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Monday October 23, 2000

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The Secret of Activism

Headline Photo

By Sheila Bapat

When people in the year 2000 think about the women's movement, they think about burning bras and protest rallies. They also think it's over.

But here's a little secret: the movement is still in full swing.

It is a bit less theatrical, and more policy-oriented. Tomorrow a forum will be held to prove this point.

The Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C. has developed a report about the status of women, and a Tucson forum will be held to publicize the report. The event will take place at the Doubletree Hotel, 445 S. Alvernon Way, from 6-9pm.

It is hosted by the Women's Foundation of Southern Arizona, and boasts a panel of seven of Arizona's most alert women.

Like the public, none of the panelists have seen the report or know its findings. It's a secret, and it will be revealed when the D.C. report is released in early November.

Sheila Tobias, an author, historian and feminist activist is among the seven chosen to join the panel.

Tobias has lived in Tucson for 18 years and has researched with UA professor Peter Goudinoff and former UA President John P. Schaefer.

She has seen the women's movement evolve from its earliest activism to its present complexity.

"In the beginning, the issues were very clear cut," she said. "There was no equal access to credit, to play sports, hardly anything. It was hard to deny that rights were unequal. But today the issues are more complex. There are many more points of view from women of many backgrounds." Tobias applauds the fact that the forum will be well-attended, since 600 tickets to the event have been sold and distributed.

"But once the report is published, will anything happen?" Tobias asked. "That depends on the audience, they have to take the information and make it an action agenda."

Creating an action agenda is perhaps the biggest asset of such reports, that is the most critical part of activism. The secret about activism is that it is about policy-making.

Most people remember the theatrics, the protests and the bra burning-but these were only a piece of the larger movement to pressure those with the power to make the needed changes in public policy.

And as Tobias pointed out, issues facing women today are more complex. Reports that can elucidate just what the hell is going on are always helpful.

Even more important are people who can take the agenda and make it happen.

Sen. Elaine Richardson, Dem.-District 11, is a five-term member of the state legislature and one of the panelists with the kind of proactive power Tobias mentioned. Richardson passed three critical pieces of domestic violence legislation last year alone. She believes that, while politically and economically women are doing better in Arizona, the report will show that the health status of Arizona's women is poor.

"That status of women is bad in terms of the health and mental health picture, because programs are not being properly funded," she said. "Plus Arizona is stingy about funding for mental health." Richardson is most concerned about the state's suicide rates, which are high for both women and men. Like Tobias, she believes the report should be a catalyst for action, and that its findings are implemented as policy.

"Implementation is a big deal," she said. "Some people think when a law gets passed, it's a done deal. But we have to make sure that everyone, in every place, has an attitude adjustment and takes the law seriously."

Richardson has already developed a task force to help coordinate the enforcement of laws passed at the state level.

Laura Alexander, Development Officer for the Women's Foundation of Southern Arizona, believes the forum will help create a dialogue between the community and members of the panel who are in a position to bring about change.

"This is not a report that is just going to sit on the shelf," she said. "It will develop a more defined agenda for women and girls. This forum is going to help inform the women of our state."

Such forums are a challenge, mainly because so many believe there are no problems, and that whatever challenges existed thirty years ago were also overcome thirty years ago.

But complacency today would only denigrate the activism of yesterday. Reports like those conducted by the Institute for Women's Policy Research need to be used as tools to address the more complex issues facing women today, and to continue making good policy.

Tomorrow's forum will prove that the era of bra burning isn't over. It's still about policy, and it's only just begun.