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Older Women in Rhode Island: A Portrait

January 4, 2013

By Melody Drnach

Providing flexible work time for caregivers.  Ending ageism and discrimination against older women.  Ensuring older women can stay in their homes as long as possible.  Providing affordable, reliable transportation services for the elderly – sounds like a list of New Year’s resolutions for RI NOW activists.  All of these calls to action were sparked by a lively discussion led by Maureen Maigret during RI NOW’s annual meeting on December 10, 2012.

For 44 years, Maureen has been advocating for women and families through her various career roles including 20 years of nursing, serving for a decade as a member of the RI General Assembly, directing policy efforts at the Department of Elderly Affairs and as the executive director of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council.  Retirement has only provided Maureen with more time – time to investigate and report on the status of older women in RI. Recently, Maureen authored a report commissioned by the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island entitled “Older Women in Rhode Island: A Portrait.”  The evening with Maureen was both sobering and motivating as she offered a tremendous amount of data to support the importance of focusing on the community of older women in RI.

According the Women’s Fund report, older Rhode Islanders – persons age 65 and over – comprised an estimated 14.4 percent of the state’s population in 2009. Women accounted for about six out of ten (59 percent) older Rhode Islanders, and among those age 85 and over, slightly more than seven out of ten (73 percent) were women. As the state’s Baby Boomers age, older Rhode Islanders are projected to represent 21.4 percent of the state’s population by 2030.

Consider, with more than 151,000 women aged 65 or older, RI is ranked 9th (in percentage) in the nation and with women aged 85 and older, RI ranks number one in the nation for the highest percentage of older women. Data also indicate that 40% of older households in RI are low income.  For these reasons alone, public policy and how we plan for and care for our elder population should be a topic of statewide discussion.

Maureen also shared many of the stories she heard from women while she was conducting research for the report. Women expressed a concern about feeling safe, wanting to see more women serving in elected office addressing the needs of older women, ensuring women have access to programs at senior centers regardless of ability to pay, and many noted the stress of caring daily for grandchildren.

And while many RI NOW members are familiar with these and other important issues facing older women, applying numbers and percentages helps us develop credible evidence and focused initiatives to begin to address the challenges facing older women in RI.  For example, we thank both Maureen and The Women’s Fund for data illustrating that women provide the bulk of unpaid caregiving and the majority of those receiving care are women. According to the report, nationally, women make up almost 90 percent of the paid caregiving force in our country.  As we develop our RI NOW legislative strategy for the next year, these issues and the associated data will be on our collective minds.

With the implementation of health care policy changes, we have an opportunity to ensure RI is prepared to meet the needs of older women who are more likely to be on Medicaid, more likely to have higher out-of-pocket expenses for both health care and long term care needs, and we must collectively find the will to address the lack of capacity in assisted living communities and nursing homes in our state.  Finally, we must make it a moral obligation to address the fact that women face “pervasive gender inequity across their lifespan,” according to the report, resulting in a lifetime of lower earnings that continues to impact women long after they leave the paid workforce – a fact we at RI NOW know all too well.

Get involved, join RI NOW and help lead the fight to improve the lives of older women and learn more about the Senior Agenda Coalition and Project Grow at http://www.senioragendari.org.

Virginity and Morality

July 12, 2012

By Alexandra Curran

While recently flicking channels, I came across My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, a documentary on TLC which explores the lives of gypsy teenagers about to be married. Although this premise immediately sent off feminist warning bells in my head, I admit I was intrigued to learn about gypsy culture. It was not the bedazzled dresses or the youth of the bride and groom that interested me, but the vehement desire of male gypsies for a “pure” bride. As one teen noted, “no one wants spoiled goods, we all want good girls.”

This sounded strikingly familiar. In college I hear a lot about purity and chastity. These qualities, both in gypsy society and in our own are inextricably linked to the qualities of goodness and virtuosity. “Good girls” are virgins. This could be for a number of reasons. Religion definitely influences our society’s values.  Joseph would have quietly ended his marriage to Mary had she not assured him that she conceived her child through the Holy Spirit. It seems that even Mary, who is consistently honored as the most virtuous of women, would be worthless if she was “spoiled.” Our history of patriarchy also influences our attitudes. Throughout history, it did not matter if a man had premarital sex, but only if a woman had. Henry VIII executed his fifth wife Katharine Howard because he could not be made to look like a fool for having married a “spoiled” woman. Historians have since summed Katharine up as a promiscuous and ignorant girl. They disregard her complexity and instead define her by her sexual “promiscuity.”

We have definitely made progress since the days of Mary, Joseph, and then Henry and Katharine. Yet as a college student, I can tell you firsthand that virginity is still on the minds of many young women. This bothers me for two reasons. Firstly, it upsets me that women are shamed into feeling dirty and immoral for having sex. Secondly, when women are “slut shamed” they relinquish their agency and allow others to control their minds and bodies.

“Slut shaming” often begins in high school. We have all been there. Two people have sex for the first time. The young man is immediately high-fived by all of his buddies and congratulated, while the young woman is call a “slut” or a “whore.” What many of us don’t understand is that not only is this an obvious double standard, but it also implies that sex can define our morality. The young woman who has sex is consistently associated with badness, wrongdoing and a lack of morality. We neglect the fact that sex is a physical act and a natural bodily function at that. We neglect that every species on earth reproduces. And we neglect that women are far more complex than their virgin status. Yet, a man is expected to have sex. He is also considered to possess a variety of other traits that define his morality. But a woman is immediately judged after she loses her virginity, as if the hymen was the physical essence of her morality. This logic ignores all of our other qualities and instead defines a woman’s worth by her level of promiscuity. This teaches young women to cherish their virginity because they will be “ruined” without it.

By allowing this shame to impact their decisions, young women relinquish their agency. It has been my experience that many of my peers abstain from sex solely because of their parent’s disapproval. Instead of teaching their daughters to be responsible young women whose worth is immeasurable, such parents use shame to manipulate their daughters into remaining virgins. In effect, they convey the message that a young woman should not be trusted to make decisions on her own because if she makes the wrong one, she could be “ruined” forever. By giving in to these shaming tactics, young women relinquish their control over their bodies and minds. They allow others to decide when they have sex, how they have sex, and who they have sex with instead of making that decision independently.

Please don’t get me wrong, the purpose of this entry is not to encourage everyone to go have sex immediately. It is instead to ensure you young women that you and only you should be in control of your bodies and that your goodness means much more than virginity ever could.

About our guest blogger:

 Alexandra Curran is currently an undergraduate at Boston College studying history and gender studies. As an advocate of women’s rights, Alexandra hopes to promote the feminist movement and raise awareness about women’s issues. She plans to one day represent women and children as a lawyer.

Fear of Feminism

June 19, 2012

By Alexandra Curran

I sit down with a group of my fellow college students for lunch between classes. Oddly enough, the conversation today is politics, a rare occurrence with this group. When asked which candidate I would like to see as president in the future, I immediately spit out “Hillary Clinton.” “Well Alex, I don’t think women are emotionally strong enough to be president.” I blink. Maybe I misheard what he was trying to say. He repeats it. I look around and not a single student at the table gawks, never mind makes an attempt to counter what the young man has just said.

It is my first day in Feminism 101 and the professor opens class by explaining that being a feminist simply means believing in equal rights for everyone. We later split into small groups. The Teaching Assistant  asks if any of us consider ourselves to be feminists. I am the only student to raise my hand.

I grew up in an exceedingly feminist and liberal household. All through my childhood, my parents preached equality and told me that I could be anything if I worked hard enough. And though throughout high school I endured the occasional “woman joke,” I always believed that my classmates, both male and female, considered me an equal. When I went to college, this was no longer the case. Perhaps it was ignorant of me to think that everyone had been raised like I was. But I soon realized that there were some among my peers that did not consider me as capable as everyone else. There were some people that were raised to believe that because I am a woman, I have certain limitations. This was difficult for me to accept, although it bothered me much more that my fellow female students would not stand up for their equality. They allowed male students to diminish their intelligence and talent. I could not understand their reluctance to defend their competence, until a friend told me that she feared being called a “feminist.” What was always valued and esteemed in my home had become a dirty word in the real world.

The fear of feminism runs rampant as women are afraid to be associated with bra-burning, man-hating feminazis. Instead we allow conservative media titans like Rush Limbaugh to degrade the feminist, from an advocate of equality, to a stereotype that some people don’t want to be associated with. We then accept this debased definition and shun the feminist movement all while convincing ourselves that women’s lib is over.

Except it isn’t. Women make up 51% of the world population. And yet, women own less than 1% of the land on this earth. We earn about 77% of what men earn. And we make up only 16.8% of Congress. Despite what we tell ourselves, there is still a desperate need for feminism in the world. It is the duty of our generation NOT to shun this label, but to embrace it wholeheartedly, regardless of what the ignorant say. So if you believe in equality, take matters into your own hands and stand up for feminism.

About our guest blogger:

Alexandra Curran is currently an undergraduate at Boston College studying history and gender studies. As an advocate of women’s rights, Alexandra hopes to promote the feminist movement and raise awareness about women’s issues. She plans to one day represent women and children as a lawyer.

Unite Against the War on Women Rally – Speech by RI NOW President Carolyn Mark

April 28, 2012

Thank you for the opportunity to be here today. It is a great honor to be among so many women and men who are literally making history. I want to thank Lauren Neidel and the amazing women who have made this rally a reality here in Rhode Island. And I want to thank Karen Teegarden from Michigan and Desiree Jordan from New York for igniting the spark that has rekindled the women’s movement in this country.

I am Carolyn Mark, President of the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Organization for Women. We are a membership-based advocacy organization whose sole purpose is to take action to bring women into full equality in all aspects of their lives. We fight for reproductive justice, to end violence against women, for economic equity, to secure rights for our lesbian sisters and the rest of LGBT community, and to end racism.

I came to be President of RI NOW in a milestone year. It was the 40th anniversary of Griswold vs. Connecticut, when the Supreme Court struck down as a violation of privacy a Connecticut law that attempted to criminalize the use of birth control. It was also the 40th anniversary of the passing of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. It was the 40th anniversary of the founding of the National Organization for Women. And, coincidentally, it was my 40th birthday.  As a direct product of the modern day women’s rights movement, I realized several things:

  • That my whole life had been made possible by the women who came before me.
  • That they were the ones that ensured that I had access to birth control when I needed it. (And a mom who would be PROUD of me for using it.)
  • That they were the ones that made me think that I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up.
  • That they were the ones that made it possible for me to EXPECT an even playing field for women.

But, I also realized a very sobering reality.

  • That, in many important ways, this country was moving in the wrong direction with respect to women’s rights. (And that was even before the current War on Women began!)
  • And, I realized that my OWN children were no longer going to be able to take for granted so many of the rights I was born having because of the courage of women who fought for those rights before and while I was in diapers.

In Washington, DC, and all around this country, the conservative right has been engaged in an all-out assault on our rights as women. If they have their way:

  • Women all across this country will have to undergo ultrasounds, 24 hour waiting periods and state-mandated, biased counseling before being able to exercise their right to access abortion services;
  • Women will not be able to get insurance coverage for abortion services, even if they buy that insurance with their own money.
  • Viagra will continue to be covered by insurance, but birth control pills will not.
  • Women will lose access to basic health care services because they will no longer be able to find a Planned Parenthood clinic to serve them.

And lest you think these things can’t happen in Rhode Island, think again. Our General Assembly is made up of more anti-choice legislators than many people realize, and every year we have to fight bills that would seriously erode our rights.

On April 13, I was about to head to the State House to attend a hearing in which many anti-choice bills were being heard at the General Assembly, including bills that would establish fetal personhood and mandate ultrasounds before a woman could obtain an abortion. Before leaving, I explained to my 10 year old daughter where I was going, and she asked me: “Mom, why do you care so much?” She is with me here today, and to her I want to say: I care because I want you to grow up in a world where you can be everything you want to be, to have the family you want to have when you want to have it, to be free from violence, to have every opportunity that your brother has to achieve and to be paid the same as a man doing the same job.  I care, because I want you to spend your life realizing your potential as a human being – not having to fight for your basic rights.

At so many moments in history, women have had to band together to stand up for our rights as women, from the original suffragists to those that marched over the last 50 years for civil rights, equal rights, equal pay, ending violence, and reproductive rights. And, here we are. On April 28, 2012, we are rallying again. Women and men in major cities in almost every state of these United States of America, are uniting together to call for an end to the War on Women. And the stakes are higher than ever. Never, in my lifetime, have I felt more at risk of losing so many of the gains we have made over the decades. And, so, together, we are saying “Enough is Enough”!

That’s right. Today, we are making history. Today will become known as the day when, collectively, we decided to take our country back.   When we said:

  • NO MORE to women being labeled as sluts for using birth control;
  • NO MORE to a media culture that degrades and devalues women;
  • NO MORE to the nearly 1 in 4 women in this country that have experienced intimate partner violence; or, the 1 in 5 women who have been sexually assaulted;
  • NO MORE to making 77cents on the dollar compared to men;
  • NO MORE to governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin who think they can quietly repeal the state’s Equal Pay Act and get away with it.
  • NO MORE to the government telling us who we can marry;
  • NO MORE to religious conservatives who want to dictate what we can and cannot do with our own bodies;
  • And, NO MORE to politicians who won’t stand up for our rights.

But, today is just the beginning. We need each and everyone one of you to speak out against injustice, to hold your elected officials accountable for their actions or inaction, and to commit yourselves to electing a president, a Congress, state leaders, and a General Assembly that truly reflect our values and will stand up for women. And, if we can’t find someone to vote for that can do that, than we need to run for office ourselves.

Thank you.

How to keep women from being “Miss Represented”

March 20, 2012

by Shandi Hanna

12:45 am.

I tried to go sleep but I couldn’t stop my mind from racing, so I finally gave in, got up and started writing.  I had the same problem a few nights ago, after I spent my weekend at the New Leaders Council Training Institute, and topped it off with a question and answer session for Rosetta Thurman’s Blogging School.  It’s information overload.  I haven’t yet had the time to fully process the experience I had tonight and the information I gained.

Tonight I attended a free screening of the movie Miss Representation sponsored by the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center at Brown University, which was brought to my attention through my involvement with RI NOW.  This movie depicts how in our society, media plays a large part in molding social norms, but our media presents a very limited portrayal of girls and women, and how that relates to societal issues that women face.  Women are grossly under-represented in most positions of power and influence in America, and are often victims of violence, and these facts have a negative effect on girls and women in many ways.  This movie used real life examples from various types of media sources and commentary from a number of very insightful politicians, activists, entertainers and young women and men.  Following the movie, many of the viewers stayed in the hall to have a very interesting and honest discussion about the movie, their reaction to it, and how it relates to their own experiences.

While it was hard to swallow some of the statistics they were showing about women, and just as hard to watch some of the examples they were showing to make their points, I left the showing more excited than frustrated, because it opened me up to learning some of the why’s behind what is happening, what the effects are, and how we can change it.  Here are some of ways that Miss Representation inspired me to address this issue, and some ways that you can as well:

1)     I will boycott media that doesn’t fairly represent women, or that represents them in a derogatory way.  I will admit to falling into the “reality” show trap every now and again, thinking that it’s no big deal to watch these ridiculous shows that portray women negatively.  But it is a big deal because it perpetuates the cycle.  But I’m declaring from now on I will not waste my time watching “reality” television unless it’s the actual reality of the discovery channel (something my husband will be happy to hold me accountable for).  You can do this too. Let’s be purposeful in making sure that the media we consume is aligned with our personal values.

2)     I will strive to attain leadership roles in my professional life and in my community.  I will position myself so that I can have my voice be heard, encourage women to stand up for themselves, and make some concrete changes in the way women are seen and treated in society.  If you aren’t comfortable taking these roles, publicize them to the amazing women that you know and help them attain leadership positions.

3)      I will increasingly become more of an advocate of gender equity (equal opportunities for men and women) and will pay more attention so I know what is happening with these issues at the federal level as well as the local level.  And I will be sure to point out the negative or otherwise harmful stereotypes we see about men and women, and start conversations about them, especially with youth.  If we can’t control what’s being put out there then at least we can try to change how it’s being understood.   I challenge you to start these same conversations.

4)     I will use social media and blogs to increase the presence of women in different mediums and to help show real women in a positive way, and document the important work we do.  Let’s take advantage of these opportunities to support policy that will benefit girls and women and make us better able to live fulfilled lives.  Blogging is a great way to do this, but if that’s not your style, you can still use social media (or good ole’ word of mouth) to talk about the great work you see women doing and promote it to others.

5)     Finally, and maybe most importantly, I will seek out and intentionally support women, both in everyday roles and those in the more visible ones.  We stand stronger together and we need to band together and not let society tear us apart.  Success looks different to every person, and there’s plenty to be shared by everybody, so let’s help each other get there.  That being said I pledge to encourage other women to follow their dreams, and support them through the process, while empowering myself to follow my own.

I’m grateful that I had a chance to watch this movie, and I’m even more thankful to the great women who were responsible for getting this movie made and distributed.  It makes me happy to see that there are so many women out there who recognize the problems with media and overall gender inequity in our society, and are willing to fight back against it.  I’m inspired by their insight and their work and I look forward to a world where there is equity of opportunity for women and for every other minority group.  If we keep educating ourselves, spreading the message, and taking little steps every day to make changes, that world will not be too far away.

To learn about other ways that you can advocate for women or find a screening of this movie, please check out their website at www.missrepresentation.org, or become a member of RI NOW at http://www.rinow.org and join the movement.  If you’re not ready to become a member yet, feel free to like the RI NOW Facebook page and join the RI NOW listserv (sign up at http://www.rinow.org) in order to stay informed and be able to help elect more female leaders.  For more information about this writer or to read more of her posts, check out her personal blog at www.shandihanna.com.

US Expands Definition of Rape

January 12, 2012

Posted by VP of Action Josephine Martell

The Justice Department recently announced that it had changed the federal definition of “rape.” Going forward rape will include male victims and female perpetrators, as well as, situations in which victims are unable to give consent, such as a disabled person or someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The new definition defines it as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

For years, a number of organizations had been calling for changes to the old definition which was narrowly defined as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will,” and only counted vaginal-penile penetration and women as victims.

http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2012/January/12-ag-018.html

RI NOW at Occupy State House

December 14, 2011

Written by RI NOW Activist Shandi Hanna:

On December 10, 2011 nearly 200 people gathered in Burnside Park in Providence to be a part of a rally and march that aimed to bring awareness to the issues of homelessness and affordable housing in RI.  These protestors were a variety of men, women and children, some struggling with these issues themselves.  The event was coordinated by Occupy Providence, the RI Coalition for the Homeless, and Direct Action for Rights and Equality, but was also supported and advertised by a number of other agencies, including RI National Organization for Women and many others.  I attended the rally as an active member of RI NOW and as a young woman who is personally inspired and energized by the Occupy movement and the potential it has for making change.  The rally began at Burnside Park, which has been “Occupied” for nearly 2 months by the 24 hour a day protesters that make up Occupy Providence.  After some guidance from Occupy organizers, the march began and took us through the streets of downtown Providence.  While we marched people waved signs bearing messages such as “Housing is a Human Right” and “Stop Foreclosures and Evictions”, and chanted rhymes such as “Money for homes and education, not for banks and corporations”.  The march concluded with the participants gathering on the State House steps, where we listened to speeches from homeless advocates as well as individuals who were or currently are homeless.  The rally at the State House was followed by discussion groups among the protestors and rally organizers, a pot luck dinner, and the setting up of tents to camp out on the State House lawn.

According to the RI Coalition for the Homeless, the top two reasons people become homeless in Rhode Island are a lack of adequate income and the lack of affordable housing.  If an individual works at a minimum wage job, in order to afford the average 2 bedroom apartment in RI, they would need to work 102 hours a week for 52 weeks a year.  That’s a small price to pay for a roof over your head, no?  Now let’s imagine instead of an individual it is a single family household headed by a mother, who in order to work needs to find childcare for her child in addition to all the other expenses.  Given the recurring cuts to programs such as The Child Care Assistance Program, RI Works Cash Assistance, Rite Care Health Insurance, and staffing cuts to the Child Support Enforcement Agency, a working mother has very few supports to help her work and maintain her household.  One third of all single-mother families have incomes below the Federal Poverty Level (which in 2008 was $17,600 for a family of 3), a statistic which includes those single-mother families who are receiving government assistance.  With numbers like this, it is no surprise that out of the roughly 4,400 people who experienced homelessness at some point last year, an estimated 39% of those were families, 13% of which were children under the age of 5.  On average, 15% of homeless persons found themselves without a home due to being victims of domestic violence, the majority of this group being women.

In Rhode Island, the lack of affordable housing is an enormous problem, especially when coupled with the extremely high unemployment rate that has plagued our state for years now.  Those living near and especially under the Federal Poverty Level are one mistake or miscalculation away from finding themselves homeless, and many times the mistake is not theirs, but instead their landlords.  Between January and June of 2011 in, an average of 188 resident foreclosure deeds were filed per month in Rhode Island, which is especially devastating given the number of multi-family homes that were foreclosed on.  During that time period, 317 multi-family homes were foreclosed, which equals out to roughly 908 individuals and families that lived in those homes being kicked out.  Add to that the 811 single-family homes and condominiums that were foreclosed on in the same time period, that leaves a total of 1,719 homes lost in RI in 6 months alone.

Homelessness and affordable housing are a huge issue for everyone in RI, and especially for women and children.  The intention of the rally and march was not only to bring attention to these issues and get people talking about them, but also to let everyone know what can be done to help.  There are three key pieces of legislation that will be introduced in the upcoming legislative session that are aimed to combat these issues and should be strongly supported by citizens and lawmakers alike.

1)    Dedicated Funding for Affordable Housing: RI is one of only 9 states that doesn’t have a dedicated stream of funding for affordable housing, which is imperative to ending homelessness.  Affordable housing often takes multiple years to build, and in order to keep up with the demand, a reliable funding stream needs to be available for those willing to build these homes.

2)    Homeless Bill of Rights: This bill is to ensure that homeless Rhode Islanders are granted the same rights, privileges, and access to services as any other citizen, including the right to vote, use public spaces, and get equal treatment by police, medical professionals and employers.

3)    Just Cause Bill:  This legislation will prohibit banks from evicting former tenants and homeowners of foreclosed properties unless they fail to pay rent, harm the property, or otherwise give “just cause” for eviction and will allow more individuals and families to stay in their homes rather than the streets.  In late July of 2010, “An Act to Stabilize Neighborhoods” was unanimously passed in Massachusetts legislature, which is the country’s most comprehensive law that protects people in foreclosed properties.  This act contains a “just cause” section that is similar to the protections which will be allowed if this bill passes.

Now is the time to start talking to the people in your community as well as your Senators and Representatives about these bills and where they stand on the issues of homelessness and affordable housing.  These issues are important to all of Rhode Islands’ residents, and especially woman and children.  Let’s make this the last winter that our fellow residents will be out in the cold.