In the wake of Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, reproductive freedom appears to be more threatened than ever. So what’s a pro-choice advocate to do?
One thing that some feminist activists are doing is incorporating their art into their activism. And in Rhode Island, the smallest state in the nation, these art-activists are pushing hard for the state to codify abortion rights so that the service will remain in place in the state even if the federal courts overturn Roe v. Wade.
These art-activists call themselves The Woman Project (TWP), and starting in 2017 as a nonprofit 501(c)4 organization, they are angling to make sure that women’s rights are protected at the state level, starting with access to reproductive services.
The manifesto for TWP begins by appreciating art and creativity, and recognizes the necessity of both inclusion, justice, and environmental work in building a better world. The groups is also doing a bang-up job of collaborating with other activists networks in the state to make sure that the issue of reproductive freedom is on the table legislatively in the upcoming session. The group is working one of the most important tenets of feminist philanthropy — networking — to bring together groups including Planned Parenthood, Emerge RI, Adoption Inequality RI, the Unitarian Universalist Community in RI, Indivisible RI, the Cranston Action Network, the Women’s March Huddles, and RI NOW.
Rhode Island as the Testing Ground for Protecting Reproductive Freedom State by State
Rhode Island is an interesting state. Born on the principle of religious freedom, it continues to be known for its tolerance and open-mindedness. At the same time, the General Assembly is largely populated by Catholic men, who still adhere to the pro-life tenets of their religion and appear to be particularly influenced by the state’s Bishop, an outspoken (some might say even bullying) religious leader who considers LGBTQ people to be immoral and abortion to be a sin.
At the same time, much has been said about Rhode Island’s capacity to serve as a kind of “laboratory state.” With its small-scale legislation and population (1.06 million), Rhode Island is a place where it is possible to test out new theories and approaches to problems. Currently, the state is being hailed for its groundbreaking strategy for treating opioid addiction.
The same kind of breakthrough might be discovered by using Rhode Island to test out strategies for defending reproductive rights. Rhode Island could serve as a kind of “beta” for passing state legislation that protects reproductive services and, if successful (and it’s still a big if) this model could be scaled up and used in larger states.
This is where The Woman Project (TWP) comes into the equation. Along with advocating for women’s rights, TWP builds on Rhode Island’s reputation as an artsy state in the approach it uses to take activism to the streets. Currently, TWP is adding signers to a petition that will be published in The Providence Journal on September 30th, which will implore legislators to pass the Reproductive Healthcare Act introduced last year. The letter already has a significant number of signers and is still taking more up until September 14th.
With 63 percent of Rhode Islanders supporting safe, legal abortion, organizations like TWP are providing a vital service by calling on our legislators to represent the majority of the voters. “We brought together a community of people who are moving forward with supporting access to reproductive health care for all Rhode Islanders a priority, who are in support of this legislation and [are] going to do everything to get it passed next year,” said Jocelyn Foye, an artist and one of the founding members of TWP.
I asked Foye about what unique challenges and opportunities Rhode Island presents to the movement for reproductive freedom. “Other states have passed somewhat similar legislation Delaware, Illinois, Oregon and Massachusetts,” said Foye. “So this really builds on that momentum. I think what is different about Rhode Island than these states is that we have Gender Assembly leadership that is right-to-life endorsed, we do not have a NARAL branch, and Emily’s list isn’t active here. Without some of the national forces at play in other states, we have to get creative to get our message out, to be heard and work towards change. That is what is cool about how small Rhode Island is.”
As local activists creating new social policy, The Woman Projects definitely means business. In 2017, the group convinced their own local town Council in South Kingstown to pass a resolution in support of the Reproductive Health Care Act. Now they are seeking support to go statewide. Foye described how, among other strategies, the group might be launching a series of videos to increase support for passage of the Reproductive Healthcare Act this fall.