No matter which side of the political or cultural or demographic or socioeconomic or red/blue side of the divide you fall on, it’s hard to deny that this is an oddly divisive time.
But something interesting is going on. People are finding each other, making alliances, seeing them turn into friendships, and learning how to take their talents and passions and grow into advocates for the cause they believe in — the causes that they feel need particular attention in this fraught and changing time.
In November, in response to the elections that have riveted and split the country, “a bunch of us got together,” Dana Post Adler of Tenafly said. “We didn’t all know each other, but we were connected through sports and schools and kids’ basketball,” among other similar suburban-mom phenomena. There were nine women at first, mainly from Tenafly and Demarest; they hadn’t necessarily even all voted the same way — “we come from all sides of the political world, but no matter how we voted in the presidential election, we all were taken aback by the outcome,” she said.
Most but not all of them are Jewish. “We’re all mothers and businesspeople and charitable and involved in our communities, but none of us had been politically active prior to the election,” Ms. Adler said. (Ms. Adler, the director of Myron Corp., is a co-president of Women’s Philanthropy for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey; she’s on the federation’s board and the board of JFNA National Women’s Philanthropy as well.)
“And so the nine of us got together, and we looked at each other, and we said, ‘Okay. Now that this has happened, what do we do?’ And so we started talking.”
That’s how Stanton Strong was born.
“We sat around and talked, and figured out that the most pressing area for all of us was women’s rights and women’s health care,” Ms. Adler said. “We really wanted to do things that unraveled the idea that women’s rights and women’s health care was a partisan issue.
“And then we tried to figure out what to do about it,” she continued. The women — some of them artists, some of them marketers, all of them well-educated, successful professionals, all with a number of relevant skills — did research. They met with leaders from the state’s Planned Parenthood office, and “they really educated us about what’s going on at the state and federal level,” Ms. Adler said. “Women’s access to health care is jeopardized. Here we are in a fairly affluent neighborhood, and we have all the access we need, but we were shocked by the fact that over the last seven years, since he has been governor, Chris Christie has removed $7.5 million from the state budget that has been allocated to Title X.”
New Jersey’s governors have a line item veto, Ms. Adler said, and the Title X family planning program, which President Richard Nixon signed into law in 1970, provides grants for family planning and related health services. “It was basically to give help to poor and underserved women, and it was one of the highlights of the Nixon administration,” she added. “And it saved money. Since Title X, the abortion rate is at a 40-year low, and that really is because women have had more access to good health care and birth control.”
When the $7.5 million was cut from the budget, the matching funds that would have come from the federal Title X program vanished as well.
“Christie vetoed the budget seven years ago, and he has done it every year since,” Ms. Adler said. “We don’t know if there is a correlation, but we do know that there has been a rise in sexually transmitted diseases, and that syphilis is on the rise in the state. And by the way, the survey that shows this trend was done independently of Planned Parenthood.
“And 97 percent of what Planned Parenthood does isn’t abortion. It’s for other aspects of women’s health care — breast exams and pap smears.” All in all, if we were to forget morality and just look at spending, “when you are talking dollars and cents, it makes no sense,” Ms. Adler said.
“And in a place like Bergen County — we are in this somewhat privileged place, but even for us — many of us have teenagers, and many teenagers do not have open dialogues with their parents and do not feel comfortable talking to their pediatricians. So the issue is that many teenagers seek out Planned Parenthood, because anyone can just show up at Planned Parenthood without insurance cards. So it is not just poor and underserved women, but also teenagers who get themselves into trouble.”
They hadn’t known much of this before, Ms. Adler said; now that they’ve begun to know something about politics and women’s health, they feel it will be helpful to teach others what they’ve learned, as well as to raise money to fund women’s health clinics, both locally, through Planned Parenthood, and across the country, focusing on Whole Woman’s Health in Texas.
They are in the process of getting 501(c)(3) status for Stanton Strong. They’ve also created two committees, one focused on action and the other on fundraising. Ms. Adler is one of the two chairs of the action committee.
Planned Parenthood trained Ms. Adler and another of the core members on lobbying. They put together a presentation and invited neighbors; over the course of three meetings, they have talked to more than 80 people. They’ve begun to work with Valerie Vaineri Huttle of Englewood, who represents the 37th District in the New Jersey State Legislature, and they plan on talking to other legislators as well.
They are hopeful that change will be coming soon. “It will take only two or three votes in the state legislature to overturn the governor’s veto,” Ms. Adler said. He’s been considerably weakened by scandal and is historically unpopular now. “There are some Assembly people who claim that they are pro-choice but who haven’t voted that way,” she said. “We believe that the reason they haven’t voted that way is because they haven’t been asked.
“A lot of people don’t understand the power that the state Assembly has. We have been complacent, but this election has been a great wake-up call.”
There are Jewish values at work here, she added. “We believe in tikkun olam, we believe in individual human rights, and we believe that every person should be able to look after herself, without unjust authorities being involved.
“Women are not stupid. Being a mother is the biggest decision a woman can make. Women need to be able to have free medical conversations with their health care providers, no matter what their economic backgrounds. That is a basic right — for women to be able to take care of themselves unencumbered.”
Ms. Adler is not the first woman in her family to feel strongly about a woman’s right to choose.
She grew up in Englewood Cliffs. “When I was 3 years old, and my mom — Arleen Post is her name — was pregnant with my brother, she was interviewed by a local newspaper,” Ms. Adler said.
It was in 1970, just before Roe v. Wade was passed. “My beautiful very pregnant young mother was approached in the street by a reporter who photographed her with her beehive hairdo and blue eyeshadow and asked what she thought about the right for a woman to have an abortion.
“And my mother said, ‘Everyone has the right to take care of her own body, and even though I am the mother of one child already, and I’m having another one, and they are both very much wanted, every woman has the right to make up her own mind.’
“That has had a profound effect on me,” Ms. Adler said.
The women named the group after Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the first-wave feminist and suffragist who lived in Tenafly, on the East Hill, for a short time.
“She wrote the Women’s Declaration of Sentiments” — the document that was presented at the 1848 women’s convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. — “and she also attempted to vote in Tenafly,” another Stanton Strong founder, Jennifer Schwab Yanowitz of Tenafly, said. “Women did not have the right to vote then, but she went down to the restaurant where the men were voting, drove there in her horse and buggy — and she attempted to vote. They didn’t allow it — but the attempt was a really big deal.
“The strength of character it took — the fortitude, the belief in a higher truth, when society does not have her back — it’s these principles that we are honoring with the name.”
Ms. Yanowitz is finishing her master’s degree in social work now, but her background is in marketing, advertising, and communications. She’s heading the fundraising committee and supplying the group’s social media presence.
“I feel that right now our government is making decisions that harm a vulnerable population,” she said. “It’s a population that doesn’t have the skill set, the money, or the power, so it’s disenfranchised. They’re the ones who are getting short-changed. So we are working for the women out there who need help. And since Christie cut the budget, STDs [socially transmitted diseases] in Bergen County have gone up by 48 percent. It’s not just poor people in the middle of the country who are affected. This is happening right here in our neighborhood.”
There are profoundly Jewish values at play here, she said. “Our value system tells us to stand up for people who need help, to right wrongs that need to be righted, when you have the ability to do that. It’s easy to ignore this because it’s not in our face on a daily basis, but when you pay attention, you start to see that there is an elite group in Washington that is making decisions that are catastrophic for vulnerable populations.”
Abortion still is legal in the United States, she said, but “you can’t call yourself a steakhouse if you don’t serve steak. As a society, we are saying that access to abortion is legal, but we are eliminating every place that actually can provide them. That means that abortions aren’t really legal. Or maybe they’re only legal for rich white people.”
The group is planning a fundraiser for May 10. (See box for more information. “It’s an art auction,” Ms. Yanowitz said. “We’ve approached artists from across the country, and they understand the issue and have very generously donated their work.
“Art is political,” she added. “Art is a commentary and a reflection of our society — of our time, of our issues.”
She sees some good coming from these turbulent times. “Rather than allow this shift to be divisive, we are trying to flip it and use it as strength,” she said. “As a uniting force. And I think it’s happening all over the country.”
Jill Besnoy of Demarest, another of the group’s founders, also has a background in marketing and branding, and she has run her town’s school fundraisers for the last five years. She’s working on Stanton Strong’s fundraiser, which has been put together very quickly.
“I really wanted us to do it sooner rather than later, to build on the anger that a lot of women feel,” she said.
The problem’s not nearly as bad in Bergen County as in other places, she said. “I know that we are in a little bit of a bubble here. But my brother-in-law and sister-in-law live in Alabama, and I have been there for Shabbat dinner and heard amazing stories.”
It’s upsetting, she said. “I feel that the best way to have an impact is to give money. It all costs money. Clinics are closing.” It’s also important to give both at home and farther away, she added.
“We are focusing on fundraising, but we also are focusing on educating women. There are so few women candidates — we plan on meeting with people and talking about how to get women candidates to run for office, and about having our voice heard.
“Jewish values are all about taking care of others,” Ms. Besnoy said. “I feel that in the Jewish religion, women are respected. Women run the house. I think that I always have felt very confident as a woman. I never felt like less than anyone. But now — I don’t like this feeling that my country is making me feel.”
That why she, along with the rest of Stanton Strong, is working to overcome that feeling.
Who: Stanton Strong
What: Holds a fundraiser and auction for women’s health
When: On Wednesday, May 10, from 7:30 to 11 p.m.
Where: At High Exposure, 266 Union St., Northvale
Why: To raise money for Planned Parenthood and Whole Women’s Health
For more information: Google Stanton Strong fundraiser; it will take you to Eventbrite; for more general information about Stanton Strong, go to the group’s Facebook page.