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2012 newsmakers

Women’s Strike Force Founders

Katherine Waddell and Robin Abbott

 Newsmakers of the Year

Seldom do you see Republicans, Democrats, and independents joining forces in Virginia, but that’s what happened earlier this year after the introduction of “personhood” and mandatory ultrasound legislation in the Virginia General Assembly.

Abbott
Waddell
 

Leading that effort were former Virginia state delegates Katherine Waddell and Robin Abbott who founded the Women’s Strike Force, a political action committee (PAC) for the purpose of raising money to defeat the members of the legislature who supported the bills. Within 24 hours of the organization’s launch, the announcement was in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other newspapers statewide, as well as TV stations and the Washington Post.

Rachel Maddow made the first of two mentions of the Women’s Strike Force on her show, and money began pouring in from all over the country. The PAC raised more than $50,000 within the first two weeks.

“I knew that Virginians were outraged, but I did not realize the depth and breadth of their anger,” says Waddell, who serves as president of the organization.  Abbott, who had the initial idea for the PAC and set up the first conference call to organize it, serves as treasurer.

For their actions that resulted in creating important and substantial news coverage, Virginia Press Women name Waddell and Abbott the 2012 Newsmakers of the Year.

The organization does not endorse or take a stand on any political issue.

Waddell and Abbott will be the luncheon speakers Oct. 13 at the VPW Fall Conference in Richmond.

In February the Virginia legislature passed the bill requiring most women who seek an abortion to have a medically unnecessary transvaginal procedure, in which a probe is inserted into the vagina to obtain an ultrasound. The doctor must then certify on her medical records that the patient either did or didn’t “avail herself of the opportunity” to view the ultrasound or listen to the fetal heartbeat. Consideration of the so-called personhood bill, which would have granted "personhood" status to unborn children, including embryos, was pushed to next year.

The Virginia General Assembly’s actions set off a firestorm of opposition, including a silent protest of hundreds of women who locked arms outside the Virginia State Capitol. The transvaginal ultrasound bill became the symbol of the ongoing attack on women's reproductive freedom of choice across the country and was spoofed on NBC’s Saturday Night Live in February. A second protest at the capitol resulted in 31 arrests in March.

After the initial flush of publicity for the Women’s Strike Force, it continued garnering attention through a second mention on Rachel Maddow’s show and coverage across the state and in well-known blogs such as The Huffington Post and The Shad Plank. A Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial calling it a “reactionary outside group” … “planning to unleash a barrage of sharply negative ads funded by deep-pocketed donors from other states” resulted in a barrage of letters and online comments from both detractors and supporters.

To date the PAC has raised more than $150,000 to support candidates in the November 2013 General Assembly races.  “Since 63 legislators voted in favor of the transvaginal ultrasound bill and 65 voted in favor of the personhood bill, we know that it will most likely take us longer than one election cycle to accomplish our goal,” Waddell says.

Although Waddell had been a Republican all her life, she says she was not aware of the Republican Party’s platform restrictions on women’s reproductive rights until she began working for the party. “Once I was aware of this, my hope was that I could effect change from within, but the right wing had such a stranglehold on the party that it was difficult.”

After working to help various Republican candidates win election in Virginia, in 2005 Waddell ran for the House of Delegates as an independent against an ultra-conservative Republican incumbent representing the 68th District, which includes portions of Richmond and Chesterfield County, and defeated him by 42 votes. “I could not run as a Republican because I support women’s reproductive rights,” she says.

She still believes in the basic principles of the Republican Party, such as limited government, fiscal responsibility and the right to privacy, she says. “I have not changed – they have.”

Though she lost reelection in 2007, Waddell says she stays involved in politics because “I have two daughters and two granddaughters, and I am passionate about women’s reproductive rights. I cannot stand back and watch the ugliness and just hope it goes away. The only way we can make change is for more of us to get involved.” In addition to the Women’s Strike Force, she has been on the board of directors for the National Republican Majority for Choice since 2002.

“Since I do not foresee the Republican Party making big changes to their party platform any time soon, the Women’s Strike Force will be recruiting and supporting candidates who support women’s reproductive rights for many years to come,” says Waddell.

Abbott, a consumer advocate and attorney, served one term from 2009-20011 in the House of Delegates as a Democrat representing the 93rd District, which includes parts of Newport News, James City County and York County and the entire city of Williamsburg.

Abbott says she came up with the idea to start the PAC because she was struck by the silent protest of the transvaginal ultrasound bill at the Capitol on Feb. 21. “Something needed to be done so that the steps of the Capitol that day would be the beginning of the journey – not the end of the journey – for all those who so strongly and passionately were advocating for women’s rights,” she says. “It was time to bring in the Cavalry and see what some of my former colleagues in the House could do to help the cause.”

Abbott is an active member of the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA) and is recognized nationally for her defense of Virginians against predatory mortgage lenders and foreclosure abuses. She has served as a speaker/panelist at state and national consumer law seminars. A large part of her law practice has been the representation of servicemen and the elderly in Hampton Roads, and she has taught Navy and Army JAG officers consumer law programs. She often provides legal services for indigent citizens pro bono.

Abbott has a passion for community service. She served as chair of events that collectively raised more than $1 million for Operation Smile and served on the boards of Thomas Nelson Community College and The Hampton/Newport News Community Service Board. She was recognized as Distinguished Alumna by Christopher Newport University and the William and Mary School of Law, received the Dana B. Hamel Award for support of higher education from Thomas Nelson Community College, was named Super Hero by the League of Conservation Voters for her commitment to preserving the environment, and was named Rookie Legislator of the Year and Solid as a Rock Legislator of the Year by the Virginia Education Association.

In addition to her political work, Waddell has served on the boards for the Science Museum of Virginia, the Virginia Tourism Corporation, The Woman’s Club of Richmond, and Retreat Hospital. She received the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood’s Mary Anne Rennolds Award for her volunteer work in support of women’s reproductive rights.

The other founding members of the Women’s Strike Force include former congresswoman Leslie Byrne, former delegate Kris Amundson, former delegate Margi Vanderhye, former delegate Paula Miller, Democratic National Committee Women’s Caucus chair Mame Reiley, Cynthia Neff, Teresa Champion, Rebecca Geller and Kate Goodyear.

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