More Than ‘Just Women’s Issues’ in Moral Week of Action

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More Than ‘Just Women’s Issues’ in Moral Week of Action

Emily Crockett

August 26 was Women’s Equality Day. But true to the spirit of Moral Mondays leader Rev. William Barber’s “moral fusion movement,” the discussion of “women’s issues” wasn’t limited to abortion or birth control.

The Moral Mondays movement, which has seen protesters calling for social justice in North Carolina every Monday for nearly 70 weeks, expanded to a full week of actions in 12 states starting on Friday.

Each day since then has featured a specific social justice theme, from education to labor to youth issues, and Tuesday was a fitting day to devote to women’s rights since August 26 was Women’s Equality Day (the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote). But true to the spirit of Moral Mondays leader Rev. William Barber’s “moral fusion movement,” the discussion of “women’s issues” wasn’t limited to abortion or birth control.

“The Moral Mondays movement provides an umbrella of values that we’re all organizing around, not just individual issues,” Tara Romano, president of NC Women United, told Rewire. “We try to present how all of these things are intersecting.”

Take violence against women, for example, Romano said—of course the crisis centers and shelters need to be adequately funded, but if you cut Medicaid and unemployment insurance like North Carolina legislators have done, women who depend on abusive partners for financial support or medical insurance won’t have the resources to leave that situation. 

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The message that economic opportunity is as important a “women’s issue” as any other has been a theme nationwide this year. Democratic Party leaders and President Obama have been pushing a comprehensive agenda that would raise the minimum wage and provide better family leave policies as essential policies that would allow women in particular to be able to participate fully in society.

Two young mothers of color who spoke at Tuesday’s rally in North Carolina focused on how economic insecurity impacted their ability to parent.

Jolanda Ware, 21, said she struggled with being “both mother and father” when her partner left, especially when her unemployment benefits were abruptly cut off and she had trouble applying for Medicaid. And Sheila Arias, a mother of two children, one of whom has special needs, said she understands “the challenge of being both caregiver and breadwinner.”

“North Carolina leaders are sending the wrong message to working parents working hard to better themselves and create economic opportunities for their families,” Arias said, adding that she relied on the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which legislators recently cut, to help her make ends meet while she was working on her bachelors degree as a single mother.

“It’s not a giveaway or a handout,” she said, noting that families depended on the state EITC to provide basic needs like shelter, food, and childcare for nearly 1.2 million children in 2012.

Cuts to essential programs like these are inexcusable when the legislature is passing corporate tax breaks, speakers said, and it’s hypocritical to refuse Medicaid expansion for fear that federal funds might run out, while at the same time leaning on federal dollars for childcare in order to trim those expenses from the state budget.

A few hundred people showed up to march around the North Carolina governor’s office Tuesday before handing off a petition, as has been the ritual since Friday. The goal isn’t necessarily to overwhelm with huge crowds, Romano said, but to maintain a steady protest presence for seven days.

That included the weekend, when the governor was out of his office—a Jewish faith leader told the crowd Saturday that they would march even on Shabbat, the day of rest in the Jewish tradition. The rallies have also opened with the blowing of a horn called the shofar, a ceremonial call to action and worship in Jewish faiths.

Rev. Barber’s call to action is profoundly spiritual and moral in nature, and faith leaders have been instrumental in local organizing for the Moral Week of Action and the “Forward Together Movement.” In Ohio, where reproductive health clinics have closed or been threatened with closure by political appointees, attendees prayed and demonstrated for women’s health on Tuesday with a diversity of goals. 

“It was impressive that as we stood in a circle together, we had people from the pro-choice movement as well as those who are not from that point of view, standing together, holding hands, and praying, because there are other issues that affect women and children that are important for us to address that we do agree on,” Mark Diemer, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, told Rewire. 

“Rev. Barber has been really great in pointing out that this isn’t really about liberals or conservatives, or Republicans or Democrats,” Emily McNeill, lead organizer with the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, told Rewire. “It’s about what a moral legislature and a moral public policy looks like.”

Barber often speaks about how Martin Luther King, Jr., grew a movement by organizing locally in the South and encouraging others to do the same. Indeed, most of the states participating in the week of action are southern, but McNeill said “blue states” like New York share in the same struggles.

New York has the nation’s highest level of inequality, school funding has been cut while tax cuts benefiting the wealthy have passed, and political corruption and stalemate plague Albany. “New York has a need to call on our legislature to pass policies that are compassionate and moral and serve all the people in the state, including the poor,” she said.

New York, like other Moral Week of Action states, will host a culminating “Vote Your Dreams, Not Your Fears” rally at its state capitol on Thursday, the final action day and one that will focus on voting rights. 

Voting rights can be a women’s issue too, Romano said. North Carolina’s voter ID law goes into effect in 2016, and women are more likely not to have a valid ID. Name changes from marriages or divorces can be an issue for identification. And when legislators cut down on the number of early voting days, that limits the options of working women who are also responsible for childcare.

The Moral Week of Action is about bringing attention to social justice issues in the short term, but also about bringing more people into the movement, registering more voters, and signing up more canvassers to register more voters. Romano’s coalition, NC Women United, will be working to help women develop local networks and get educated on how to be a citizen lobbyist.

“We are looking at it as a long game,” she said.

Correction: A version of this article said North Carolina’s new Voter ID law goes into effect in 2015. In fact, the law will take effect in 2016. We regret the error.