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Violent acts tie into local forum on women's rights

Oct. 24, 2012

The story of an estranged boyfriend or husband acting violently toward a woman is all too common to Carmen Pitre.

While not every case of domestic violence ends with three deaths and four people injured, as the Brookfield shootings did this week, Pitre said, "violence is at epidemic proportions."

Pitre, executive director at Sojourner Family Peace Center, was one of three speakers last week - before the shootings - at a forum entitled "Stop the Attack on Women's Rights" held at the Wauwatosa Public Library.

The other presenters were Eileen Dagen, a consultant with a masters degree in social work, who spoke on income parity for women, and Gretchen Fincke, a psychotherapist, whose topic was "the war on women's health."

Uncertain progress

The forum, inflected with political overtones, mixed social history, facts, case histories, and changes in law to paint a picture of society that still, decades after the feminist movement, has not achieved a balance between the sexes.

"About 60 years ago, if you got beaten in your home, cops would say, 'I'm sorry I can't help you,'" Pitre said.

She described the case of Tracey Thurman, who in 1982 was beaten and had her throat slashed by her husband while police officers watched. She survived and sued the officers. Her lawsuit became a landmark case that led to the adoption of domestic violence legislation and police response reforms.

Pitre, whose Sojourner center serves 29,000 clients a year and answer 19,000 calls on hits hotline, described the development of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. That law for years has provided funding to address the problem, including the development of domestic violence units in police departments and requirements that offices make an arrest if domestic violence is alleged. It also led to training in compassionate response for first responders and dispatchers, among other things.

It's not just a women's issue, but a human rights issue, Pitre said. "Nobody deserves to live in fear of violence."

About money, too

Eileen Dagen used the Lilly Ledbetter story to speak to pay inequality.

Ledbetter, in the news recently as the first bill President Obama signed when he took office, worked at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. for almost 20 years. As a supervisor, she learned later that she was making substantially less than men in the same position.

By earning less when she left the company, her pension was less, her 401(k) contributions were less, her overtime pay was less, and even her Social Security was less, she claimed.

She sued, and her case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she lost because the law said she had just six months to sue after receipt of her first paycheck at a lower wage.

Ledbetter, of course, didn't know when she got that first check that she was making less. She testified before Congreess, and the law Obama signed, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, loosened, although did not eradicate, the time restrictions.

The fight goes on, Dagen said. A Paycheck Fairness Act, introduced this year and still not passed, would go further an the Ledbetter act by improving remedies in cases of unfair pay, protecting employees who share pay information, ease restrictions on class action lawsuits, and other things.

Women and health

Gretchen Fincke described historical and current threats to women's health and reproductive rights.

Before 1964, contraception was illegal for unmarried women; a marriage license had to be produced, Fincke said. Abortion were illegal, and, as a consequence, a million illegal abortions were done a year, many of them botched, she noted.

In the 1970s, the work of Margaret Sanger led to a reproductive rights revolution, and in 1973, the still controversial Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal.

Since the late 1970s, in Fincke's view, things have gotten worse, not better. Barriers to abortion, including counseling and listening to fetal heartbeats, and "more and more repressive legislation with regard to women's health," have rolled back the role of the individual in health care decisions, she said.

She spoke in favor of the Affordable Care Act as "good for women on many fronts."

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