The message delivered by the Asheville chapter of the National Organization for Women came through loud and clear Saturday night: Women want equal rights, and they want them NOW.
At 7 p.m., with sonic competition from a trio of DJs thumping house music on one end of Pack Square and an electric violinist swaying to his amplified compositions on the other, the Asheville NOW group gathered downtown to host a “Bitter Pill” rally that repudiated two Supreme Court decisions — McCullen v. Coakley and Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby — and to advocate the need for equality for 21st century women. A lively crowd of about 30 people (mostly women) attended the hour-long event, which featured six speakers, punctuated by a number of group chants and a handout of homemade pillbox hats for all to wear.
Lead speaker Byron Ballard, a self-described “free and natural woman,” was attired in a full-length, neon-green shawl and sported a pitchfork. She started the rally by condemning the Hobby Lobby case, in which the Supreme Court voted to allow some corporations to use religious objections to deny covering women’s birth control. She said that the decision showed that corporations in the U.S. are afforded more rights than people.
Ballard then asked the crowd: “Will it stand?”
In unison, the crowd responded with a resounding “No!”
“We can’t believe that we’re still protesting this, but we can, and we are, and we will,” Ballard said.
Sherri McLendon, vice president of Asheville NOW, said that her pillbox hat (and by this time, most attendees – male and female alike – had bobby-pinned a blue or orange one to their head) had belonged to her mother. The pillbox represented a time when women could not leave the house without wearing a raincoat, covering their hair, pulling on stockings and donning high heels, she said.
McLendon also talked about how, in 2013, the North Carolina legislature set back the clock on women’s rights by attaching abortion-rights restrictions to a motorcycle-safety-bill — a controversial tactic that was criticized by pro-choice advocates and called “anti-woman” by N.C. Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield.
McLendon went on to make the case that women were being treated as second-rate citizens.
“I am more than a legal extension of my father, brother, husband or son,” she said.
Other speakers included Leslie Boyd, director at WNC Health Advocates; the Rev. Lisa Bovee Kemper, an artist and activist; Lorrie Cummings, a gynecologist, Asheville NOW officer and former owner of Femcare; and singer-activist Antiga, who joined NOW in 1966.
Underlying the messages of all of the evening’s speakers was a plea for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment — a measure (originally supported by the Republican Party) that passed both houses of Congress in 1972 but wasn’t ratified by enough states to make it part of the Constitution. The ERA would codify women’s rights, and, according to McLendon, North Carolina could “tip the balance to get it through.”
She said, “This is something we’re not supposed to be able to do, but which can be done, should be done and will be done.”
Although Saturday’s speakers displayed enthusiasm, vigor and determination, younger men and women, and those of other ethnicities, weren’t there — either among the presenters or in the audience. And that absence may be key to explaining the recent erosion of women’s rights, said event organizers.
Following the rally, McLendon and Ballard talked about the issue and their efforts to reach out both to younger women and to women of different ethnicities. They agreed that a common ground could and would be found, and they expressed a desire to increase equality for future generations.
McLendon said that she had been laying the groundwork to reach out to the local branches of such groups as the Young Democrats and the Young Republicans. She also suggested establishing “empowerment programs” for high-school-age women that would talk about what their rights are, how the law works and what they need to be aware of as adults.
Ballard, on the other hand, said that she had been talking to women involved in local diversity organizations, such as Sarah Nuñez, who is affiliated with the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council, to discuss where their needs meet.
“The early part of the movement in the ’70s and ’80s got a justifiable rap for being a … movement with a lot of rich white women. It can’t work that way anymore,” Ballard said.
Regardless, the rally’s resounding message was that women everywhere can and should demand equal treatment under the law.
“Enough is enough,” McLendon concluded. “We’ve had it. The last time an American citizen was considered to be worth three-fifths of a human being, we had [the] Civil War.”
Western North Carolinians are invited to join the discussion. Asheville NOW will meet at the local YWCA on S. French Broad at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 3, to help chart the organization’s future in the area. A women’s issues voter-education event is also planned for this fall (more details to be forthcoming. For more information, go to http://ashevillenow.blogspot.com.