By Judith Levine and Erica R. Meiners . . . “What is your relationship to feminism?” Judith asks Vicki Henry, head of Women Against Registry, or WAR.
Her reply: “I hate it.”
It is a sentiment that, in our experience, is not uncommon among the members of WAR, a small group launched in 2007 at the first national conference of the organization Reform Sex Offense Laws. The convention was convened with the aim of pulling together the fledgling grassroots mutual aid and advocacy groups of registrants and their supporters that had sprung up around the country. Henry, the mother of a Marine convicted of child pornography possession, had proven herself as an able leader in Missouri. So RSOL organizer Paul Shannon asked her to head up a national women’s subgroup of RSOL. “There was a need for “a place where wives, daughters, girlfriends would have an outlet for their anger and energy,” says Shannon, now chair of the renamed National Association for Rational Sex Offense Laws (NARSOL). Henry accepted eagerly.
Tactical and personal differences have since divided Henry and Shannon, and she has taken WAR independent. But there is one thing on which the two agree: feminism. Like most of the registered citizens and their friends we have met, both perceive feminists as political insiders, almost as responsible for the SO’s plight as the state is. “Part of the reason we are where we are is because the feminist movement created this, and now it’s got this landslide effect,” says Henry. Shannon concurs: WAR was conceived “to oppose the feminist assault on sex offenders,” he says. . . .
In much criminal justice reform activism, women—specifically, white mothers—are the instigators, the spokespeople, and the foot soldiers. So it has been with the sex offense legal regime. . . . After Etan Patz’s disappearance in 1979, his mother Julie lobbied for the establishment of a national clearing-house of missing children, which was established in 1984 as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. To this day, NCMEC’s fear-inducing statistics continue to ratify the creation of more and more “child protective” sex laws.
Patty Wetterling—mother of eleven-year-old Jacob, snatched and murdered in 1989 in St. Joseph, Minnesota, while riding his bike—lobbied for sex offender registries, first in her state and then nationally, resulting in the federal Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994. While still an advocate for missing children—she is chair of NCMEC—Wetterling has become one of the most vocal opponents of sex offender registries, arguing that they ruin lives while failing to protect children. . . .
Just as mothers, and white motherhood—that spotless badge of devotion and courage—played a significant role in the institution and extension of registries and community notification laws, white women are also proving instrumental in the move to challenge the registries. The sex offense legal regime was built in the name of protecting children. Similarly, these women’s ferocity in fighting the regime rises in their children’s defense.
Women run most of the state organizations; the current executive director of NARSOL is a woman, Brenda Jones, although leadership of the national organization is heavily male. These women gain valuable political experience—in public speaking, lobbying, organization-building—as they advocate for their sons and husbands and challenge this facet of the prison nation. They are public figures and community leaders. . .
Tonia Maloney founded Illinois Voices for Reform when her nineteen-year-old son was convicted of criminal sexual abuse and child pornography for his relationship with his sixteen-year-old girlfriend. On an early, now removed, website for the organization Maloney described the actions for which he is now on the registry as “his indiscretions.” Mary Sue Molnar of Texas Voices was mobilized to action when her then-twenty-two-year-old son, as she put it, “made some really bad choices” and was convicted of a sex offense for a relationship with a sixteen-year-old female. “I think that every parent, especially those with sons, should be deeply concerned about the current laws, because their sons could be on the registry in the blink of an eye,” she said on a local TV report. . . .
Women like Henry, Jones, and Molnar have achieved national and statewide visibility for issues facing people with sex offense convictions, particularly by challenging the placement of juveniles on sex offender registries. They have educated countless policy- makers and law enforcers, prevented passage of bad laws, kept their members up to date on political and legal developments, and provided support for a severely demoralized group of people. Their work is crucial and commendable, and it falls within a long tradition of women’s activism.