MONTPELIER — Madeleine Kunin said she never dreamed that in the year 2012 she would find herself speaking out in defense of contraception and giving credit to Rush Limbaugh.
But there she was on the Statehouse steps Saturday, exhorting a crowd of about two hundred people to stand up for hard-won women’s rights that are suddenly under assault around the country.
“Progress is not a straight line,” said Kunin, former governor and author of The New Feminist Agenda, published this month. Rather, she said, it’s “like a Vermont dirt road,” filled with bumps and troughs.
The occasion was a rally under the theme, “United against the war on women,” one of more than 50 marches and demonstrations staged across the country by members of UniteWomen.org. The aim was to counter an array of legislative and political initiatives — from invasive ultrasound mandates to “personhood” bills and pay-equity repeals — that women’s-rights advocates regard as regressive.
There was the Republican effort in Congress to allow employers to deny insurance coverage for contraceptives. And of course, there was Limbaugh’s incendiary comment on his talk show (he called a student advocate of contraceptive coverage “a slut,”) that angered many people and helped mobilize the opposition, Kunin acknowledged.
“We are not going backward,” insisted Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., another speaker. “We are not returning to the day of backroom abortions.”
“We have all got to stand together.”
Erin Narey of Peacham decided to organize the event about a month ago when she realized, after going to UniteWomen.org’s Facebook page, that no one else was doing so in Vermont. She didn’t want her state to be the only state without a rally April 28.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” she said, but with the help of other volunteers she managed to pull together 15 speakers, including singers Neko Case, Anais Mitchell and Tammy Fletcher, who warmed the crowd up with both song and chant (“Not on our watch!”)
Narey noted that while variants of “scary legislation” — such as the decriminalization of domestic violence in Topeka, Kan. — have not been introduced here, Vermont still has a ways to go.
“Women still make less money than men,” she said, “and we still don’t have paid maternity leave, and we still don’t have statewide standards for child care.”
Lydia Lulkin, a senior at the University of Vermont and a member of the Voices for Planned Parenthood student club, showed up with fellow students to register voters and “to stand up for women across the country.”
“I’m here because I follow Neko Case on Twitter,” said Quincy Campbell of Montpelier. “I think this is a wonderful cause. I have great admiration for everyone” on the list of speakers.
“It really does feel like a war on women,” said Lorna Edmundson of New York City, who was in Vermont to attend a meeting of the Norwich University Board of Trustees but who heard about the rally and made a point of attending. A woman’s child-bearing decision “is not something the government should be controlling,” she said. “It’s very distressing.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin, who did not attend, issued a statement for the rally that read in part: “We must all stand up for women when we find that their most basic rights are under attack.”
Kunin said repeal of the federal health-reform law would have an adverse effect on women, because they would wind up paying differentially more for health insurance.
“Having a pair of ovaries should not be a pre-existing condition,” she said, drawing laughter.
“One of the most important things we can do is be at the table when decisions are made,” she said, observing that the political power structure is dominated by a male majority. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
“Our voices have to be raised,” she said. “Be ready to fight the fight that we began and can’t afford to lose.”