Choice Rights, and Those Who Protest To Protect Them, Are Alive and Well in The South

The most diligent activists to be found marching the cobblestoned streets of Wilmington, North Carolina, appear as if they’ve blasted straight out of a foregone era. They are known, collectively, as Women Organizing for Wilmington, or WOW, and they clearly recall the days when activism was theater. Their antics harken back to the time when caring about women’s rights meant you might tote a statement sign in a suffragist parade. Or to later, when you might attend a demonstration dressed like a giant pink uterus and hear septuagenarians orating horror stories about their mothers’ and grandmothers’ botched home abortions.

In Wilmington, a coastal, steepled university town of 108,000, the legacy of these movements takes the form of a posse of mostly gray-haired retirees. The three-dozen-or-so regular members of this pro-choice women’s rights group like to dress up — a “barefoot and pregnant” costume is popular — and they’re always carrying signs they crafted themselves, using markers and poster board. This is old-school activism at its finest — and most necessary.

Leading up to North Carolina’s mid-term election, in which Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat, will face Thom Tillis, the state’s Republican House speaker, these ladies are canvassing hard for the pro-choice Hagan, a candidate whose victory, experts say, hinges on the votes of unmarried women.

No matter how I put it, I have a heck of a time communicating that the South is in fact filled with informed, progressive people, and that given their regional history and representation, such citizens’ crosses are heavier to bear. Which means that to get their point across, Southerners often have to speak louder, crank up their activism, and pull out all the stops.

Since this tensely-watched race could determine the congressional support Obama can hope to enjoy through 2016, as well as the likelihood of Hillary Clinton clinching this key state, WOW’s members say the onus is on groups like theirs' to make their support of progressive candidates and values known. And in small-town North Carolina — a setting that, it’s worth noting, gave rise to the lunch counter sit-ins that arguably launched the civil rights movement — replicas of WOW's old-school protest model are proliferating.

The group launched its still-ongoing weekly protest cycle in July of 2013, around the same time that I moved to Wilmington from Los Angeles. At the time, North Carolina legislators were making national headlines for their refusal to expand Medicaid to their 500,000 working poor, for cutting unemployment benefits, and for the type of strategic redistricting that, when instituted in a former Confederate state, arouses suspicions of racial gerrymandering.

By the time I arrived to work as a local public radio reporter, the state’s leaders were catching flak for sneaky maneuvers like taking motorcycle safety laws and folding in small-print anti-abortion measures that stood to close 35 of the state’s 36 women’s health clinics. By June of 2013, substantial sections of the Voters’ Rights Act of 1965 had expired, meaning that around the time I was registering to vote, white lawmakers were busy mandating photo IDs and shortening early, absentee, and provisional voting periods — measures that all seemed aimed toward keeping black, rural, and college-aged citizens from ever voting again.

During those days, my inbox often brimmed with missives from loved ones in the North and West —Yankees who had seen clips detailing the doings of North Carolina’s newly Republican-ruled Senate, House, and governor’s mansion (the state’s first such triumvirate in 140 years), and who were aghast that I’d voluntarily uprooted myself to a place so “backward.”

Unfortunately, there’s no simple way to convey to city-dwelling liberals who refuse to set foot in red states that insanely regressive legislation does not necessarily translate to a populace of anti-woman, racist gun nuts. I’ve tried, only to learn that rants about the technicalities of gerrymandering carry diminishing returns — red-ruled North Carolina, after all, counts some 700,000 more registered Democratic than Republican voters.

No matter how I put it, I have a heck of a time communicating that the South is in fact filled with informed, progressive people, and that given their regional history and representation, such citizens’ crosses are heavier to bear. Which means that to get their point across, Southerners often have to speak louder, crank up their activism, and pull out all the stops.

Case in point: Every Monday at noon, WOW’s members join forces in Wilmington’s old-timey downtown district to create a sea of Pepto-Bismol pink. The group decorates protesters’ tee-shirts, caps, posters, and even one grandmatronly regular’s hand-sewn prop — a plush, pear-shaped toy bearing the sign, “Who’s in your uterus?” and filled to its cervix with tiny flyers listing the contact information of each “anti-woman” state congressperson.

Rhymey chanting and traffic cacophony aside (demonstrators like to tote homemade “Honk if you care about women’s rights” posters), WOW's members are more or less decorous. Indignant, yes, but not quite irate. My initial impression was that they were mainly irritated to find themselves back once more at this particular rodeo.

“I already fought for choice rights, back in the seventies,” sighed one sixty-something I spoke with at WOW's debut rally, setting down her “I’m a woman, not a womb” sign to take a moment in the shade. “You know, it gets exhausting, making the same argument for forty years.”

WOW’s founder, Lynn Shoemaker, is the daughter of a former Raleigh city councilwoman. She says WOW formed “organically” in 2012, when the county commission serving Wilmington refused unencumbered family planning funds that would have provided free IUDs to women who couldn’t afford them. One such male commissioner reasoned women who needed IUDs were irresponsible with contraceptives, while the other went on to argue that no contraceptives would be necessary if “these women” just wouldn’t have “the sex,” and that therefore, the county government shouldn’t be encouraging their “lewd behavior.”

It was then that Lynn Shoemaker decided to gather all the progressive people she knew — about three hundred, as it turned out — to protest outside downtown Wilmington’s two-hundred-year-old courthouse. She used social media and the telephone to assemble the protesters. Many showed up shoeless, sporting aprons and fake bellies, thus launching WOW’s signature costume motif.

And did they ever rally. Shoemaker proudly reports that the event’s magnitude prompted the commissioners to reconsider and ultimately accept the family planning funds.

At that point, North Carolina was still widely considered the South’s beacon of relative progress. But Lynn Shoemaker had seen the writing on the wall—her home state, for years the region’s most moderate, was fast becoming an incubator for Tea Party-style policies.

During the quiet period that followed the funding fight, Shoemaker says WOW kept busy becoming an official nonprofit and hosting film screenings aimed toward spurring community discussion of women’s issues. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s district lines were redrawn, and Republican Pat McCrory got handily elected to gubernatorial office— despite the fact that thousands more North Carolinians voted Democratic than Republican — thus completing the House and Senate’s red trifecta. Ever since, North Carolina citizens have seen a bevy of regressive legislation pushed through.

And the ever-adaptable WOW is there to push back. Last October, for instance, the ladies took a break from marching in pink motorcycle helmets — an homage to the afore-mentioned "motorcycle safety" laws — to rally with local voting rights activists. It was a Halloween masquerade of a protest, and Shoemaker dressed herself in the likeness of Senator Thom Goolsby — Wilmington attorney, infamous lambaster of the North Carolina NAACP's "Moral Mondays" movement, and big-time backer of the contentious new voting laws — donning pinstripes, a bowtie and a colossal papier-maché head. She then doused the whole get-up in fake blood, becoming “Ghouls-by.”

Back in WOW’s early stages, the aforementioned Senator Goolsby, a frequent target of WOW, fought back with his characteristically provocative tongue. “He went on the radio to note that we ‘old, long-in-the-tooth women’ are ‘too old to be even be having babies,’” Shoemaker says with a laugh. “So he doesn’t understand why we’re so concerned about reproductive health.”

Goolsby, to progressive North Carolinians’ delight, has since decided not to seek reelection in 2014. But in a way, Shoemaker says, his dig had a point: WOW does indeed bank on the free time of Wilmington’s retirees to keep its lunch-hour protests a continual, honk-garnering aspect of the downtown Wilmington landscape. For every Monday, several of them meet in the shadow of the downtown courthouse’s red-brick clock tower and unload their cache of homemade signs, most of which sport directives like, “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries!” and, “Hey, hey, mister mister — get your paws off my sister!”

But when people get quite literally behind their messages, the effect is "more empowering and accessible." She explains, “Our state is as poor as I can ever remember it, and I’m homegrown. But you don’t need a computer or the right connections to make your point in person.”

While she’s spent nearly her entire life as an activist, Shoemaker posits that in recent years, grassroots-style protests have resurged, largely in response to the nationwide Tea Party infiltration. “They’re the ones who started with the old-school protesting,” she notes, "and now the scales have inverted."

Shoemaker believes twenty-first century technology has been doing activists a disservice. “With an online petition,” she says, “people sign it and then they feel like they’ve done something, and they’re done.”

WOW seeks to make sure progressives in North Carolina are heard loud and clear, one demonstration at a time. And, Shoemaker adds, the group is anything but alone. “It used to be unique to see a protest with signs and the works, but now, somewhere in the South, there seems to be one happening every day — just on a small scale.”