Yesterday, just days after worldwide Women’s Marches mobilized millions to protest and express frustration with the actions and priorities of the current administration, nearly 200 Virginia activists participated in a more focused march – to the Richmond offices of their General Assembly members to participate in the Women’s Equality Coalition Lobby Day with NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and our partner organizations.
The group of citizen lobbyists came from all over Virginia to push their legislators on a number of bills that affect a woman’s ability to live, learn, and work in a fully equal society. The coalition’s Women’s Equality Agenda includes proposals to ensure insurance coverage for a full 12 month supply of birth control, to repeal medically-unnecessary abortion and permanently block TRAP laws under the Supreme Court’s 2016 Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision, to ensure equal pay for equal work, paid sick days, and a higher minimum wage for workers, and more.
The day kicked off with a breakfast with Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam before participants broke out in training groups to learn about the legislation and tips for effective lobbying. Groups stuck it out in the rain waiting in a long security line to meet with their representatives and make their voices heard.
While many of the citizen lobbyists came to their legislators armed with personal stories about how reproductive health legislation affects them and their communities, Governor Terry McAuliffe painted a larger picture when he spoke with activists after their lobby sessions.
“Companies like Apple and Google won’t come to a state that discriminates,” he said. “Companies expanding and moving to Virginia will not come if you keep putting walls up.” That’s why he promised to never tolerate discriminatory policies and pledged to veto any bills that land on his desk which affect equality and reproductive freedom.
Lt. Governor Northam echoed the sentiment, saying “[women’s health] is all about decision making, but it’s not a decision for legislators. It’s unacceptable for legislators, most of whom are men, to be telling women what to do with their own bodies.”
To close out the successful day, the Governor hosted a reception for participants in the Governor’s Mansion. At the reception, he signed amended abortion provider regulations to remove burdensome and medically unnecessary regulations (TRAP restrictions) which were crafted to shutter women’s health clinics.
Meet a few of our citizen lobbyists!
Among the volunteers who attended WEC Lobby Day were long time activists, college students, and first time citizen lobbyists. Below, a handful of participants explain what motivated them to show up for Lobby Day:
“I think the idea of having youth voices represented is so important, especially since these issues impact young people at such a disproportionate rate,” says College of William and Mary student Taylor Medley. “We wanted to have the opportunity to come out and learn these [lobby] skills early and make our voices heard.” Medley is a former NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Intern and current President of W&M pro-choice student group VOX. Lobbying with groups like NPCV is important to her because “NCPV can focus 100 percent on legislative advocacy and can really mobilize around these bills. NPCV centers the voices of those impacted, and they’ve done that through student organizations as well.”
Jessica Seidenberg, a neuroscience major at William and Mary, came to Richmond because she sees a strong link between her course of study and legislation on the line in Virginia. “Psychology related to victims of sexual assault is what made me want to study neuroscience,” she says. “I want to know that if something happened to me or my family or friends, we could the commonsense care we need to heal. In the long term, these are basic human rights. [To deny them] undermines our society as a whole.” More than anything, she wanted to make a visible statement to her legislators that young people are paying attention. “There are people attempting to silence our voices. [Lobby Day] is good for building our community in Virginia. It promotes the well-being of its citizens.”
Rebecca Gotwalt, a longtime volunteer and activist, says “So many people are friendly towards birth control,” but are reluctant to talk about abortion. “NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia is never ashamed and never beaten down. They never turn away from the word abortion. Abortion is part of healthcare and I want to stand arm in arm with NCPV and say ‘dammit, abortion access is important!’” Directly lobbying her legislators allows Gotwalt to put a human face to the issues at risk. “It’s so important to be able to tell your story without shame and make sure legislators know these are personal stories. It’s not about voting the party line. Real people who vote for them want them to be our voice.”
Hannah Ferster, also a William and Mary student, came to Richmond for her first Lobby Day with VOX. “I was surprised at how open the legislators were to speaking with us, even if they didn’t agree with us,” she says. Ferster was motivated to participate because of her interest in health equity, but the timing resonated with her as well. “Especially now, coming out right after the Women’s March, this is such an important part of resisting discrimination and making our voices heard and making sure our legislators know there are people ready to hold them accountable to the women in their communities.” Ferster also pushes back against the idea that millennials aren’t active in politics. “Through events like this and organizing through college campuses in our communities, young people can have a really big impact,” she says. Especially after her first lobby day, “it’s much easier to make your voice heard than I would assume!”
“I want to be seen as a leader and an advocate for reproductive justice,” says Sam Yu, also of William & Mary. “We can’t change our president so we might as well change our delegates by opening their eyes to these issues.” Yu joined the Women’s Equality Coalition this year for his second lobby day, but he says even if Virginians, and especially students who have class and other obligations, can’t come out to physically lobby, “you can call your representative or write to your representative. You can always find a way to lobby.” And if anyone is nervous about showing up in person to talk to their representative, Yu says “WEC Lobby Day is so organized and efficient. They give you all the tools. You don’t feel out in the dark, they really prepare you for all the meetings.”
Ashlee Smith says she was recently re-inspired to volunteer and lobby as a result of the 2016 presidential election. She drove up from Virginia Beach for her first lobby day “to show my support for women’s equality in general, access to health care, and a woman’s right to equal pay in the workplace.”
Rebecca Firestone was unable to attend a Woman’s March this past Saturday, so she decided to channel her activism towards her local legislators. “We have to work harder that the state level to prevent a repeat of the 2016 election,” she says. Firestone is dismayed by the continued attacks on a woman’s access to birth control and abortion. “I work in countries where there’s been remarkable expansion in access to birth control in the last few years, and it’s incredibly frustrating to see my country go backwards when so many others are moving forward.”