Midori Ashida: Founder,
Women’s Coalition for Sexuality and Health, Tokyo
(WOMENSENEWS)–In three short years, Midori Ashida’s media activism successfully jostled the birth control pill off the shelf where the Japanese medical and media establishment had placed it while they considered for 30 years whether to approve its distribution.
Ashida says her efforts to make the birth control pill available to Japanese women began with a mid-life crisis. Ashida had been working for 15 years as a medical editor at a “very traditional” Japanese publishing company when she realized she had no future there.
She quit and went to work as a magazine editor at the U.S embassy, where she became intrigued by American newspapers. She soon found herself enrolled in the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where she learned that her home country and North Korea were the only two industrialized countries that banned oral contraceptives.
Midori, studying journalism in the Ivy League surroundings of the Columbia’s New York campus learned that the only pill available to Japanese women at the time that suppressed ovulation was the one developed in the 1960s, which has high amounts of estrogen and an equally high number of side effect occurrences. Moreover, these pills were approved to treat hormonal irregularities only. Therefore, Japanese women could limit pregnancies for the most part by either by persuading their partners to use a condom or by having abortions.
Ashida returned to Japan in 1996 resolved to make birth control pills available by using what she knew best–the distribution of health information. She began by translating into Japanese a number of studies from the groups such as the World Health Organization that confirmed the overall safety and efficacy of the birth control pill. Simultaneously, she organized a group of medical practitioners and activists now known as the Professional Women’s Coalition for Sexuality and Health.
Starting with about 60 physicians, nurses, educators and activists, the group grew to about 500 members. Together, they launched a media information campaign, sending the results of their research to newspaper opinion pages and television and radio stations producers. The group also deluged the national pharmaceutical council, responsible for advising the government on medication approval, with letters urging the approval of the birth control pill.
“We said to them, ‘Here is our proof that this medication is safe. If you disagree, prove it.'”
In the fall of 1999, birth control pills were approved for distribution in Japan, and most in the coalition rejoiced, declaring victory.
Not Ashida. She points out that according to the guidelines for the newly approved pill, women are required to visit a gynecologist every three months and neither the birth control nor the doctor visit is covered by Japan’s national health insurance. Also, sexuality education is also still nearly nonexistent, despite the efforts of the coalition and the Family Planning Federation of Japan.
Realizing that she won the battle Ashida left the coalition and found new allies for further work on women’s health issues.
“I’m now much more focused on policymaking,” she says, “trying to organize good research in various areas.” To start, she’s received a grant from the government’s health ministry to study the plight of older women in Japan, who often live into the 90s, increasingly frail and isolated. She has also established a think tank with a team of economists, sociologists and medical professionals, with the mission to construct policy that would enhance Japanese women’s physical, mental, and social well being.
“This is my experiment,” she says, laughing.Charlotte Bunch, Executive Director,
Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University
In the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan, the simple premise that women’s rights should serve as a barometer of a nation’s commitment to human rights is gaining the global acceptance Charlotte Bunch has worked for since the 1970s.
She has been a guiding force in efforts for women’s rights to be recognized as human rights, in particular at the 1993 U.N. World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Together, those global meetings have led to pressure on all nations to report to the U.N. on their progress in providing full citizenship rights to women. In addition, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and many other mainstream human rights organizations now have women’s bureaus.
Bunch grew up in the 1950s in Artesia, N.M., not far from the Texas border. Her parents, active in church and civic life, reared their children to be aware of events beyond their national borders and her home was a frequent stopping place for international visitors.
Bunch brought this interest and a “sense of Christian civic duty” with her when she enrolled in North Carolina’s Duke University. She quickly became involved in the civil rights movement and traveled to Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia for the World Student Christian Federation. In the 1970s, she also became open about being a lesbian, even though she thought anxiously that she would no longer be invited to travel to other nations.
She need not have worried. In 1980 Bunch, as a founder of the first women’s liberation group in Washington, D.C. and of Quest: A Feminist Quarterly, organized cross-cultural workshops for the forum for non-governmental organizations held at the Second U.N. World Conference on Women in Copenhagen.
She coordinated similar events on global feminism at the 1985 Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi. But this time, a much larger number of women from the southern hemisphere were present and “that was then it truly became a global movement,” she says.
Bunch has remained a powerful leader and negotiator in subsequent international conferences on women’s rights and founded in 1989 the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University.
The center, while promoting advocacy at the United Nations and elsewhere, has hosted 200 activists from almost 100 countries in its leadership development program and strategic planning activities. It also convenes regional sessions on such topics as feminism in the Muslim world. The forthcoming institute in June will be: “Understanding the Intersection of Racism, Sexism and Other Oppressions.”
While Bunch acknowledges the gains women have made in the ability to place their rights on the national and global agendas, she says that last year’s U.N. meeting reviewing the individual national reports on progress in the area of women’s rights, known as Beijing + 5, was deeply polarized over reproductive freedom, sexual rights and other issues. Women’s rights leaders were forced to defend previous gains rather than make many new advances. Bunch now believes that greater emphasis should be put on the local and national levels implementation of current human rights treaties and accords.
“One of the larger issues rising out of September 11 is the stress on international systems,” Bunch says, “and the question of how much women can still advance through the U.N.” She also expresses concern about a possible danger of an exclusive focus on Afghanistan. The situation of women there is critical, Bunch says yet also warns that “women are struggling all over the world and we must not let them be forgotten.”Elouise Cobell, Founder,
Blackfeet National Bank
When Elouise Cobell was four years old, she accompanied her father on opening day for the the one-room school house that had just been established. As her father greeted the new teacher, Cobell found a desk and sat down. The two quickly agreed she could join the class.
“I was staging a sit-in,” she says. She wouldn’t move until her father and the teacher promised that she could go back the next day and begin to learn.
Cobell, treasurer of the Blackfeet Nation and a trained accountant, thus showed, early on, the kind of determination that has marked her five-year battle with the U.S. Department of Interior, as lead plaintiff in Cobell vs. Babbitt, a class action on behalf of more than 300,000 members of the Blackfeet Nation.
Along the way, she has succeeded in advancing the rights of women within the nation by serving as chairman of the board for the bank she established and by ensuring another woman, Patty Gobert, would succeed her. Cobell’s mastery of finances has had a domino effect among Blackfeet women. Female members of her tribe are now giving financial literacy workshops for young people and helping them understand the relationship between their lands and the funds in their bank account.
The lawsuit promises to bring significantly more dollars to those bank accounts and significantly increase the tribe’s standard of living. The suit demands repayment of approximately $10 billion owed for the use of lands held by the Blackfeet since 1887. At that time, the federal government determined the Blackfeet were incompetent to manage their oil money and established a “land trust” for them, promising they would get the benefit of the income from their resources. The benefits never found their way to the Blackfeet.
Cobell brought the suit after she noticed that the oil and gas leases on Blackfeet land were generating far less income than they were worth. The federal government is vigorously defending the lawsuit in Washington, D.C., yet Cobell remains optimistic that she will one day prevail.
She adds that it is not surprising that the Blackfeet people are being led to insist on an accounting of funds due them by a woman. The women in her tribe have traditionally been seen as strong and knowledgeable, she says.
“Among the Blackfeet, women were the medicine people.”Tracy Gary, Founder,
Tracy Gary calls herself a yenta. “All I do is match the dreamers with the dream-makers,” she says.
During the past 25 years, Gary’s matchmaking has generated a national and international infrastructure that channels money from individuals to projects and organizations that benefit women and children. Gary has done so while being openly lesbian and overtly committed to the women’s movement.
One of the heirs of the Pillsbury fortune, Gary was only 9 when she asked questions about race and class that would shape her life. The year was 1965–one of intense civil rights ferment in the United States, and she learned her African American caregiver was being paid $300 per month, while her father brought home $40,000. Her shock at the disparity remained with her as she grew and intensified when she attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., during the Vietnam War.
There she received the academic background and the intellectual tutelage on the interplay of culture, class and race. There too, she began to feel that she had an obligation to share her wealth with others–and to use her energy and vision to encourage others to do the same.
She moved to San Francisco and helped to establish the San Francisco Women’s Building, home for a range of nonprofit organizations. The building has served as a base for Gary’s operations for 20 years.
“I feel really blessed to do this work,” Gary says. “This is not about ego or skill.”
The beneficiaries of the 17 nonprofits she has founded might disagree, among them Resourceful Women, which coaches women of means in how to use their money to further their beliefs; Grantmakers Without Borders, the San Francisco Women’s Foundation, the Human Rights Foundation and her newest project, the multi-issue foundation Changemakers.
In addition, a decade ago, Gary decided to work toward the establishment of 100 women’s foundations by the year 2000. The count as of this year: 106. Gary has also written a book, “Inspired Philanthropy, Creating a Giving Plan,” published by Berkeley: Chardon Press and crisscrosses the country giving fundraising seminars
One woman who has been strongly influenced by Gary is Ellen Malcolm, an heir to the IBM fortune. The two met in 1975, when Malcolm preferred to give her money away anonymously. By 1990, Malcolm decided to emulate Gary and use her wealth in a very public way. Malcolm created EMILY’s list, a political action committee that support pro-choice Democratic women candidates and has grown to be a major source of political campaign contributions.
In these tumultuous times, Gary says, the kind of community building fostered by women’s foundations is more crucial than ever. “This is our time–women have to be inspired to use our influence and positional power to make change.”Shirley Jackson, President,
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
A leader who graduated from racially segregated schools to lead one of the most pre-eminent scientific institutes says she is a believer in “windows in time.” Shirley Jackson says that opportunity is created by “the willingness of an individual to step through that window,” and adds the challenge is in seeing the open window and being brave enough to go through.
Jackson has been moving through such windows all her life. Educated in an all-African-American public school in Washington, D.C., she was accepted to and entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as one of the few women and African-Americans to attend.
“I was left out of study groups,” she said. “People didn’t want to sit next to me in class.” Jackson made a choice then, one she has stuck by all her life to keep working “however depressed or discouraged I might be.”
She was the first African American to graduate from the university as an undergraduate in 1968 and five years later when she received her doctorate in elementary particle physics. Joining the staff of AT and T Bell Laboratories, Jackson has pursued parallel tracks in science, industry and policy: While helping drive semiconductor research at Bell Laboratories, she made theoretical strides in condensed matter physics at Rutgers University and promoted the advancement of women and minorities in science and engineering.
From 1991 to 1999, she also served on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, five years as the commission’s chair until she was appointed to president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.
As a member of the National Research Council’s Committee on Women in Science and Engineering, she has voiced her concerns about women in the sciences loud and clear. As of 1997, women comprised 23 percent of women in so-called hard sciences and 9 percent of women in engineering. Too many women come in under-prepared to tackle the sciences, she says; at Rensselaer, she has helped design outreach plans for girls as early as middle school.
Jackson is especially committed to ensuring that girls and women of color have what they need, since “women of color tend to fall between the cracks,” often isolated within programs and groups dominated by white women.
Jackson sees hope in the evolving use of technology to work around the barriers presented by old-boy networks, when collaborations may naturally proceed through the use of the Internet without gender or race creating barriers. But the bottom line will still, she believes, be “the willingness of an individual to step through that door.”Judith S. Kaye, Chief Judge,
New York State Court System
In the eight years since Judith S. Kaye took over a court system that had been rocked by the criminal acts of its former chief judge and so mired in crisis that Kaye has compared it to M*A*S*H, she has made sweeping changes that many believe have changed women’s lives, and likely saved more than a few.
Kaye graduated Barnard College in 1954 hoping to be a journalist. She enrolled in New York University Law School hoping that her editors at a New Jersey newspaper would take her more seriously.
“But law school kept getting more interesting,” she said, while the paper wanted to keep her on the social page, “reporting weddings and babies.” Kaye received her law degree in 1962 and spent the first decades of her career as a trial lawyer, during which she learned New York’s Byzantine court system made life harder for everyone, especially women. She also learned that the courts were overwhelmed in certain intractable problems, from drug abuse to domestic violence.
She began her career at the Wall Street firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, and briefly worked as an in-house counsel before taking time off to have three children–what she calls “my pregnancy period.” She then spent 15 years at Olwine, Connelly, Chase, O’Donnell and Weyher, where she became the firm’s first woman partner, and joined the board of the Legal Aid Society. Appointed to the court of appeals by Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1983, she spent 10 years as an Associate Judge unable to make changes in a system she saw more and more as unwieldy. Upon becoming chief judge, she set out to “move the mountain.”
Then it was time to tackle the labyrinth of New York State’s court system, which has nine separate courts with confusing names–such as a Supreme Court that hears no appeals but conducts trials and otherwise adjudicates civil and criminal cases. Domestic violence cases, in particular, showed the stress on the system: A battered woman might end up with one judge for the criminal case, a second for her divorce and a third for child support. Family Court still heard many family violence cases in closed, secret hearings, even though the recidivism rate for intimate partner violence is far higher than for crimes committed by strangers and acquaintances.
A Kaye innovation, domestic violence courts, began in Brooklyn in 1996, mandating treatment and monitoring for batterers to ensure compliance with protective orders. In a further step to improve the judicial response to violence among intimates, Kaye has now created Integrated Domestic Violence Courts that assign a single judge to hear all aspects of a family’s case. And perhaps most revolutionary of all, the family courts are being enriched with the problem-solving model, emphasizing close judicial monitoring and meaningful outcomes.
So far, reviews on the new courts have been generally positive, with both the defense and prosecution in these cases endorsing the new approach.
“You can’t just dispose of the case when you’re talking about a behavioral problem that will just worsen. A slap one day otherwise may become a homicide,” says Kaye.Eleanor Smeal, Founder,
When the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan, bringing peace to the country but only at the price of an unprecedented oppression of women in the name of Islam, the Feminist Majority was one of the first explicitly feminist U.S. groups to protest.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority led the charge.
“We came before Congress and said: “Look at it. There are young girls being shot in the street by fundamentalist Islamic militias. The United Nations has a human rights charter. It was written in 1948–and they get away with this in 1996?” Smeal recalls.
The anti-Taliban efforts became knowns as the Campaign Against Gender Apartheid and has generated more mail to the State Department than any other single issue. The campaign also mobilized U.S. support for the efforts now underway to ensure women’s participation in a post-Taliban government. At the recent summit in Bonn, Germany, where an interim post-Taliban government was structured, women were included in the negotiations and two were given seats in the 13-member interim cabinet.
“We laid the foundation, I think,” says Smeal. “Women’s rights and what’s going to happen to them are on the table now.”
This autumn, Smeal has become the “go to” person the media and others rely on for information not only about the role of women in Afghanistan, but also the anthrax threats against abortion clinics and the possible connections between the two. And when First Lady Laura Bush made her historic radio address about the women in Afghanistan, her information was based on the Feminist Majority’s research.
Smeal has worked steadily for 22 years to master the art of building public support for women’s rights. In 1979, Smeal was president of the National Organization for Women and ardent campaigner for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. She and others began to notice a difference in male and female voting patterns, a distinct and traceable “gender gap.” In 1980, Smeal persuaded pollster Lou Harris to analyze support for Ronald Reagan along gender lines, revealing a gap of 8 percent. (In the last election, it was 11 percent.)
“Eight points is big enough to swing any election,” says Smeal “The pundits all thought it was crazy initially. We predicted back then that it would grow and it did.”
In 1987, after three terms as president of NOW, Smeal founded the Feminist Majority. The group’s domestic campaigns have included the defense of abortion clinics, lobbying for U.S. approval of mifepristone, the drug used in medical abortions, and a host of related issues.
Smeal also toured the country as part of the group’s Feminization of Power Campaign, which promoted women candidates in alliance with EMILY’s List. The campaign had its first peak in the fabled “Year of the Woman,” 1992, and a second in the elections of 2000 which sent historic numbers of women to Congress and state offices, including an additional four U.S. senators.
In 1994, the organization took action for the first time on an international issue, organizing women to march on the Bangladesh Embassy in support of author Taslima Nasreen. She had written that women were dominated by men as a rule and, “if anyone protests against such malpractices, as I have done, she is sure to be branded as a witch.” She was quickly deemed “anti-Islamic” and faced criminal charges and a fatwa, a religious edict, ordering her death.
Smeal’s activism against violence by fundamentalists has also led her to lobby federal officials to track down and prosecute anti-abortion fundamentalists in the U.S. By the end of 2001, two of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted were anti-abortion terrorists Eric Rudolph and Clayton Lee Waagner, the latter captured in December. Convincing top law enforcement officials to place a high-priority on these types of crimes, took years of work, says Smeal.
“More people are beginning to see that the fundamentalists here are a threat,” she says, and expresses hope that the violent anti-abortion Army of God will collapse under intense scrutiny.
Smeal is now preparing for the 2002 elections and beyond, and getting ready to hunker down for the next wave of work.
“We can’t take for granted that women will get their rights,” she says.
Chris Lombardi is a free-lance writer in New York. She coordinated Women’s Enews Fall 2000 election coverage and helped cover the Beijing + 5 conference on women. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine, the Progressive and Inside MS.
For more information:
Women’s Coalition for Sexuality and Health:
Center for Women’s Global Leadership:
Native Americans Case Story
Indian Trust: Cobill v. Babbitt:
Massman & Associates: Tracy Gary
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Office of the President
Judith S. Kaye
New York State Court of Appeals
Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye:
Feminist Majority Foundation