There was an interesting if subtle juxtaposition in the recent deaths of Elizabeth Taylor, Sara Ruddick and Geraldine Ferraro as right-wing Neanderthals attempted to cut the federal budget on the backs of women by defunding Planned Parenthood. At the very least, the three grande dames of film, feminism and feistiness must have turned in their graves to see American women thrust back to pre-Roe v.Wade days, once again used as pawns in the halls of political power and macho machinations.
Elizabeth Taylor, for all her drama and personal crises, was a formidable activist who refused to allow people with HIV/AIDS to be cast as second-class citizens. While she didn't focus specifically on women or reproductive health in her philanthropic work or in her charitable foundation, she clearly understood and cared about women who suddenly became ill, or who tried to stay healthy in a world challenged by a new and terrifying plague. She especially worried about them if they were poor and disenfranchised, understanding that they had no real voice in the political arena. That's why she worked tirelessly on their behalf , and on behalf of the multitudes of men affected by HIV/AIDS.
Sara Ruddick, a "champion of feminism and motherhood" as The New York Times captioned her obituary last month, was less well-known than Elizabeth Taylor but her published work in the canon of women's literature was instrumental in changing how we think about childrearing. Ruddick challenged the notion that motherhood was a biologically driven female imperative, arguing instead for a practical approach to caring for children, a daily task that both parents could do and would be rewarded for undertaking. Both women and men, she said, would grow personally if they spent time playing with and teaching their children, especially in intellectual and spiritual ways. I'd love to have heard her argue the benefits to men as well as women of having a Planned Parenthood clinic in the neighborhood.
Gerry Ferraro, the iconic feminist who ran for Vice President in 1984 and who believed in a woman's right to choice even though she was a practicing Roman Catholic, was something of a "rock star" to women, according to writer Joyce Purnick who knew her. Writing in The New York Times about Ferraro shortly after her death from cancer, Purnick said "she was a pip, a strong, stubborn, sometimes prickly woman who would have it her way as much and as long as she could." Can any of us who recall Ferraro duking it out in a debate with men who thought women had no place in high-stakes politics doubt what she would have said, or how she would have said it, when the national budget was on the brink because some men in Congress -- whose wives, daughters, granddaughters, sisters, and mothers all have access to quality reproductive health care --think they have the right to deny less fortunate women the same access and care?
Liz Taylor, Sara Ruddick and Gerry Ferraro each had a profound impact on the times in which they lived. They affected the lives of others in ways we may or may not recognize. They broke molds as they stood for fairness and justice and for new ways of contemplating and living our lives. They represented change in American politics and values. Each in her own way represented transformation.
That's why I thought of them as I watched the debacle of budget debates in the critical hours before a tenuous compromise was reached. They would have been outraged by women being held hostage to political posturing. Each would have spoken out passionately on behalf of the millions of women who count on Planned Parenthood for their wellness care, their cancer screening, and their family planning needs. They would have forcefully confronted those who think women -- other than the ones in their own lives -- are dispensable.
For that, I admire and miss them. Yet, in a way, I'm glad they weren't here to see how far we've regressed when it comes to women's rights and place in American society. After all their hard work on our behalf, the least they deserve is to rest in peace.