FEATURES | winter 2004
Ms. Women of the Year
In TV murder mysteries, the detective always begins the investigation by piecing together a timeline of the crime. And that’s how four 9/11 widows from New Jersey began their journey from grieving housewives to unstoppable Nancy Drews.
They sleuthed, lobbied, protested and ultimately shamed a stonewalling Bush administration into creating the independent commission that exposed the incompetence and cover-up surrounding the September 11, 2001 , terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Now called the “Jersey Girls” (thanks to a Bruce Springsteen cover song), they helped force a reckoning of what really happened that clear September day when their husbands went to work in the Twin Towers and never came home.
Nearly 3,000 people died that day, but government officials insisted that nothing could have prevented terrorists who just “got lucky” hijacking airplanes. Left with seven children among them, the four moms from the Garden State weren’t convinced, and vowed to find out the truth.
Joining forces through survivor networks, there was Mindy Kleinberg, a 42-year-old former accountant, who organized and inspired with her stubborn streak; Lorie Van Auken, 49, a part-time graphic designer who researched and strategized; Kristen Breitweiser, 33, who polished onetime lawyer’s skills to become “The Hammer”; and Patty Casazza, 43, who gave them heart — the “pain and suffering” ticket, according to their easy, in-the-trenches humor.
Sleepless nights spurred them on, as Van Auken and the others logged onto the Internet hunting for clues from news and government sources to contradict the official story.
“From watching Perry Mason we knew they always ask, ‘Where were you at the time of the crime?’” says Van Auken. “Then they try to reconcile the answers.”
Indeed. As the Jersey Girls pieced together a picture of widespread bungling, Congress stalled legislation to probe the attack.
“We said, OK, we have to rally,” says Van Auken. “How do you throw a rally?”
They figured it out, appearing with 300 relatives of 9/11 victims near the U.S. Capitol’s steps, heading out before dawn to return in time to say goodnight to the children. It was just one of countless trips they would make to Washington, D.C.
With the White House blocking demands for an independent investigation, the Jersey Girls staged lobbying visits from the office of their U.S. congressman, Chris Smith. They queried senior FBI agents. They strategized with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Sen. John McCain, snooping around the Capitol to find and waylay them.
They tag-teamed in pairs to net politicians who were trying to avoid them, catching Republican congressman Porter Goss hiding behind his office door. A turning point came when Breitweiser testified before the joint congressional intelligence committee, her prosecutorial brilliance transforming the moral suasion of the widow into a mighty cudgel.
Opening with a story about her 3-year-old daughter placing flowers on her husband Ronald’s grave, she held up her right hand to show that she wore his charred wedding ring — returned to her with his only remains, an arm. Then she shredded the government’s lucky-terrorist theory by laying out facts and questions that would become a road map for future investigation.
Two days later, the White House dropped its public opposition to a probe (even while continuing to stall efforts behind the scenes).
When the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States — the 9/11 Commission — finally held its first hearings in the spring of 2003, the four moms became watchdogs urging tougher questioning, then guardians agitating against White House foot-dragging and sabotage tactics.
“The country owes a deep debt of gratitude to the Jersey Girls and other courageous [9/11] families,” says Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., a leader of intelligence-reform efforts. “They turned their personal grief into a powerful force for change. They are a mighty moral force.”
History will remember that the bestselling 9/11 Commission Report, published this summer, found no link between al-Qaeda terrorists and Iraq. Yet the Republican presidential campaign still beat the drums for the American war in Iraq.
Outraged, the Jersey Girls abandoned their nonpartisan stance and endorsed Democratic challenger John Kerry, although two of them had voted for Bush in 2000. Greeted as heroines on the Democratic campaign trail, they have been asked to autograph copies of the 9/11 Report.
What’s the lesson in it all? Democracy, the Jersey Girls say, is hard work.
In April, Samantha Power testified before Congress on the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. Eight hundred thousand souls had perished in that tragedy, and the 34-year-old activist, Harvard lecturer and author of A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide (Perennial, 2003) had in the meantime become one of the world’s most prominent voices for human rights.
But instead of focusing on Rwanda that April day, Power rebuked American policymakers for failing to act elsewhere.
“I think the great fear that all of us have is that 10 years from now we will be sitting on a similar panel,” she said — “discussing Sudan’s genocide, looking back.”
Power has made Sudan’s unfolding crisis her crusade. She recently returned from Darfur, where local Arab militiamen backed by the Sudanese government have killed an estimated 50,000 African tribespeople.
A million and a half more have been displaced by the marauding Janjaweed, or “evil horsemen,” and in the ad hoc refugee camps that have been established in the swamps, women have become principle targets of the latest wave of ethnic cleansing.
“If there is a most pressing issue in Darfur right now, it’s probably not murder, but rape,” Power says.
Women, who make up three-quarters of the camp population, must leave to gather firewood — humanitarian aid is inedible if unheated — and then they’re targets for Janjaweed rapists who patrol the perimeter of the camps on camelback. Many women are also being branded — an act that makes it even harder for them to return home. For the Irish-born Power, this exemplifies what’s wrong with the international response.
“We give people just enough to live, but we don’t interfere with those who ruin the way they live. We give them food, but we don’t ask the question, ‘What happens next?’ We can reliably predict that women in [such] situations … will be systematically raped.”
Power pauses, and concludes: “In a sense, you could say we set them up.”
In person, Power is as intense as she is on the page. Articulate, low-voiced and emphatic, she delivers her political opinions with a nonchalant confidence and enormous conviction. At the same time, her uncombed red hair and deeply freckled complexion give her an unassuming look. She looks younger and sounds older than you’d expect. She certainly doesn’t stand out as the kind of person you’d expect to find crisscrossing the globe denouncing atrocities — a “genocide chick,” as she jokingly refers to herself.
Her introduction to tragedy writ large came in Bosnia, where she arrived as a young reporter in 1993, shortly after graduating from Yale University. She was shocked to find concentration camps on a continent that was still repeating the refrain “never again.”
When Bosnian Serbs massacred 7,000 Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica, Power became obsessed with the question, “How can we reconcile the gap between the promise of ‘never again’ and our failure to do anything to stop the tragedy?”
That question led her on a five-year odyssey across the United States, seeking answers from policy-makers and from declassified documents she obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The result was her 600- page book about the history of America’s failure after World War II to stop genocide — in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia and Rwanda.
Her original publisher promptly rejected it — “they said it was too long and they didn’t think the American public could handle it,” Power says.
They were wrong, and another publisher celebrated her Pulitzer Prize in 2003.
Power’s book has changed how we think about genocide, and even the word itself, first coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who lost his family in the Holocaust. Like Lemkin, Power has made it more difficult to look the other way. But that’s not enough.
Recently anointed one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, Power quipped, “The real test of my influence is, What are we going to do about Darfur?
“We are all capable of looking away,” says Power, but “there is always an unforgivable space. It’s important to find that space, to identify what is gray and what is not, and to find those people who saw it and who acted, who showed what could be done. They place everyone else in relief: the people who stood up.”
The lead plaintiff in the class-action gender-discrimination suit against Wal-Mart has a favorite motto: “Never allow fear to get under your feet,” declares Betty Dukes. “That’s what I tell my coworkers,” she says, “because we women need to have the courage to speak out against the unfairness we have endured.”
Sitting in the Berkeley, Calif., offices of The Impact Fund, the public-interest legal foundation that is coordinating the federal case against Wal-Mart, Dukes recalls how she came to expose the inequities of the world’s largest retail company (she is, by the way, still employed as a “greeter” at $12 an hour).
Born in 1950 in Tallulah , La. , she was the seventh of 12 children; in 1960, her mother, by then on her own, moved the family to Pittsburg , a town east of San Francisco . “My mother is 80 now, but she was then, and still is, strong,” Dukes adds. “She had to be to raise us by herself, so I probably got some of my strength from her.”
As an adult, Dukes became active in her community and in her church, often speaking out at public meetings and writing letters to her local newspaper.
“I am not shy,” she says with a laugh, “and I believe in helping others. My spirituality says you have to address wrong where you see wrong.”
Nevertheless, in her various jobs over the next two decades, she wasn’t as outspoken. After three years of high school (she later received her GED and took courses at a local community college), she entered the work force, and although she sometimes suffered from what she felt was unfair treatment, she was hesitant to complain.
“I was from a poor family, my education was limited, and I knew I had to support myself,” she says. “I felt that I should just be grateful for the job I had and not rock the boat.”
Dukes was hired as a cashier by Wal- Mart in 1994, and she hoped that her past experience in retail would help her advance. Yet her requests for further training and promotion went unanswered, and her complaints about her salary and rank resulted in what she considered retaliation.
“It wasn’t just me, though,” Dukes confirms. “We women knew that we were usually paid less than men, and we often laughed about how ‘shocked’ we were that some guy got a promotion that 10 or 12 of us said we were interested in.”
On August 14, 1999, Dukes was demoted from customer-service manager to cashier.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. “I felt that they had singled me out because I’m African American, and they were retaliating for my complaints about my supervisor. It was like a lynching, but I survived, and I became determined to see justice done.”
Advised by a lawyer to file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Dukes did so, first in 2000, alleging racial discrimination, then in 2001, alleging gender discrimination. She asserted that what she had undergone was “part of a larger and continuing pattern of sex discrimination at Wal-Mart.”
At the same time, The Impact Fund, along with other law firms, began investigating the complaints of discrimination by Wal-Mart women across the United States. Hearing Dukes’ story, Impact Fund attorneys decided that her individual determination was representative of the women’s collective resolve to hold the company accountable, and they named her the lead plaintiff.
In June 2001, Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the largest class-action discrimination suit in history, was filed in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. (Dukes’ racial-discrimination case will be tried separately.)
In June 2004, federal Judge Martin Jenkins certified the case as a class-action suit; Wal-Mart is now appealing, and it may be another six months before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issues its decision. (For further information, see Ms. magazine, Fall 2003, and the website www.walmartclass.com.)
“The wheels of justice turn slowly, but there will be a day of reckoning,” says Dukes with her engaging smile. “I am very grateful for this award, especially since it also honors all the women who were brave enough to come forward. I know in my soul that our solidarity will bring us victory.”
Saudatu Mahdi got to celebrate for about two minutes.
On March 25, 2002, her legal team won acquittal for an impoverished Nigerian woman who was sentenced to death by stoning because she had borne a baby out of wedlock.
Outside the Sharia Court of Appeal in Sokoto, Mahdi and her colleagues gathered in jubilant congratulations around the young mother, Safiya Hussaini.
And then, Mahdi’s cell phone rang: It was her office in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, telling her that another young woman with a baby had just been sentenced to be stoned to death. So Mahdi, a onetime school administrator-turned-feminist activist, took an 11-hour trek across Nigeria, to Bakori.
Early the next morning, she launched the defense of Amina Lawal. Lawal’s case became an international cause célèbre — she was championed by everyone from Amnesty International to Oprah Winfrey. When Lawal, who was divorced, had a baby girl in early 2002, the police used the child as evidence of “adultery.”
In contrast, four eyewitnesses would have been needed to charge the baby’s father with the same crime. A sharia court, of the kind that dispenses justice in 12 states in northern Nigeria, found Lawal guilty and ordered the stoning (but thoughtfully postponed the sentence until she had weaned her daughter from breastfeeding).
After a long series of appeals, in September 2003 a defense team put together by Mahdi’s organization, the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA), won an acquittal. The judge ruled that Lawal’s confession was taken improperly and that she didn’t have a lawyer at her first trial.
Pushing for due process in these cases is difficult but vital work for Mahdi, a devout Muslim who argues passionately that sharia — Islamic law — treats women with equity when it is fairly implemented. But shoddy legal practice and systemic discrimination mean women, especially poor women, are all too often victims in the sharia system.
Mahdi is determined to see that changed.
“I did a lot of Islamic studies to determine, ‘What is it really that Allah says for me, and how can I negotiate my way in this culture that puts down women and inhibits them?,’” she says.
During the defense of Hussaini, WRAPA and other women’s groups were subject to considerable public criticism in Nigeria and accused of advancing a godless Western agenda.
“Even from within my family, the comments were not necessarily all supportive,” Mahdi recalls. “But by the time the case of Amina came, the criticism was tempered with, ‘What are these women saying? Is sharia being done right?’”
Mahdi believes she owes much of her strength to her father, who defied cultural norms by insisting that she and her two sisters be educated.
“And my mother, though not educated, was an activist in her own way: She always stood up for herself and for others,” she says.
Now 47, Mahdi has six children of her own, ages 10 to 24. Her husband, a doctor, heads Nigeria’s primary health-care system. Trained as a teacher, she spent most of her career in senior administrative posts at secondary schools, but in 1998 geo-politics and a sexist policy edged her out of her job.
She joined the board of WRAPA, and the next year was asked to head the organization, which has 12 staffers plus a team of volunteers across the country, keeping watch for women needing help in courts and prisons. WRAPA is now supporting appeals for two more women sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, Daso Adamu, 26, and Hajara Ibrahim, 29. Their sexual partners were both acquitted for lack of evidence.
Mahdi worries that in impoverished Nigeria, it is the country’s poor — and divorced or widowed women are the poorest of all — who are victims of the law. And none of this is good for her beloved faith.
“Many people who sit at a distance and criticize Islamic law do not know what it provides,” she says. “But we are getting little help from practitioners of Islamic law to show that Islam is a religion that provides for the rights of women.”
You already know that Kathy Najimy is funny. You guffawed through her classic, long-running “The Kathy & Mo Show” (with performing sidekick Mo Gaffney). You giggled every time giddy, scene-stealing Sister Mary Patrick (Najimy’s character) appeared in Sister Act and Sister Act 2.
Indeed, any time the actor pops up in one of her many stage, film or TV guises, you recognize that sharp, deadpan wit, the eyes filled with mischief. Let’s face it: Kathy Najimy is fun.
So you know she’s a comedian in front of the lights, but did you know that behind the scenes, in real life, Najimy is an action hero? A social action hero. Women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights, Arab American rights, AIDS, eating disorders — Najimy’s always on the front lines of progressive causes.
She is not a celebrity who just shows up for events … Najimy may be well-known face, but she is also a political workhorse. She is at the planning meetings, notebook in hand, a critical part of making things happen. And her participation has the efficiency of a surgeon. Follow up, everybody! Don’t drop the ball. Get it on the schedule.
Najimy’s emails alone have guaranteed the success of more progressive causes than anyone can count. And she makes sure that her friends are part of it all. She’s a celebrity wrangler par excellence, making sure her famous pals show up at rallies and stump for social justice as well.
“Kathy is a dynamic force who has the ability to persuade you into thinking that she is absolutely right about everything she says,” says her good friend Ellen DeGeneres. “Luckily for us, she usually is.”
“Some activists can make people feel like they are not doing it right, or that they must commit 100 percent,” says the 47-year-old Najimy. “I’m grateful for whatever action someone can take. Everything counts.”
And when it came time to March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., in April, who was exhorting the crowd from the stage? Well, it wasn’t just Najimy, but also her 7-year-old, dark-haired daughter Samia, wearing a pink “Radical Feminist” T-shirt, who grabbed the mike to shout, “We are feminists and we’re making a change!”
Becoming a mom has only heightened Najimy’s commitment to choice — or as she puts it, being pro-life (“We couldn’t be more pro-life—we’re for the lives of girls and women”). She’s also passionate about transforming a society that pressures children, even, to obsess about their bodies.
“Six out of 10 11-year-old girls are on a diet or have an eating disorder,” she points out. “If we women weren’t so tied up with our bodies, we’d be running the world.”
When Najimy — perhaps the most famous Lebanese American since Danny Thomas — wasn’t organizing or marching in 2004, she was busy performing “Afterbirth: Kathy and Mo’s Greatest Hits” for grateful fans in Los Angeles and New York. She and Gaffney create characters who belie stereotypes and reveal a common humanity: Their idealism is woven into every part they play.
As Najimy’s friend Gloria Steinem — who officiated at her wedding to singer/actor Dan Finnerty — describes her, “Kathy creates laughter that comes out of compassion and leads to understanding. I see the intelligence and generous heart that informs everything she does.”
As a “chubby girl” growing up in San Diego, the youngest of four children of Lebanese immigrants, Najimy “was an outsider — which actually allowed me to see more options for myself, because I had to,” she says.
By high school, she’d discovered both feminism and theater, and at San Diego State University helped found a performance troupe that offered improv with a feminist message. Then she met Gaffney, and together they conspired to create “feminist comedy,” which led them off- Broadway and onto the small screen, with two Kathy and Mo specials for HBO.
In the mid-1990s, the pair began making individual names for themselves, while remaining friends and ultimately reviving their old material (plus adding a couple of new sketches). No matter what roles she essays, Najimy makes sure they are true to her values.
“Activism is hardwired into her, like having brown eyes,” says Gaffney. “She was born with this need to see people — and animals — be treated equitably.”
Let the final words of praise come from yet another Najimy friend — and Friend: “If you’re going to have someone fighting a cause for you,” says Jennifer Aniston, “You better hope it’s Kathy Najimy.”
On this crisp fall afternoon, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., is putting the finishing touches on a press release criticizing the Bush administration’s lack of action in stopping the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. It is tentatively titled “Damn It Mr. Bush, Do Something.”
Her staff asks if she’s sure she wants to risk ruffling feathers by leaving it that way. Her answer, in trademark Waters fashion, is definitive: “Yes.”
Waters, 66, has been battling injustice, in all forms, for most of her life. Former Mayor of Los Angeles Richard Riordan once said of her, “She’s a pit bull.”
“I am a little bit confrontational and I’m described as someone who will speak her mind — that’s true,” says Waters, one of the highest-ranking African American women in U.S. politics. “But I try to pick my battles.”
This year, Waters picked a rescue mission that the most staid legislators wouldn’t have touched. Her friend Jean- Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected president of Haiti, alleged that he was forcibly removed from office, kidnapped and taken by U.S. Marines to the Central African Republic (CAR), one of the world’s poorest countries, deep in the heart of Africa and not known for its allegiance to law and order. He telephoned Waters for help.
She was quickly on the phone to the U.S. State Department (which denied Aristide’s allegation), complaining about what she’s termed a “crude, cruel regime change.”
Within two weeks, Waters assembled a delegation to board a 12-seat private plane to fly to Africa and bring Aristide to Jamaica, which had offered asylum. It was a somewhat harrowing 40-hour, 17,000-mile flight from Miami, complete with two refueling stops.
When the delegation arrived in Bangui, the CAR capital, Waters told the CAR foreign minister, “We would like to meet your president and then we must ask to leave this evening with President Aristide.”
A seven-and-a-half-hour, albeit polite, standoff ensued. In the end, Aristide and his wife were permitted to leave with Waters’ delegation. She maintains that the Bush administration removed Aristide in part to maintain a cheap source of labor for American businesses and to protect the Haitian elite from paying taxes.
“This is about control, about keeping the Haitian working class down,” she says. “Aristide had the audacity to tell poor people that they should have a hand in shaping their democracy.”
Waters knows poverty: She and her 12 siblings were raised by a single mother in St. Louis who often had to rely on welfare. Waters started working in factories and segregated restaurants when she was 13, but, despite her disadvantages, prevailed.
“My mother was a very strong woman and she instilled confidence in us,” she says.
In addition, three particular teachers not only educated Waters but fostered her development outside of school.
“When you’re poor and have lots of siblings, no one sees you as a thinking individual with talents,” she says. “[Ms. Carter, Ms. Stokes and Ms. Johnson] saw me; they looked at me and they saw a person.”
She’s represented California’s 35th District since 1990, after beginning her political career in the state Assembly. Among her many crusades, she has been a champion of Head Start and child-abuse programs, successfully fought to divest state pension funds from those doing business with apartheid South Africa, and helped expand U.S. debt relief for Africa and other developing nations.
She’s particularly devoted to easing the plight of women and children — those most affected by indigence. Her Democratic Party might not be talking too much about poverty these days, but she certainly is.
“Poverty is all-consuming — so much potential is unrealized, dreams are dashed,” she says. “Until we find a way to help people earn, to overcome obstacles to getting a job and an education, this country will never be what it can be.”
Even as her attention has turned to the genocide in Sudan, she still keeps a watchful eye on Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean. She’s currently lobbying Congress for $500 million in supplemental aid to those nations that were devastated by the four recent hurricanes. For us, Waters is far more than dedicated; she is a hero.
If softball superstar Lisa Fernandez had hung up her glove at age 29 — having played competitively for 21 years and earned two collegiate championships at UCLA and two Olympic gold medals — no one would have blamed her for taking a breather. But she and her fans would have missed her most spectacular performance yet, at this past summer’s Olympic Games.
Fernandez — a pitcher and third baseperson who’s considered the world’s best all-around player — threw fourwinning games, including the gold-medal contest, and batted .545, an Olympic record.
Other American women’s teams won gold in Athens — basketball, soccer, the swim freestyle relay and the beach volleyball duo of Misty May and Kerri Walsh — and women’s teams from China , Romania , Germany and Australia also won multiple golds.
But, arguably, no team in any Olympic sport was more dominant than USA softball. Not only did they win each of the nine games they played, but they allowed opponents a total of just one run.
For Fernandez, a dark-haired, latte-skinned woman with a solid build and a disarming smile, success was a matter of both team chemistry and individual pride. She set herself the personal challenge — and Fernandez is hardwired to shoot for the toughest goals — to better hit her nemesis, the curveball.
“It was the pitch I knew I was going to see,” she says. “So I spent hours and hours working on it — and I was terrible. But I said, ‘Just keep throwing it to me. Keep throwing it.’ And lo and behold, first ball I saw at the Games, curveball, and I doubled over the right fielder’s head. Next game, same pitch, bam, base hit into right field that scores the game-winning run.”
The moral was a familiar one for Fernandez: “If you’re going to go after something, go after it with everything you have, or else it’s not worth doing.”
It’s a lesson she might have learned from her grandmother, the first feminist she knew.
“If my uncle went to the park, then my mother had to go,” she says. “My grandmother didn’t segregate what was OK for the boy from what was OK for the girl. That carried on to my mom.”
Lisa Fernandez was literally born to be a ballplayer. Her mother, Emilia, played slow-pitch softball (the version of the game with the high-arcing pitch) while growing up in Puerto Rico. Her father, Tony, played semipro baseball in his homeland, Cuba. Fernandez feels a powerful responsibility to her ethnic heritage.
“I represent more than the U.S. — I represent Hispanics also,” she says. “My opponents who may be Puerto Rican, who may be Cuban, who may be from the Dominican — we’re all a family.”
She also represents the aspirations of women athletes hoping to make a living from their sport. This April she’ll launch Fernandez Fastpitch, a tour of 15 cities featuring both amateur softball teams and the new Ladies Professional Fastpitch Association.
Other than the NBA-supported WNBA, it’s been a Sisyphean task for women’s team players to maintain support for their professional leagues. For example, the recent women’s professional soccer league, WUSA, shut down after just three seasons.
“It’s frustrating for me to look at the opportunities males have in order to succeed, but if women’s professional leagues don’t happen overnight, they’re not going to happen,” says Fernandez.
“We’ve made a far, far improvement from where women’s sports was 10, 15 years ago, but I think if we were on TV more, people would realize, ‘God, it’s amazing how far she can hit that ball. It’s amazing how strong she is, how quick she is.’ People might stop perceiving women athletes’ looks first, athletics second.”
Fernandez remains determined to keep changing those perceptions. She hopes to play Olympic softball again in Beijing in 2008 — even if she and her husband, Michael Lujan, a special-education teacher, start a family in the interim.
And why not? Baseball slugger Barry Bonds is 40; Fernandez will only be 37.
“Thus far I’ve had no injuries, no problems,” she says. “If I can feel this way in 2008, maybe even 2012 won’t be out of the question. I’m never going to put a limit on myself.” After all, she can hit any curveball thrown to her.
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