By Samantha Schuyler
Whitney Mutch was one of 50 protesters, organized by the Gainesville chapter of National Women’s Liberation, who filled the 13th Street CVS on May 17. They demanded that the morning-after pill be available over the counter. Photo by Pete Self, 2013. Courtesy of National Women’s Liberation.
The meeting place was secret. To know the location, you had to send an email to the chair of the Gainesville chapter of National Women’s Liberation (NWL) stating your purpose. The emailed response stated the meeting time, location and necessary background information.
“PLEASE DO NOT FORWARD THIS EMAIL,” the email warned receivers, “OR INFORMATION ABOUT OUR MEETING LOCATION FOR THE FLASH MOB.”
The Gainesville chapter was organizing secretly, just like other chapters around the country, for NWL’s Week of Action. From May 13 to 17, NWL and Women Organized to Resist and Defend (WORD) staged various protests demanding that women of all ages have access to the morning-after pill over the counter.
Last Friday was Gainesville’s turn to take part in the week of protests. More than 50 protesters gathered on the first floor of the Shands Hospital parking garage, their voices creating a low hum while they waited.
Not everyone was a NWL member: Although Judy Etzler has lived in Gainesville for 40 years, she never joined its NWL.
“But this one was irresistible,” she said.
For as long as she can remember, Etzler has been a feminist: When she first became a part of the work force, women could only be nurses or secretaries. As an act of personal protest, she refused to learn how to type.
While Etzler offered a clipboard to protesters to sign in, Kendra Vincent, chair of the Gainesville chapter of NWL, gestured for attention. The crowd gathered around her in a pre-protest huddle.
“Change comes from everyday people,” she said to the 50 gathered. “And look at all these everyday people.”
The crowd applauded, bouncing echoes throughout the garage.
Vincent’s directions were clear: small groups will be assigned something to “shop for” and sent into the store. Once protestors hear the chant begin outside, they will join in in the change and converge on the family planning aisle where Stephanie Seguin, NWL leader, will make a brief speech. Protestors will then place their props, small medication boxes doctored to look like the morning-after pill boxes, on the shelf. Then they will leave, chanting once again.
The fight to allow the morning-after pill has been long, said Seguin who is also a plaintiff in the court case to make emergency contraception available without age restrictions.
“In England, they deliver it to you,” Seguin said as part of her speech in the family planning aisle. When she went to France, she saw government workers on bikes passing out condoms and emergency contraception, showing the two forms of contraception as equal.
In the United States, Plan B became the first emergency contraception drug to be approved for prescription use in 1999. In 2006, it was made available over the counter for women 18 or older. In 2009, the Federal Drug Administration lowered the age restriction to 17.
In 2011, the FDA approved Plan B One-Step for all women who can potentially become pregnant, following a review by the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. However, the Department of Health and Human Services overruled the FDA’s decision, stating that the research did not contain sufficient data to show that young girls could responsibly use the drug. The age restriction remained for those 17 and older.
In early April, U.S. District Judge Edward Korman issued a court order to make Plan B available over the counter to women of all ages, rebuking the health department’s decision. The Obama Administration appealed Korman’s order, but lowered the age restriction to women age 15 and up.
The protesters were directed to enter the CVS on 13th Street in groups of three. Whitney Mutch, a member of NWL, was directed to look for nail polish with two other women.
As soon as the women entered the CVS, they quickly found the nail polish display. Mutch picked up a bottle, holding it up to the light.
“They have the designer type we were—” she paused, hiking her eyebrows up and down. “Looking for.” She glanced at a fellow protester conspiratorially. They both giggled.
Over the aisles, many familiar heads were beginning to appear. Over the course of a few minutes, the population of the CVS tripled. Regular customers were unfazed; the neutral, canned music maintained a normal shopping experience—until the chanting began.
“What do we want?”
The protesters picked up the cue, shouting back, “The morning-after pill.”
“Where do we want it?”
“Over the counter.”
Mutch and others collected in front of the pharmacy where Seguin gave a speech explaining the protester’s demands.
“I am here to put this morning-after pill on the shelf next to condoms,” Seguin said. “For all men and women to buy.”
Seguin and other protesters placed small boxes made to look like emergency contraception on nearby shelves; then they promptly exited, chanting, “Old enough to get pregnant, old enough to decide.”
“It was inspiring to see so many people,” Mutch said later, as the group debriefed at the Civic Media Center. “It was fantastic; the feeling of sisterhood.”