In a three-part series, we will publish short, one-on-one interviews with each speaker. Below is "Hope and Pause: Part 1 of the State of Women's Rights" with Patty Bellasalma, president of the National Organization for Women California (California NOW), interviewed by Cathren Cohen, media relations intern at ACLU SoCal.
ACLU of Southern California: You have been an advocate for women’s rights for three decades. Have we made enough progress?
Patty Bellasalma: My answer is no. Actually, not even close to enough progress. We still live in a nation and a world, where dominance and oppression by individuals and by a whole matrix of social statuses is the rule rather than the exception. Until that is fundamentally changed, our work is not done. And even then, it won't be done, because our work will change to maintain it.
Right now, we are seeing an unraveling at the state level of progress that was hard-fought over the last 30 or 40 years. Unfortunately, for all of us that tirelessly work, it is a never-ending process, which gives you hope on one side and pause on the other.
ACLU SoCal: What specific rights are being unraveled, or which do you think are the most pressing, particularly in California?
PB: We have a perception of ourselves as a progressive state, but in reality, we’re a state that’s deeply affected by Citizens United, in combination with state financing ethics laws that are the weakest in the country. We’re seeing healthcare corporations coming to Sacramento that basically have an iron grip. So we’re working in partnership with the California Nurse’s Association on several bills that are going to encompass a Patient Bill of Rights. One of the things that it will guarantee is the right to go outside of healthcare networks for reproductive care because we’re on the verge of having Catholic healthcare conglomerates that will rival, if not surpass, Kaiser, and the implications of that are horrifying for women and girls and anyone who believes that they have the right to decide what kind of care they should receive rather than the Catholic bishops.
Another piece of legislation that we’re working on with Susan Bonilla is Assembly Bill 2512, which adds gender equity to the academic performance index and the local control accountability plan, because gender equity was left out of the Prop 30 reforms. We’re also on the coalition Raising California Together, which is fighting for universal early education and childcare and the California Nurses lead Coalition for Healthy California, which is a healthcare for all coalition. And then lastly, we’ve been fighting for the last two sessions on ensuring that all pregnant women have access to the healthcare they need whether they’re under Medi-Cal or the exchange. And we’ve been fighting the Brown administration for the last two sessions to make that happen.
ACLU SoCal: You have written a lot about the intersectionality of different issues with women’s rights. Some of the issues you have discussed so far automatically stick out to people as women’s rights issues while for other issues, people don’t necessarily think about their implications for women. What are some of the most interesting intersections that you have come across in your work?
PB: Intersectionality is a way of thinking about the problem of sameness and difference and its relation to power. For us, it's always answering the question, “Who benefits?” and for gender equity it’s “What’s the gender impact?”. With that said, every issue is seen from an intersectional framework, especially since gender has historically and continues to be used for domination and status categories. It is the institutionalizing of gender equity, using an intersection framework that is the center of our work. It is hard to say what [issue] is the outlier, because we don’t see it that way. I think the most controversial thing we have been addressing is gender roles and gender norms that underlie state policy and distributions of wealth. That seems to be the most uncomfortable for the people who live and work in the Sacramento area, not so much for our coalition partners, but whether its philanthropy or government, the idea of dealing with patriarchal definitions of masculinity and femininity is a very controversial and difficult subject.
There’s this wonderful quote that I found written by some tremendous scholars associated with the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates in Oakland, and it describes the process of creating this new type of coalition building. And I think the ACLU has been at the forefront of this. The quote is: “Progressive politics do not flow magically from identities. On the contrary, it is important for progressive politics that people derive their identities from their politics rather than their politics from their identities. An activist recognizes the need to give progressive new meanings based on political principles to embody social identities.”
It’s a little complicated but it really digs down into that. For example, men of color need to reject gender and class privilege, white women need to reject race and class privilege and women of color need to reject class privilege. We all have to fully embrace the breadth of our statuses and realize that our unity lies in eliminating everyplace where any of us get denied our humanity by someone else based on some perceived class group.
ACLU SoCal: In what future direction do you hope to see California NOW go?
PB: I actually think that the most compelling and mind-blowing work is in the consciousness raising around discussing women—fully valuing women and the work that we do. One of the ways in which we do this is adopted from Riane Eisler’s work in Caring Economy. She asks the question, “Why do we pay a plumber $100 an hour and our child care worker $10 an hour? And even deeper why do we pay the plumber who fixes our toilet more than the person who cares and develops our children?” And the answer to that reveals who and what we value. And when you internalize that, and say, "Well, I’m going to work to change that," and you start to deal with the numbers, that right now in the state of California 47 billion dollars a year is handed over to the economy in unpaid labor by women—47 billion dollars. And that’s not even counting the paid work at $10 an hour.
So when you’re talking about fully valuing skilled care work, because that’s what it is—changing the language and fully valuing what women do—it’s tectonic; it would basically eradicate poverty. It would bring men into the realm of being responsible and take their full share of both the economic as well as the actual social and physical work of child development. Everything is founded upon that—particularly, the social dominance model of the male-female relationship. Working to raise the consciousness of women to put a number—a value on that work and then actively work to see that value recognized, first, and then to actually work to see that that money gets redistributed back to the women and men who provide that care, is the work of a lifetime, frankly.
The only other thing is the importance in addressing the idea of personal responsibility. You hear that word a lot, but hardly ever attached to the people in decision-making roles about choosing to maintain the social dominant sex and gender relations, or to continue the school-to-prison pipeline, simply because it was the easy thing to do, supporting leadership rather than representing the people who put you there. It’s the nature of what California NOW does in its essence because we’re independently funded by the women and the state is calling people out for the decisions that they make, whether they’re in government or in philanthropy or in corporations.
Patty Bellasalma is president of the National Organization for Women California. You can follow her work @CaliforniaNOW, and meet her and other women advocates in person on Tuesday, March 11 at 7 p.m. at the ACLU SoCal Women's Rights Forum at the Hollywood United Methodist Church. Register for this free event.