On Thursday, November 2nd at 2:00 pm EST. Stephanie Schriock, President of "Emily's List," (www.emilyslist.org) will be speaking at a Webinar sponsored by the DA Global Women's Caucus.
Since it was founded in 1985, Emily' List has trained and supported thousands of Democratic, pro-choice women to run for office. It has helped elect a diverse group of 116 women to the House, 23 to the Senate, 12 governors and over 800 to state and local offices.
Stephanie and her team are working hard to encourage women to run across the country! They have started "Run to Win," a national recruitment and training program providing in-person training, webinars and other resources to increase women's participation across all levels of government. They have over 18,000 women attending programs and need our support to continue this effort through November, 2018.
This event is open to all Democrats Abroad members and their guests world-wide, so we encourage everyone, men and women alike, to join us and hear the tremendous difference Emily's List continues to make.
With 59 people dead and over 500 people injured in the recent shooting in Las Vegas, we can no longer sit back and allow our country to be used as a shooting gallery for people with problems.
This continued gun violence is unacceptable and we need to make the lives of our representatives uncomfortable. Today we begin a campaign to End Gun Violence. Please email, tweet, Facebook post or call your governors, state and federal representatives with one or more of these simple messages. Click the links to download shareable graphics aka memes.
Use this link to find government representatives from city mayors to senators and their contact and social media information: https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials
If you would like to call, click here for a sample call script:
If you would like to email, click here for sample email script:
A Tweet Storm Is Planned Starting Friday Through Sunday. Everyone possible should participate. If you don't have a twitter account you can quickly make one at Twitter.com. It only takes a couple of minutes. Be sure to add a picture to your profile, it gives you more credibility. When you Tweet your Senator and Governor, use the hashtag #GunControlNow
You can use the free site Tweetdeck to set up scheduled and automated tweets. Let your representatives know how you feel several times a day. Go to https://tweetdeck.twitter.com/ and add in your twitter account. Click on new Tweet, type what you want to say and schedule it. You can schedule multiple tweets for various dates and times.
Find out if your congress members have taken money from the NRA and call them out for it. Luckily most Democrats have not received donations from the NRA.
This is a problem we can all help solve. Your participation is essential.
by Nancy L. Coleman, Ph.D.
From the series: The GWC examines Women's Policy around the world
Demonstration for women's suffrage in New York, 1913
Norway is a parliamentary, representative, democratic, constitutional monarchy. This is a mouthful of characteristics, but for all practical purposes it means that Norway has a monarch who has symbolic power only. The actual governing power is invested in the Parliament (called Stortinget). Following a parliamentary election, which takes place every four years, the government is formed by the majority party, or a coalition of parties. The head of the Executive branch is the Prime Minister. The PM is not elected to that position, but usually comes from the largest party in the Parliament and is designated when the Government is formed. The Government and Parliament cooperate in enacting laws.
Even though his role is mostly symbolic, King Harald V plays an active role in Norwegian society. Norway has been changing rapidly, partly due to immigration from war zones in Africa and the Middle East. In exercising their official duties, King Harald and Queen Sonja show that they want to foster an atmosphere of inclusiveness and unity in a country that is challenged by the rather sudden diversity. Queen Sonja is very concerned with women´s issues and calls herself a feminist. She is also a talented graphic artist and photographer.
Norwegian Women and Political Power
Erna Solberg is the current Prime Minister, and 7 of the 18 cabinet members are women, including Siv Jensen in the powerful position of Minister of Finance. Policies that foster gender equality are outspoken goals in the cabinet and Parliament, but it is not easy to attain it. An important goal is for each sex to have at least 40% representation in Parliament. In the Parliament elected in September 2013, 39.6% of the members of parliament (MPs) are women. Norway ranks 14th globally in the percentage of women in Parliament. Of the Nordic countries Iceland ranks highest, 47.6 % women and ranked number 4, after Rwanda (61.3%), Bolivia (53.1%), and Cuba (48.9%). Sweden is number 6, with 43.3% women. Denmark has 37.4% women and ranks 22nd. All of these countries have a unicameral legislature. In comparison, the USA has 19.1% women in the House, 21% in the Senate, and ranks 104th.
The most recent national election was held on September 11, 2017. Erna Solberg and her Conservative bloc were given renewed support and will continue to govern. The representation of women in the Parliament increased to 41%, 69 of 169 representatives, the largest percentage women have ever achieved. The Center Party has the most women representatives, 10 out of 19, with Labor in second place, 24 out of 49 representatives. The Conservatives have 20 women out of 45 representatives.
Like many Western democracies, Norway has many political parties, 15 in the most recent election. Nine parties are represented in the new Parliament, and the government is a coalition consisting of the Conservative and Progress parties, with support from the Christian Democrat and Left parties. Women chair three of these four parties: Erna Solberg (Conservatives), Siv Jensen (Progress), and Trine Skei Grande (Left).
(Photo left: The first women member of Parliament, Anna Rogstad, who served in 1911, before Norwegian women got the vote in 1913)
Women in Norway gained the right to vote in 1913, but it took several decades before significant numbers of women became active participants in politics. As in many other countries, women mobilized in the 1970s in the new feminist movement. They brought feminist issues into the political agenda, asserting the right to equal pay, that society should provide childcare, that women should decide themselves whether to have an abortion, and they proposed a 6-hour working day.
In 1986, Gro Harlem Brundtland became the first woman Prime Minister in Norway. She formed a cabinet in which nearly half of the members were women, and this attracted international attention. This has set a standard for subsequent governments, even though the work is not finished.
International Cooperation on Gender Policy
Norway is not a member of the European Union, but it cooperates with the EU, the UN, the European Council, and the Nordic Council of Ministers. Norway has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and reports regularly on its progress. (The USA has signed but not ratified it.) After Denmark, Finland, and Sweden joined the EU, Nordic cooperation was toned down for a few years, but it is now being intensified once again. One of the key areas for cooperation is promoting gender equality, as there is wide consensus that gender equality policy has been one of the most important factors in the success of the Nordic welfare state, which has proven capable of designing a sustainable welfare model that promotes the "good life" for every individual.
The Nordic Council of Ministers is a cooperation between Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Oland. The Council has cooperated on gender equality since 1974, developing similar policies in the member nations. In 2017, the Council is conducting a Sectoral Program for Gender Equality, which Norway will chair since it holds the presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers this year. Four main priorities in this project are: work to combat violence, work to combat hate speech, gender equality in the labor market, and men and gender equality. Conferences are being held to address each of these areas, and the results of the project will eventually create common policies.
Gender Equality Policy in Norway
Norway has been developing gender equality policy for several decades. In 1978, Parliament adopted the Gender Equality Act, and it was last revised in 2013. The Act shall promote gender equality and aims in particular at improving the position of women. Women and men shall be given equal opportunities in education, employment, and cultural and professional advancement. Gender equality policy has broad reach and is incorporated into many departments and governmental agencies, but the Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion, currently led by Solveig Horne (Progress Party), is responsible for coordinating family and equality policy and proposing legislation. The Ministry of Education and Research and the Ministry of Local Government and Modernization also play important roles. Gender equality is an integral part of the school curricula. Gender equality must be considered when hiring for teaching and research positions in higher education. If one sex is underrepresented, applications from the other sex are specifically invited, and qualified candidates from the underrepresented gender often take precedence. On all official committees, boards and councils, each gender must have at least 40 % of the members. The Ministry of Defense is also implementing policy to create gender-neutral armed forces. Girls born in 1997 and later will be serving in the military in larger numbers. About a third of those drafted and cleared for military service in 2016 were women. Women have served as Ministers of Defense since 1999, and in fact, with the exception of the years 2001-2002 and 2011-2012, all of the Ministers of Defense who have served since then have been women. Ine Eriksen Søreide (Conservative Party) is the current minister.
Gender equality policies will eventually impact all areas of society. Policies have been developed and more or less successfully integrated into the following areas: families and relationships; work, welfare and the economy; power and decision-making; education and research; crime and violence; peace and development; culture, media and sports; and health and reproductive rights. Gender policy is still being developed in other areas: transport and communication; finance; agriculture and food; fisheries and coastal affairs; petroleum and energy; and the environment.
One important policy area is women's health. Norway has universal health coverage, and it is a guiding principle that a woman has the right to make decisions regarding her own body. Women have the right to free health services during pregnancy and childbirth. There is easy access to contraception, and the Abortion on Demand Act, passed in 1978, regulates a woman's right to decide to terminate a pregnancy. The woman may decide herself in the first 12 weeks, while a commission must approve an abortion from 12-13 weeks, and except in exceptional circumstances, it is outlawed after 13 weeks. There are 16.2 abortions per 1000 women in the age group 15-44 years. In 2016, the US abortion rate fell to 14.6 per 1000 women, and this was the lowest since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973.
Gro Harlem Brundtland became the first woman Prime Minister og Norway in 1986. Forty percent of her cabinet were women.
Much of Norwegian gender policy is centered around women's role as mothers. The system includes rights to parental leave, social security payments for children, leave to take care of sick children, and the right to childcare through a pre-school from the age of 1.
All countries have a goal of maintaining a stable population, among other things to ensure that the workforce is constantly fed with new generations. But Western countries have seen the fertility rate declining, and this has caused concern for the future of western democracies. Women are taking more education and participating in the workforce in increasing numbers, they are marrying and starting their families later and having fewer children. With an eye to making it easier for couples, but women in particular, to combine work with parenting, Norway has developed policies with the goal of making it easier to combine work and family.
In order for a population to remain stable, the fertility rate needs to be 2.1, that is that each woman needs to have on average slightly more than 2 children. In 1970, the fertility rate in Norway was 2.5, but by 1980, it had dropped to 1.72. Policies for longer paid parental leave and other measures seemed were developed, and these seemed at first to have a very beneficial effect, bringing the fertility rate up to 1.98 in 2009. Other European countries, like Italy, where the fertility rate was hovering around 1.4, sent delegations to Norway to study the impact of the family policies. However, the next years showed that there were no easy solutions to alleviate a falling birth rate. Every year since 2009, the fertility rate in Norway has declined, and in 2016, it was 1.71. Even so, it is one of the highest in Europe and other western style democracies.
When a child is born, parents in the workforce have the right to parental leave of 49 weeks at full pay, or 59 weeks at reduced pay. Parents of twins have the right to 54 weeks at full pay, 64 at reduced, and parents of triplets 59 or 69 weeks. In the case of adoption, the rights are usually the same. Single parents have the right to a leave of 2 years. In addition, two-parent families may take an additional year of leave, but the second year is without pay. Employers are required to grant parents parental leave, and the social security system refunds some or all of the salary to the employer. The refund has a maximum limit, and if a parent has a larger salary, it is up to the employer whether the remainder is also paid during leave. A pregnancy or leave may not be grounds for dismissal from a job. Parents who are not in the workforce receive a one-time sum of ca. $5475 for each child born.
One goal is to ensure that both the mother and father enjoy equal rights to parental leave, so the leave is currently divided into a father quota and a mother quota, each consisting of 10 weeks, with the remainder to be divided as the parents see fit. The mother must also take the last 3 weeks before her due date as part of her leave, and the six weeks after the birth are reserved for her. The work environment law also gives the father the right to a 14-day leave in connection with a birth. However, his employer decides whether it is paid or unpaid leave. Only in special cases can the father and mother quotas be transferred to the other parent.
The father quota was originally 14 weeks, but the Conservative government has reduced it to 10, in an effort to give the parents more freedom in dividing the leave to suit themselves. Analysts warned that this would lead to a reduction in the length of leave that fathers would be willing to take, and this has proved to be the case. There is at present general consensus that the father quota should be increased.
Women in the workplace who are nursing have the right to nurse or pump milk while at work. This time is paid leave of up to an hour a day.
Norway acknowledges the fact that children cost money. Parents receive $115 a month for each child up to the age of 18. Single parents may receive additional aid. Working parents have the right to stay home with sick children up to the age of 12, 10 days per year for parents of 1-2 children, 15 for 3 or more. Single parents have 20/30 days of sick leave to care for sick children, and if your child has a chronic illness, the quota will be extended by an additional 10 days.
When a child turns one, the parents have the right to childcare at a local nursery school and kindergarten, and children continue in this system up to the age of 6, when they generally start school. Parents pay for nursery school, but there is a maximum payment, and siblings are given a rebate. Childcare is subsidized for parents who cannot afford it, so that all families can exercise their right to qualified childcare.
Care of Elderly Family Members
Employees have the right to 60 days' leave to provide care for elderly family members or others dependent on their care. Employers decide whether this is paid or unpaid leave, but employers may apply for "care funds" refunded for an employee taking such leave. Employees may also take up to 10 days off to help elderly or sick family members who need help not otherwise provided.
Managerial Positions, Professorships, and Boards
In 2016, a number of new proposals were approved to help increase the number of women in managerial and board positions. The government had commissioned an assessment of gender equality, delivered to the Parliament in 2015. The opposition felt that the proposals did not do enough to promote women in leadership positions, and they suggested additional measures. Majority support for the most radical measures came from the parties not presently in the government: the Left, Labor, Christian Democrats, Center Party, and Socialist Left Party. These proposals targeted board rooms, with a goal of 40% female board chairpersons in publicly owned companies, new strategies to recruit women managers and university professors, stipulations to counter gender-based salary inequalities, the replacement of part-time with full positions, and a system of extra credits to equalize the number of girls and boys taking high school curricula traditionally dominated by one sex.
Egg Donation and Frozen Eggs
Two fairly new issues being debated as I write are egg donation and having one's eggs frozen. In their platforms for 2013-2017, the Progress Party, the Left, Labor and the Socialist Left Party all approved egg donation, while Conservatives, the Center Party and the Christian Democrats oppose it. The Green Party has proposed to rescind their disapproval in their new platform. This issue splits the parties in discordance with the government coalition, with the Conservatives and Christian Democrats opposing it, and the Progress Party and the Left supporting it. All of the parties are in the process of developing platforms for the next period, and the Conservatives are currently vigorously debating the question, while the Christian Democrats are throwing their weight around hoping to influence the Conservatives to continue opposing it.
In today's society, women often do not find a partner with whom they have children until their childbearing years are on the wane. An increasing number of women have eggs frozen before it is too late, so that they might have children later. In Norway, it is not permitted for women to have their eggs frozen, and an increasing number have therefore had them frozen abroad. Politicians are debating whether this policy should be changed, but there is fairly broad consensus that there are good reasons not to encourage women to become mothers after their natural childbearing years have ended. It is better to emphasize policies so that women can combine motherhood and careers when their bodies are designed for it.
Erna Solberg is the current Prime Minister. Party chairs in the Conservative bloc: Siv Jensen (Minister of Finance, Progress Party), Erna Solberg (Prime Minister, Conservative Party), Knut Arild Hareide (Christian Democrats), Trine Skei Grande (Left Party)
New Areas for Gender Policy Development: Violence against Women, Media, and Technology
One important "new" issue is gender based violence. Even though this has been a problem for a long time, there is more awareness of it today, as well as a will to address it through policy. Thanks to the women's movement and social scientists, it has been placed on the socio-political agenda. Gender based violence encompasses a wide range of human rights violations: sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, the trafficking and prostitution of women and children, as well as several harmful traditional practices, such as genital mutilation. Women are commonly the victims of gender based violence. Violence threatens the health, security, and dignity of its victims. Male violence against women and children is seen as a hindrance to achieving gender equality, and it is now being addressed by the Government.
Another new area is media and technology. In recent years there has been a tendency for mainstream culture to adopt the imagery and esthetics of pornography. Women are seen as objects, and the public space has undergone sexualization and "pornographization". The Gender Equality Act forbids advertising that discriminates on the basis of gender, and the law has been invoked in connection with a number of sexualized advertisements that were subsequently withdrawn.
Information and communication technology is also being addressed as a gendered phenomenon. On the one hand, it is desirable to make ICT available to all citizens. On the other hand, the widespread use of social media in our time has had some negative effects that help spread hate speech, sexual harassment, child pornography, and human trafficking.
Public opinion usually gives strong support to gender policies, as well as the goal of creating a society with equal rights and opportunities for women and men. Women politicians also command wide respect and support from their constituents. So how are the policies themselves working out?
Even though Norway has spent several decades developing gender policies, it is early to draw sweeping conclusions. But there are many indications that there are benefits to be drawn from a society that makes it possible for women and men to participate more or less equally in all sectors of public and private life. The Armed Forces, for example, which for generations was a man´s domain, see the participation of women as very positive. Women have changed and improved many aspects of military life, from leadership to daily life in the barracks, where women and men often share sleeping quarters – for sleep, not sex! Recent research shows that the number of sexual harassment cases has gone done, and both women and men feel that sharing sleeping quarters makes it easier to concentrate on the task at hand.
An important goal for many countries is to get women into the workplace and keep them there. Population studies show that this goal is in fact vital for countries to survive. The populations of many European countries are literally in the process of dying off. Ukraine is the country that has lost the most population, 9.5 million people since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1993. But Romania, Moldova, Latvia, Bosnia Hercegovina, Lithuania, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Belarus, Estonia, Poland, Greece, Portugal, Russia, Slovakia, Montenegro, and Germany are also in the threatened category. Macedonia, Slovenia, Albania, the Czech Republic, Italy, and Spain will also experience significant loss of population. The Scandinavian countries, Austria, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Great Britain, Switzerland, and Ireland, will experience growth. Norway is projected to have the highest growth rate, a population increase of 25.9%.
In Norway, generous family policies have helped numerous couples combine work and family life. But so far, they have not given the important political results of increasing the fertility rate to the sustainable 2.1. Trude Lappegård and Lars Dommermuth at the Norwegian Bureau of Statistics have looked at the fertility rates since the highpoint in 2009. Starting with 2010 the rate has gone down every year. Two factors are important: 1) women are waiting longer to have children, and 2) fewer are having a third child. But with such good family policies in place in Norway, why is this happening? According to Lappegård and Dommermuth, people want to have children just as much as before. But potential parents experience a lot of uncertainty regarding the general economic situation and their own access to the job market. Norway was not hit as hard by the financial crisis as many other European countries. Nevertheless due to other factors, there are fewer jobs, and there are many uncertainties for young people looking for work. Especially in areas where unemployment is high, the birth rate has sunk markedly. It now takes longer to get established in a job, and the path into the workforce is crucial for people to have children. Women in particular experience more uncertainty in their economic prospects and postpone having children. Minister of Finance Siv Jensen has emphasized the need for more women in fulltime positions, if Norway is to preserve and develop the welfare state. Studies have shown that stay-at-home moms or women who work part time have more children. There is no indication that it will be feasible to get more women into fulltime jobs and simultaneously increase the fertility rate.
However, there is every indication that generous family policies have been of benefit to Norway. Even though there is a running debate on the details, no one would suggest decreasing parental leave and terminating the other benefits mentioned above.
At the moment, France has the highest fertility rate in Europe (1.93), but this was the lowest rate in 40 years. French women are also going to school longer and giving priority to careers in the workplace. The trend is similar to the Scandinavian countries. But contrary to what many people believe, there are positive signs. The highest fertility rates in Europe are found in the countries where the most women are in the workforce. Experience from both France and Scandinavia shows that general female participation in the workforce is the most effective way to increase fertility. But it is dependent on good policies for prenatal healthcare, parental leave and childcare.
There is every indication that Norwegian gender policy is promoting a more egalitarian society and a country with a sustainable welfare system which can more easily survive and adapt to our changing world.
Nancy L. Coleman, Ph.D.
Our steering committee members are all very excited about the work we have been doing during the summer hiatus. Here is our update:
THE SUCCESSFUL TOWN HALL MEETING WITH ELIZABETH WARREN
On September 17, 2017 Democrats Abroad and the Global Women’s Caucus had a very successful meeting via a WEBEX Town Hall with Elizabeth Warren during which she responded to many of the concerns of Democrats Abroad.
GWC 2018 CALENDAR
Our GWC 2018 calendar with the theme “WOMEN FIRST” is almost in production so keep your eyes open for the ON SALE NOW announcement with purchase details in early November. We have raised 1300$ in sponsorship from 12 primary sponsors (THANK YOU SPONSORS). But there is still room for you to participate. If you would like to contribute please click HERE
We will be encouraging the country committees of Democrats Abroad to purchase in volume (for example, 25 calendars) for resale during your country and city activities. If you have any questions about the calendar, please email either or both of us at [email protected]
EMILY’s LIST WEBEX ON NOVEMBER 2, 2017
The Global Women’s Caucus will be welcoming, via a WEBEX Town Hall, Stephanie Schriock, the President of Emily’s List (www.emilyslist.org). Founded in 1985, Emily’s List has helped make history for over 30 years by assisting Pro Choice, Democratic Women candidates in getting elected to Congress. Stephanie will be sharing with us the what, who, when, why and where of Emily’s List and the Pro Choice Women Democrat candidates it is supporting to gear us up for the mid-terms.
The WEBEX Town Hall will take place on November 2, 2017 at 20 h CET. Be on the lookout for the WEBEX announcement and sign up information. And do plan watch parties!!! You can go ahead and send your questions for Stephanie to Salli at [email protected]
JANUARY 21ST WOMEN’S MARCH ANNIVERSARY GLOBAL EVENTS
The GWC is organising a global celebration, membership and get out the vote (GOTV) drive on January 21, 2018.
Every city/country/group is invited to create their own unique event around a set of "core elements" that will unify all our celebrations large or small and which will be communicated shortly.
The purpose is to re kindle the excitement and confidence that the Women’s March generated and channel that energy to the mid-terms, boost membership and voter registration. We will be going “LIVE” on YouTube and other social media on a rolling time-zone basis to showcase in each city a 15-30 minute special event they would like to broadcast to all who are watching (speaker, theater, music, discussion on hot women’s issues etc). We would like to also encourage even smaller groups to participate in this global "passing-of-the-torch," perhaps with just a shout-out from your house party.
Please fill out this GOOGLE FORM so that we will have an idea of which country committees and DA Women Caucus’ would like to participate … it is of course not limited to country committees or Women Caucus’ since most events will take place in one or more cities per country and we hope the other DA Caucuses will participate as well. We just need a nay or yeah, and if you do have an idea of what type of event you would like to broadcast, do let us know on the form.
This is going to be HUGE so do get back to us so that we can start organizing. Our project manager for these events is Angela Fobbs ([email protected]) for the IT management and Ann and me for communications. So if you have any questions, please get them to all three of us.
NEWS AND COMMUNICATIONS
We want to hear from you. Our general Global Women Caucus calls are scheduled via WEBEX once a calendar quarter and the next one will be on Sunday, November 19th at 11:00AM Eastern Standard time. So mark your calendars, and click on this link to join our call. And please makes sure you are on our mailing list by joining the GWC on the DA website so that we can send you reminders and updates.
And, please do send updates of your events, and interesting articles that touch on women’s rights issues to Ann and your ideas on projects, training, events and anything else you have in mind.
Yours in #Resistance,
Salli Swartz & Ann Hesse
Co-Chairs of the DA Global Women’s Caucus
The Women's Caucus of Democrats Abroad wishes to highlight and reaffirm the statement made in the 2016 Democrats Abroad Platform that unequivocally endorsed :
" ….the right of women in the U.S. to bear children, practice birth control, and obtain safe, legal abortions regardless of economic, religious or racial status."
Additionally we want to reiterate that:
"We believe that a decision to terminate a pregnancy is a private matter outside the scope of government intervention. We further believe that all women should have unfettered, free access to quality information from doctors and others regarding reproductive choices."
The statements in the 2016 Democrats Abroad platform mirror the 2016 Democratic platform that stated that the Democratic Party believes “unequivocally” that “every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion.”
Democrats and the politicians who represent us do not have to believe that abortion is right for them or their family, but we urge them to respect and uphold the right of each American woman to make that decision for herself.
LET’S REMEMBER and RESPECT our Democratic core values: equality, fairness, inclusivity, respect for human rights and dignity of all Americans- which includes the belief that every woman has the right to choose for herself whether or not to have an abortion.
By Erin Becker, DA Chile
The Democrats Abroad Women’s Caucus is expanding its reach, thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers in many countries around the globe. The Caucus is gearing up to make its mark on the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections. It plans to be a catalyst to action on issues affecting American women, both in the United States and abroad.
Those interested in joining the Women’s Caucus can contact Caucus leaders Salli Swartz or Ann Hesse at [email protected].
The election of President Trump has seen a dramatic increase in threats to women’s rights. The president’s agenda poses many challenges to women’s health and well-being, such as the re-installment of the so-called Global Gag Rule; attempts to expand the rights of employers to deny contraceptive coverage in their company insurance plans; an uptick in attacks on abortion rights at the state level; and a health care bill that would repeal many of the Affordable Care Act’s provisions benefitting women and their families.
The Trump administration has also threatened the civil rights of some of the most underserved groups of women, including the withdrawal of Obama-era protections for transgender Americans and increased deportations and attacks on immigrant rights that leave women especially vulnerable.
Finally, the Republican-controlled government poses a great threat to women’s economic security, with a budget that would cut funding for many programs used by women in poverty––including nutrition aid for women and children––and a renewed indifference to the wage gap women across the United States still face.
The DA Women’s Caucus recognizes that this is a crucial time for action to defend and bolster women’s rights in the United States. Members are ready to take on these challenges. Ann Hesse, Stuttgart Chapter Chair in Germany and Co-Chair of the Global Women’s Caucus, notes that members across the world have been enthusiastic about increasing their involvement and founding in-country groups advocating for women’s rights.
For groups just getting started, activities include monthly online meetings and webinars featuring speakers from women’s groups and members of Congress. Medium-sized groups can begin forming their own country chapter of the Caucus, sponsor workshop weekends, and stage events. Finally, countries with well-established chapters can create their own working committees, hold teach-ins and film nights, and invite internationally-known speakers for live events.
On Inauguration Day, many Caucus members participated in the Women’s March, both in Washington, DC and around the globe. Large Caucus meetups have been held in Norway and Germany. On their own or with country committees, individual members from many different countries have written postcards to Congress and made phone calls advocating for women’s issues. In Latin America, Caucus members are currently working to establish a DA presence in Colombia and Haiti, with other countries to follow. New member Erin Becker has helped spread a pro-woman message outside the Democrats Abroad communication channels, blogging on reproductive rights in both Chile and the United States for Safe Abortion Women’s Right and Ms. Magazine.
Ann Hesse––the Caucus co-chair living in Germany––believes that Democrats Abroad members should take advantage of their view of the United States from the outside in. Many members have experienced life with the support of feminist policies already working well abroad: affordable healthcare, free education, a social security net, maternity and paternity leave, and more. Democrats Abroad members can use this knowledge and experience to advocate for similar programs in the United States. The Women’s Caucus strongly believes in their responsibility to spread this knowledge to other Americans, and to press the US government to provide these basic, common-sense programs for people back home.
It’s a challenging time for women’s rights in the United States, but one that Democrats Abroad is facing with energy, dedication, and persistence. Democrats around the world are making their voices heard––and don’t plan to stop anytime soon.
Democrats Abroad Action Team UK has launched a series of actions on Health Care.
As you know, the American Health Care Act (or Trumpcare) could cause 23 million people to lose their health insurance.
Health insurance costs will rise for the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.
Women will lose their contraception coverage. Medicaid would be gutted. In an effort to bypass the criticisms of the bill, Senator McConnell has invoked Rule XIV, a fast track procedural step that moves the bill directly to the floor of the Senate without committee hearings.
This bill must be stopped.
We are asking you to call your Senators and urge them to vote against the AHCA.
Never called your Member of Congress? We have you covered.
Here are two scripts you can use.
Share your story and let your Senators know how the repeal of the Affordable Care Act will affect you or your family.
If your Senator supports repealing the Affordable Care Act or is on the fence:
My name is [your name] and I am a constituent of Senator [Senator’s name].
I am calling to ask that the Senator oppose the ACHA and any healthcare bill that contains similar provisions.
- Repealing the Affordable Care Act will disproportionally impact women, particularly low to moderate income women and women of color.
- The repeal bill would eliminate critical protections in the Affordable Care Act that prohibit discrimination against women in the provision of health care.
- Insurers would no longer be required to provide women coverage for services such as maternity care and they would be allowed to charge women more that coverage if they do offer it.
- And it will erode women’s access to reproductive healthcare by dismantling no-copay birth control and defunding the organizations that provide this care.
Healthcare is key to women’s well-being and economic stability.
I urge the Senator to stand up for [his/her] female constituents and oppose any repeal bill that repeals the Affordable Care Act.
[IF LEAVING A VOICEMAIL: please leave your full voting address to ensure your call is tallied]
If your Senator opposes the repeal of the Affordable Care Act:
My name is [your name] and I am a constituent of Senator [Senator’s name].
I am calling to thank the Senator for opposing the ACHA and any healthcare bill that contains similar provisions.
- As the Senator is aware, repealing the Affordable Care Act will disproportionally impact women, particularly low to moderate income women and women of color.
- It would allow insurers to discriminate against women, deny them health coverage based on “pre-existing conditions”, and make insurance more expensive for women.
- And it will erode women’s access to reproductive healthcare by dismantling no-copay birth control and defunding the organizations that provide this care.
- I want to thank the Senator for standing up for [his/her] female constituents and opposing any repeal bill that repeals the Affordable Care Act.
Please urge the Senator to ask [his/her] colleagues to do the same.
[IF LEAVING A VOICEMAIL: please leave your full voting address to ensure your call is tallied]
From our series "Meet the dynamic women of Democrats Abroad"
by Randi Milgram, DA UK
As women in America long for a leader to respect, the women in Democrats Abroad are fortunate to have such an intrepid leader in Salli Swartz, Co-chair of the DA Women’s Caucus with Ann Hesse. For decades, Salli has been fighting injustice around the globe, and there’s no stopping her now.
After growing up in Philadelphia and then Boston, Salli’s dedication to helping those in need started early in her life, as did her fascination with international events and foreign newspapers. She worked for Democratic party candidates in Massachusetts while being involved in women’s rights groups. After college at the University of Massachusetts and law school at SyracuseUniversity, she translated her desire to do good into a much-loved career in legal services. While working as a legal services attorney in rural Pennsylvania, Salli started a battered women’s safe house and defended abused women.
Salli’s career took a sharp turn when her husband’s work moved them to France and she couldn’t continue the same path. Fortunately, her determination was unrelenting, and her prior courtroom experience proved valuable to a firm that provided the foot in the door that she needed to jumpstart a successful career in France. She thus became a corporate transactional attorney doing deals worldwide for French and foreign companies. Her subsequent practice areas ranged from international arbitration to mergers & acquisitions as she gained experience and learned about the French legal landscape. After racking up years of experience, Salli and a French barrister friend founded their own law firm in Paris, allowing Salli to finally continue the kind of work she was always meant to do.
Throughout her work as a transnational business lawyer in France, Salli learned firsthand the difficulties of being a woman, and an American woman at that, in the male-dominated world of law and the male-dominated culture of France. “It was extra hard as a woman back then,” Salli said. Although the corporate culture, especially in law, still provides a difficult experience for women today, the outright sexism in the past was more obvious and the people more blunt. “I don’t think people will say the same things to women now as they did then,” Salli said. A lifelong feminist and fighter for women’s rights, Salli found that the problems she faced in her early career reinforced her passion to work for and defend women’s rights.
And despite the changing shapes that sexism takes, the obstacles women face today remain the same. “There’s a huge resistance to women lawyers who want to make it up the ladder in corporate law firms,” Salli said. She pointed out that the French legal environment is not striving to improve matters for women. “They don’t make a big effort in terms of hiring women, supporting families. They’re not as innovative as even some firms in the States are, who account for families and flex time.” Women are dropping out of the legal corporate world before they get higher up the ladder, possibly due to a lack of support and mentoring in addition to the culture tailor-made for men.
Observing, and experiencing, the unequal ways of professional life was a driving force for Salli’s interest in the Women’s Caucus. “Seeing this happen in France didn’t change my politics; it just makes me want to fight harder,” Salli said. A huge concern of hers currently is that that younger generation doesn’t know how hard she and her peers had to fight for the rights women now enjoy, and how much stronger the fight has to be, not only to attain further goals but just to protect what has already been won. “The current administration will try as hard as they can to take it away,” Salli said, noting that this was a big reason she was eager to co-chair the Women’s Caucus. “It felt like the women’s movement was slipping, and I really wanted to shake it up and reach out globally to make sure all American women are aware of what’s going on. We’re going to have to pick up the fight right away.”
With her politics and dedication to women’s rights driving her, Salli never lost track of the important work she wanted to do, including protecting and promoting the rule of law, fighting for women, and exposing corruption in different parts of the world. In a fortuitous meeting, Salli was introduced to an employee of the embassy in Paris who told her about a division of the State Department that would focus on African Services. This arm of the State Department called on Salli to go to Africa to run training programs. Salli started bringing other organizations into this ongoing, widespread work, including international bankers and lawyers. After participating and moving up the ladder for some 20 years, Salli became the chair of the International Law section of the American Bar Association. Continuing and growing this work, she participated in and/or organized delegations of American international lawyers to learn about the Rule of Law and support it in Lebanon, Jordan, Benin, Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Tanzania, Rwanda, and many, many more countries in the developing world.
Salli’s work in Africa let her do what she always wanted to do – simply put, help people and do good things. Her experiences rounded her out professionally, she says. The work entailed training government civil servants and society groups all over Africa and assisting them in recreating independent, strong judicial institutions. “More than most, they recognize how serious the threat to our judiciary is,” Salli said, in terms of corruption and deterioration.
This work also taught her a great deal not only about those countries and what they needed, but about the USA as well. “As an American, [I learned that] we are not globally adored,” Salli said. She learned how to figure out the preconceptions of other cultures in order to facilitate productive discussion. “I changed the manner in which I approach subjects,” she said. “I approach people there with much more humility and much more cultural awareness. For example, in part of the Arab world, the discourse is different so you need to adapt to get the message across in a constructive manner so you can be heard. In parts of Africa, it’s clear that solving the problems will take generations.” At the trainings she organizes in various countries, her hope is to get just one or two people each time to hear and really digest what she says. “Then I will feel I have been a success,” she said. “It’s really a drop-by-drop, step-by-step process.” This work has similarly informed her views on foreign relations: “It’s affected how I shape the message, but not necessarily the actual message,” Salli said. “It has reinforced all the views and values I have as a Democrat.” Traveling and experiencing and testing all her points of view by working with different cultures has indeed made Salli feel even more strongly about the principles of the Democratic party. “It made my politics stronger, to be supported by actual evidence of why what we say we stand for is the right way to go – particularly in regard to education, women’s rights, corruption in government, and resource development.”
As an expert in developing democracies, Salli is shocked by the current level of discourse in the USA. “Polite discourse is gone,” she said. “It’s difficult to have a debate or a discussion on different subjects without people screaming and using unpalatable expressions.” Also, despite her work in analyzing and preventing government corruption, she did not predict that the USA would suffer from such blatant conflicts of interest. “Conflict of interest was always clearly defined, but now? Maybe not,” she said. “And I always thought the First Amendment would be upheld. The ‘City on a Hill’ is no more. All is not well and it’s getting worse.”
Although her widely shared concerns about the current administration’s destruction of constructive discourse and integral governmental safeguards are appropriately grave, she has hope that likeminded women will be persistent and determined enough to win this fight. “You can’t be complacent. We need to push forward,” Salli said. “This is not the time to sit back and congratulate ourselves on everything we’ve done before. This is a fight to keep the rights to make decisions concerning our bodies.” This fight entails the Global Women’s Caucus looking to push this agenda forward now, by establishing priorities for action items and filtering it to the separate Women’s Caucuses worldwide. They also aim to create new caucuses, as many groups as possible spread to the farthest reaches of the globe to unite women across the world into the fight of our lives. “We need to be vocal, to get our bodies together and show we won’t be walked over,” she said.
Specifically, Salli’s shorter-term goals include teaching women in various countries how to start and run a caucus. The Women’s Caucus is also planning an upcoming teleconference with Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List, and it will be supporting all female candidates up for reelection in midterms and other upcoming elections. Smaller projects include sending a storm of postcards to Washington, making a 2018 calendar, posting tools to help new caucuses, posting a regular newsletter, and assisting local caucuses in their event planning and training. With the internet presence increasing and a steering committee being appointed, more and more vital work can be done as more people get involved and share their ideas and values. “We need to get input so we can get output,” Salli said, quoting her Co-Chair Ann Hesse. With every country’s priorities being different, the goal of the Global Women’s Caucus is not to lead top down but to facilitate the work they have chosen to do. “We want to create a space where there’s a dialogue so women Democrats know they are being supported,” she said. “That we are here for the women’s movement in general.”
Consequently, the most important thing Salli wants all members of Democrats Abroad Women’s Caucus to know about the women’s movement is that our rights are in danger. “Our rights are being attacked, and we cannot accept that. We have to act as an opposition party and be unified in that role.” Salli’s optimistic view of the ability to do this is buoyed by her experience last July as a Hillary Clinton delegate to the Democratic Convention. Providing the opportunity to meet so many likeminded women and have access to so many important figures, the convention was one of the most meaningful and exciting events she ever participated in. “It was fascinating to watch how people interact with each other, how they lobby for their causes, and even though it’s highly choreographed there’s still so much excitement and so much hope. It was wonderful.” Salli said her memories of this event and all the people she met continue to give her hope.
Of course, it is still difficult to accept the outcome. To win the next election, Salli said the Democrats need to learn from their mistakes, primarily to learn humility. Leaders cannot be isolated from the street, from the people on the ground. “That’s why we lost,” she said. “You need to learn to be in contact with your troops, people on the street, and be on the ground and communicate better with members. It should be a system of messaging upwards and not sending a principle downwards. Voices need to be heard.” Likewise, these are the same goals Salli has for the Women’s Caucus – to communicate more efficiently and effectively and ensure that we work together to achieve necessary shared goals. Salli’s most important piece of advice for all the members of the Women’s Caucus and Democrats Abroad in general continues that theme: “Get active, speak up, and make your voices heard.”
by Randi Milgram, DA UK
By Nancy Coleman, DA Norway
From our series "Meet the dynamic women of Democrats Abroad"
Ann Hesse is co-chair of the Women's Caucus for Democrats Abroad, serving together with Salli Swartz. She is also the chair of DA Stuttgart. Ann lives in Ludwigsburg outside Stuttgart, Germany, with her Peruvian-German husband and two teenage daughters. Ann's own ethnic background is Irish and Italian, and her US roots are mainly in San Francisco. Her immigrant grandfather was a streetcar driver in the city, and his son, Ann's father, became a professor of Biomedical Engineering at the time when this was a new field. Her father pursued his career at a number of universities, moving his family to Houston, Boston, and Palo Alto during Ann's childhood.
As a Californian, Ann was not knowledgeable about the segregated world of the South. Ann lived in Houston from kindergarten through third grade. Their neighborhood was all white and Ann attended a school that was still segregated. Their house had a toilet at the back near the kitchen. No one in her family thought anything about it, and everyone used it when it was convenient. It wasn't until Kathryn Stockett's book and the subsequent film The Help came out that Ann realized that the toilet was a colored toilet intended for the cook and the maid. The Help suddenly put her Houston life in a context she was unaware of while she lived there.
Ann found political science fascinating and considered studying it, but her father told her that that subject was for men. Not yet feeling herself up to fighting in a man's world, Ann eventually settled on opera as a career choice. She did her undergraduate degree at Santa Clara and graduate work at Indiana University. Ann is a coloratura soprano and became an opera singer at San Francisco Opera.
Ann's story in Germany starts in 1986 with a lucky parking place. Her roommate in San Francisco, who was also at the SF Opera, had received a scholarship to Germany through the Goethe Institute. In connection with her friend's planned trip, Ann offered a drop- off at the Goethe Institute's office in San Francisco. She found a rare parking spot and on a whim, decided to go into the office and wait for her friend to conduct her business. It turned out that they had one more spot to go to Germany, and it was offered to her! Her course took her to Schwäbisch Hall in southern Germany for three months. This was her first trip outside the US.
In 1989, Ann auditioned for a position with the opera in Bielefeld, Germany, and when she got the position, she moved back to Germany to work there. From 1975-98, this opera gained international renown, and was known as the Bielefelder Opernwunder (opera miracle in Bielefeld). The company successfully revived a number of operas, and they also staged operas that had been considered entartete Kunst (degenerate art) by the Nazis and banned in the 1930s. Ann had roles in some of the rediscovered operas, as well as in the traditional opera repertoire.
1989 was a significant year in modern German history – the year that the Berlin wall fell, resulting in the reunification of Germany. Ann was thrilled to have the opportunity to experience these historical events firsthand. She went to Berlin, rented a chisel from a local who was also taking advantage of new opportunities, and started hammering away on the Berlin wall. It is fun to think that she was partially responsible for its destruction!
While in Bielefeld, Ann fell in love with her conductor, and they married. Ann married fairly late and had two daughters. After she settled into married life, she did not work outside the home. When she had her children, Germany was still a society with conservative gender roles, where mothers were expected to be homemakers. Schools sent the children home for a hot meal and mom's TLC at midday, and there was no childcare, unless you had a family network of grandmothers, aunts, or sisters who could help a working mother. So there was not much choice for women in Ann's situation. With more women entering the workforce, German society has had to adapt and is an entirely different place today.
Ann's family were Republicans of the comfortable, classic sort that used to be familiar. She grew up thinking that countries like Germany were able to provide things like free higher education because the US used its military resources to protect them, so they could have the luxury of providing services to their citizens. She was taught that social programs don't work anyway, and that they would eventually implode. Ann had American health insurance when she came to Germany, and was initially skeptical regarding socialized medicine. Ann was gradually swayed by what she had heard about universal healthcare as a government service, but she didn't think much about it. She was a young, healthy single, but she did support caring for those of fewer means, especially if they were honest and wouldn't abuse the system. But that was the point that had been engrained in her mind; in socialized medicine you would inevitably have millions of cheaters, who would abuse the innate trust and cause the system to collapse.
Her outlook changed when she discussed the subject with her husband. He pointed out that he would rather pay more for his healthcare so that a child who needed care could get it. But what about all the cheaters? Ann pressed him. He was willing to pay for them too, rather than risk that people who need care can't get it. That was a new way of looking at it, a "German, almost mathematical understanding of the reality" that Ann found convincing. Ann started evolving into a liberal. The experience of bringing up children in Germany made her see the light in so many ways, and she realized that so much of what she had learned as a child and taken for granted just wasn't true. She joined Democrats Abroad and has been involved in their work for many years now.
It has been a while since Ann has sung any arias. When her children no longer needed Mother at home, she didn't want to go back to working in opera. In fact, she was pretty tired of singing Mozart. A coloratura soprano voice is distinguished by agile runs, leaps, and trills. But what she no longer sings, Ann makes up for when she talks, with agile running comment on any number of subjects, leaps to asides, and trills alternating from subject to subject. But she has gotten to be a fan of symphonic metal, particularly the Finnish group Nightwish. You can learn a lot when you have teenage daughters, and Ann's musical universe has expanded accordingly. "Élan" which means 'hunger and thirst for life' is also a single by Nightwish, from their album Endless Forms Most Beautiful, and a favorite of Ann's.
I asked Ann what she valued most about living in Germany. The runs and trills stopped for a moment, and then she settled on an understanding that German people have that there is a standard of decency. You are not on your own here, and no one questions that everyone has the right to education, healthcare, pensions, and help when life gets difficult. In return, you try to be the best and most productive citizen you can.
Ann sees life in the context of an anthropological view of tribal cultures, where a life consists of three phases. In the first phase, you develop your self. The second phase is devoted to your family. In the third phase, you give back to society. By 2015, Ann was looking for ways to use her talents to give back to society. She signed up for a DA Women's Caucus workshop in Göttingen, an act which became a turning point. Cheryl Sandberg's book Lean In was a major inspiration for the workshop, and the women were asked to find out how they could lean in for the common cause. The workshop was very inspiring, and Ann asked herself, "Why not lean in?". On the next Webex call, Salli Swartz said she needed a co-chair, and Ann volunteered. Soon she was doing training to manage the Global Women's Caucus's website and other media outlets.
Now that we have entered the era of the Orange Dragon, it is even more important for women to lean in where they can. Ann uses another metaphor to illustrate the important tasks ahead, the story of the cave in Plato's Republic. This allegory asks us to imagine a cave where people have been imprisoned from birth. The people are chained so that they are forced to stare at the wall in front of them. They cannot look around, at each other, or themselves. Behind them there is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised walkway where other people walk back and forth carrying puppets of people and other living things. The light from the fire casts shadows of the puppets onto the wall, but the people manipulating the puppets are concealed from view by a wall. The prisoners can only see the shadows cast on the wall in front of them. The people carrying the puppets talk, and their voices echo off the walls. The prisoners believe that the sounds come from the shadows. But then one prisoner is freed. The person looks around and sees the fire, but the light hurts. Then someone drags the person outside into the sunlight. The person is in pain from the light and feels angry, but gradually shadows become visible, then people and things themselves. Eventually, the person realizes that the world outside the cave is superior to the world inside the cave, and the person goes back to bring the other cave dwellers into the sunlight.
For Ann, this is a good analogy of what the DA should do. The majority of Americans are imprisoned in the Cave of the Orange Dragon, and they have no idea how other countries address problems and find solutions to create a well-functioning democracy that works in the interest of its citizens. Outside in the sunlight there is healthcare, free education and a security net. The Women's Caucus is the freed prisoner who has seen the light. Now we must go back to the cave and tell the other prisoners about it. The other prisoners in Plato's cave did not believe what the freed prisoner told them, and their instinct was to attack and resist. Returning to the cave is not an easy task, but as we know now and believe: She was warned. Nevertheless, she persisted!
Ann sees great potential in the membership of the Women's Caucus. "Love is the context of what we are," she says. Members are spread out, of different ages and economic ability. But if the DA can tap the pool, these members have the resources to help bring about change in the Democratic Party.
Nancy Coleman, DA Norway
An interview with Dr. Radhika Puttagunta, a woman of science
Ever since her days as a high school student in Flint, Michigan, Radhika Puttagunta has known she wanted to be a geneticist. After receiving her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus, Puttagunta left the American Midwest to join her husband in Germany, and she now runs the Neurogeneration Laboratory at the Spinal Cord Injury Center within the UniversityHospital in Heidelberg. We caught up with Radhika, 41, a member of the Stuttgart chapter of Democrats Abroad, as she was working on two grant applications and hoping to carve out time to participate in the April 22nd Science March in Heidelberg.
In an interview conducted via e-mail and telephone, Radhika took aim at the approach to science adopted by the new administration in Washington, D.C., described the challenges she faces as a woman in her male-dominated field in Germany, and talked about how she and her engineer husband manage two demanding careers and care for two young children.
How did you become a member of Democrats Abroad?
I was searching for groups for expatriate Americans when I first moved here about 10 years ago, and found Democrats Abroad, along with Writers in Stuttgart and the International Women’s Club, as well as a short-lived Book club. The first time I attended a meeting, however, was this year, as the group was undergoing internal changes. This was the first time I actually felt fear for my country and wanted to do something about it. I went to the February meeting because I believe that the country is headed sharply in the wrong direction. I was upset and so were several of my friends, whose anger registered with me via Facebook even from the other side of the world. I watched all this activism back home and wanted to be involved.
I had been so elated in 2008 with the election of President Obama, and thought we had turned a corner as a country. But after that election I saw that extreme factions grew stronger, with racism and anti-government sentiment coming to the forefront, and biased cable news programs dominating the media landscape. I was shocked as I watched friends back in the USA struggle to afford health care for their families and the start of teaching non-scientific topics within science education in schools. I felt things spiraling downward, and then with the 2016 election, the bottom fell out. Betsy DeVos, a person without any public education background, who pushed “school choice” in Detroit, Michigan effectively destroying that educational system, was named head of the Education Department, and Scott Pruitt, who is vehemently opposed to environmental preservation, was put in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, just to name a couple of the many disappointments in a very short period of time.
What do you think of the new president’s approach to science?
I think it will have the exact opposite effect of what he says he wants, funding on results alone is not the way to go forward. Creativity and solutions cannot be rushed. Things such as basic science research are being defunded, to give preference only to science that can be translated into human health benefits. Why is this problematic? Because where do we find answers to our current problems? Often in nature. Understanding how it works and what solutions have naturally evolved help us find new breakthroughs. When we start to lose that inherent curiosity about the world around us and are only concerned with results, we most likely will lose out on the really transformative discoveries. What has made American science amazing and had the world knocking at our door was the amount we spent on ALL kinds of science. I think the biggest innovations came from funding innovative risky out-of-the-box ideas or basic exploratory science without a specific result in mind. Those moments when you think there is no way this will work but let’s try it anyway -- those are usually the moments that go down in history. When you pull your purse strings so tight there is no margin for error, well, science just doesn’t work that way, it is a process. I am of the field of thought that we should fund more science and education, this is the way forward. Find alternatives for lacking resources, find cures for diseases we never lived through before, find new ways to conserve. Look at our history, how much has come out of funding science, we are able to achieve it, but we must fund it. We need knowledge, not war and slashing 20% of the NIH budget will not help with that. Unfortunately funding science after things are destroyed or epidemics are started does not help solve problems, we must remain ahead of the curve.
How did you get to the job you do today and what does it involve?
I have wanted to be a scientist since high school and I have wanted to be a professor since I was 16. The reason? I love science but more importantly, I want to teach others about science so that when they go off and vote, they make informed decisions on things that not only affect my work but our lives as a whole. I don’t want people to vote out of fear or ignorance.
Classically trained as a geneticist, when I moved to Germany, I wanted to put my skills to work in the field of neuroscience. I find the brain and both nervous systems absolutely fascinating. There is no computer we have ever created or any invention that is even close to the human body. All of that is controlled by our nervous systems. Living in Stuttgart meant I had the choice between two well respected universities with excellent Neuroscience programs, Tuebingen or Heidelberg. After seven years of work at the University of Tuebingen, I have been running my own group at the University of Heidelberg for the past year. Although housed in a clinic, I do basic research, focusing on how to grow neurons again after a spinal cord injury. With that kind of injury, the damage means that the brain is no longer able to make a connection to the rest of the body – I like to say, the circuits are interrupted. I am doing research into how to regrow nerves, and re-establish the circuitry. We don’t just hope to make people overcome limb paralysis but regain bladder control, sexual function and overcome injury induced pain, issues often not highlighted in the field.
I currently have three PhD students I am training, along with one post-doctoral fellow, a lab manager and several rotating masters students. I am now working toward the “habilitation” certificate necessary to become a professor in Germany. Aside from running my laboratory I teach courses for Masters and Phd students and hope to develop new courses for medical and undergraduate students. I love the creativity of what I do, that I shape young minds and I get to experiment! I get to actually think of possible solutions to problems and try them out. I can find out if I was right or wrong, how great is that?!
Do you have family members who work in science?
Not exactly scientists but my parents are both physicians, in fact most of my family on my mother’s side are physicians, but my father’s side is a bit more diverse. My late paternal aunt was a chemistry professor in India. One maternal uncle has a PhD in chemical engineering and runs the research division at the New York Blood bank after having been a professor at UC Berkley for many years. I have maternal cousins who also have become professors now after pursuing medical degrees, they are wonderful researchers at prestigious US universities. I have one paternal cousin who is pursuing his biology PhD. We also have our share of engineers, business entrepreneurs, lawyers, software programmers and such.
Are there heroes whom you look up to?
Yes, of course! First and foremost, my mother, as she was a pediatrician with her own practice (now deservedly retired). Being our primary caretaker, as my father was working quite a bit, she somehow she made it all work. She never missed an event at school, any doctor appointments or meetings. We grew up doing pretty much any activity you can think of, piano, karate, Bharatanatyam dance, Girl Scouts, guitar, basketball, tennis, horseback riding, etc. I am sure I missed some activities in there. Anyway, she was incredibly busy with us running around on top of running her own business. So when people ask me how I’m able to do something they view as extraordinary, I just don’t see it that way. I’m doing what I see as every day normal. I should also state that all four of my maternal aunts are just like my mother, doctors with families. As I said, it has always been my norm. That said I now know after haven been through it that it involves hard work and dedication; they are my heroes, especially my mother.
I was so fortunate to have an amazing undergraduate advisor at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, who raised her two children while successfully building her research laboratory. She is German but now also an American citizen. She is an accomplished scientist, mother and choir member. Her talents are truly endless. Again, this showed me at a young age that you can have it all, you truly can be a mother and successful in your career.
Do you participate in any networks for women in science? Are you helping to organize any events around the Science March?
There aren’t that many for women at my level here in Germany, but I am involved in a mentorship program that is linked to a collaborative grant I am a part of. I did start a group in Tuebingen for female investigators after they finish their PhD and it has continued after my departure. Maybe one day I will get the chance to start a similar one in Heidelberg. Regarding the marches – unfortunately no organizing as I am really stretched for time right now. I must get two grants out by the end of the month, and for now everything else must wait. I hope to march in Heidelberg if I have the time. I was so disappointed to be out of the country at the time of the Women’s March and unable to participate.
Have you encountered problems at work because of your gender?
I have to say that in German culture, both men and women, are quite tough on full-time working mothers. It seems to be the belief that the mother should stay at home while the children are young. So I get shocked looks or comments to indicate such after I mention my full-time job and all the commuting I do. I have lots of female friends in the US who work and they don’t hear similar criticism for working full time with young children. You have to remember many of them grew up in daycares, after school programs or with babysitters and we didn’t find doing so to be detrimental in anyway. There are very few women here at my position or higher, so there aren’t many role models to turn to, and probably why I have inadvertently became a de facto role model to others. Do I feel women still have to work harder to prove themselves than men do in science? Yes. Does the data back me up? Yes. I still don’t see why me having two X Chromosomes would make me any less of a scientist or capable than someone with a X and Y Chromosome.
Most of my colleagues are men, and although they may be more involved at home than previous generations most of them have full support through stay-at-home spouses. They don’t need to come home and worry about running the laundry so the kids have clean clothes for school in the morning. Is there an upside to all of this? Well, I am not sure how to explain it exactly but once you become a mother you find you become hyper focused and very efficient. I guess it is due to extreme necessity that may have been lacking before. Having a family in this field and being a woman even frames the smaller decisions. For example: I actually thought twice whether to put photos of my kids up at work. If a man does that, it’s, “Oh, how sweet.” But I might hear, “Such young children – that must be difficult for you to balance?” I could make life easier for me by hiding that part of my life but I don’t see any reason to apologize for my full life. So not only do I have their pictures up but also drawings they have done recently. I don’t dwell on the kids but I also do not ignore their existence.
Biology is a field that starts out with about 50% women in PhD programs. By graduation you have already lost some of those women, in the post-doc years many more leave and very few stay after that. Those that do are typically not married, or if they are, they don’t have children. Those that do either of those two definitely don’t have multiple kids. Those of us that have opted for those three cardinal sins are considered to be a rare breed. Only time will tell if I can break through the glass ceiling, but I am not giving up. I want my kids to see that nothing can stand in your way when you want something. Not your gender, not your ethnicity and not your nationality.
Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?
Feminism means to me supporting women in their choices, careers and dreams just as much as we do men. I am not under the illusion that there will be complete equality as our biology does not for allow for it in some ways, but I do believe we can have intellectual and job equality.
To do my part I actively speak about things I have experienced that I think women do not discuss freely enough about; dealing with infertility; not loving every moment of being a mother; raising a kid your way, and that way may be a mash-up of different cultures; choosing to breastfeed or not; marriage is hard work; speaking your mind and feeling that you deserve to be heard; knowing yourself truly and your own desires before getting involved with someone else; being abundantly clear with your significant other, they are not able to read your mind; that quality is better than quantity of time with kids; making sure to look after your own health because too often we let our health slide to unhealthy depths; and that not everyone needs to marry or have kids and that is perfectly ok. As you can imagine the list goes on and I think we benefit from having more open discussions without fear of judgement but support of our sisters.
Have you had to deal with failures or major obstacles, and if so, what did you do to get past them?
Unfortunately, I had a very verbally abusive PhD advisor. He was pretty horrible. Whatever his reasons were he took out his life frustrations on me. I nearly dropped out of graduate school because I thought he was right when he told me I was stupid and lazy, because the experiments didn’t work the way he wanted. It took all I had in me to pick myself off the floor literally and crawl my way back to graduation. I asked for help and no one was willing to help, probably because he was careful to keep the abuse hidden. What it taught me was resilience, to keep asking for help, that failure is OK, and learning from it is crucial, but most importantly, to never, ever, let someone have that type of control over me again. I now feel that if I could make it through that I can make it through just about anything.
What might a friend or family member say when asked to describe a characteristic or experience that would define you?
I have never been “normal”. It may have been from being a first generation American and bridging two cultures, maybe it is from being a woman in a male dominated field, maybe it is being a minority, or just a combination of all of them. I have never felt that I fit in any box, but I am OK with that, I am uniquely me and I like that. Strangely I always felt that was what being American was about, and I am seeing nowadays that I may have been mistaken.
What do you like to do in your free time?
What is this “free time” you speak of? No, seriously I used to have many hobbies but life got busy with kids, working full time and commuting previously 1.5 hours daily to now 3 hours daily. I used to play tennis, read, choreograph bellydance and write poetry. I hope to get back there one day. I teach my students that creativity outside of the lab breeds creativity in the lab, I really do believe that.
Where do you find inspiration, or cause for hope?
In nature and medicine. Look at all that is around us, how amazing is it? I get to study that. Look at the human body, can you think of anything more complicated and intricate, yet more beautiful or functional? I can’t. Look at all the strides we have made so far in medicine. Those strides come from scientists like myself tolling away behind the scenes, rarely getting any credit. Why do we do it? Simply because we couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I may not like every aspect of my job, but for the most part I have my dream job.
How did you and your family end up in Germany?
My husband is German. We met while he was studying abroad at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The agreement was that whoever graduated first would move to the other person’s country, and then whoever moved got to make the decision on where to live next when the other one graduated. Needless to say, I graduated first and I decided we would remain in Germany. I decided raising a family the way I want to would be easier in Germany. While we may not make more money here, we have more services easily accessible to us, such as reasonably affordable healthcare and childcare, greater personal safety due to less gun violence, strong funding of science, paid parental family leave and better work-life balance, decent roads (take a trip to Michigan and you’ll see why that is on the list), and strong free public education through university level, so I can actually save for retirement. Oh, I also like that it is quite easy enough to pop over to another country to experience their culture, and that you get enough vacation time to do so. That is just so crazy to me, even though I been here for 10 years now.
How old are your children, and are they in German schools?
My son is seven and my daughter turns four soon. My son is in first grade at a German elementary school, my daughter is in a full-time pre-school. Both have gone to child-care or pre-school programs since they were nine months old, mostly full time. I worked part-time after a year off following the birth of my son, only because I couldn’t find full-time daycare. After having my daughter and taking a year off, I returned to work full time.
Have you taken them to your workplaces?
Yes, they have been to my labs. I talk about science with them. It is really important that you talk about what you do with everyone. My feeling is, if I can’t explain what I do to everyone, including children, then I’m not all that good at what I do.
How do you and he work out the balance in your careers and family life?
Lots of people have asked me how this works. My husband knows how cut-throat it is in academia, and how much I want to be in it, and have wanted it my whole adult life. Since I got the position in Heidelberg and commute so much, about 3 hours a day, he has stepped up even more and cut his hours back at work. This was his choice and I love that he supports me and our family. He is now the primary caretaker, meaning he drops them off and picks them up, he does the grocery shopping and cooking (he is quite talented in the kitchen and has always had this role in our relationship), he deals with bills and taxes, he does the doctor appointments and parent evenings. What do I do? I do the most I can in the time I have. I make time in the morning and evening for the kids and also the weekends. All of the rest of the household duties fall to me. I am lucky my husband knew himself well enough to know whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. He really listened to me when I said science was a big part of who I am and having a family did not mean giving that up. My husband and I may be as different as day and night but maybe that is why we work, we complement each other well, my strengths are his weaknesses and vice-versa.
Besides my husband, our full-day pre-school and full-day school, I must give credit to my in-laws. Without them we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. I always said I would live either near my parents or his. I grew up on the other side of the world from my grandparents and I didn’t want that for my kids. Not only do the grandparents spend a lot of time with our kids, but they bail us out whenever we need help. They do it willingly, they love their grandkids and seeing that makes my heart swell. I have been blessed many times over.
Where is home for you?
When I am speaking and say home I could be referring to Germany or the US, it depends on the context. However, it is funny you ask this, it was part of my wedding vows. When you are first-generation American and you look like me many “Americans” don’t think I belong. So I am not considered really American by Americans and not really Indian by Indians. I AM American and only lived in the US until moving to Germany. We did three-and-a-half years across an ocean long-distance, including one-and-a-half years after getting married. Anyway, my wedding vows said that I never quite felt like I belonged anywhere truly until I met my husband and home is where he is. That is how I feel, where we are together is home, the place doesn’t matter, the person you spend your life with does.
I am completely a Midwest girl, born and raised – born in Park Ridge, Il. (Chicago adjacent, where Hillary Clinton grew up). My parents immigrated from the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, and had lived with the fighting in Ireland before moving to Chicago. From there we went to Detroit and then on to Flint, Michigan. I know people have heard about Flint in the news recently, but it was really a great city to grow up in back in the day. People don’t realize it was very affluent – previously known as BuickCity, home to the General Motors Institute (now KetteringCollege), a very good engineering college. The old downtown was paved with cobble stones, there was the Flint Institute of Art, the opera, the ballet, MottCollege and AutoWorld. There was a lot going on in Flint, but then when Buick moved out, there wasn’t much diversification, and things went downhill.
I was shaped by growing up in southeastern Michigan, and I thought everywhere was as diverse as that. We had lots of African-Americans, Indian-Americans, the Arab population was the third largest outside of the Arab world, there was a sizable Latino population. It was like that when I went to college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When I went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus, I was in for a bit of a shock. 9-11 happened while I was there, and you could start to feel the tension. When I ventured out of southern Wisconsin I realized the state was relatively homogenous and I wasn’t always welcome there.
It is hard to put into words. Somehow the US was different when I was growing up, there was racism but maybe it was more hidden and now it is more in your face. Priorities seemed to have changed. People used to be more open and helpful, now they just seem frightened and it isn’t always clear of what.
What do you hope to be able to look back on later in life?
I hope when I look back that I will see that I raised two strong independent thinking children, married the man I love and respect, I was able to add to the knowledge base out there in my field and move it forward. I hope to train some students that will continue as good academic scientists as well as others who will branch out into other fields. All in all, I hope that my existence makes a difference.
Thanks for your time, and your willingness to tell us about your life as a
"woman of science."