we doing it?
Because it’s a women’s issue. Slightly shameful, a female trouble and serves her right. It’s a poor woman’s issue. We can’t be paying for birth control when taxes need to be cut. And those women aren’t the base, anyway.
We had a saying in the second wave of the Women’s Movement– ‘Sisterhood is Powerful’. And there is a vast potential energy in women and men crossing lines and finding common ground. It’s a short walk, after all, from Elmgrove to Camp.
The Religious Right and the conservative activists of the Catholic Church have taken their stand, to support an interpretation of religious liberty that lets religions take liberties with nonbelievers. This is not resistance to change. This is an expansion of organized religion as a political power. I think it’s an over-reach. But it’s discouraging to have to fight these battles again.