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We've Come a Long Way Baby—Or Have We? The state of feminism in Idaho

Is feminism dead?


By all outward appearances, the Idaho Women's Network ceased to exist. You won't find an IWN office. The website left the World Wide Web months ago. The phone line: dead.

"We really don't have any income now," said IWN president Diane Donald. "Both our major funders looked at us last year and said that this is a lost cause."

When donors yanked funding to the nearly three-decades-old women's advocacy groups last spring, the state's once vocal voice for women's rights dimmed to a mere whisper. The organization closed its office doors in April and laid-off staff. A $20 check recently came into the IWN—just enough to help return the organization's bank balance to the black, at least for a while.

"We're still here. We just don't have a staff, office or e-mail," said Amanda Barber, IWN board member.

The loss of funding translates into an absent voice for women's rights in a legislature that activists say hasn't always been sympathetic to women's issues. Lawmakers' recent action on two key pieces of legislation—the stalling of a bill recognizing the pay gap between men and women and the passage of a measure that could limit access to birth control—proved an unwillingness to put women's rights ahead of politics, IWN members said.

It was a time and an issue tailor-made for IWN, but that voice was notably absent, and activists and scholars said that the loss of a strong women's lobbying group at the Statehouse could jeopardize women's continued push for equality.

"Legislators will ultimately not address issues important to women," said Lisa McClain, Boise State's director of Gender Studies.

Some saw the loss of IWN grant money as a testament to the waning influence of progressive groups in Idaho and as evidence of a receding women's movement in the state. But IWN supporters see the loss of funding as an opportunity—a chance to send the latest wave of feminism in a new direction. And rather than see it as a blow to the advancement of gender equality, they see the shuttering of the Idaho Women's Network doors as part of the evolution of social movement. Organizations come and go, movements peak, recede and regain momentum. And a dead phone line doesn't equate to the mortality of feminism in Idaho.

"Is feminism dead? No. It's moving in the direction that it needs to, which [is] to be multi-issue, more inclusive," said Amy Herzfeld, executive director of the Idaho Human Rights Education Center and past IWN board member.

"I think that every organization has its life cycle. And it transitions. And often organizations expand from their original missions to become broader, and that was certainly the case with the Idaho Women's Network."

IWN members plan to rebuild the group as a multi-issue volunteer-based organization. But the IWN phoenix may look a little different than the IWN that arose in the 1980s—just as the latest wave of Idaho feminism looks different from the tides of the past movements.

"Like any major social movement, [feminism] ebbs and flows and experiences different measures of successes in response to other systemic conditions," said Chandra Silva, professor of history and gender studies at Boise State.

Generations of women have pushed waves of feminism toward Idaho's shores. They brought suffrage to Idaho. They opened door after door for their daughters and granddaughters.

"These are the women on whose great shoulders we stand," Silva said.

And feminism—political action that fights for women's rights and the belief in gender equality—remains a present yet evolving force in Idaho, activists say. Today's feminism just looks different, Silva noted.

"People who identify as feminists have just become more integrated in human rights and social justice campaigns," she said.

"I see human-rights work as feminist work. I see racial-justice work as feminist work." Herzfeld said. "I see countering xenophobia as feminist application for social justice. You can be a feminist and work on countering xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment in Idaho. You can be a feminist and work on racial equity ... We need to lift everyone up equally."

It started in the mid-1980s as most waves of feminism do: with a unity of women.

Before the IWN became a lobbying force or even had its name, IWN founders started with a singular agenda: to gather women in what would be the first of many conferences.

"We thought it would be a small thing," recalled Betsy Dunklin, one of IWN's early founders, but 200 women showed up.

"We've never seen anything like it," she said.

Collectively, the women started tackling issues and drawing up plans for what the IWN would eventually look like. On the agenda: health care, domestic violence, child care and reproductive rights.

"We decided we were going to take on some tough decisions and really focus. And we did," Dunklin said. "There were a lot of women who took a lot of leadership."

Those numbers created an awesome force as the organization met the first of many proposals that would propel the IWN to mount a defense.

House Bill 625 of 1990 proposed some of the strictest restrictions on abortion in the nation. The measure would have outlawed an estimated 93 percent of all abortions that were performed in the state at that time, limiting access except in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity or when the mother's life or health was threatened. The bill sailed through the Legislature but met opposition by vocal IWN supporters. Hundreds of IWN members lobbied Idaho lawmakers and thousands stood at the Statehouse to rally against the measure.

"It was very exciting," Dunklin said of the sheer numbers. "It was overwhelming."

Gov. Cecil Andrus eventually vetoed the legislation, and IWN's efforts demonstrated the ability of Idaho women to organize, lobby, rally their numbers and draw the attention of the international press.

As IWN's momentum grew, members became a constant presence in the Legislature.

"I more counted on them to be working on [women's] issues and bringing people into the legislative process and training women to talk to legislators. That's something they did very effectively," said Boise Democrat Sen. Nicole LeFavour.

As the IWN gained influence, its agenda evolved to include multi-issue causes that advanced women, families, gay and lesbian rights, racial equity and economic justice. It became a clearinghouse of information, disseminating news and legislative updates about how issues and proposals affected women's everyday lives.

"The Legislature was not really well versed in how legislation affects women's lives," said Krista Broderick, an early IWN member and volunteer. "And the Idaho Women's Network brought that voice to the Legislature. And they still need that voice in the Legislature."

The IWN fought for coverage of women's health care and sought funding for early childhood development and education programs. But their efforts often met resistance. Broderick recalls how one lawmaker responded to a measure that would have provided after-school programs for latchkey kids.

"If kids have a place to be rather than go home to an empty house, that can only be good for the community. And [one] senator said ... 'Well, if women would stay home with their children, we wouldn't need a latchkey program. I don't see any need to allocate any funding to it.'"

Such attitudes often forced the IWN to fight with an unyielding defense.

"A lot of our donors said they wanted their money to go to a successful [organization], and they don't think a little organization in Idaho can be successful," Donald said.

The IWN funding shortfall followed a waning membership base and high turnover on the board of directors. Members report getting fewer calls for volunteer help over the years, and last year's annual IWN conference saw sparse attendance. Today's IWN board members are all young, and the longest serving member has sat on the board only since March 2009.

"We have very active women in the community, and I think they just overextended themselves," said board member Kylee Morfitt.

"It's the same 20 or 30 people doing everything," Donald said.

"Feminism is evolving, but it doesn't feel like a wave," said past IWN Public Policy Director Taryn Magrini.

Women activists see a ripple floating across the waters of gender equality. New generations of feminists have helped sustain that momentum but they don't see the numbers to turn their work into a formidable wave of change.

"Feminism wasn't the same as it was 50 years ago," said IWN board member Jessica Epy. "Women still are not equal; it's still something that needs to be worked on."

McClain said she sees the waning participation as part of a misperception that gender equality already exists, a trend that leaves activists like Magrini wary.

"Just because we have this female Secretary of State doesn't mean that we don't have a glass ceiling." Magrini said.

Gen Xers and the millennial generation seem to have lost the sense of urgency and importance that helped propel their mothers and grandmothers into action, activists said. The ripple of today's activism seems to bounce against the social pressures that leave people just struggling to survive.

"People don't always think of [women's rights] as a major issue with all the things going on in the world. We have the economy, the oil spill ... It kind of gets overshadowed when you're looking for a job and trying to support a family."

And would-be activists are simply exhausted, many say.

"It takes a lot to always be beaten down in a systematic way," said Melissa Wintrow, past Boise State Women's Center coordinator and gender studies professor. "We're tired, and we're distracted."

And somewhere along the way, in some circles, feminism never stood for equality, justice, or as Silva sees it, an opportunity to examine social disparities from a political framework. Wintrow recalled a time when she was called into an administrator's office for using the word "feminism." For some, "feminism" became little more than a political dirty word. And those attitudes may have trickled into the Idaho electorate, Epy said.

"There are some people who have a negative connotation [of feminism], especially in Idaho," she said.

Epy points to conservative ideologies fueled by the commentaries of the likes of Rush Limbaugh that helped instill the "femi-Nazi" vocabulary into the vernacular of many and may have helped settle the waters of Idaho feminism. And some women, such as stay-at-home moms, may struggle to find a place in the movement that advocates for equal pay and opportunities in the workforce. But today's feminists say the movement is more inclusive than ever, embracing women of all socio-economic, cultural and racial backgrounds.

"It's a choice," Epy said of women's decision to stay home and raise kids, and that choice needs to be supported and valued.

While some blame an over-worked constituency and technology-based activism for the decline in IWN membership, others look to the changing face of sexism to explain why women activists don't show their numbers in the thousands as they did to oppose HB 625 in 1990.

"I think today there's not anything too loud like that right now," Broderick said, noting that galvanizing anti-abortion legislation doesn't surface as it did in the past.

Feminists say that today's opponents of gender equity don't aim to demolish the equalizing structures built by the mothers of feminism with a single blow. Rather, they work to slowly erode the foundation of equality with single chips and subtle sexism.

"I think that politicians have gotten smarter, and they chip away a little tiny bit at a time so it doesn't become real obvious," Broderick said. "And that's the most dangerous approach."

Taryn Magrini sees sexism, but it's not the blatant discrimination that rallied feminists of past generations. You don't see the same kinds of efforts to rescind the Equal Rights Act in 1977, while efforts to dismantle reproductive freedom don't carry the same transparency as HB 625, Idaho feminists say.

Instead, during the last legislative session, Magrini and others battled the "Conscience Bill," which allows health-care practitioners to opt out of providing medical care or filling a prescription if doing so would go against their personal morals. Many see the new law as an attack on women's reproductive rights since it could affect access to birth control. They also fought to pass legislation aimed at recognizing the pay disparities between men and women. Neither of the measures went as IWN had hoped, but the process demonstrated how lawmakers can use policy to slowly dismantle women's rights.

"It's all very subtle. And it's a lot harder to fight someone who's being subtle," Magrini said. "Sometimes the attack on women's freedom rings loud and clear, as it did when the Legislature failed to recognize the pay gap between men and women's earnings," Magrini said. Similar legislation easily passed in 2009 without dissent, but this year's bill failed without ever receiving a hearing before the House or Senate.

"You could use that as a litmus test for how Idaho politicians feel about women," Magrini said.

And numerous socio-economic measures speak of the position still relegated to Idaho's women: Women remain underrepresented in the highest-paying occupations and overrepresented in the lowest-paying jobs. And women still earn only about 80 percent of what men earn nationally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Idaho women earn even less—just 72 cents for every dollar that a man earns. And the U.S. Government Accountability Office also found that when all employment variables remain the same, a pay gap still exists.

But the socio-economic reality of minorities looks even more dire, Wintrow said.

"Whenever you talk about women or men, you have to talk about which women and which men," she noted.

The pay gap for black women widens to nearly 70 percent and to 60 percent for Hispanic women.

Idaho women in general face some of the lowest rankings on key socio-economic indicators, according to an Institute for Women's Policy Research report. Idaho women rank 48th in employment and earnings, dead last in the number of women in managerial and professional occupations, and 39th in political participation and higher educational attainment.

"Unless you're willing to participate in patriarchy and not rebel, I don't think this is a friendly place for women," Wintrow said.

Women said they also feel the unfriendly climate in more subtle ways.

"It isn't obvious. But isn't that what oppression looks like now?" Magrini said.

As a lobbyist for IWN, Magrini said she was often treated like a naive granddaughter by older male representatives and frequently saw male lawmakers patronize other female lobbyists.

"I would see the men—male lobbyists—treat the female lawmakers with disrespect," she recalled. "I think the maddest I ever got was not on my behalf."

She became accustomed to being called a "young lady" and often had her hand patted by paternalistic lawmakers. And on more than one occasion she witnessed representatives treat their female colleagues as if they were uneducated about the issues.

The subtle sexist dynamics were usually expressed through nonverbal communication, she said. So Magrini employed her own nonverbal communication to reassert her power. A person blind to Magrini's smarts can't miss her height. Magrini stands tall. And in heels she towers at nearly 6 feet. So Magrini often wore high heels.

"It's really hard to look down on someone who's taller than you."

Women recently stood tall as dozens of female heads of state departments gathered at the Idaho Statehouse on a mid-June afternoon to field policy questions from the public. But they stood as more than experts in public policy and government. They stood as a testament of the accomplishments of Idaho women. The women—32 in all—filled the panel in the Statehouse's Garden auditorium and spoke of agency agendas and ideas on ways to improve government. Yet the loudest message they delivered needed no words: Their presence spoke of what generations past viewed as unthinkable—smart, strong, successful women are leading us into the future.

Displays in the Statehouse halls leading to the forum's auditorium recalled times when such gathering would have been unimaginable. A chronology of women's history celebrated Idaho's women leaders and the gains made for women's rights in the state. Tributes acknowledged the work of philanthropists such as Laura Moore Cunningham and the leadership of modern-day civil rights activist and legislative candidate Cherie Buckner-Webb. A timeline of Idaho history reminded forum participants of an oppressive past endured by generations of women. It also reminded onlookers that Idaho was once on the forefront of advancing gender equality; Idaho was the fourth state to pass women's suffrage.

"Idaho has been blazing trails for a long time," noted forum panelist, Luci Willits, chief of staff at the State Department of Education.

Idaho swells with stories of successful, trail-blazing women. One needs to look no further than the accomplished female panelists or the Boise State Women's Center's annual tribute to Women Making History to see the gains. Or look at the movers and shakers around Idaho fighting for human rights, civil rights and social justice. Nonprofits around the valley, including the American Civil Liberties Union, United Vision for Idaho and the Idaho Human Rights Education Center are headed by young female executive directors who replaced male predecessors.

The hard-fought victories and the changing face of leadership that made the Women's Day gathering possible were not lost on the forum's attendees.

"The first stories I did when I was a [cub] reporter were, 'Oh my gosh, we have women truck drivers,' and 'Oh my gosh, we have a woman veterinarian.' Those were the stories 30 years ago," journalist Dee Sarton told the Women's Day audience.

"There's still a long ways to go. We can see that reflected in policies and institutions. Women in the community in Idaho don't have equal access or equal value in law," Herzfeld said. "The work continues."

Part of that work includes pulling the youngest generations into the push for equality. The waves of feminism depend on new generations to push the tides forward, and some of today's feminists worry that not enough young women stand ready to take up the cause.

"I think young women take a lot for granted. I remember when I was in high school, if you got pregnant, you were stuck," Broderick said. "They take for granted that if they want to do something, they can do it."

Still, the world hasn't changed enough, Broderick said.

"We still have the same work-place issues we had 20 years ago," she said, noting the wage disparities, the under-representation of women in high-paying professions and the number of companies that have yet to enact woman- and family-friendly policies, such as in-house child care. And women remain absent in society's most powerful social institutions. Just less than 24 percent of Idaho lawmakers are women, and not a single woman sits on the Idaho Supreme Court.

Broderick found that some of the daughters of the second wave of feminism—Gen Xers born in the 1970s—haven't always embraced the gains made by the women of their mother's generation. Broderick sought to inspire some of these young girls to dream big and set their sights on achievement when they were teens. Her efforts put her in Boise classrooms before an audience of teenaged girls in the 1990s. She asked them what they wanted from their lives as adults. Did they want an education? Did they want to travel or volunteer in Africa? Did they want a nice house?

The girls said they wanted comfortable lives and amazing experiences. Then Broderick asked how they planned to achieve their dreams. Few had answers. And those who did look to support themselves only considered occupations traditionally filled by women.

Women who aim to inspire younger generations tell similar stories. Former Eagle Mayor Nancy Merrill told Women's Day attendees about a young student who wanted to meet with her for a report she was working on about mayors. The young girl was shocked to find a woman standing before her in the mayor's office.

"She said, 'I didn't know women could be mayors,'" Merrill recalled. "I told her she could be anything ... Those are the things girls need to hear."

Still, many can't forget the recent example of the Conscience Bill, even those who pushed for the bill.

"Whenever you lose a collective voice, you lose something," said Boise Republican Sen. Chuck Winder. "I think it's really too bad for the process that they are not at the table."

Winder sponsored the bill, which proponents touted as an effort to ensure the moral freedom of health-care providers.

The Conscience Bill followed failed 2009 legislation that would have given pharmacists the ability exclude themselves from filling prescriptions they found objectionable. House Bill 216 passed the House in 2009 but didn't make it through a Senate committee hearing. Lawmakers said some wanted to rework that proposal so that it also exempted health-care workers, such as nurses, from participation in practices they considered at odds with their beliefs.

Winder said he and other lawmakers tried to bring women's voices into the Conscience Bill discussions and other debates, even if it was a voice of dissent.

Winder said IWN concerns about the Conscience Bill were used to help draft amendments to the legislation that ultimately passed despite IWN's continued opposition.

But regardless of the differing opinions, Winder said IWN held an important place at the Statehouse.

"They've always been a pretty legitimate force in representing their constituency," Winder said. "They had a presence."

Today women continue the fight for women's rights as community organizers, champions of civil liberties and human-rights educators. And for many, that fight began in their college years.

A swell of ambitious Boise State feminists rose in the late 1990s and early 2000s to create one of the largest consortiums of political-action based clubs on campus. They began their activism by building feminist clubs with names hinting at their egalitarian agenda: Idaho Sisters in Solidarity, Idahoans Struggling in Solidarity, Feminist Empowerment, Students for Direct Action and the Idaho Student Progressive Alliance.

That burst of energy, though short-lived, left a mark. Many of today's young leaders and advocates in social justice rode that tide of activism to launch careers and forge volunteer partnerships in state equity movements. Some student activists joined IWN forces before going on to volunteer for political and social justice campaigns. And others, including Herzfeld, fight for equality as nonprofit leaders. And although the women's organizations that helped launch their activism have fallen away, they've kept feminism alive with an inclusive fight for the rights of everyone.

"There are more multi-issue groups popping up around town that aren't single-issue or single-identity-based," Herzfeld explained. "Identity-based and single-issue work isn't especially relevant anymore if the goal is liberation for all people."

Herzfeld and equality advocates such as Adrienne Evans can't separate women's rights from human rights. Nor can they separate women's rights from economic justice, civil liberties or social equality.

"There are [Idaho] towns and counties where you've got 47 percent of single women with children under 5 living in poverty," said Evans, executive director of United Vision for Idaho.

We can begin to advance the position of women, Evans explained, by ending the systemic economic disparities that impoverish women.

"We need to be mindful of the needs of women ... of the women who are not being represented. And the only way we can do that is to advance the station of all people."