Speaking of Women's Rights: Learning from History – and Advancing Women’s Rights in the Process

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Learning from History – and Advancing Women’s Rights in the Process

By Lisa M. Stone

People in Washington – indeed, in many states in the West, where citizen initiatives sometimes seem to multiply like viruses – often complain these days about the ill effect of such efforts to change state law. Okay, what I mean is, progressives in Washington complain a lot about professional initiative pusher Tim Eyman, whose efforts invariably involve using blunt instruments that affect complicated problems. (For example, “let’s just make it impossible to raise taxes or fees, even to carry out essential government services like road repair.”)

But the initiative process can also be used to make our state stronger, and to protect vulnerable or disenfranchised people. Washington was the first state in the country – and still the only one – to make abortion legal by a vote of the people, in 1970. And we adopted the state Equal Rights Amendment the same way, in 1972.

The ERA is a thing of beauty, by the way, short, clear, and absolute:

Equality of rights and responsibility under the law shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex.

Legal Voice is proud to have brought the first lawsuit under the ERA, which was coincidentally (or perhaps not) our first case, Blair v.Washington State University, in which we sued WSU to demand equal treatment for women athletes and coaches. WSU now brags about the case and its women’s sports programs. (You’re welcome, Cougars!)

In keeping with this history of protecting women’s rights through citizen initiatives, in 1991 a group of women’s, civil rights, and health care organizations and professionals decided to codify Roe v. Wade through an initiative to the people. We were concerned that the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn Roe, and wanted to make sure women retained their reproductive autonomy. It was a hard-fought effort, but we won. In fact, over the past 40 years the people of Washington have voted five times to affirm or protect women’s right to decide when and whether to have a child.

And now, facing the scary world of healthcare reform, we’re pushing to make sure that Washington remains solidly pro-choice and respectful of women’s autonomy. Sadly, Roe v. Wade is still vulnerable – perhaps more than in 1991. We can’t stand by while anti-choice zealots restrict our rights (even though that’s what happened at the federal level). So throughout the 2012 legislative session, beginning this Thursday, January 19th, in both the House and the Senate we’ll be advocating for a bill that will ensure women, including low-income women, will have access to abortion. Like the ERA, this bill is simple: it says that if an insurance plan covers maternity services, it must cover abortion. That’s what we voters passed in 1991 with I-120, and it’s the right thing to do. It’s fair, it’s equitable, and it protects all our choices.