We Stand for Academic Freedom

The American Association of University Women should be on the front lines in defending academic freedom in higher education. Our foremothers fought for a university education for women because this was the highest standard for the development of human knowledge and informed judgment. If self-interested governments are allowed to dictate what may be taught and what may not be taught, this standard will be lost. That is the case with the Florida “Stop WOKE Act,” which seeks to restrict instruction in colleges and universities regarding race. The initial name of this act is ironically candid: obviously, the legislators would prefer that we remain asleep. The current name, Individual Freedom Act, is not candid.

Now Florida governor DeSantis has determined that a Florida college rated as one of the nation’s best liberal arts institutions, New College of Florida, will be transformed into an institution of reactionary indoctrination. To begin the process, he has appointed six new ultra conservative board members. Referencing a well-known conservative Christian college, his chief of staff stated, “It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South.”

It is also ironic for the government of Florida to establish a “Hillsdale”, since the actual Hillsdale declined government aid for its students so that it would not be subject to Title IX and other federal regulations. The notion of having a college dedicated to “the classics” may sound attractive, until you realize that those classics will exclude modern thought especially that related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and that they are focused on Western thought exclusively. DeSantis and his supporters believe that this indoctrination will quash any tendency to explore injustices in our society.

According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), academic freedom is the foundation of excellence in higher education: “As widely understood in the academic community, academic freedom is essential to allow for the unfettered search for knowledge and does not exist for the benefit of the individual faculty member but for the sake of education in service to the greater good.” That greater good is not just material progress, but also progress in the direction of a more just and equitable society. Even though anyone who has read the Chronicle of Higher Education is aware that scholarly associations can have blind spots, the self-governance of these associations is far superior to politically motivated regulation by governmental agencies. The AAUP cautions against faculty members introducing “controversial matters which are unrelated to their subject”, but the fact is that racial bias and other inequities are germane to almost any topic that relates to what a student will be doing in the real world.

AAUW’s Public Policy Priorities include academic freedom: “AAUW believes that high-quality public education is the foundation of a democratic society and the key to improving economic prosperity and gender equality… We support academic freedom, civic education, protection from censorship, bias-free education, and responsible funding for all levels of education.” 

The Stop WOKE Act and the conversion of New College are not only threats to academic freedom but exemplify censorship and blatant bias. In November 2022 a federal judge blocked enforcement of the higher-education provisions of the Act, calling it “positively dystopian”, but the state has appealed. Despite the injunction, an article from ProPublica documents how the Stop WOKE Act has already caused faculty to drop or modify courses, especially those faculty not protected by tenure.

Beyond AAUW’s public policy, the idea that the state will now have the ability to dictate what is taught in colleges and universities is abhorrent to those of us who remember our college experience as enlightening.  In a 1952 Supreme Court case (a McCarthy era case concerning a loyalty oath for professors), Justice Frankfurter referred to all teachers as “priests of democracy” whose special task is “to foster those habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry which alone make for responsible citizens.”

Legal Matters

The whole basis of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade was that there is no right to abortion in the constitution. The same thing is also true of the right to contraception usage or same-sex intimacy and marriage. Justice Clarence Thomas has pointed this out.

Some of the Supreme Court justices who supported the recent decision said that the issue should be decided by the states. Abortion was legal in several states even before Roe v. Wade. However, this will inevitably result in penalizing those of limited means in the states that ban abortion even more severely than under the existing state restrictions on abortion access. In these modern times of universal access to information and culture, there is no logical reason why every state should be different in this regard.

It is important to recall that Roe did not open the door to all abortion. In the first trimester (13.3 weeks), the abortion decision is left to the woman’s physician. In the second trimester, the state may regulate abortion procedures in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health. In the third trimester, the state may proscribe abortion except when medical judgment concludes that the life of the mother is at stake. A related case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, established the criterion that states may not place undue burdens in the way of a person seeking abortion. Presumably the demise of Roe v. Wade has also made this decision moot, but while it was in force, states including Florida pushed the boundaries of undue burden, passing laws that inevitably would be declared unconstitutional.

In Florida, the law prohibiting abortions after 15 weeks goes into effect July 1st, 2022. As noted above, this would allow the vast majority of abortions to remain legal. However, Governor DeSantis has just (6/24/22) stated that Florida will “work to expand pro-life protections”. Florida has a unique right to privacy law in the constitution that was used 30 years ago to protect abortion rights. On the other hand, Florida also has laws requiring a 24 hour wait for abortion and requiring parental consent for minors.

The right to reproductive choice should be established in national law. The Women’s Health Protection Act, also known as WHPA, was reintroduced in the 117th Congress by lead sponsors Representatives Judy Chu (D-CA), Lois Frankel (D-FL), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Veronica Escobar (D-TX) in the House and Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) in the Senate. The bill was passed by the US House of Representatives in September 2021, but it did not pass the Senate with the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster on February 28, 2022. The vote was along party lines. “If enacted, WHPA would protect abortion access nationwide by creating a statutory right for health care providers to provide, and a corresponding right for their patients to receive, abortion care—free from restrictions and bans.”

Would the Equal Rights Amendment support abortion rights? Some think so, based on the idea that restrictions on pregnant persons differentially impact women. The Brennan Center says, “The long push to get the Equal Rights Amendment over the finish line could strengthen equality-based arguments and protections for abortion rights nationwide.”A Google search on the topic reveals a number of anti-abortion groups who are adamantly opposed to the ERA for this very reason.

Finally, legality and morality are not the same. Many things that are arguably immoral, such as promoting oneself at the expense of others, are perfectly legal and in fact encouraged in some contexts. Another organization I belong to was required by the Federal Trade Commission to desist from promoting its collegial code of ethics, because some of its provisions were deemed to be a conspiracy in restraint of trade. The decision to have an abortion is a complicated one, and indeed it is possible that some decisions might be immoral. But given the lack of agreement among major religions regarding abortion, I do not believe that the law is capable of distinguishing between immoral abortions and moral ones.

Religions and Abortion

There are two questions that are answered differently by people of different faiths and philosophies: when does life begin, and whose welfare is paramount in questions of the fetus versus the person carrying it. These are moral and not scientific questions.

Many Christians believe that life begins at conception, namely the moment when the egg is fertilized. The National Council of Catholic Bishops maintains that Christianity was distinguished in its early days by the rejection of abortion and infanticide, a rejection that continued, and that the life that begins at conception is sacred. However, there is variation among Christian denominations. See the Pew Research report link below.

The National Council of Jewish women has published a scripturally based account of the Jewish position on abortion. Life does not begin at conception, the fetus is not a person, and the rights of the already living person carrying the fetus are paramount in cases of conflict.

Likewise, the American Muslim Bar Association and HEART, a national reproductive justice organization serving American Muslims, have published a statement on abortion and especially on the impact of anti-abortion legislation on marginalized people. They point out that Muslims do not hold a unified view on abortion, and the article contains a strong statement of belief that every person has the right to control their own body and reproductive choices. They associate anti-abortion legislation with colonialism and white Christian nationalism.

The Pew Research Center has put together official positions on abortion from the above plus many other religious communities in The United States. Many of these make a distinction between early and late abortions, and many attempt to make a distinction between abortion as a convenience and abortion for what they consider to be more justified reasons.

What is clear is that to enshrine one religion’s beliefs into law is to create an establishment of religion contrary to the First Amendment.

Birth Control

It is difficult to exaggerate the impact of the availability of birth control on women’s lives and on society in general. Women have been able to build careers and enter the workplace, adding significantly to national productivity. Birth control is critical to women’s economic security and to the economic well-being of the American family. However, this was not achieved without struggle. It was only in 1965 that the Supreme Court decided that married couples had the right to use birth control. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Griswold_v._Connecticut

Even today, some employers refuse to provide birth control to their employees as part of their health care package (this is why I don’t shop at Hobby Lobby). For those who believe that life begins with the fertilization of an egg, some methods of birth control are equivalent to abortion. We need to understand that this is a logical extension of their belief, and that they will fight until such methods are banned. This is why birth control is under threat. For those who believe that even the potential for life itself is sacred, no birth control method is acceptable. Please note that those who believe in this way are a minority, but their voices have been loud.

We need to understand the methods of birth control and how they work. AAUW members, given our demographic, may not be up to date on this. You can review the currently available birth control methods, many of which were not available when most of us needed them, from Planned Parenthood. None, not even tubal ligation, is 100% effective except for abstinence, and to require abstinence is also to tell a woman what she can and cannot to do with her body. Abstinence is not conducive to a successful marriage, and healthcare advisors are continually telling us that we should have sex—safe sex, of course.

The above site also describes the cost of the various methods of birth control. Not surprisingly, the most effective methods that still allow sexual intercourse can be extremely expensive, up to $1300. This means that poor women do not have the best choices, especially since many of them are working at jobs that do not provide health care at all.


Prevention and termination of pregnancy has been practiced throughout recorded human history. Under English common law, the cornerstone of American jurisprudence, abortions performed prior to “quickening” (the first perceptible fetal movement, which usually occurs after the fourth month of pregnancy) were not criminal offenses. Abortion was made illegal under most circumstances in most US states in the mid-1800s, but by 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade, legal abortions were available in 17 states.

We need to understand the types of abortions, their frequency, and who has them. The Guttmacher Institute is a good source of information on this, but tracking abortions is difficult because different states have different reporting requirements.  

  • In 2020, there were 930,160 abortions in the United States, an 8% increase from 862,320 abortions in 2017.
  • Fifty-nine percent of abortions in 2014 were obtained by patients who had had at least one birth.
  • Some 75% of abortion patients in 2014 were poor (having an income below the federal poverty level of $15,730 for a family of two in 2014) or low-income (having an income of 100–199% of the federal poverty level). What does this tell you?

The Centers for Desease Control and Prevention produces an extensive statistical report on abortion. “Each year, CDC requests abortion data from the central health agencies for 50 states, the District of Columbia, and New York City. For 2019, 49 reporting areas voluntarily provided aggregate abortion data to CDC.” This report shows that very few abortions are performed after 13 weeks’ gestation (in Florida, 3.7%). However, other reporting has pointed out that these late term abortions constitute special, difficult cases.

The CDC also reports on abortion mortality–deaths attributable to legal abortion. Since 1970 there has been fewer than one death per 100,000 abortions.

The Pew Research Center‘s report uses the CDC data, but is much more readable.

WebMD describes abortion procedures in layman’s terms.

More than half of all abortions are now being accomplished through medication. These pills can be obtained from various sources, including international sources, and are as safe as surgical abortion. States with severe abortion restrictions are targeting medication abortion, but this will be more difficult to police.

Why do people choose to have abortions? There are a number of websites that feature stories told by real women about their abortion choices, and more come out every day in the news. In some cases, they don’t feel ready to have a child, or their life plans would be canceled by a pregnancy. In some cases, they already have children and cannot afford more. There are severely deformed and unviable fetuses. The stories are quite varied. Many people believe that abortion seekers are irresponsible and should not have allowed themselves to get pregnant. In addition to learning more about birth control and its limitations, reading these stories will provide another perspective. 

The above (and sites referenced in the post The Power of Story: Abortion) feature stories compiled largely by younger women. But I suspect, given the statistics on the number of women who have had abortions, that many of our members may have had this experience. Perhaps they will take the opportunity to share.

What You Can Do

In the branch: 

Have a discussion within your board of directors or branch on the topic: what do we mean when we say we empower women?

Schedule programs on the topics described in the information posts. Encourage respectful discussion and emphasize facts. Invite speakers from local women-serving agencies and get their viewpoint on the impact of current abortion regulations on real people. Invite legal speakers and current legislators (not candidates). But do not invite representatives of groups that oppose our public policy. See Article III, Section 1 of the national AAUW Bylaws: “The policies and programs of AAUW shall be binding on all members of AAUW (“Members”) engaged in AAUW activities, and no Member shall use the name of AAUW to oppose such policies or programs.”

In the community: 

Consider forming alliances with other groups that are interested in promoting reproductive rights, especially if they emphasize education. Many of these groups, however, are able to endorse candidates, which AAUW cannot do. What AAUW can do Is to emphasize the facts. There are many myths concerning abortion, but according to experts, “myth busting” is seldom effective, especially when it is directed at true believers. What is more effective is bringing out accurate information, for example the connection between poverty and abortion.

Should we march for reproductive rights? I personally did this a number of years ago in Washington, as did a good representation of AAUW members including then board president Patricia Ho. Did it change hearts and minds? I doubt that. Marching, or standing still and holding signs, are good ways to encourage people who already agree with us, and it can show them that we are on their side. This can be valuable. But I think that we need to devote the “smarts” and the education of which we are so proud to coming up with ways to educate others. We cannot change the minds of those who are irrevocably committed, but there are many people who may not have considered all the aspects and implications involved in the loss of reproductive rights. Some of them are our fellow AAUW members. They need to hear accurate information and participate in civil discussion.

The Power of Story: Abortion

Four years ago, during AAUW Florida’s last in-person convention, a small group of members cornered me in the hall and told me that their priest had proclaimed from the pulpit that they could not be members of both the Catholic Church and of AAUW because of our pro-choice stance. I have been told that they have since left AAUW. One of them said, while the others nodded their heads, that women seeking abortion have simply been irresponsible. I had no effective response. Now I do. The story these women believed has been carefully crafted.

When the landmark case Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, there were many stories of back-alley coat-hanger abortions performed on desperate women, and “women’s lib” was a compelling story for many. Now, those stories have faded away, and there has been an onslaught of state attempts to limit abortion and challenge Roe. https://www.guttmacher.org/abortion-rights-supreme-court What has caused this? I submit that groups of people who firmly believe that life begins at conception, and that that life must be preserved no matter the consequences to the person carrying it, have conducted an intensive and focused campaign to change the story. First, they labeled themselves “pro-life”, even though they are not concerned with the life of the person carrying the fetus. Many appear to strongly believe that a woman’s destiny is to bear children and she will be happier if she does that. They have already written the story of every person with a uterus. 

Rather than “fetus,” they name that tiny potential life a “baby”, even if it is merely a fertilized egg. If pressed, some will admit that they do not accept contraception because it prevents the fulfillment of that life potential. Recently, they have promoted laws that prohibit abortion if a “fetal heartbeat” can be detected, without making it clear that what they are talking about is not an actual heart beating but an electrical impulse. Choosing the term “heartbeat” is consistent with their story: abortion kills a baby. No one wants to kill a baby! On Interstate 10 as you drive toward Tallahassee from the east, billboards line the road featuring pictures of six-month-old children with various heart-wrenching pleas for life. This is how they have successfully made us all cringe when we hear the term “abortion”. But it is a reverse image of the propaganda in World War II posters depicting the enemy as subhuman. The enemy were human beings, and a 28 week fetus is not a baby.

Recent popular fiction glorifies the person who decides to keep a pregnancy in spite of all odds. There’s lots of human interest in the interactions that result, and a lovely ending with a bouncing baby that everyone loves. But if a woman chooses abortion, another story commences. What are those stories? 

In September 2021, three US congresswomen told their stories of abortion. Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri said she was raped on a church youth trip. Rep. Barbara Lee of California said she received a “back-alley” abortion in Mexico after a teenage pregnancy. And Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington said she opted for an abortion after being told her pregnancy would be high risk for her and the baby.

You may read more stories on these sites:


Here http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/abortion-out-loud

And there is https://rewirenewsgroup.com/article/2020/01/07/how-abortion-storytellers-feel-about-michelle-williams-golden-globes-speech/

In a recent op-ed in the Florida Times-Union, the board of Jacksonville NOW cited the majority opinion that abortion should be legal, and asked those in agreement to speak up. I agree. AAUW’s public policy calls for for “self-determination of women’s reproductive health decisions.” https://www.jacksonville.com/story/opinion/columns/guest/2022/01/30/guest-column-now-time-speak-up-abortion-legislation/6636364001/

Equity in Education: Be Vigilant

If you are an AAUW member, you probably proclaim that you are interested in education. Perhaps you give money for scholarships. Now is the time for you to take an interest in the actual content of education in the context of AAUW’s policy of equity in education. Governor DeSantis approved new civics education standards that exclude discussion of systemic racism and promote, in my opinion, what we used to call “jingoism”. Equity calls for the stories of previously excluded people to be taught.

The Florida Department of Education’s fear of dangerous ideas goes way back. When I was in high school in Gainesville Florida, the state decided that perhaps we should learn something about communism, a very dangerous idea that we might fall victim to if it were taught indiscriminately. So they produced a movie series that seniors were allowed to watch in the auditorium, called “Americanism versus Communism”. Now might be a good time for the state to produce another video series, “Americanism versus Critical Race Theory”. After all, who knows what kids might pick up on the outside that might suggest to them that the promises of liberty and justice for all really did not apply to everyone?

Instead, they have produced a new civics education curriculum that is quite rigorous in its promotion of an absolutely laudatory understanding of all American institutions and practices. The student is to understand the advantages of limited government, capitalism, and the influence of Hebraic and Christian religion on America’s founding ideas.  The words “slave” and “slavery” are not found in the standards. The word “native” is found only in a context that praises the government for granting rights to Native Americans, among other “groups”. Any fault in granting civil rights to these groups was remedied: “Explain how the principles contained in foundational documents contributed to the expansion of civil rights and liberties over time.” Much attention is paid to those foundational documents, but no mention is made of the Constitution’s compromises that perpetuated slavery and denied rights to women.

In my graduate work I learned the maxim that it is the victors who write the histories. We cannot allow the political victors to write, for their own benefit, the history that students will learn in school. We have scholars and journalists nowadays who are willing to dig and learn the histories of people who were left out of official accounts. Florida Rep. Ramon Alexander (D-8) collected a list of ten “pieces of factual Florida history” that have been left out: slavery and the role of enslaved laborers in building our monuments, systematic racism (Jim Crow, redlining, mortgage discrimination), two destroyed towns, and examples of lynchings and vigilante retaliation. One example of the latter, the Jacksonville Ax Handle Saturday “riot,” has recently been the subject of reexamination and apology from the Times-Union for its biased coverage of the events in 1960.

I urge all AAUW members and others who are concerned with equity in education to be alert to potential negative impacts from the new standards. Watch particularly for disciplinary actions taken against teachers who may defy the restrictive standards and try to teach what actually happened: to tell the stories that were suppressed or deceptively reported. And support teachers who promote actual critical thinking rather than acceptance of dogma.

AAUW Membership

Starting April 7, 2021, AAUW members will vote on a proposed bylaw change providing that membership shall be open to anyone who supports our mission. I wish to share with you my journey in regard to this controversial topic.

The last time AAUW open membership was proposed, I voted against it (a blog post on this appeared Feb. 27, 2018). This was because 1) a friend who was a member of the national Lobby Corps told me that she felt strongly that being “highly educated women” gave them more credibility in the halls of Congress, and 2) with the increasing number of women in the United States to hold at least a two-year college degree, it did not seem necessary to expand the pool of those eligible to join AAUW.

During one of the recent national discussions of the proposed change in membership requirements, I asked if there was any truth to what my friend in the Lobby Corps had told me. The panelist said no: what legislators care most about is whether or not you are eligible to vote for them. This was a “duh” moment for me. My years of experience in advocating for AAUW legislative priorities persuade me that the panelist was right. Perhaps it gave my friend more self-confidence to hold a degree, but a woman’s self-confidence comes from the sum of her qualities, not from just one. AAUW’s research and legislative advisory capability should give us confidence in approaching legislators.

As for the pool of potential AAUW members, it is indeed large enough as it is. I have repeatedly emphasized that the battle for college degrees for women has been won. But the question is whether it is diverse enough. The research recently commissioned by AAUW of Florida showed that fewer women of color hold degrees than white women: while 41% of white women hold at least an Associate degree, and therefore are qualified for AAUW membership under current requirements, only 23% of Black women and 28% of Hispanic women would qualify. In addition, we learned that 66% of black women and 57% of Hispanic women live below the level of economic security for their family type.

So shouldn’t we encourage these women to get a college degree? According to the Florida State College in Jacksonville (FSCJ) website, “Twelve credits, which is considered a “full-time” load for a semester, cost $1,259 for Florida resident students. Figure in your book costs at about $80 per credit hour, and you are looking at a total bill of about $2,219 for a full-time semester.” Of course, there’s financial aid. I used FSCJ’s net price calculator to estimate cost for a 35-year-old single mother with two children, earning less than $30,000 per year. She received $3,101 in financial aid. The cost was $15,203 including $10,396 for room and board. So if we subtract the room and board, we get $4,807. That is still too much for this woman!

If we want to help all women and girls with diversity, equity, inclusion, and economic security, we need not hold ourselves above the ones who need help. We might gain valuable insights from the people who are experiencing economic challenges and inequity. Moreover, we might be seen as working together rather than swooping down from above to be “saviors”. Our national Strategic Plan 2.0 calls for an increased emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. While education remains an area of emphasis, that area is focused on equity, access, and freedom from sex discrimination at every educational level. 

We have been told by national board members that it is becoming more difficult to secure corporate grants when we are seen as exclusionary. Those grants have enabled us to maintain and expand Start Smart, Work Smart, NCCWSL, our research publications, and our lobby and policy advisory activity. We have been told that member dues cover only 15% of an already reduced budget and dramatically reduced staff. We need those grants if we are to retain and strengthen our position as a national force for equity for women and girls.

AAUW Can Promote the Knowledge that Makes Democracy Possible

AAUW was founded by women who were looking for equal opportunity to attain higher education, meaning to learn from the best minds and to participate in discussion at a high intellectual level. When they were told that this higher education would impair their fertility, they knew better than to believe such misinformation, and they sought and found evidence to counter it.

AAUW members may disagree, but the  one thing we have never lost sight of is the value of knowledge. We understand how knowledge is gained and transmitted, with students of science, human behavior and society building on the foundations of their predecessors. We understand the value of evidence, which sometimes requires rejecting previously accepted knowledge because of new discoveries. We understand the importance of accurate observation, and the difference between factual reporting and deception.

In a democratic society, decision-making can only be as good as the information available to the voters. But today we are seeing significant challenges to good information and to the capacity for evaluating the quality of what flows through our many feeds.

As important as our vision, “Equity for All” is for our country today, even more important may be “Knowledge for All”. With our almost 140 years of history promoting knowledge, it would seem that AAUW is uniquely equipped to help our fellow citizens gain reliable information and exercise critical thinking. We need to try to find ways to promote these things in our communities, schools, and organizations.

I call on Tech Trek and other STEM projects to teach as much as possible of the thought processes of science and how scientific conclusions are reached. Science can offer us more than just a way for women to achieve economic security. It also offers a model of knowledge building that, at its best, is tireless and selfless in expanding horizons. Again, at its best, it does not respect ethnic and national prejudices: a good example has been provided by the international search for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Scientific knowledge is not the only kind. We also need knowledge about other people not like us and cultures that are not our own. It is the humanities that imparts this kind of knowledge most effectively. Stories are powerful because they can place us in an unfamiliar context and help us understand the motivations and values of people we would not encounter in our daily life. But stories can also be powerful when promulgated by those who seek to gain power by promoting the belief that people not like them are threats to their way of life. I call on all of us to find ways to spread the right kinds of stories, those that promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

AAUW stands for nonpartisan, fact-based integrity. Like those founding women, let us reject harmful misinformation and promote the knowledge necessary for a healthy democracy.

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