By STACIE FANELLI
In a presentation heavy on how labels are deployed in political battles, Irma Lester wondered aloud whether the term “war” correctly describes what she sees as a recent stripping of reproductive and economic rights from women.
Despite the harsh connotation of a battlefield, she said it “does catch the sense of danger that we’re in today.”
Lester, a professor emeritus of women’s studies at Brookdale Community College women’s, appeared before the Red Bank Humanists on Sunday at the Red Bank Charter School as the special guest speaker for its June forum: “The War on Women: Myth or Reality?”
Whatever terminology backers of women’s rights use to describe themselves and their causes, their conservative opponents are “going to demonize” them, Lester said. “Stick with ‘feminist.’ Stick with ‘abortion.'”
The right, she said, had coined the terms “partial-birth abortion” and “pro-life” to create a victim where there is none. She suggested anyone who wanted to speak to use the agreed-on terms: “pro-choice” and “anti-choice.”
“We too are pro-life. We don’t want to see abortion used as birth control,” Lester said, though one member of the audience took issue with that stance, saying that it also stigmatizes abortion.
Despite the disagreement, the perspectives aired at the event were blatantly left-leaning, evidenced by the snickers that came from the crowd when Lester sarcastically referred to Rush Limbaugh as “king of the airwaves” and Rick Santorum as “our favorite candidate.”
The humanists, according to their national organization, the American Humanist Association, keep in mind a goal of “ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity,” all the while keeping religion out of the picture and focusing on scientific knowledge.
Women’s health, wage disparities and domestic violence are especially hot-button issues, Lester said, as November’s elections creep closer.
“Women and men were shocked when Santorum… railed against contraception,” she said, adding that campaigns like his were a much-needed wake-up call to people who take birth control for granted.
The circle of humanists agreed on the danger of re-electing Chris Smith, representative of New Jersey’s 4th congressional district, who is known for his strong stance against abortion rights.
Pro-choice protestor Pat Barr has been face-to-face with the opposition often. She gave an account of her experiences spreading the word in Toms River, near the American Women’s Services clinic.
She said she has the support of her family. Her grandchildren, she said, tell others: “My grandma, she stands on the highway with signs. Most grandmas go to bingo.”
Red Bank Humanists President Stephen Mitchell held up some of the signs Barr uses: “Support women’s health,” “We are a voice for choice” and “Be responsible. Use birth control.”
There were more props. Lester wore buttons that read, “Keep abortion legal” and “Mobilize for women’s rights” to show that she had been active in the ’60s and ’70s feminism movement. She reminisced about a pin she’d worn back then: “59 cents,” it read. That’s 59 cents paid to a woman for every dollar a man makes. Today, that number has risen by just 18 cents, she said.
Increasingly, men now hold “pink-collar” jobs, those traditionally taken by women nursing or teaching, for example but still earn more than women, she said, referring to the phenomenon as “the glass elevator.”
The tone of the conversation turned gradually from anger to action.
Carol Gay of Brick, who said that “there’s certainly an all-out attack on our rights from every angle,” had a to-do list for her peers: support unions and collective bargaining rights, make sure the higher minimum wage bill up for a vote soon passes in the state senate and contact local politicians to get it done.
Clement Kreider Jr., a member from Wall, advised that merely talking about change would not accomplish anything.
“We have to be more valuable,” he said, encouraging letter-writing to newspapers. “You don’t have to do a lot of marching. You don’t have to threaten anyone.”
Closing the talk with a fist in the air and a wide grin, Lester addressed the audience: “Let’s start the revolution again.”