Editor’s Note: From time to time, Canon & Culture will feature interviews with like-minded organizations doing great work deserving of even wider attention. We’re proud to have interviewed Meg T. McDonnell, Communications Director of Women Speak for Themselves, a grassroots campaign designed to bring attention to religious liberty from a female perspective.
C&C: What is Women Speak For Themselves?
WSFT: Women Speak For Themselves (WSFT) is a grassroots organization of women, founded by Helen Alvaré (Law professor, George Mason University) and her neighbor, Kim Daniels (religious liberty attorney). WSFT started in response to the claims that opposition to the HHS Mandate was men vs. women, and religious freedom vs. women’s freedom. Helen and Kim wrote an open letter speaking out against the Obama administration, members of Congress, and members of the media who continued to claim they spoke on behalf of all women. Helen and Kim each passed the letter to a handful of friends. The letter spread by word of mouth, woman to woman, very quickly—gaining a couple thousand signatures its first weekend and 7000 signatures by the end of its first week. Presently it has more than 41,000 woman signers from all 50 states and various political and religious profiles.
Our list is made up of diverse and intelligent women–with thousands of doctors, lawyers, teachers, businesswomen, homeschooling mothers, and longtime community advocates. Our partnership with the women–and I think we really do see it as a partnership–has produced hundreds of letters to the editor, town hall meetings, letters and meetings with congressional representatives, social media postings, and the occasional protest for religious freedom. Many of the women correspond with Helen weekly; they’re active on our Facebook page (which reaches between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people weekly) and they’re active in their communities. Often, our members alert us to opportunities, and send us literature that enlightens our efforts. They suggest slogans, projects and contacts. It’s a great nationwide collaborative effort!
C&C: What are the issues WSFT is concerned with?
WSFT: Because we got started as a response to the HHS Mandate (particularly the congressional “religious liberty” hearing which led to a firestorm of media attention claiming that the battle over the HHS Mandate represented a battle by religious forces against women), WSFT has always operated with two points: 1) women care about religious freedom 2) the sexual expressionism Mandate –supporters promote (i.e. sex without relationship, without commitment) is not paramount to women’s progress in society.
Regarding the religious freedom point: women, statistically, practice religion more than men and claim more often that it is crucial to their lives. Also, fascinating data shows that countries around the world which respect religious freedom are also more likely to recognize the equality of the female half of the human race. It’s simply counterfactual to suggest that women don’t care about the religious freedom concerns surrounding the HHS Mandate. It’s also dangerous. Religious freedom is such a vital part of human identity, happiness and freedom.
To the sexual expressionism point: proponents of the Mandate –like Planned Parenthood – regularly equate contraception and free contraception with women’s ability to participate equally in society. This characterization of pregnancy, however, is not true to women. It gives lawmakers a free pass to do nothing more for women than offer legal and free contraception and even abortion. And it also obscures a deeper, more empowering, and more female-friendly notion of sex as part of a mutually giving relationship between a man and a woman, responsible for new life itself….for society itself.
Sex isn’t always going to bring about new life, of course—and no one is suggesting that access to contraception be removed–but we think discussion of this point should be kept alive in the public arena. Linking sex and new life together not only reduces the likelihood that women will be reduced to objects, but it also fosters the notion that motherhood can be very transformative in the lives of women, especially poor women who often find that motherhood gives meaning to their lives.
C&C: Religious groups are being given a choice: violate your conscience and comply with the HHS Mandate or pay crippling fines which would inevitably put charities and businesses out of businesses. Many of the groups and charities have said they won’t comply. Will women suffer more because they won’t have access to these charities?
WSFT: Of course. Think about what the Catholic groups alone provide (let alone the many other religious charities)! Groups like Little Sisters of the Poor and Universities like Notre Dame and Ave Maria (all plaintiffs in lawsuits against the HHS Mandate) are part of a global Catholic network which support leadership and aid for women. Here are some of the global Catholic figures to give you an idea:
Catholic schools have been a leader in educating women worldwide, empowering them to assume leadership roles in culture, society, family and the economy. The Catholic education system is the largest nongovernmental school system in the world. Globally, there are nearly 93,000 Catholic elementary schools, with over 31 million children in them. There are nearly 44,000 secondary schools with nearly 18 million children in them.
The Catholic Church maintains 54,742 day-care centers caring for 2.3 million girls. The Church today also supports 100,231 health-care institutions worldwide, including hospitals, crisis pregnancy centers, shelters for battered women, leprosaria, nursing homes for the elderly and centers for the assistance of the seriously disabled. Mother Teresa’s 4,000 Missionaries of Charity alone maintain shelters for battered women, orphanages for girls and boys, and homes for destitute and dying women and men in 564 sites around the world.
And beyond the direct care, there is also the witness religious groups provide to women, of a view of sex more likely to prevent the objectification of women, and the care of children. I just wrote quite a bit about the negative consequences of uncommitted sex in an article that called into question Bedsider, a program of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (a group which supports the Mandate). Bedsider, and some of its allies (like Planned Parenthood), are doing more than just trying to get contraception to women, they are promoting sex without much discussion of its other consequences. Bedsider in particular offers sex tips, lewd graphics, and vulgar videos, many of which promote drunken sex, casual, uncommitted sex, and irresponsibility in relationships. Their logic seems to be “as long as you don’t get pregnant, there is no harm.” But there is real harm that can result from uncommitted sex or having sex with multiple partners, especially for women.
The data contained in my article aren’t religious arguments for more intentionality in sex and relationships, but it’s compelling information, which you almost never hear from ‘big media.’ It’s the religious groups that seem to be doing the most work to get this information into the hands of women (and men). It would be awful for women and children in particular to lose this witness.
C&C: There have been a number of articles from proponents of the HHS Mandate who want to paint groups like WSFT as “people who hate sex” or people who don’t understand that birth control is not the same as abortion. What is your response?
WSFT: It’s playground bully stuff, although — as someone with just a little bit of journalism experience under my belt, it amazes me that some people apparently believe its “journalism.” Those claims have nothing to do with our materials. They ignore the data we use from sources like the Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen and even Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
People like to say that there are “reasonable people are on both sides of the debate,” and while that may be true, the megaphone that has been given to these preposterous claims give me more motivation to double down on our efforts at WSFT. We have had some success getting our data into the papers and on television, and we will work to get more of the media’s ear, but the heart of our efforts are in the communities where our women live.
I don’t think we should underestimate the power that lies in women standing up for their beliefs–whether it be in their homes, their neighborhoods, their kids’ school, or at their city or town hall meetings. Cultural and political change doesn’t happen overnight, but these two years of WSFT activism have shown us that one woman and her friends standing up on their community can make a difference. WSFT isn’t going away; in fact, we intend to grow!
If you want to join our efforts, please sign up at www.womenspeakforthemselves.com
 Vella Francis, Do Catholic Schools Make a Difference? Evidence from Australia, 34 The Journal of Human Resources 208 (1999);
 See e.g. Roy Gardner, Denis Lawton, & Jo Cairns, Faith Schools (2005), p. 148; Gerald Rupert Grace & Joseph O’Keefe, “Celebrating the past: Claiming the future: Challenges for Catholic Education in Ireland”, in Grace, Gerald; O’Keefe, Joseph, International Handbook of Catholic Education Challenges for School Systems in the 21st Century (2007), 15–22.