After a unanimous vote at a recent city council meeting, a 32-year-old institution was dissolved without fanfare or objection. The Fort Worth Commission for Women effectively fell on its own sword by requesting the action weeks before.
Commission director Ossana Hermosillo said the program just wasn’t sustainable any longer because of dwindling support from community leaders and the proliferation of other organizations that are addressing the same kinds of women’s issues.
“Over the years, the Commission has helped bring awareness to issues such as infant mortality and domestic violence,” she said. “However, over the past few years, the Commission has struggled to maintain active members and achieve meeting quorums.”
Though many nonprofits that serve women have overlapping missions, most of the issues that prompted the creation of the commission have gotten worse in Texas, thanks to a political climate that many observers consider hostile towards women.
The urgency for addressing women’s issues, especially regarding reproductive health, has never been higher. Earlier this month, Texas officials cut state Medicaid funding from Planned Parenthood, effectively ending the only source of affordable birth control and reproductive medical care for millions of low-income women across the state. Infant mortality remains disproportionately high across North Texas, according to Tarrant County Public Health.
The local domestic abuse numbers also tell a grim story. In 2014, Tarrant County had 10 domestic violence-related deaths –– the second highest number in Texas, according to Texas Council on Family Violence.
Some observers see it as a bad omen that a once-vital women’s charity disappeared without so much as a whimper at a time when the state needs more voices supporting women, not fewer. Despite dwindling resources and political support, the various charitable organizations that address women’s issues soldier on, hoping to avoid the Commission’s fate while picking up the slack.
One of those hardworking groups is the Women’s Policy Forum. Formed four years after the Commission, the forum has a lot of the same goals. The first priority for both groups in the late ’80s was simple: place underrepresented women into prominent public and private positions.
“There was maybe one woman in a leadership position in any bank in town,” forum director Margaret DeMoss recalled. “Now there’s a considerable percentage of women in local law and CPA firms.”
“Now we are taking on more policy-oriented issues,” DeMoss said. “We educate and inform our membership about domestic violence and other issues with the latest data. We don’t advocate or support candidates or particular bills, but we educate our members on specific issues, and they go out into the community to volunteer or advocate for those issues.”
Earlier this month, the women’s group held a symposium on demographic changes that will affect Fort Worth. The packed event included keynote speaker Stephen Klineberg, professor of sociology at Rice University. The trends for women in the coming decades, she learned, are that women will be younger, poorer, and more ethnically diverse.
Some issues, like Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights, are too hot to touch in Texas for most women’s groups.
“If I am speaking to you as a Women’s Policy Forum director, then I can’t give you a position,” DeMoss said. “But my personal view is that I am upset about the state’s Planned Parenthood cuts. We’ve learned as an organization that if women don’t have access to reproductive health they cannot truly pursue careers.”
Her group’s members are more inclined to speak about issues like infant mortality, domestic abuse, and placement of women in science and engineering fields.
Policy forum members mentor girls from the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, a girls-only Fort Worth public school for grades 6-10 that emphasizes math, science, and technology. Focusing on middle-school students, DeMoss and her colleagues discuss science and engineering fields with the girls.
“There are social pressures that tell these girls they should not go into the math and science fields,” she said.
Another active women’s group, Hispanic Women’s Network, directly provides college financial assistance to young Latinas.
The Fort Worth chapter, with help from outside partners and donors, provided scholarships for 46 girls this year that valued nearly $500,000.
Hermosilla said she is glad to see so many women continuing the work. One of her group’s crowning achievements was leading a public dialogue that led to the creation of the crime prevention nonprofit One Safe Place. Five years ago, the now-defunct Commission was recognized by the National Association of Commissions for Women for its efforts to bring awareness to Fort Worth’s infant mortality rates.
“There have been significant gains,” DeMoss admitted. “Women are now in leadership positions where they didn’t used to be. But there are still barriers for women.”
Even in families where both spouses work, she said, women are still expected to take on the bulk of the childrearing work, and that can hold the wives back professionally.
In Texas and a good chunk of the country, politicians often distill the discussion around reproductive healthcare into a talking point about values, ignoring the mountains of data that suggest it’s a vital public resource. As a result, many young women start their adult life behind the 8-ball.
“You can look at the data from countries that provide affordable reproductive healthcare and see that women tend to have better jobs and economic equality,” DeMoss said.