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The Other Side of Reproductive Justice: An Interview with Sherry Leiwant

Abortion rights often dominate our national conversation about reproductive justice. There’s another side to this issue that doesn’t make as many headlines: the right to parent. Luckily, there are plenty of organizations working to ensure that no one has to choose between work and children, including the national nonprofit, A Better Balance. Founded in 2005 by former NOW Legal Defense attorneys Sherry Leiwant and Dina Bakst, A Better Balance (ABB) works to expand the legal protections in place for working families, focusing on paid family leave, discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace, and education about the rights available to working parents. JWA spoke with co-founder Sherry Leiwant about reproductive justice, using the law for good, and why so many Jewish women have always led the charge when it comes to reproductive rights.

Jewish Women's Archive: You’ve dedicated your legal career to service and advocacy, from the Department of Health Education and Welfare, to the Welfare Law Center, to the Senior Staff at NOW. What inspired you to pursue a legal career?

Sherry Leiwant: I went to law school knowing that I wanted to focus on economic justice and gender justice. It was a personal and political decision. I came out of the sixties and early seventies with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War protests, and second-wave feminism, and I wanted to use law to protect some of the rights established during the sixties. On a personal note, my father died when I was very young, so I grew up as an only child of a single mother. Life was difficult for single working parents and I believed that the government should be there for everybody.

JWA: You have worked in education, women’s rights, welfare advocacy. What inspired the creation of ABB?

SL: What really drove us to found A Better Balance was having our own children. Our children were so important, but the workplace is so inflexible. This was during the early 2000s when more and more women were “opting out” of work. What struck us was that if having a family is hard for privileged women, it’s even harder for those at the lower end of the income spectrum with no support at all.

JWA: Many of the lead advocates for the right to choose, the right to reproductive health, and the right to sexual education have been Jewish women. Why do you think Jewish women in particular are such staunch allies of reproductive justice?

SL: When we think about reproductive justice writ large––so the right not just to have a child, but the right to have and care for a child––it is really embedded in Jewish values. There is a disproportionate number of Jewish women doing this work, but it’s coming from them internally, from the values that they have.

JWA: In 2014, the New York-based ABB opened a second office in Nashville, TN. Although the Southeast only makes up a third of the U.S. population, almost half of all sex discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are from the Southeast. What unique challenges has the southern office faced?

SL: Before we opened the Nashville office there was a lot of discussion about how we can’t write off the South. Fortuitously, one of the lawyers in our organization was moving to Nashville, and she opened our second office to see what we could do. We do a lot of legislative work, which is much harder in the South, especially when it affects businesses.

A lot of our work is focused on public education around already existing rights. We just won a lawsuit for two police officers in Kentucky who were told to take a leave when their vests didn’t fit them anymore, even though they needed the job. In that situation, there was no one to tell these women that that’s discrimination and illegal.

But you know, it is not just red and blue states; a lot of the cities are very progressive. Nashville’s mayor is interested in doing paid family leave for municipal workers. And a lot of choice-focused reproductive groups like working with us because it shows that reproductive justice is about choice and planning to have children.

JWA: Your organization recently posted a blog post about Black teen mothers in Alabama, many of whom harbor misconceptions about breastfeeding. How does race affect reproductive advocacy?

SL:While there is racism in all parts of the country, we do have to be conscious of how attitudes in the South affect these issues. For example, we have been doing a lot of advocacy for poultry workers who labor in awful conditions. There are a lot of issues around pregnancy support and being able to take breaks, issues that people turn a blind eye to because they disproportionately affect women of color.

JWA:What challenges is your organization anticipating from a Trump presidency? How can we protect women’s reproductive rights during the next four years?

SL: We are going to have to play a lot of defense, especially at the federal level. We need to be careful about what states suddenly feel empowered to do. For instance, there is a bill that was introduced in Texas requiring funerals for fetal tissue. It is crazy and so upsetting that the state would interfere in such basic decisions with a religiously motivated law. In states that have been really bad about reproductive choice, like South Dakota and Kansas, we are also going to see some stuff coming up. A lot of the effort is going to have to go to defense and litigation.

We have to be very vigilant, because people are also anticipating this administration sneaking through laws that will cut back on rights. A big Supreme Court decision would get a lot of attention, but the smaller things can be done quietly. There is some very good language around breastfeeding in the Fair Labor Standards Act that was passed in the last four years. I am concerned that some of the rights that were expanded will be taken away under the radar.

JWA: At JWA, we find inspiration in stories about leaders like Emma Goldman, Bella Abzug, and the women at the Jane Collective. What stories are giving you hope today?

SL: We have these women in our clinic, who we have helped assert their rights with respect to family leave, pregnancy rights, and discrimination. We work with women so they can tell their stories to Congress, to the press, at rallies. We are really proud of this: we give voice to the women who have gone unheard or who are the most vulnerable. These stories give us the confidence that we are doing the right thing and that we are in the right business.

In terms of legislation, we had a couple of issues on the ballot that won by 20 points, even in Trump-supporting states. In New Mexico, there wasn’t money to put anything on the ballot but we did have people going door to door talking the importance of paid family leave. And the legislature in New Mexico flipped to Democrat. Someone was saying that in Michigan, a Republican legislature challenged the incumbent by highlighting a family-care agenda and wound up winning. To me, that signifies if you talk about issues that people care about, if you really just talk to them about what they need, that really does affect change.

JWA: Is there anything else that you want our readers to know?

SL: Just to always remember that you can use the law for good, the law can lead to justice.

Sherry co-founded A Better Balance in 2005. From 1996 until 2005, Sherry was a senior staff attorney at NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund running the State Advocacy Project, working on issues intersecting women’s rights and poverty, including reproductive health, violence and child care. Prior to joining NOW Legal Defense Fund, she spent 12 years as a senior staff attorney at the Welfare Law Center, a national legal organization doing litigation and public advocacy on a variety of income support issues around the country. She has three children and has served on the Boards of Bank Street College of Education and Basic Trust Infant and Toddler Center. To learn more about A Better Balance, visit their website.  

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Paid Sick Time Rally, 2016
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A Better Balance rally in New York where ABB announced a deal to pass paid sick time in NYC, 2016. Image courtesy of Sherry Leiwant.
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How to cite this page

Book, Bella. "The Other Side of Reproductive Justice: An Interview with Sherry Leiwant." 13 February 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 17, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/other-side-of-reproductive-justice-interview-with-sherry-leiwant>.

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