Local female leaders say that in terms of women’s rights and issues, there is still progress to be made.
Ruth Taylor Read, president of Women Matter East Tennessee, talks to women in the community on a regular basis. Just this month, officers of the nonprofit women’s group met to discuss issues affecting women and what had changed.
She said that when having such a discussion, the necessary points to acknowledge were pay inequity, comprehensive health care that includes birth control, abortion, prenatal care and safe births, and rounding out the list was domestic and sexual violence.
“It’s not an exciting list but it is an honest list. And these are the things that directly impact women and their everyday lives,” said Read.
Read said comprehensive healthcare, which would include birth control, abortion, prenatal care and safe births, is not something all women have access to in the area.
She pointed out specifically the high maternal mortality rates in the United States, which is the rate at which women die from causes related to or aggravated by pregnancy or management of pregnancies.
According to a report released in September by the nonprofit Tennessee Justice Center, the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. is higher than those of other developed countries and rising.
Tennessee ranked 33rd in maternal mortality in the U.S., which researchers attribute in part to a lack of of Medicaid expansion, the opioid crisis and poor health and behaviors (like smoking and other health concerns) in women before they become pregnant.
It is also an issue that, according to the World Health Organization, disproportionately affects women of color, uninsured women and women with obesity.
“I think it makes me realize as the mother of daughters and the grandmother of granddaughters, that those who follow me, my daughters and granddaughters have a higher chance of a risk of dying than I did when I gave birth to them. I mean, it’s frightening, isn’t it?” said Read.
The #MeToo movement
Concerning sexual assault and domestic violence, Read describes her outlook as, “cautiously optimistic.”
Since the #MeToo movement came to light, Read said she has seen a unity grow among survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence and that the attitude toward those issues is changing.
Read said seeing sexual assault survivors like Dr. Christine Ford testify in front of the Senate fostered a sense of unity among survivors. However, she said there was a sense of exhaustion at the Women Matter meeting after Ford’s hearing, which came from the scrutiny from both the people around them and the media that many sexual assault victims get when coming forward.
“I would be remiss not to acknowledge that because they do they get threats,” Read said, “They get ridiculed. They get ridiculed for a lot of things (including) physical appearance. Even Dr. Ford did.”
Read said she would also like to see a more equal representation of women in the media, saying that women receive too much ridicule and the media allows it.
“I think that they allow too much of that to go on. Too much ridiculing women for their physical appearance too much ridiculing ‘why did they do this then?’ ‘Why didn’t they say differently then?’ ‘Why now?’ That isn’t trauma informed response, we all know that,” Read said.
She also stressed the importance of righting wrongs to make things better for future generations.
“I am past my reproductive years, but if we don't look out for my daughters and my granddaughters and young women, not acknowledging that bodily autonomy is probably the cornerstone of our existence, it’s a very bad thing to ignore,” Read said. “Healthcare and reproductive issues are what allow us to determine our daily lives and our fate, our jobs, our education, everything. It affects everything that touches our daily lives.”
Women of color
Diane Bradley is the founder of Women of Color, a local group that meets once a month to talk about issues they encounter as women of color.
On the first Tuesday of every month, at 6 p.m., usually at The Willow Tree in downtown Johnson City, the women meet to discuss their lives and support one another.
“It’s kind of a group to where we bounce ideas off each other and it’s a place to talk where we don’t feel intimidated, we don’t feel like we’re going to be judged, we don’t feel like we’re going to be told we don’t know what we’re talking about. We all live in the same kind of the same boat and are thought about the same way and it’s really sad,” Bradley said.
Bradley said they talk about how women of color are treated.
“There is a lot of discrimination that still exists in this area when it comes to women of color. I don’t know if people realize that, if they know it and just don’t care,” she said.
This was a feeling that hit home after Women of Color was supposed to meet in Hampton. She said that because of what she’d heard about the town and how people of color are treated there, she made a decision that the group would not meet there.
Making decision for the group is not something Bradley does often, but when she told the members, she said many women agreed with it and told her they would have not gone if she’d not canceled.
Bradley also said discrimination is not just in passing but a general expectation. To garner equal respect, women of color cannot just be like everyone else, a plight that has been echoed in the media by people of color.
“You can’t just be average. You have to do more, you have to be more, you have to work harder, it’s like you’re .. I don’t want to say looked down upon, but I kind of do want to say that.”
She said that even relatively small things like having a door slammed in her face when someone had been holding it for others reminds her what people can be like.
“You’re expected to stay in your place,” Bradley said. “Even though no one’s been able to tell me what my place is.”