JIP Hits the Road, Fighting for Women’s Civil Rights

By Andrew Kreig / Justice Integrity Project Director

On May 10, it was my privilege to address a Virginia women’s group on how we can fight more effectively for women’s rights as part of a larger struggle for due process and other civil rights. My invitation from the McLean Chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) came more than a year ago. But the occasion coincides also with our Justice Integrity Project (JIP) effort to meet with groups across the country and across the political spectrum to share ideas on more effective strategies for preserving and enhancing civil rights.

To that end, we welcome similar invitations from other groups.  As an illustration, my prepared remarks are below. The talk differed slightly. For example, I started by saying that I was delighted to be there speaking to such stalwart members of the UAW [not AAUW] after one of the leaders advised me that they liked a few laughs along with more substantive fare. We had a blast, and I look forward to working in the future with their members and any of our readers here who might be similarly inclined to share ideas at a meeting. Contact me at Andrew (at) justice-integrity.org to discuss such an event. In the meantime, click here for a video excerpt of this week's talk, with text below. 

The Erosion of Women's Movement Gains – And What To Do About It!
American Association of University Women (AAUW)
Andrew Kreig, May 10, 2011, McLean, VA

I’m thrilled to be here, knowing the important work of so many dedicated AAUW volunteers.  My goal is to swap ideas to reverse the frightening recent erosion of women’s gains. Two centuries ago, U.S. First Lady Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, saved important White House treasures by bringing them here during her flight to the McLean area as the British burned the White House. In the same way, it’s increasingly necessary now for those like you to save our national treasures of civil rights and equal opportunity.

Preparing for this talk enabled me to learn more about AAUW’s impressive work and such leaders as Dorothy Hassan and her program co-chair Yvon Jensen, your co-presidents Mary Lou Melley and Nancy Patterson, and your state leader, Caroline Perkins. For one thing, I’ve learned that Dorothy began her U.S. career as an undergraduate librarian at Cornell University in 1966, and has her mystery, Not One of Us, coming out on Amazon.com next week in paperback. Congratulations!  By coincidence, 1966 was the same year I began college at Cornell. As Dorothy noted in her introduction of me, my studies there included a seminar that was first-ever college course on women’s studies in the United States.  In a sense, that seminar has led directly to my presence here with you this evening.

Personal Perspective on Tough Choices

We’ve just had Mother’s Day. So, I’ll begin by describing how my mine, Margaret Kreig, exemplified some of the tough choices women faced decades ago, as now.  In 1943, she dropped out of college to join the Marines during World War II as one the first volunteers for the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve created that year. Her major assignment was to help load ships in Norfolk, Virginia.  After the war my mother tried to get a job as a newspaper reporter in her hometown of Chicago. She once told me that during her main job interview the city editor provided a then-unanswerable rejection: “We don’t need any more ‘lady’ reporters,” the editor said. “We’ve already got one.  And she’s drunk all the time.  Just look at her!”

Fortunately, pioneers in women’s professions were creating opportunities one- by-one. Pioneers drew strength from one another in a growing women’s movement.

As for my mother, she became a free-lance magazine writer and published many cutting-edge articles on such innovations as car seat-belts, contact lens and “teaching machines” to improve education. Later, she became the medical editor of Parent’s Magazine in New York and authored two important books in the field. For Green Medicine: The Search for the Plants that Heal, she undertook jungle exploration on the Amazon River with Harvard University researchers to learn about natural remedies from witch doctors.  For the other book, she volunteered with federal agents to make undercover drug buys. This was part of their investigation into Mafia money-making schemes to counterfeit life-saving prescription drugs.  Her book, Black Market Medicine, prompted a House Government Operations subcommittee in June 1967 to present her as its star witness in one the nation’s first-ever congressional hearings about the Mafia.

Seeking Justice

In nature, the seedling usually grows near the tree. As a result, I lead a non-partisan, DC-based legal reform group. It’s called the Justice Integrity Project. We investigate prosecutions of prominent political figures to examine allegations of irregularities. Our Project on such investigative reporting and legal reform has strong Fairfax and Arlington County roots. That’s no coincidence. Your community has a tremendous tradition of civic volunteer efforts. Dorothy Hassan mentioned during my introduction that one of my Project directors is the illustrious former Washington Post editor and National Press Club president Robert Ames Alden [right].  His wife, Diana, is your member who kindly arranged the invitation for me to speak to you. I know that Bob is very proud to have been the first male member of your chapter as well as the leading advocate at the National Press Club in the battles to pemit female membership in the 1970s. He and our Project’s other directors are listed on our website. They include retired Navy captain and We the People Now! leader Ron Fisher and a longtime civic leader John Hurley, both living in Arlington. Another is John Kelly, a broadcast news veteran living in New York who formerly worked as an officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. These professionals have many decades of service to help the country, as do so many of you.

As an example of our work, we have published extensively, for example, on how former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman was framed by the Bush administration on corruption charges. The highly partisan, presiding judge was rewarded with $300 million in federal contracts for his closely held private company, which is primarily an Air Force contractor. Meanwhile, the Justice Department’s top paralegal on the case, Tamarah Grimes [right], tried to bring the horrid irregularities in the prosecution to the attention of authorities both during the Bush years and under Obama. But top Justice Department personnel closed ranks against her to protect themselves. She was fired, like many whistleblowers. Last summer, she lost her home because of prolonged unemployment. Just today, a federal appeals court in Atlanta issued another ruling in this decade-long prosecution. The Justice Integrity Project promptly denounced that ruling and renewed our call for protest if Congress will not call witnesses for the first time to expose this 10-year  travesty of justice, enabling the public to learn for the first time in a meaningful way about the shocking evidence of government corruption -- and government treatment of courageous whistleblowers like Tamarah Grimes and others.

* * * *

Courts, Politics and Women's Rights

My work as a newspaper reporter covering federal courts full-time from 1976 to 1981 provided a front-row seat to many cutting-edge legal and political battles regarding women's rights and parallel developments in other civil right. I followed many sex bias lawsuits in the courts, for example, including a first-of-its-kind class action suit by Yale University students accusing the university of tolerating sexual misconduct by faculty against students. The vast majority of these cases, including the one against Yale, were unsuccessful, even when there was solid evidence of unfairness. Losing such a case created financial and other disasters for the plaintiffs. The frustration was the same for those losing suits on the basis of age, race, and religion or disability bias. Those lessons became even more clear-cut for me when I became a lawyer and law clerk to a prominent federal judge, who like his peers usually dismissed job bias claims pretrial because of the underlying law: That law, in essence, is that it’s not enough that a plaintiff prove unfairness. She must provide evidence also that her sex caused the unfairness.

Upon moving to Washington in 1991, I watched the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings before I began work at a major national law firm here. There’s no doubt in my mind that Republicans nominated Thomas because he helped gut plaintiff protections when he chaired the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Ideologues wanted Thomas [at right] to carry on in the same way as a Supreme Court justice.

The evidence is compelling that Anita Hill was telling the truth in describing the nominee’s predatory habits. But Democrats on the committee joined with Republicans in treating her unfairly. They blocked more evidence – and, worst of all, arranged a prompt confirmation vote to scoot Thomas into office before anyone could investigate further. Why? A big part of it, of course, was that opponents of civil rights really wanted him for all he could do for their agenda. Additionally, they cynically exploited his status as an African-American to immunize him from tough scrutiny. They rightly predicted that Democrats would be reluctant to attack a potential successor to Justice Thurgood Marshall. But there was a hidden factor also: Many prominent Democrats used their Washington staff as their private harems, just like Republicans. Democrats knew that “mutually assured destruction” might occur if finger-pointing started.

Okay, what to do about such things? In 1996, I asked Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut why he and other senators were not more vigilant in protecting the justice system against ideologues. The senator responded that most voters neither know nor care much about such legal issues. I’m still horrified at his response. But I fear that it’s all too true.

Beyond that, can we trust the news media anymore to spotlight what’s most important? I’m afraid not. My first book in 1987 was, Spiked: How Chain Management Corrupted America’s Oldest Newspaper. I showed how a newspaper under conglomerate ownership has huge incentives to cut back on meaningful but expensive local news coverage that’s necessary for informed citizen action. That’s dangerous. Today’s news organizations increasingly focus on phony, puffed-up stories of no real consequence. Things like Trumped-up “birther” controversies and White House “gate-crashers.” Meanwhile, the powers-that-be implement their goals almost unnoticed.

I left the business community three years ago as leader of a non-profit trade association to return to investigative work. Since then I’ve seen first-hand that we cannot appreciate the motivations of top officials on women’s rights – or anything else – if we simply assume the process works according to normal, textbook political pressures. Too many of our officials and other opinion leaders are inclined to greed and various other forms of the “Deadly Sins.”

All of this is further complicated by political blackmail. Our much-touted news coverage just scratches the surface compared to the private detectives who might earn hundreds of thousands of dollars to assemble a dossier that can be used to pressure a major official. Washington Post Managing Editor Robert Kaiser entitled his 2009 book, So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government. It described the Washington political scene he’s seen spiral downward during his career. His newspaper is not so blunt on its regular news coverage. But it should be.

Regarding women’s issues, we can see the ominous trends in the courts, among elected officials and in the media. This is part of a much larger erosion of our civil rights, typified by once-unthinkable government surveillance of our emails and phone calls.

What to do?

You in this audience already know a great deal about such problems. So I’ll focus more on recommendation for action. The gist of my message is that reformers – especially part-time volunteers – need to keep up the pressure on opinion leaders. We must also understand the foot-dragging on real reform typical in high places, along with their temptations for hypocrisy and even corruption. This involves both parties, and those from all parts of the country.

You already have an excellent action and reform framework through AAUW.  Your convention next month at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington provides another set of terrific opportunities. But we must also act with an understanding of power and its abusers.

Machiavelli was the closest thing to an investigative reporter during his own Renaissance times. And he wrote that a leader must be a lion to scare away the wolves, but also a fox to avoid traps. So let’s be both lions and foxes now in learning about adversaries and the terrain. Fortunately, you at AAUW already have an effective roadmap for reform. Your mantra “Learn, Act, Connect” is a terrific recipe for success. I’d like to think that our gathering this evening exemplifies those principles, and undoubtedly you'll be carrying them out effectively at your annual convention next month at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington.

Summing Up

Let me close also with bit of tough-love drawn from my years as a trade association executive in Washington seeking access to top political leaders. There are traps that you, as grassroots advocates, need to encourage your leaders avoid. Here’s the problem: Top officials of both parties don’t provide access to advocacy group leaders or even reporters unless they kow-tow. We see this often in Washington. Go-along, get-along. But such a craven posture risks short-changing the interests of ordinary readers or grassroots constituencies.

One of my columns today on our Justice Integrity Project website this week is about precisely this kind of scenario, and the dangers that it poses. It involved the new book published by a New York Times reporter about President Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. The problem is that to get access to the documents and the president the author, Janny Scott, in effect provided, in my view, a softball account of Dunham's life.  Scott, an award-winning author, is, by all appearances, a pleasant, articulate and highly successful professional. I met her when she lectured Monday in Washington. She and many others would doubtless differ with my assessment. But with the stakes so high, I think it's sometimes it’s necessary to talk bluntly about how Washington works. Several advocacy group leaders for whistleblowers and open government recently wanted to plead their cause to President Obama, and decided the best way to get his ear was to honor him for open government. But the White House insisted that the award be presented in secret!

In noting career dangers and daring, I began my talk with allusions to world war, jungle, Mafia and Marines. We won those battles, and we can again prevail in the fight for women’s rights.  But we need to be informed and tough-minded.  The country and our descendants are counting on you, and I’m proud to stand here with you tonight in this great fight for our future.

Contact the author Andrew Kreig or comment