L’il Rhody Smashes Patriarchy, Saving Repro Rights. How’d They Do It?

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Donors and advocates used art to help the state pay attention to women’s reproductive rights. (Photo Credit: Steve Alquist)

Yesterday was a very big day for the feminist community in Rhode Island. With votes of 21-17 in the Senate and 45-29 in the House, last night Rhode Island passed the Reproductive Privacy Act, guaranteeing all people access to reproductive rights as defined by Roe v. Wade, no matter what the Federal Government does.

There were many women’s funds leaders, volunteers and donors who helped make this happen, including Kelly Nevins, Executive Director of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. In an email to her constituents, Nevins offered extra special thanks to our women legislators who fought this battle to the finish. “An extra special thank you to our elected officials who worked tirelessly to make this happen, including House Sponsor Representative Anastasia Williams, Senate Sponsor Senator Gayle Goldin and Senator Erin Lynch Prata who worked to ensure the bill made it to the Senate floor for a full vote.”

Other important leaders of the movement shared their insights about this monumental legislative victory with Philanthropy Women. Jordan Hevenor, Co-Founder of The Womxn Project (TWP), which was an extremely active, visible, and persistent force at the Rhode Island State House for the past year, had this to say: “The art and activism of TWP means that we ask people to use all their skills and interests to engage. Thinking about your mission of Philanthropy Women, it is interesting to highlight that many of our volunteers are also our donors. To drive the work you want to be able to support, you have to understand that impact the funding has.  By working with us they see the impact and value of their contributions to the movement.”

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Jocelyn Foye, Tammy Brown, Jennifer Rourke, and Jordan Hevenor, at the State House. Advocates from The Womxn Project inhabited space like never before in the State House and became a constant reminder to legislators about the need to protect reproductive rights. (Photo credit: TWP)

While I never made it down to the State House to practice advocacy on this issue, I watched closely online and was often struck by the incredible vibe that pictures and updates offered on this vital movement. The creative nature of the practices made it feel like a carnival of women-centered activity at the State House, and I could see why so many people were showing up for events.   

There was pie-baking, quilt-making, dancing, and dressing up in Handmaid’s Tale outfits for dramatic pictures and videos. It all sounded too good to be true, when my previous experiences of advocating at the State House, usually alone or with a smaller group of people, was much more dry and depressing.

But it was true, and what’s more — it was so very effective. The backstory to TWP’s effectiveness goes to its beginnings, responding to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Hevenor says TWP wanted to “create activism that could engage anyone wherever they are at with completable tasks, while also helping them understand our state government in greater detail.  That has helped build a ladder of engagement.”

This ladder of engagement is part of the process of bringing more people into movement-building. “We know from research that, to get a woman to run for office, you need to ask her seven times, but what about everything it takes to get a woman to the point someone would think to ask her? TWP has been focusing on filling that gap for people.”

The way TWP does this is very practical. With its quilt project, for example, engagement would often start with asking someone to sign a square of the quilt, and taking that time to share with them the problem — that Rhode Island was in danger of losing its reproductive health care protections. Then, says Hevenor, “The person might ask what is next with their quilt square,” a natural tie-in to discussing the larger community and how, at upcoming events, they would be sewing quilt pieces together. “Our sewing bees have been 3-4 hour events with people talking and sewing. We get to know each other, we talk about reproductive healthcare, including abortion, we talk about how the State House work,” says Hevenor.

The next step to build TWP’s advocacy base might be to invite someone to the State House for some experiential learning on the State House’s process. “Over the course of the last six months, we created a very successful postcarding program, and the main reason it was so successful was because postcarding is a task people can do anywhere at any time of day,” says Hevenor. This worked well for donors who wanted to be engaged and hands-on with advocacy. Upon reflection, says Hevenor, “I think there is an important component of people volunteering with us and donating at the same time.” 

Rhode Island may serve as a great case example for other states and localities that want to protect abortion and safeguard reproductive rights. As a small state known for running its government like an insider’s club, this is a major breakthrough for women’s rights. Women donors and advocates seeking to advance reproductive protections in other states should take a page from Rhode Island’s book by studying The Womxn Project, the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, and the Planned Parenthood networks that helped to produce this positive outcome.


Philanthropy Women covers funding for gender equity in all sectors of society. We want to significantly shift public discourse, particularly in philanthropy, toward increased action for gender equality. You can support our work and access unlimited and premium content with one of our subscriptions

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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