Eme Crawford, director of communications and learning, and Ann Warner, CEO, from WREN discuss plans before one of their local events.
Photo courtesy of Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network
By Betty Lavandero
In an office in the heart of the state capital, the seven employees of the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN) huddle together for their weekly Monday meeting. Led by CEO Ann Warner, each employee fires off with what she is currently working on. Whether it is an advocacy training or talking to a senator sponsoring a WREN-backed bill, these women are always busy.
Since its founding over a year ago, WREN has gone beyond its mission: bettering the lives, health and economic well being of women and girls in South Carolina. “We have passed budget provisos that provide 12-month birth control access, multi-prong strategies for health education to be evidence-based and pushed major pieces of legislation through one body of legislature. … That is a light in itself because most bills don’t see the light of day,” said Ashley Lidow, the associate director of policy and government relations.
WREN was able to introduce three bills in the last year of a two-year legislative session. It saw two bills cross over the deadline with lots of positive movement: a 12-month contraception supply and a pregnancy accommodation act. In the first, women will be able to be prescribed 12-months of self-administered birth control at one time. In the second, pregnant women will be legally guaranteed certain accommodations in the workforce. This includes lactation breaks, more bathroom breaks and providing a stool for seating.
A key piece to seeing ideas become legislation is the support of local female legislators. Women currently hold 8 percent of the Senate and 14 percent in of the House of Representatives in the S.C. General Assembly. This is among the lowest percentage of women legislators of any state in the nation.
Rep. Beth Bernstein (D-Richland County) is a frequent sponsor and supporter of the legislation WREN brings to the House.
“I have the utmost confidence and trust in WREN and value its support. The staff is always well-prepared and extremely knowledgeable on the various issues affecting women today, particularly in South Carolina. WREN makes me a better legislator and advocate on women’s issues,” she says.
In addition to its legislative lobbying, WREN is dedicated to educating women throughout the state. It succeeded in 2016 reaching over 2,000 community members through civic engagement and advocacy. The learning team travels to different cities around the state to offers its “Advocacy 101″ training. Those can range from small groups to lecture halls full of women eager to make a difference. The training includes explaining the process of a bill becoming a law, who their local representatives and senators are and how to get in touch with them.
From the Upstate to the Low Country, WREN is able to teach women from all walks of life on how to be aware of the issues affecting them.
WREN also wants to educate men on the issues that affect the women in their everyday lives. Allen Wallace, a frequent volunteer with WREN, is passionate about what this nonprofit is doing for Columbia women and girls. “Women and girls should never have to rely on men to speak for them. Women and girls deserve their own voice. That should be painfully obvious in 2017, but as we all know, it is not so to many,” he says.
“WREN gives them that voice. WREN’s staff members are in the political trenches daily, keep us aware of the issues that matter and making sure legislators know they will not take away the rights of women and girls without a fight: a loud and public fight, the kind so many politicians fear above all else,” he says.
WREN staff members talk about how difficult it can be to work for a women’s rights nonprofit.
“In this day and age anything labeled with ‘women’ gets criticism. We face a lot of opposition in S.C. to the kind of work we do. A lot of people have pre-conceived notions,” says Eme Crawford, director of communications & learning.
As new advocacy groups organize, younger women are getting involved in women’s issues. Hannah Schaltenbrand, who interned for WREN, says, “WREN has shown me the importance of gathering in your community to discuss what you believe are the problems and barriers that we face as women, especially as we face a time where our current executive branch is threatening things such as our birth control coverage.”
WREN provides internship and volunteer opportunities for women. “In terms of policy, we see every day across the nation and South Carolina,that there is a lot of legislation that are dangerous to the health and well-being of women,” says Megan Plassmeyer, community engagement coordinator. “We need to empower women to stand up and take a stand through the political process.”
WREN still has issues to address. “This big work that needs to be done, can’t be done by a few people and it can’t be done on behalf of people. It has to be people who also want these changes for themselves and having a say in their future,” says Crawford.
Lavandero is a public relations senior