A Conversation With a Progressive South Dakotan
Their numbers may be small, but South Dakota, like every so-called "red state" state in this country, has a progressive community and they're outraged over the recent passage of the unconstitutional law that would force a girl who is raped by a male relative to have his child.
South Dakota, a state with 770,883 residents, made national and international headlines after Governor Mike Rounds signed the abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. With only one clinic providing abortions in the entire state, South Dakota's women have been struggling for reproductive rights for some time. Only now are they getting widespread attention.
While South Dakota has a higher percentage of women with health insurance than the nation as a whole, it is below average for women's employment and earnings and social and economic autonomy, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research report on the Status of Women in South Dakota.
A few facts about South Dakota's women:
*Only 16 percent of South Dakota's state legislators are women, compared with only 22 percent nationally.
*South Dakota ranks 48th nationally for women's political participation.
*Women in South Dakota are the least likely in the country to own their own business and are among the least likely to work in professional or managerial positions.
*South Dakota does not require insurance companies to cover contraception.
*Almost half of all Native American women in South Dakota are poor, compared with approximately 10 percent of white women.
*Median annual earnings for women in South Dakota rank 50th, tied with Montana.
Source: The Status of Women in South Dakota
Two years ago, the state's progressives formed a group called "Grassroots South Dakota: Ideas for Progress," to educate people about those issues and encourage vocal opposition. "Obviously we haven't been doing a very good job," says member Sheila Flynn. Today the group has 900 members.
Flynn, a 56-year old South Dakota native, teaches high school literature.
Tell me about the progressive community in South Dakota.
There are many progressive groups: the Sierra Club and the clean water groups, but they are so splintered. We thought we could bring them all together and have a stronger voice.
What's the political climate like now that your state is getting so much national and international attention?
The political climate is conservative, but I think there are conservative men and women who are stunned by our legislative inaction. The legislature didn't deal with healthcare or education or water. They tabled those and came out with this restrictive ban on women's health. We have 9,000 more people without health insurance this year. Even very, very conservative Republicans are shocked that women would no longer have a choice in South Dakota. I don't think they thought it would happen. They thought someone would swoop in and stop this nonsense.
When the Republican Party wed themselves to the religious right, people in South Dakota thought that would be the end of the Republican Party. Obviously, we were very wrong about that.
There are lifelong Republicans in South Dakota who have changed their party affiliation in the last five years.
Do you know many Republicans who've changed their affiliation?
Yes, they have told me that Bush scares the heck out of them. These are people who fought in World War II, so there is a shift happening.
Then again, in a small state it takes very little money to influence an election. We're not a populated state so you can really swing things with a just a few votes.
What does your group plan to work on this year?
We plan to get out the vote on Native American reservations. We really want to fight the disconnect between what people want the government to be doing and what the government is doing. We don't have a paper trail with our voting system and we also plan to work on that.
Have you seen a rise in religion? Are there more fundamentalist churches in South Dakota today than say 10 years ago?
Yes, I have students who think the Left Behind series is non-fiction. When I tell them they should look at the other side of this issue, they look at me like I'm going to hell.
On the other hand, we have the United Church of Christ in Sioux Falls and their membership has tripled in the last year.
The fundamentalist movement is new to South Dakota, but they already have a loud voice. Our local school board just enacted a new sex education curriculum and they were there crying about it at every school board meeting. They make huge waves and they get things done. We have to be asking people who run for office some hard questions.
What is the sex education curriculum?
They're just books, but according to these people, the books are encouraging sex. Our kids need information about safe sex.
As a teacher, do you worry about speaking out?
I am more open progressively outside of the school now than I was five years ago. We can no longer be quiet.
I try to challenge kids to think, but sadly, we're in a climate where they don't think they have to listen to another perspective. It's reflective of the climate. It's red and blue and I don't need to listen to your side.
What message would you like to send to people who are shocked and outraged over what's happening in South Dakota? People are calling for tourism boycotts and saying nasty things about South Dakotans.
The progressives in South Dakota are truly heartsick about this. And they're all ages. I think there is a perception that just old hippies are concerned with these issues and that's not true.
I don't blame people for saying nasty things. We're not proud of our state right now.
Did you grow up in South Dakota?
Yes, I'm a fourth generation South Dakotan. I have five children. They all left the state for college and came back to raise their children. I don't think they would have come back if this was the climate a few years ago.
Have you always been progressive?
I have always been progressive, but not active. I didn't get active until the 2000 election. That was frightening. The idea that our Supreme Court selected our president was frightening. I worry that that's part of the problem. We go from one alarm to the next alarm. People are on hyper alert and feel helpless. My energy is going towards getting rid of every person who voted for this bill. I'm hoping the national interest in South Dakota will take the wind out of the their sails and get their voices out of our legislature.