2012 Richmonders of the Year: Women's Rights Activists 

Whether you're red, blue or purple, the protest made a powerful return to state and national politics in 2012. And it started on Capitol Square.

click to enlarge It was the defining moment in the women's rights movement of 2012: On March 3, dozens of protesters descended on the state Capitol steps, leading to a confrontation with police that made national headlines. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • It was the defining moment in the women's rights movement of 2012: On March 3, dozens of protesters descended on the state Capitol steps, leading to a confrontation with police that made national headlines.

The images are difficult to shake. In an otherwise quiet and apathetic city, on a mild and overcast Saturday afternoon, state troopers wearing riot gear — helmets, body armor, shields and assault rifles — drag more than two dozen women and men from the steps of the State Capitol. That women's rights demonstration on March 3, a protest of General Assembly overreach, led to 30 arrests and troubling déjà vu, conjuring Vietnam marches and civil rights rallies of bygone eras. The photos seem eerily out of context. Could this really be Richmond, circa 2012?

By Valentine's Day, Virginia politics were a national punch line. Legislation that required women seeking abortions to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds made its way to "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "Saturday Night Live": "I love transvaginal! It's my favorite airline!" Amy Poehler smirked with delight. But the militaristic takedown in early March reminded everyone that this was no joke.

"They were passionate about what was happening," says protest organizer Sarah Okolita, a 29-year-old social worker and graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, referring to opponents of the multitude of anti-abortion bills circulating at the General Assembly. "They were upset and they wanted to take a stand."

Take a stand they did. The thousand or more protestors who marched onto Capitol Square were part of a movement that many people didn't see coming. They were young and old, rich and poor, black and white. They were bound by a belief that the state was attempting to usurp their constitutional rights with legislation requiring invasive ultrasounds prior to abortion procedures. They took issue with bills giving unborn fetuses personhood status and supported legislation that banned shackling pregnant inmates during childbirth (that one failed). They compared the ultrasound bill to state-mandated rape and equated the hard-right social conservatives in the House of Delegates with the Taliban. When they couldn't carry protest signs — they're prohibited on Capitol Square without a permit — they used their bodies as billboards.

The strategy worked. At the urging of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, the ultrasound bill was amended and the controversial personhood bill was killed in the state Senate. The victories were in no way absolute, but they didn't have to be. The impact reached far beyond the General Assembly session. President Obama's re-election largely is credited to his strong support among female voters — nationally, he won 55 percent of the female vote, according to CNN's exit polls — and in swing states such as Virginia women were critical: 54 percent of women voted for Obama and 51 percent of men voted for Mitt Romney. Considering that women accounted for 53 percent of the overall vote in Virginia, that's bad news for the GOP.

"The growing problem with Republicans is that there are more women than men voting," longtime political consultant Bob Holsworth says. The anti-abortion bills sparked a rallying cry that resonated in Virginia, particularly among young women and aging boomers, and likely cost Romney 13 electoral votes.

It's going to keep resonating well into 2013, Holsworth says, spilling over into this year's General Assembly session and the Virginia gubernatorial race.

"I don't think you are going to see too many Republicans with a big appetite for replaying these issues in the General Assembly," Holsworth says. "After last year, there is more of an interest in the GOP leadership in having 'message discipline.'"

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, there's no denying the impact that the grass-roots, women's rights activists had on state and national politics during the last 12 months. It's a powerful reminder that people of like minds, banding together, don't have to sit idly by and wait their turn to speak. You don't need money or lobbyists to get things done. This is why Style Weekly names the women and men who reenergized the women's rights movement as its 2012 Richmonders of the Year.

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click to enlarge Wearing SWAT gear, state troopers protected the Capitol steps from women, men and children who were protesting anti-abortion legislation in early March. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Wearing SWAT gear, state troopers protected the Capitol steps from women, men and children who were protesting anti-abortion legislation in early March.

There's no easy way to define the broad swath of protesters who emerged in 2012. They came from all over, all walks, all income brackets and social strata. That's kind of the point. It started in earnest Feb. 20, when a diverse group of more than 1,000 women and men descended on Capitol Square to stand silently along the sidewalks while lawmakers passed by. The protesters' ability to mobilize quickly and navigate the laws and prissy rules meant to keep the statehouse civil caught their opponents, and even some of their allies, off-guard.

If it seemed haphazard, it wasn't. Behind the scenes, a small group of former Occupy Richmond members organized the demonstrations. They abhor titles and hierarchy, and largely deflect recognition for their efforts. They agreed to speak to Style on one condition: That they not be given undue credit for the grass-roots effort that reignited the issue of women's rights.

As the Occupy movement began to wind down a year ago, some members began shifting their attention elsewhere. They'd heard about the social conservative takeover of the General Assembly and asked a lawyer and pro-choice activist to give a primer on the anti-abortion legislation circulating the Capitol. Recently disbanded from the Occupy encampment, they were interested in taking up the cause. About 20 activists met at a friend's home in Manchester.

"At that point, a lot of the women's organizations were really worried about the legislation that was coming in. They were pretty sure the ultrasound, the personhood amendment — all that was going to pass," says William Carino, 25, a former Occupier and key organizer behind Speak Loudly with Silence, the Feb. 20 protest.

The anti-abortion legislation wasn't exactly new, but the political makeup in the General Assembly had changed. In the 2011 election, Republicans picked up seats in the state Senate, splitting the chamber 20-20 with Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling breaking tie votes. The House of Delegates already was solidly Republican. This cleared the path for the anti-abortion bills, and other socially conservative measures dear to the heart of the GOP, which would end up on the desk of McDonnell.

Carino was stunned that the pro-choice lobby considered the anti-abortion bills a forgone conclusion. "I was getting very angry. I wanted to stop it before it passed," Carino recalls of the February meeting. "It woke everyone up to what was going on."

The group decided to do something big. Claire Tuite, 28, a co-owner of B-Sides Thrift Boutique in Carytown and a former Occupy member, suggested silently lining the sidewalks leading to and around the Capitol. She'd seen a video of a similar protest at the University of California at Davis. The group figured if it worked hard enough, it could get 500 people to show up. It went to Facebook and Twitter. Suddenly 500 turned into 1,000.

"I hadn't been to a protest in my adult life," recalls Molly Vick, who found out about the Feb. 20 event and began sharing it on Facebook. Vick, a 33-year-old mother and financial analyst, eventually became a media liaison for the group. Finally there was an outlet for the anger and the growing disappointment. "I was thrilled that someone was out there creating a space to go and do this," Vick says.

Organizers weren't just creating a space, they were giving direction. Vick was impressed with the level of organization, which gave her and others the confidence to get involved.

"They were able to tell you: 'You can't bring a sign, but you can make your shirt a sign, you can write stuff on your face. These things are allowed and these things aren't,'" Vick recalls. "They were very clear in giving people the information that they needed to be confident coming out there, and what the lines were."

The group had gleaned experience mobilizing large groups of people during Occupy Richmond. There was a press liaison, a police liaison, directions on where to stand and where not to stand. During the March 3 protest, team leaders wore orange armbands. Legal observers — some were law students from the University of Richmond — wore green armbands. If police ordered the protesters to disperse, team leaders had specific instructions on what to do, which they carried with them. There were four options, graded on level of risk: No. 1: "low risk: Go to sidewalk and continue protest. Focus on Bank St. Surround the block. Do not block pedestrian foot traffic. Leave enough space for a wheelchair to pass in order for this to remain lawful."

There were even designated bathrooms, at the Library of Virginia and St. Paul's Episcopal Church at Grace and Ninth streets.

"We used what we learned from protests from Occupy and the tactics we learned in crowd management," Carino says, "and utilized those to our advantage."

click to enlarge Thirty protesters refused to leave the steps of the Capitol and were arrested and detained for hours March 3. The incident, some political observers say, re-energized the base of the Democratic Party, and helped Obama get re-elected. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Thirty protesters refused to leave the steps of the Capitol and were arrested and detained for hours March 3. The incident, some political observers say, re-energized the base of the Democratic Party, and helped Obama get re-elected.

Another former Occupier and a key organizer, Graham Evans, 26, says the group's greatest contribution was offering a platform for the angst and a venue for expression that didn't exist.

"We didn't feel like we generated much of anything," he says. "Ultimately, what we did is we saw this energy. We were pissed off, we'd been thinking about it for a while and we created a platform for it, like a launching pad."

Across the country, the Occupy movement morphed into new arenas and took on new causes, sparking a widespread public activism, says Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and author of "Occupy Nation: the Roots, the Spirit and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street."

"The people who are moved by this feel they have been propelled into a state of activism that they want to sustain," Gitlin says. "There is a renewal of protest energy. The movement had a certain capacity to learn. Even last fall, a year ago, when the encampments were the central activity, they were arguing about what should follow."

Yet not even the organizers were prepared for what happened March 3, when dozens of women and men flooded onto the Capitol steps. They'd been warned of the consequences, but many just didn't care.

Sarah Okolita recalls seeing the troopers, the shields and the riot gear at the first silent protest — "They were right around the corner that day; they just didn't come out," she says — and knew they were there March 3. But the women and men who moved onto the steps, where they didn't have a permit, didn't seem fazed.

"It's absurd the police force that came out," she says. "A lot of people had no idea that that's pretty typical — that in this day and age you can get met by a police state. They may be behind the walls, but they are there."

That 30 women and men willing to be handcuffed and arrested was a major catalyst.

"That's the heart and soul of the story line," says Quentin Kidd, professor of political science and director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. "I think it probably energized the Democratic base, the activist base, which came out of the General Assembly session energized and motivated and angry. And I think that rebounded to Obama's campaign and their ability to mobilize people."

There were many factors that made the women's rights movement of 2012 so effective. There was the visceral reaction many women had to the transvaginal ultrasound bill, which sparked national media attention. It helped that the protestors flipped the script on the GOP, making essentially the same argument Republicans were making against Obamacare — that government has no business in the doctor's office.

"I think Republicans learned something, Bob McDonnell learned something, Ken Cuccinelli learned something ... and that is the social issues have a life of their own and if their leadership is not on top of it they can lose control of it," Kidd says. "They vow not to go down that path during this session. But I don't know that they have much control over that."

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click to enlarge Just some of the women and men involved in the 2012 movement. First row, from left: Rhonda Hening, Molly Vick, Leslie Rubio and Sue Martin. Second row: Julia Nims, Will Carino, Gregory Gunter, Whitney Whiting, Catherine Poole and Gail Christie. Third row: Kate Noon (with Dylan), Beth Kimbriel, Glen Besa, Sally Mullikin, Sarah Bartell and Shannon Fisher. Fourth row: Liz Musselman, Vanessa Coleman, Scarlett Diaz, Margaret Doyle, Lori Krenik and Barb Niedermaier. Fifth row: Leslie Lytle, Candy Graham, Kathy Carle, Yvonne Royster, Tara Casey, Tricia Dunlap and Joseph Radigan. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Just some of the women and men involved in the 2012 movement. First row, from left: Rhonda Hening, Molly Vick, Leslie Rubio and Sue Martin. Second row: Julia Nims, Will Carino, Gregory Gunter, Whitney Whiting, Catherine Poole and Gail Christie. Third row: Kate Noon (with Dylan), Beth Kimbriel, Glen Besa, Sally Mullikin, Sarah Bartell and Shannon Fisher. Fourth row: Liz Musselman, Vanessa Coleman, Scarlett Diaz, Margaret Doyle, Lori Krenik and Barb Niedermaier. Fifth row: Leslie Lytle, Candy Graham, Kathy Carle, Yvonne Royster, Tara Casey, Tricia Dunlap and Joseph Radigan.

Both sides of the aisle had difficultly controlling the message. It's one of the key reasons why the women's rights activists were so effective. The older, more established pro-choice lobbying groups — Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America and the National Organization for Women, among others — don't condone using terms such as "state-mandated rape," and prefer to take a more measured approach to making their case. Placards that scream "Don't plunder my privates" aren't encouraged.

But most agree that the language the protesters used clearly resonated with college-aged and working women, many of them in their 20s and 30s. It was their wide-eyed, alarming disapproval that wound up driving the protests, some observers say. Older women, particularly boomers, had seen this before.

"What changed was that there was a whole new generation of women who were shocked," says the Rev. Jeanne M. Pupke, senior minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church, who spoke at the March 3 protest. "I think what it says is when one group of people decides it knows best for others, that pejorative position will be challenged.

"Women said you will respect me," she says, "or it will have an affect on outcomes you are working toward, and in this case it was the election."

Not everyone agrees. Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, a longtime pro-life advocate and chief patron of the personhood bill, says the problem is the reluctance of Republican leaders to embrace a family-first agenda.

"They need to reformulate how they are speaking about this," Marshall says, chiding Republican leaders who refuse to embrace the fact that most people are against abortion. "If it's handled differently, Republicans shouldn't lose."

But the debate wasn't driven by nuance. And picking sides, in the end, would miss the point. 2012 was about a movement that caught fire and showed the disengaged that they didn't have to follow protocol, that they can affect change. And that it can happen quickly.

"Anyone can do what we've done. Anyone is capable of getting their neighbors together and going after an issue, and organizing, and making things happen," Carino says. "You can be an average citizen and make things happen."

With Attorney General Cuccinelli as the front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination and the lessons of last year still fresh, it's difficult to predict what will happen in the coming General Assembly session. Cuccinelli's fervent opposition to abortion is well known, to the point where he's inspired fairly aggressive opposition, including a blog called Cooch Watch, run by pro-choice advocates.

"It's really hard for us to predict what is going to happen," says Claire Tuite, a sentiment echoed by the many of the organizers.

But Carino says they're already mobilizing. "This coming session, shit's going to go down," he says. "We're going to have to fight this year as hard as we did last year, if not harder." S

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