University Forum Committee celebrates women’s suffrage through film and speaker series

Gianna Holiday

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Throughout the 2019-20 academic year, the University Forum Committee is hosting a series of lectures and films to enlighten community members on women’s issues, honoring the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. 

The lecture series will bring investigators, professors and other authors to campus, creating an open dialogue for discussion on a variety of social issues. Past speakers include activist Gloria Steinem, conservationist Terry Tempest Williams, presidential historian Harold Holzer, CNN correspondent Peter Bergen and award-winning science journalist Carl Zimmer. 

The most recent showing, “Heather Booth: Changing the World,” a film by Lilly Rivlin, presented an overview of 50 years of Heather Booth’s career in community and political organizing. 

Booth’s political career extends back to her college days, when she dealt with numerous women’s rights issues including women’s health and access to education.

 “Until the 1970s, women had been in a second-class position in society,” said Booth. “A friend of mine in college was raped at knifepoint in her bed in off-campus housing, and we went with her to student health for a gynecological exam, and she was told that student health wouldn’t cover a gynecological exam and was instead given a lecture on her promiscuity.”

Women’s health became the focus of her work. She established “Jane,” a Chicago-based women’s health group that performed nearly 12,000 successful abortions between 1969 and 1973, with no formal medical training, prior to the legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade.

The health group got its own documentary: “Jane: An Abortion Service,” which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.

“The thing that has changed the most is that women ourselves have changed and our attitudes have changed,”Booth said. “There now is this belief that there should be equal pay; there should be support for childcare; there should be equal access to education and healthcare, that women should be able to choose when to have a child.”

Booth became an activist during the civil rights movement in 1964.
“You sometimes need to stand up to illegitimate authority. While I was in Mississippi, we were trying to help black people register to vote who were prevented from voting, and I was arrested. I was 18 years old and was carrying a sign, trying to help people register to vote,” Booth said. 

“Heather Booth: Changing the World” focuses on the idea of organization and group efforts to make impactful political change, including Booth’s work with women’s issues organizations and civil rights. She has also influenced politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren.

“One of the things that is exciting and important about the film is that there are many people all across the political spectrum who feel disaffected by politics,” said Kelly Davis, associate professor of electronic media and broadcasting. “People feel like there’s nothing they can do, but Heather Booth is an example to people that shows them what they can do when they organize.”

Booth is a political strategist on progressive issues and electoral campaigns. She continues to organize as a member of the consulting group Democracy Partners.

“What I understood at that time was that there are sometimes illegitimate laws and illegitimate people who carry out these laws, and we need to stand up to them,”Booth said. “And, if we do, we can change this world.”

“Heather Booth: Changing the World” was shown Sept. 18 in Plemmons Student Union. The next event will host Wendy Rouse, a professor at San Jose State University, who will speak on “Women’s Suffrage, Self-Defense, and the Struggle for Equality in the Progressive Era” Oct. 3 at 5 p.m. in Belk Library Room 114.