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02.06.12

Komen Incites Women’s ‘Tahrir Square Moment’

Komen’s dirty trick was nothing new, but it should galvanize women to fight the powerful fringe obsessed with others’ sex lives, writes former Planned Parenthood president, Gloria Feldt.

“I am off to feed my daughter (with breasts that were examined by Planned Parenthood doctors when I had no health insurance).”

Allie Wagstrom, a young mom in Minnesota whom I know only via Facebook, posted this on my page after she heard the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, parent of the ubiquitous pink-ribboned “Race for the Cure,” bowed to political pressure from the right and announced last week that it would no longer fund breast exams and breast health education at Planned Parenthood clinics. Komen’s astonishingly sloppy handling of the situation (for which they have now apologized and semi-retracted) put a black mark in indelible ink on their sweet pink ribbons.

Facebook popped a picture of Cynthia Nixon, the lead actor in the Broadway drama about ovarian cancer, Wit, next to Allie’s comment in an advertising tactic. Nixon’s bald head and gaunt face shocked the breath out of me, while social media exploded with the wrath of millions of women who felt scorned by a charity for which they had raced and purchased pink products they didn’t need.

Why this outpouring, even from women who had never openly supported Planned Parenthood? Abortion politics remain an uncomfortable abstraction to many. But we all have breasts. What woman hasn’t had that moment of fear when your heart skips a beat and you’re sure you’ve found the lump of doom?

Fear. Komen’s handling of this debacle is a case study in it. Republican members of Congress and far right anti-choice activists have been using fear of retribution to bully Komen into dropping Planned Parenthood for years, just as Congress held up the federal budget over funding to Planned Parenthood last year and groups like Project Mustard Seed threaten to boycott businesses and funders who support Planned Parenthood.

Komen finally buckled. Spokeswoman Leslie Aun told the media Planned Parenthood was dropped because of an investigation (read: witch hunt) by an arch-Republican House member, Cliff Stearns from Florida. And despite the frivolousness of many inquiries (in my 30 years with Planned Parenthood, congressional investigations were such a routine method of intimidation that we joked our offices should provide permanent space for federal auditors), Komen had a new policy prohibiting funding groups under federal investigation.

At least one of Komen’s corporate funders, Bank of America, is under federal investigation, and many suggested that the “new rule” should work both ways.

But by Brinker’s failed damage-control interview two days later with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, the story had changed. Congressional investigations had no impact on Komen’s decision, claimed Brinker, herself a top Republican donor and former Bush appointee.  No, Komen dropped Planned Parenthood after a 20-year relationship because the foundation would no longer support groups that do screening and referrals but not mammograms, Brinker said, as if none of us had been following the story.

The political dots connected directly: from the appointment of avidly anti-abortion activist, former Georgia secretary of state, and failed Georgia gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel as a Komen senior executive to Rep. Stearns’s conveniently timed investigation, to the new policy announced then retracted by Brinker. The Republican right is out of control, the War on Women is in full battle formation, and it was finally time for women—and men—to be mad as hell and stand up to the bullies. To have our Tahrir Square moment.

That Wagstrom and so many others are furious enough to vow spontaneously to stop Racing for the Cure, boycott Komen’s corporate sponsors (see which household names like Kitchen Aid, Yoplait, and Crayola you want to stop patronizing) and rip up those pink ribbons that have become badges of intolerance tells me something bigger is happening than whether any one organization gets funded.

If this were just about Planned Parenthood or yet another battle over abortion, the outrage would be dissipating. Women’s groups would have screamed their righteous indignation, raised a lot of money, and made no systemic change. Soon, the same Kabuki drama would be played out with another congressional attack or another worthy organization defunded.

But as a friend e-mailed me, “This is not a time to forgive, this is a time to find an alternative.” The American Association of University Women cancelled plans to incorporate a Race for the Cure into their National Conference for College Women Leaders. When I asked AAUW Policy Director Lisa Maatz whether they’d reinstate the race since Komen changed its position, she replied AAUW is “staying the course” until they see what Komen does long term. She added, “we hope everyone has taken note of what women’s solidarity can accomplish—in the press, on the web, and in our nation’s capital. AAUW hopes to continue to harness this energy and sense of purpose…to turn out the women’s vote in 2012.”

At last, women saw enough red to get over the pink, the fear and the preference to play victim rather than to embrace our own power.

And that’s exactly how to stand down both ideologues who are terrified of women getting a fair shake, and the small but powerful fringe obsessed with other people’s sex lives. Embracing our power is how to overcome the shaming and false allegations toward women’s human right to make their own childbearing decisions and reproductive health services that have saved the lives of everyday women, pro-life in the largest sense of that word. It is how to overcome the right’s demonization of anyone who doesn’t toe its narrow conservative line, whether it’s racist attacks on President Obama’s citizenship, intolerance of gays and lesbians, or disrespect for the moral capacity of women. To borrow the right-wing’s favorite book, Atlas isn’t going to take it anymore; we’re making a collective shrug on this one.

No excuses. No more fear. This is the moment for women to say, over and over and over, “You will pay a price if you try to get your way on our backs.” To win elections in the short haul, and fight forward with a progressive feminist agenda in the long haul.

Now that will be the real race for the cure.