Patricia Ryan considers herself a fairly optimistic person in general, but these days the former director of the Maine Human Rights Commission says she’s worried.
Ryan is among a number of older Maine human rights advocates who were part of that movement decades ago and find themselves facing some of the same policy issues in the wake of the November elections and Republican sweep of the presidency and both houses of Congress.
“I view with dismay and trepidation conditions as we are going into this new world configuration,” Ryan said this week. “I think the women’s issues we fought for in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s — reproductive freedom, economic security and equality — are still here, and we need to make sure we don’t lose any of the advances we made.”
Ryan, 72, who founded the Maine Women’s Lobby in 1978, believes current events on the local, state and federal levels mean there is no time to sit on the sidelines, and it is time for younger generations to join in.
“We have to hold our ground,” she said. “I think there is a complacency among girls and women who grew up under the protections we fought for [and] a belief those protections were always there.”
Reported legislative efforts on state and federal levels to defund Planned Parenthood, restrict abortion, limit access to affordable birth control and a fear of sexual harassment and violence toward women increasing under the incoming administration has galvanized Ryan and other activists in Maine who hoped their days of fighting these particular battles were over.
“For me, it’s not about asking, ‘Are we done?’ and ‘Can we just sit back?’” Ryan said. “Of course we can’t [because] oh my God, here we go again.”
That’s why not long after Donald Trump was declared the winner of the 2016 presidential elections, Ryan said she was booking a trip to Washington to participate in the scheduled Women’s March this weekend.
“I think it’s important for women to make a stand right now and show how concerned and how supportive we are,” she said. “One of the ways of doing so is participating in the march.”
Now is the time to transform anger into action, according to Julia “Judy” Kahrl, a longtime advocate for reproductive rights and founder of the Maine-based Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights, or GRR!
“A lot of women my age remember what it was like before Roe versus Wade, when contraception and abortions were hard to get,” the 81-year-old grandmother said this week. “And back then, low-income women had the hardest time accessing those services.”
Kahrl believes the current wave of right-wing political thinking in this country threatens decades of progress and the widespread freedoms younger women and their partners now take for granted.
“We all have stories of how it used to be,” she said.
Stories like of her then-medical student brother seeing two young women dying following botched abortions in the 1950s or her husband telling her about his student, whose girlfriend “bled out” following an illegal and medically unsafe abortion.
“The fact that a Republican has introduced a bill in Congress to ban an abortion if there is a fetal heartbeat effectively bans all abortions,” Kahrl said. “Women will go back to the back alleys again. They will find a way to have abortions by any means they can.”
Retired physician and reproduction freedom advocate Ruth Lamdan of Deer Isle said she started feeling a growing unease about erosion of hard-fought human rights several years ago.
“In 2014 there were two United States Supreme Court Decisions that made me feel we were on a slippery slope again,” she said. “The Hobby Lobby case and the decision to eliminate safe zones around abortion clinics.”
Lamden, who was presented The Mabel Wadsworth Center’s 2016 Woman Power Award for her volunteer work distributing information and free condoms on Deer Isle, vividly recalls her medical school admissions interview in 1970, a time when medicine was a male-dominated profession.
“It was a nightmare,” she said. “I was asked what would I do if I got pregnant. I’m not sure I even considered myself a feminist at the time. I was just trying to do my work, get an education and become a doctor.”
Ryan finds the current political climate “disheartening” and said she has a strong sense of things moving backward.
“People who have gone through these battles before have concrete memories of what things were like 30, 40 or 50 years ago,” she said. “Younger generations hear the stories and the words [such as] ‘back-alley abortions’ but don’t have a real sense of what it means.”
“It seems so wrong that the advances that have been made, which I firmly believe have been shown to protect women and men as a whole, are being discussed in terms of eliminating or rolling back,” she said. “I think we are going to have to fight immediately to keep things they way they are.”
Kahrl shares those concerns.
“I can’t believe in 2017 we are having this conversation, and it’s not just issues specific to women,” she said. “I worry a lot about the way this new [presidential] administration will govern, and I am seeing a lot of people walking around with slumped shoulders and with knots in our stomachs.”
Kahrl and her fellow “grandmas” are heading to Augusta this weekend to take part in a Maine-organized rally to coincide with the march in Washington.
“This is a very interesting time, and I see what is sweeping over the nation as a war on women, as much as I hate to say that,” she said. “Being involved today is not just for us because we are beyond that; it’s about the generations coming up.”
It’s time for the younger generations to join that fight, Lamdan said.
“The young people have to get charged up [and] pick up the banner,” she said. “I only have so much strength to do this again. We can get through this as long as we stand together, speak out and keep fighting.”