THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY
MARCH 8, 2011
A NATIONALLY RECOGNIZED POLICY CENTER
PURSUING JUSTICE FOR WOMEN AND GIRLS
The mission of the CWLC is to promote and advance the rights of women and girls. “We do this through the courts, through legislative channels and policy analysis. Our goal is to create systemic change."
There is a French expression that says, "plus ca change, plus ca le meme chose": the more things change, the more things stay the same. If ever there were a swath of issues for which this adage rings true, they are those which inspire the debates on women’s civil rights and reproductive justice. While there is no question that women’s rights have come a long way since the birth of the modern Women’s Movement the 60’s, one only needs to read the daily headlines from the last two months to realize that significant issues of women’s justice and choice in the United States remain highly explosive and deeply polarizing.
For the last twenty two years, the California Women’s Law Center has stood guard to protect and guide women and girls through the minefields of these controversies and, in collaboration with partners and coalitions, has changed the face of the law in the state of California.
THE BACKDROP OF THE CALIFORNIA WOMEN’S LAW CENTER
The decade leading up to the birth of the CWLC in 1989 witnessed major breakthroughs for women: Sandra Day O’Connor, Geraldine Ferraro, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Sally Ride each made history in their respective professions. Across the country, greater numbers of women than ever before were acquiring college and graduate degrees, and were becoming a stable and economically independent part of the work force. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was very much a prominent voice, and had worked successfully to block anti-abortion legislation.
However, for all the forward movement in women’s equality, there was a dark underside to these triumphs: women faced multiple forms of discrimination in the workplace, and there were still millions of women for whom the momentum of the movement could not be realized, women who were, for all intent and purpose, invisible. The latter, because of childcare or other life circumstances, lacked access to education or all but menial jobs, and were forced to remain remained dependent within a system that perpetuated a culture of poverty and/or domestic abuse.
In general, an array of women’s issues that defined the times included:
- Gender discrimination: Rampant gender discrimination dominated the workplace, which took form as barriers to equal wages and jobs, the ability to obtain promotions, and as varying degrees of sexual harassment.
- Lack of child care for working mothers: Adequate child care facilities were difficult to find, at best, which relegated low income mothers to dependence on welfare resources or to relationships which were often abusive.
- Date Rape: The concept of “date rape” or “acquaintance rape” was gaining national attention, particularly on college campuses, but still raised questions in the media and in law enforcement agencies as to whether the women bringing the complaints had somehow “invited” the assaults.
- Domestic Abuse: Victims of domestic abuse suffered silently, afraid and ashamed to bring criminal charges in a world which viewed their problems as a “private matter”. This tide began to shift in 1984, with the release of The Burning Bed, starring Farrah Fawcet, which helped to bring the realities of domestic abuse into the national consciousness.
- Choice: The 1973 passage of Roe v. Wade had technically made back alley abortions a thing of the past for large numbers of women. However, in the real world, the of subject of “choice”, i.e., a women’s right to terminate her pregnancy, was as polarizing and inflammatory as it is today. Clinics and health care providers became the targets of harassment, and death threats by extremist right to life groups. The 1976, passage of the Hyde Amendment had effectively nullified the reality of Roe v. Wade for millions of low income women, as it placed a chokehold on Medicaid funded abortions for all but a limited of beneficiaries.
Against this backdrop, Abby Leibman, Jenifer McKenna, and Sheila Kuehl conceived the idea of the California Women’s Law Center. (see video clip above) All three were frustrated by the absence of a one stop advocacy resource in southern California that was specific to the complex and interconnecting issues described above, which kept women economically dependent and too often unable to extricate from the grip of abusive relationships.
The three colleagues brought a strong combination of litigation and policy experience in class action and family law, gender discrimination, organizational development and strategic planning: Leibman would become the Center’s first Executive Director; McKenna was Executive Director of the Los Angeles Women’s Bar Association, and Kuehl, a Harvard educated attorney and law professor, was soon to be elected to the Calfornia State Senate.
Today, the CWLC describes itself as “a unique advocate in California, working in collaboration with others to protect, secure and advance the comprehensive legal rights of women and girls”. It has established a network of support and collaboration that extends from the halls of city and state government, school boards and law enforcement agencies to law schools, bar associations and numerous collations of like minded organizations. In its remarkable twenty two year history, the Center’s policy reach has extended to welfare reform, gender discrimination, women’s health, child care and custody issues, domestic abuse, and intimate femicide (murder by a spouse or domestic partner).
THE CURRENT WORK OF THE CWLC
The mission of the CWLC says Executive Director, Katie Buckland, is to promote and advance the rights of women and girls. “We do this through the courts, through legislative channels and policy analysis. Our goal is to create systemic change. We work as part of a coalition, and we are an active presence in Sacramento.”
Buckland continues, “CWLC is not a direct service provider, in that we don’t take cases on behalf of individual clients who are looking for help with divorce, child custody or domestic abuse problems, for example. Rather we provide support services and policy research, for the direct providers who are overwhelmed all the time. When the occasional individual contacts CWLC for help, they are generally referred to one of the many community organizations with which we are associated, that provide individual client services. The Harriet Buhai Law Center for example, is one of the largest providers of family law and domestic violence assistance in Los Angeles.”
Action Now+Network recently spoke with Katie Buckland about the work of the Center and her vision for its future within the context of today’s social climate.
YOU HAVE AN EXTENSIVE BACKGROUND IN DEMOCRATIC POLITICS, AND MOST RECENTLY, YOU WERE A PROSECUTOR OVERSEEING THE SAFE NEIGHBORHOODS INITIATIVE FOR THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES. WHAT LED YOU TO THE CWLC?
HOW WOULD YOU SUMMARIZE YOUR OWN WORK WITH THE ORGANIZATION?
“I coordinate all the pieces – 300 different things in five minute intervals! Seriously, I have to oversee the big picture and many times, I miss delving into a project. However, as part of our budget cuts, I will be more hands on. Fortunately, I haven’t had to lay anyone off and some of the work is done by the Public Interest Fellowship for law graduates. Part of our mission is to train other lawyers and this is a program we offer. Most of our interns are women – that’s just the way it works out – though we encourage men as well. We are an equal opportunity employer, but in truth, we don’t get very many men who apply. Our Fellows have great energy and commitment – they bring huge energy to the law center, particularly over the summer.”
THE MAJOR POLICY AREAS FOR CWLC ARE 1) GENDER DISCRIMINATION, 2) VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN, 3) REPRODUCTIVE JUSTICE AND 4) WOMEN’S HEALTH. THESE ARE VERY BROAD AND POTENTIALLY EMOTIONAL (FOR THE PUBLIC) CATEGORIES. CAN YOU DESCRIBE BRIEFLY THE WORK OF CWLC IN EACH AREA?
o Gender Discrimination in School Sports
“Girls’ participation in sports is a major area of investigation. It has been documented that girls who participate in sports have lower rates of teen pregnancy, drug abuse, lower rates of eating disorders and high rates of college admission.
EDITOR’ NOTE: CWLC has launched JustPlayNow.org to provide information and tools to students, parents and coaches to ensure that their high school is providing fair athletic opportunities to girls.
o Gender Discrimination in the Workplace
“This is not so much an area of litigation, but we try to impact the laws through legislation. We work through the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. We are working to change the evidence code in a way that is helpful to prosecutors.
o Teen Dating Violence
“The subject of Date Rape and sexual harassment (among teenagers), or a school that doesn’t take teen dating violence seriously is a big issue that falls under gender discrimination as well.
“In California, the parental notification issue is on the ballot again. This is a proposition that requires parental notification before minors can get abortions– and once again it is difficult to defeat. There are many good reasons that pregnant teens may not want their parents notified about their pregnancy or abortion. Many come from abusive homes, some are cases of incest. The law provides judicial bypass – a girl can petition a judge to allow her to get an abortion without having to notifying her parents. The problem is that most girls don’t have access to the legal system, or even to transportation. In the event that it passes and becomes law, CWLC will help coordinate the process to help the girls through.
“CWLC wrote the law that women allows women to breast feed in public places. We still get eight to ten complaints from women a month. What do we do with the complaints? We send a copy of the law to restaurants, ask that they do training with their employees and they generally agree. If there is litigation, we try to get the woman compensated for her costs. In one case a woman was harassed for breast feeding her baby in public – she was shoved with her baby into a police car! She contacted CWLC and we helped her resolve this issue by informing the parties involved of her right to breastfeed in public.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES FACED BY CWLC?
“Right now, it’s money! There is a public perception that women’s equality has been achieved – that we’re done with that one!. Well, not so much! The Dukes v. Wal-Mart litigation, in which Equal Rights Advocates are lead counsel for the plaintiffs, is a case in point. This is the biggest civil rights case in US history. We’re talking about 1.6 million women who are claiming they didn’t receive equal pay or benefits.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU HAD MORE MONEY? WHAT IS YOUR ULTIMATE VISION FOR THE ORGANIZATION?
Also, because we have limited staff, we can’t easily address the full spectrum of issues. I would definitely take on more rape policy research. Right now, the definition of rape is a big factor (in reporting). The FBI limits the definition to forcible vaginal penetration by the penis. States have to accept the FBI definition, but that definition excludes other types of rape – rape by a foreign object or anal penetration, or rapes where there was no force because the victim was incapacitated. Often, these rapes aren’t reported because they don’t fall under the standard (FBI) definition. I’d take this on in a minute if I had the money.”
WHAT KIND OF BUDGET TO YOU HAVE COMPARED WITH WHAT YOU NEED?
We could be more fully staffed when the budget is stabilized at around $1.5 million. Now, we’re at half of that.”
DO YOU HAVE ANY SPECIFIC PROGRAMS UPCOMING?
WHO IS YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE? WHO ARE YOU TRYING TO REACH?
WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE FUTURE OF WOMEN’S LEGAL RIGHTS VIS A VIS ABORTION IN CALIFORNIA? GIVEN A VERY CONSERVATIVE HOUSE OFREPRESENTATIVES THAT HAS VOTED TO DEFUND PLANNED PARENTHOOD, WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO CHANGE THE ZEITGEIST IN THIS COUNTRY?
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU WANT THE PUBLIC TO KNOW ABOUT CWLC? .
“That for real change to occur, it is important to have organizations that focus on systemic change, change that will shift the consciousness of the public on these issues.”
Katie Buckland, Exec. Director
5670 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 460
Los Angeles, CA 90036