Through social, economic, cultural, and political change, these women are making history.
The tagline of this year’s International Women’s Day—“An equal world is an enabled world”—is being put into action by a sea of women across the country. They are working not just on March 8 but throughout the year to empower women through social, economic, cultural, and political change.
The four Philadelphia women we’ve featured here are among those leading the charge. From fighting for reproductive rights to combating homelessness, these leaders are tackling issues affecting women across the nation and, in the process, blazing a trail for future generations to carry that torch.
Thirty-five years ago, a group of feminists, healthcare advocates, and providers mobilized in response to the passage of the Hyde Amendment—a federal provision that prevents Medicaid monies from being used for abortion services. The coalition was particularly concerned about the measure’s disparate impact on poor people, especially from Black and Brown communities.
The Women’s Medical Fund (WMF) arose from the work of those early “all-around badasses,” said Elicia Gonzales, executive director of Philadelphia’s WMF, which is now the oldest abortion fund in the country. While funding abortion care is still critical to WMF’s mission, it also began incorporating more community organizing into its work a few years ago, a transformation Gonzales has helmed since she joined in 2017.
“We’re shifting toward becoming an organization that is intentionally anti-racist, so we’re really looking at the systemic oppressions that are impacting folks being able to access abortion care,” she said.
That work is undoubtedly informed by Gonzales’ six years as the executive director of GALAEI, a queer Latinx social-justice organization. During her tenure, GALAEI became “more situated” within Latinx communities—more specifically centering HIV programming and messaging on Latinx audiences and physically moving from Center City to predominantly Latinx Norris Square.
“We were staking our claim as a community organization, and we recognized we needed to be in the community to do the work,” she said. “We were really able to get ourselves on the map locally and nationally.”
Gonzales is also a sex and sexuality educator. The licensed social worker, who also holds a master’s degree in education, provides coaching and workshops for both teens and adults, exploring health and wellness from a sex-positive vantage point. She’s often surprised by how little even adults know about basic anatomy, and how often they’re influenced by gendered stereotypes.
“It’s such a stark reminder about how we’re continuing to fail our kids by not having comprehensive sex ed in schools,” she said. “We need to be able to create more of these intimate spaces where real conversations can occur about sex and sexuality.”
In a city that is majority Black—and has one of the highest proportions of women in the United States—it’s taken 170 years for Philadelphia to appoint a top cop who is a woman of color. The designation as the city’s first Black female police commissioner and first woman to hold the position on a permanent basis goes to Danielle Outlaw, who assumed the post in February.
Outlaw, 44, spent 20 years on the force in Oakland, California, serving as deputy police chief before departing for Portland, Oregon, where she helmed that city’s police force starting in 2017—also as the first woman of color to lead the department.
Mayor Jim Kenney announced Outlaw’s appointment at the end of 2019, ending a search that included more than 30 candidates to fill a vacancy created by the sudden departure of Commissioner Richard Ross (who is embroiled in a federal discrimination lawsuit that alleges a sexual relationship with a subordinate). In the last few years, the police department has been hit with a handful of internal complaints of sexual assault and gender discrimination.
On her first day on the job, Outlaw found herself at the heart of an unexpected dustup—over her black nail polish. The department has had a longstanding policy only allowing officers to wear clear nail polish—so Outlaw abolished it, telling reporters at the time that “it’s the small things that allow us to feel not only welcome, but supported.”
When it comes to wider departmental priorities, Outlaw pledged to focus on three areas: organizational excellence, community engagement, and crime prevention and reduction. Taking aim at gun violence will be a particular priority, she said. “And I will do so,” Outlaw added, “in a way that ensures all people are treated equitably regardless of their gender identity, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.”
Sister Mary Scullion
It’s been more than 10 years since Time named Sister Mary Scullion to its prestigious Most Influential People list—and she hasn’t slowed down since. Scullion, a member of the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic religious institute headquartered in Pennsylvania, has spent nearly 45 years working on behalf of homeless populations, largely in Philadelphia through Project H.O.M.E., which she co-founded in 1989 as an emergency shelter for men.
The organization has gone on to develop more than 800 units of supportive and affordable housing—with a goal of more than 1,000 units in the near future. Most recently, Project H.O.M.E. opened the city’s first LGBTQ-friendly housing center for young adults. The organization has an overarching strategy that aims to get to the root of the issues putting clients at risk—with full programming that includes health care and recovery services, outreach, education and skills development for both young people and adults, and public advocacy.
It is through that last front that Scullion has become known as one of the nation’s foremost advocates for the homeless. More than 20 years ago, she was among the leading voices that helped temper an aggressive legislative crackdown on people who slept or panhandled in Center City Philadelphia, and she is credited with helping secure homeless individuals the right to vote. In January, she attended the State of the Union address as a guest of Pennsylvania Congressman Dwight Evans (D-3) and met with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to advocate for funding to combat homelessness and poverty.
During her D.C. trip, Scullion shared on social media that she was spreading the “good news” that Philadelphia has the lowest number of unsheltered people of the 10 largest American cities.
“What we are doing is working,” she wrote. “We just need more.”
Late last year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren became the first Democratic presidential contender to start field operations in battleground Pennsylvania—and she tapped a longtime local political strategist who has dedicated her career to advancing progressive candidates. Anne Wakabayashi started her tenure as senior strategist for PA for Warren campaign in December, and she hit the ground running.
Although Warren has since suspended her campaign, that certainly doesn’t take away from the important work Wakabayashi has done to champion women in politics, including as inaugural executive director for Emerge Pennsylvania, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for political office. Since Emerge PA launched, it has trained 150 women with more than two dozen being elected to public office and dozens more gearing up to be on the ballot. In 2018 alone, eight Emerge PA alumnae were elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature, seven of whom flipped their districts from red to blue.
After heading up the organization from 2015 to 2018, Wakabayashi moved to the national scene as alumnae director of Emerge America, where she now provides ongoing resources and support to more than 4,000 women who have gone through the training program. “At Emerge, our collective vision has always been to expand and advance women’s political power at every level of government,” Wakabayashi said in a statement released by Emerge America, “and I look forward to using my experience to bring us closer to realizing that goal.”
With nearly a decade in Pennsylvania politics, Wakabayashi headed up the campaigns of Allan Domb for City Council and Anne Lazarus for state Supreme Court, and also held leadership positions in the state Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. Her community involvement has followed a similar track: as a commissioner on the Philadelphia Commission for Women, co-chair of the Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club, and her current role as chair of Gov. Tom Wolf’s Commission on LGBTQ Affairs.
Those are experiences that undoubtedly contributed to her being tapped by a major Democratic presidential contender for campaign leadership—another accomplishment that will continue to fuel Wakabayashi’s growing reputation as a political powerhouse in Pennsylvania.