Nationwide Women’s March launched year of reckoning, local activism

Jason Addy
York Dispatch

As hundreds of thousands of women rallied in the nation’s capital one day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, dozens of Yorkers were among them, determined to change their local communities when they returned home.

Whether marching to show their children the political power of women or to condemn the 2016 presidential election results, many of the women who marched said they felt “compelled” to lend their voices to the historic show of dissent against the country’s new leaders.

“I marched because the country was headed in the wrong direction,” said Spring Garden Township resident Colleen Burkett, 72. “I needed to be somewhere where everybody was coming together to express their concern and show the world that we really do care.”

Deb Yonick, bottom, president of the York County Federation of Demcratic Women, stands with Fran Chock, second on the right, and their large group of friends and family during the Women's March on Washington on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. Fran Chock attended the march with more than 20 family members and friends.

Bobbi Proctor, of Lower Windsor Township, said she marched in Washington, D.C., to show her young sons that women deserve to be heard after her 7-year-old son voiced discomfort with the way some people spoke about women during the 2016 presidential campaign. 

“I felt like it was something I had to do,” the 34-year-old said. “It was important for them to see women are important and have a say.”

Show of solidarity: While some of those targeted by the protest appeared to have ignored the marchers, the women participating in one of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history sent a clear message to each other — one of solidarity and support, Burkett said.

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The historic show of strength empowered victims of sexual misconduct to come forward with allegations against some of the country’s most powerful and recognizable men over the last few months of 2017, she said.

“It’s not about sex. It’s about power over other people,” Burkett said, adding “a message has been sent to men” that there will be consequences for wielding their power against women.

The #MeToo movement, which launched a wave of allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment against men in positions of power, has created a “fundamental cultural shift” in the way Americans think about and respond to sexual misconduct, Burkett said.

That wave of allegations continues to cut across all industries, with troubling allegations made against once-revered news anchors Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, film producer Harvey Weinstein and actors Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman, while existing allegations against Trump and former President Bill Clinton have resurfaced amid the growing national conversation. 

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Sexual harassment allegations forced out two Democratic lawmakers — former Sen. Al Franken, of Minnesota, and former Rep. John Conyers, of New York, who served in the U.S. House for more than 50 years — and invariably played a role in the Dec. 12 special election in Alabama to fill a U.S. Senate seat.

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More:Conyers resigns from Congress amid harassment allegations

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Senator-elect Doug Jones won the special election with nearly 50 percent of the vote, becoming the first Alabama Democrat elected to the Senate in 25 years after defeating Republican Roy Moore, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct against minors decades ago.

Deborah Yonick, president of the York County Federation of Democratic Women, said the recent allegations against men in power are “no surprise to women.”

“Women are sharing out loud and en masse what has been happening to us throughout history,” Yonick, 54, said of the #MeToo movement.

“Women are empowered to speak their truth, and they should be heard,” Yonick said. “The conversation must be had. It is about respect, safety and stability.”

Local leadership: The march and its “sister marches” in dozens of cities across the U.S. grabbed global headlines and dominated national discourse, but it also inspired a number of local women to start much-needed political dialogues in their own townships and boroughs this year, Proctor said.

“It needs to start extremely small,” Proctor said. “People need to remember — you need to talk to your neighbors; you need to talk to your friends.”

Those discussions about how to improve the quality of life at the most-local level helped, in part, to propel Yonick to a seat on the Southern York County school board. 

After marching on Washington, D.C., with the Federation of Democratic Women, Yonick and six other members returned to York to run for office and bring a “different focus” to governing.

The march made people pay attention and forced them to “look into things in a deeper way and realize that their voices could make a difference,” and women are using that spotlight and enthusiasm to build the foundations for successful local campaigns, Yonick said. York Dispatch senior photographer Bill Kalina is Yonick's husband.

Though the “institutional memory” of career politicians can sometimes be necessary and beneficial, it is time for women to bring their “life experience” and humility to government offices, Burkett said.

If more women represented their communities in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program would never have lapsed, the Affordable Care Act would not be on the chopping block and lawmakers would be considering tax cuts for families, not for the wealthy, according to the marchers.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly’s approval of a bill increasing restrictions on abortion also would have failed if more women were in a position to vote on the bill, they said.

The state House approved Senate Bill 3 by a 121-70 vote on Dec. 12. The bill, which would limit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, included exceptions for when a mother’s life is at risk or if she could suffer a serious, permanent injury without an abortion, but the bill did not include exceptions for rape, incest or fetal abnormalities. Current law restricts abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy, with some exceptions. 

More:Governor vetoes bill to add abortion restrictions

More:EDITORIAL: Pa.'s anti-abortion efforts out of touch

Two female state representatives from York County spoke passionately in favor of the new bill before voting to approve it. 

“As people try to frame this debate in terms of women’s rights, the question that begs to be asked is, what about the rights of those pre-born women in the womb being exterminated?” said Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-Franklin Township.

State Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, said “dismemberment abortion is completely inhumane, it’s barbaric.” 

The legislation would have outlawed what the bill terms “dismemberment abortion,” a phrase not used by medical professionals. It would effectively ban dilation-and-evacuation, a procedure that is the most common method of second-trimester abortion.

Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the abortion-restriction bill Monday, Dec. 18, at Philadelphia City Hall. 

“This legislation is an attempt to criminalize the decisions that women must be allowed to make about their own health care,” Wolf said in signing the veto. “This legislation is so extreme it does not even include exceptions for women and girls who are victims of rape and incest.”

Growing slate: With enthusiasm levels still running high among Democrats and liberal voters, Proctor, Yonick and Burkett predicted a wave of women running for office at all levels of government during the 2018 midterm elections. 

Earlier this month, York Country Day alumna Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson announced her campaign to unseat three-term U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Dillsburg. 

Corbin-Johnson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in foreign service and international affairs from Georgetown University, served as an adviser and assistant to the director of the Office of Management and Budget during former President Barack Obama’s last year in office. 

Julie Wheeler, a self-proclaimed conservative outsider from Windsor Township, is seeking the Republican nomination for the 28th state Senate seat, currently held by Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township.

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Wheeler joins Phillips-Hill and Democratic West York Mayor Shawn Mauck in the race for Wagner’s seat. Wagner has said he will not seek re-election in 2018 as he pursues the Republican nomination for governor.

Pittsburgh attorney Laura Ellsworth will challenge Wagner, state House Speaker Mike Turzai and Pittsburgh businessman Paul Mango for the Republican nomination.

State Rep. Madeline Dean, D-Montgomery County, Chester County Commissioner Kathi Cozzone and Iraq War veteran Aryanna Berringer have declared their candidacies for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 2018. Dean, Cozzone and Berringer will face incumbent Lt. Gov. Mike Stack and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman for the nomination.

“Women are finding their voices and standing up for themselves,” Proctor said. “We’re showing that we’re out here. We’re tired of being quiet.”