Massive NOW Rally "Only the Beginning"

by Diane Minor

More than 200,000 people turned out April 9 in Washington, D.C. for the Rally for Women's Lives -- the first and largest mass action to stop violence against women. Organized by NOW and endorsed by a record 702 national and local groups, the rally brought in many new activists, especially young activists from more than 200 college campuses.

 The rally also reached millions of people who tuned in to live TV coverage. Both CNN and C-SPAN covered the rally, with Judy Woodruff interviewing participants from a studio CNN set up backstage. MTV shot news segments that aired immediately, as well as segments for a special on child sexual abuse set to air July 12.

 NOW President Patricia Ireland called the rally "an undeniable success." "We drew national attention to the links between physical attacks on women, terrorist attacks at clinics, and political and economic attacks in Congress," she said. "And we very visibly launched a grassroots campaign to dispel the notion that the Right Wing speaks for the majority in this country."

 Grammy Award-winning rapper Cheryl "Salt" James of Salt 'N Pepa made clear connections between the issues as she spoke out against "rampant" violence against women, naming date rape, sexual harassment in the workplace and cutting welfare benefits to women who are "alone and need help to feed and clothe their children."

 Other performers who spoke out against violence included Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless, fresh from the success of the TV movie, Cagney and Lacey: The Return, the chart-climbing alternative band Toad the Wet Sprocket, the all-women groups BETTY and Luscious Jackson, disappear fear and rock star Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. Jett brought along a video that was shown on the rally's big screen; it ends with shots of a woman defending herself against an assailant. Thus far, MTV has refused to air the video.

 Speaker Katie Koestner -- a college student who founded anti-violence groups at both Cornell University and The College of William and Mary -- drew thunderous applause as she said, "I'm a survivor of rape and I will not be silent." Koestner railed against college deans who told her that her experience of date rape was an "unfortunate miscommunication."

 And after leading the crowd in prayer commemorating the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s burial, the Rev. Jesse Jackson of the National Rainbow Coalition said, "There should be as many men here as women here. Men must know that none of us are secure until all of us are secure."

 Coming at the end of the first 100 days of the new GOP-led Congress, the rally was proof of widespread disenchantment with the conservative agenda. People in the crowd held signs reading "Contract with America -- War on Us," "Newt treats poor families poorly" and, most bluntly, "Newt Sucks."

 Native American AIDS activist Lisa Tiger of Oklahoma said that with their Contract ON America, the straight, white Republicans who dominate Congress are trying to do to women what their ancestors did to diminish, harass and destroy her people. "They had a contract with the Native Americans, and you know what happened to us," she said.

 California NOW State Coordinator Elizabeth Toledo spoke out in favor of affirmative action. She blasted politicians who "believe they can climb to the White House, governors' mansions, legislatures and school boards on the backs of women. It's up to us to say that we will not retreat on affirmative action. We will not retreat on justice."

 Former NOW President Eleanor Smeal, now head of the Feminist Majority Foundation, vowed that "the Newt Gingrich Congress" will never be allowed to outlaw abortion "in our lifetimes." "Be it personal terror or political terror, it has just one purpose -- control," she said. "We are the majority. Our rights will only be taken away if we allow the terrorists to reign."

 Among the speakers were relatives of three of the people killed in anti-abortion terrorism at clinics in Brookline, Mass., and Pensacola, Fla., including Meagan Lowney, David Gunn, Jr. and NOW member June Barrett, who was injured in the onslaught that killed her husband, Jim, and the doctor they were escorting, John Bayard Britton.

 "I survived that horrible nightmare, and I am here today to say to you, help stop the violence and defend a woman's right to choose," said Barrett.

 Among the 702 endorsing groups were not only traditional feminist allies such as abortion rights groups, lesbian and gay organizations, labor unions and welfare rights activists, but also groups that don't traditionally align themselves with feminist causes -- such as healthcare and law enforcement, for example.

 "Women of America have endured for far too long too much violence, too much hate, too much sexism and too much racism," said Dr. Prema Mathai-Davis, executive director of the YWCA of the USA, who represents that organization's one million women and girls.

Some of the largest college delegations came from Brown University, Providence, R.I., and SUNY Binghamton. Students who came the farthest distance were from Colorado College, Colorado Springs. Thousands of high school students participated too, including a 35-person delegation from Purnell High School, Pottersville, N.J. And the fastest organizing was by the Riot Grrrls of U. Mass.-Amherst, who got six busloads together in less than a week.

NOW Action Vice President Rosemary Dempsey's campus speaking tour took her to more than 30 colleges, from up- state New York to Florida and as far west as Illinois. At each stop the tour received major press attention as Dempsey made the connections about violence as a tool to oppress women. The tour included campus-wide speeches and organizing workshops, along with speeches before community rallies.

Mother Nature came through with 85-degree temperatures that, combined with a huge screen that provided close-ups of speakers, performers and the crowd itself, kept the lively, massive crowd on hand and on its feet for most of the five-hour rally.

The rally was a success for NOW in many ways. It provided new lists of activists, and many people filled trash bags with "green trash" -- what Ireland called "green pieces of paper with dead White male presidents on them." Record sales of bright T-shirts and buttons boldly declaring, "The Power to Stop Violence Against Women Begins With Me" will help fund NOW's campaign against violence.

The rally also relied on a corps of more than 1,200 volunteers; who were eager, even grateful, to have served. "I have been a victim of violence many times over, not only in my home, my family of origin, but I have been raped twice and mugged twice," said volunteer Sunny Pietrafesa. "The cause is very near and dear to my heart, and it was very special for me to be part of the group of people who moved Sunday along."

At one point, Ireland asked rally speakers and performers to join her on stage as they took turns challenging the crowd to raise their hands if they knew someone who had experienced violence, poverty or anti-abortion terrorism, then raise their fists if they had worked on these issues. Ireland ended by asking everyone to join her in a pledge "not to work for any candidate who does not support women's rights and freedom from violence."

"This rally was only the beginning, the beginning not only of our move to mobilize voters for the 1996 elections, but also to mobilize candidates for the next post-reapportionment election. By activating people on the local levels, getting our candidates elected to school boards, city councils and state legislatures now, we can fill the pipelines with feminists, and then help them get to Congress by 2002."


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