Those who watched your testimony at the State House (April 10 in support of the Reproductive Health Care Act) saw the Mary Ann Sorrentino that so many Rhode Islanders know so well – fiery, impassioned, quick-witted, and an unapologetic advocate for women. Many women we work with feel uncomfortable and out-of-place in the male-dominated culture at the State House.
Q. How do you do it? Were you always so comfortable speaking truth to power? Can you tell us a more about how an Italian-American Catholic woman from Mount Pleasant came to be such a fighter?
A. Fortunately for me, I am old enough to have already written about many of the things you are asking me. I owe much of my strength as an advocate to the relentless misery of my early educational experience in a private Catholic girls’ school. I think that a seed was planted then and a vow made- by me- that NO ONE would push me around, denigrate my intelligence, ignore me when I knew I was right, or force me into submission again. This column which appeared in the Providence Journal in my regular 2nd Sunday of each month space there, tells you all I think you need to know about what shaped me early on. The eventual excommunication was simply a booster shot of determination and commitment to the cause of women’s liberation in all areas of their lives.
As far as being comfortable in the face of power goes, I realize that not everyone is as shamelessly bold as I am. We all need to do what we can. If you can’t shout at them whisper and hiss. If you can’t hiss, write articulate letters. If all that is more than you can handle, lick envelopes in the campaign headquarters of good opponents running against your legislative enemy, canvas the district to get the word out on the candidates who will help us. Of course campaign contributions are the fastest way to their hearts…so raise money for the ones we need and/or make a contribution of your own if you can and send it with a note defining exactly WHY you are supporting them and what you expect from them if they win. EVERYONE has something s/he can contribute. Just do what you can, but DO IT!
Q. Your very public excommunication from the Catholic Church in the 1980s while you were Director of Rhode Island’s Planned Parenthood represents a real watershed moment for women, politics, and the Catholic Church in Rhode Island. It seems like this (along with the State Constitutional Convention in 1986) was the last time Rhode Islanders had a real public discussion over abortion rights. Unlike today, many of the public leaders then could remember America pre-Roe v. Wade. How can we communicate the importance of reproductive freedoms when so many today either take them for granted, or have an active interest in holding women back?
A. I hadn’t testified in a hearing for decades before last week, but I can see from the overwhelming reaction from the committee and from the audience that my gift for getting people’s attention is still there. I thing age has something to do with it—certainly gender and my background at PP helps. So I think a good and unused strategy might be to get more women of pre-Roe times to testify and tell their stories. Then we would REALLY be facing lawmakers with their mothers, their wives, and daughters!
We had a speakout in the 1980’s – on a Saturday, at the State House Senate Judiciary room and it was amazing. Women came to speak of their illegal abortion experiences and forced the community, the press, and the lawmakers to remember what it meant to be facing an unwanted pregnancy pre-Roe. Maybe we need to do something like that again. I would be happy to be an Honorary Chair if people decided to do this. We also need to put the fire in the bellies of younger women who—because of the work of their predecessors—can simply call PP or another provider when they need them. We need a campaign to raise the consciousness of all women and men born after 1988 who were about 15 after Roe became the law of the land so they understand the hell they were saved from and the reason they need to participate in preserving what we have given them.
Q. Some 30 years later, what do you hope that younger Rhode Islanders, perhaps hearing the story for the first time, might take away from your story? When you think about that time period in your life, is there anything that people don’t know or might be surprised to hear?
A. Tough as I may appear, at first I wept a lot because I wouldn’t be able to be buried with my parents. It took me months to accept the reality that once I was dead it wouldn’t matter what they did with my body but that I had to use everything I had to make sure they never did this to any family again. My daughter – only 14—suffered too, as did my husband. They tried to prevent her from being confirmed and judges would call my (lawyer) husband to the bench to remind him that “the bishop is a good friend of mine…” I became an AIDS buddy and took care of a number of gay men dying all around us in the late 1980’s. One mother was so upset at have me caring for her dying son that she asked for a restraining order against my coming near him. These things are some of the subtext of the famous “excommunication.”
Q. One detail that stood out to in the national press coverage of your excommunication was the discussion of how you would accompany patients and hold their hands in the operating room suite. Could you talk about your background as a social worker and how that fit with the work that Planned Parenthood was doing while you were Director?
A. I left social work early on because I realized I could not manage the appropriate professional detachment from patients’ stories and I decided my strength was really in administration as opposed to patient care. I have never had an abortion and I felt I needed to REALLY know what these women went through in order to accurately express, convey, and personify their need and their pain to power if I was going to represent them properly. So being at their side during the procedure was a gift they gave me that I must be – and am—grateful for for the rest of my life.
Q. In our work over the last year or two, we sometimes feel like progress is being made – and then we bump into an invisible wall or come up against some kind of unwritten rule. You know better than most the institutions and authorities which hold sway in at the State House. What are the power structures in Rhode Island today? Have they changed much since the 1980s?
A. The presence of more women as lawmakers surely makes a difference. Even if they are part of our opposition, we know that if we are articulate, sincere, and graphic enough in our presentations that at some level, they know what we are talking about. This is not to say that some female lawmakers aren’t formidable adversaries to be dealt with.
Whatever the institution in the USA- in the military, academia, corporate America, government at every level – everywhere—the male and macho ethic still has a great deal of influence. There are also other several realities we never talk about.
- Above all else, politicians are worried about their campaign war chests and their re-election chances – more than anything else– so you MUST make it clear you can and will derail those
- The deals are made in the hallways – there is horse-trading, there are threats, sometimes even a form of blackmail used to make deals happen. NEVER believe that testimony alone changes minds. You have to make them FEAR you and the consequences they may face if they ignore you endlessly.
- You have to know how to form relationships with lawmakers that will make them see you as someone they can trust with heartfelt discussions when they have questions and or need advice on the issues. They have to know that your word is good, but they also need to understand that you have the power to make their political lives and reelections harder than they need to be. Mostly, they must see you as their equal, if not their superior, on the issues and intellectually and as a strategist in general. Always EMBRACE THE POWER YOU DO HAVE!
A. I wish I had a really good answer for this question. But at the very least that answer is above in all of what I have said in the answers here. Of course facing lawmakers with the truth that some/many of them know and care for a woman/women who may have had an abortion doesn’t hurt. And again, you have to be dramatic about that. Once in a Senate Judiciary hearing when I was so tired of repeating myself week after week, I finally arrived at a hearing with a pile of medical record files in my arms. When it was my turn to speak, I threw them all over the table, face down, and told the senators they should be grateful that state laws prevented me from reading the names on those files (which were actually blank replica folders, not real ones.) But those names, I assured them, would often be familiar to them! Just reminding them that we are often the keeper of their secrets and those of women they love, reminds them of a basic political principle: THEY HAVE TO BE IN OUR DEBT FOR WHAT WE DO FOR THE WOMEN THEY LOVE.
Q. A lot of our supporters have become active more recently – especially energized since the election of Donald Trump. You recently wrote, “I shall die fighting for women’s rights, as I have lived fighting for them.” What do women of your generation have to say to young women today who are frustrated by the slow pace of progress and the sometimes-monumental opposition in the battle for freedom and justice?
A. I don’t know what all women of my generation say, but I say, “Stop whining and do something!” We are more than half of the state’s and the nation’s population and we should remind society of that whenever we need to, by all legal means—marches, strikes, letters to the editor, actively working for politicians who are with us and against those who aren’t etc. Our fight is no more monumental that Margaret Sanger’s, Cady Stanton’s of Sojourner Truth’s was—in fact they gave us so much that should make our task easier than theirs were then.
Thanks for allowing me to speak to all of your members whom I respect and thank for picking up the work still left to be done!
The history of the past is but one long struggle upward toward equality
– Cady Stanton
If women want any rights more than they’s got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it.
– Sojourner Truth
Women will never be truly free until they can control their own fertility
– Margaret Saner
IF MEN GOT PREGNANT, ABORTION WOULD BE A SACRAMENT
– Gloria Steinem and others