Tag Archives: women’s rights

“Don’t Know Much About History”

That old Sam Cooke tune should be Justice Alito’s theme song.

Distortion–or flat-out lying–about history hasn’t previously been a feature of Supreme Court decisions, although it’s nothing new in political discourse. (Remember the people who argued against same-sex marriage by insisting that marriage “has always been between one man and one woman,” despite the fact that the statement was demonstrably false? Even if you ignore biblical history, more than half of the world still recognizes plural marriage.)

Alito’s recitation of history in Dobbs has been rebutted by historians, and its falsity was recently the subject of a lengthy essay in the Guardian. 

As the essay notes, Alito claims that a reversal of Roe v Wade “restores the US to an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment [that] persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.”

This assertion, however, is easily disproven.As historians have exhaustively explained, early American common law (as in Britain) generally permitted abortions until “quickening”, or perceptible foetal movement, usually between 16 to 20 weeks into a pregnancy. Connecticut was the first state to ban abortion after quickening, in 1821, which is roughly two centuries after the earliest days of American common law. It was not until the 1880s that every US state had some laws restricting abortion, and not until the 1910s that it was criminalised in every state. In the wake of Dobbs, social media was awash with examples from 18th- and 19th-century newspapers that clearly refuted Alito’s false assertion, sharing examples of midwives and doctors legally advertising abortifacients, Benjamin Franklin’s at-home abortion remedies, and accounts of 19th-century doctors performing “therapeutic” (medically necessary) abortions.

The essay also emphasized that anti-abortion fervor was not motivated by the moral or religious beliefs generally cited by anti-choice activists.

In fact, the first wave of anti-abortion laws were entangled in arguments about nativism, eugenics and white supremacism, as they dovetailed with a cultural panic that swept the US in the late 19th and early 20th century as a result of the vast changes in American society wrought by the conflict. This panic was referred to at the time in shorthand as “race suicide”

The increasing traction today of the far-right “great replacement theory”, which contends that there is a global conspiracy to replace white people with people of colour, and has explicitly motivated white supremacist massacres in the US, is often said to have originated with a French novel called The Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail. Published in 1973, the same year that Roe v Wade enshrined American women’s rights to reproductive autonomy, it is a dystopian account of “swarthy hordes” of immigrants sweeping in and destroying western civilisation. But there were many earlier panics over “white extinction”, and in the US, debates around abortion have been entangled with race panic from the start. 

As a similar post at FiveThirtyEight.com put it,” the anti-abortion movement, at its core, has always been about upholding white supremacy.”

Historians point to the numerous newspapers, lectures and sermons that led to the original criminalization of abortion by warning that Catholics and other foreign-born immigrants were likely to outnumber Protestant, native-born Americans. The essay cited one representative example– a 1903 editorial pointing out that the Protestant population of the US was increasing by 8.1% while the Catholic population was increasing by 21.8%, and characterizing those statistics as an “alarming condition of things.” The article noted that there were “on the average more than five abortions a month, none of them in Catholic families”. In case the message wasn’t sufficiently clear, the piece was headlined “Religion and Race Suicide”.

When the resurgent Ku Klux Klan paraded in Louisiana in 1922, they bore banners that read “White Supremacy”, “America First”, “One Hundred Per Cent American”, “Race Purity” and “Abortionists, Beware!” People are sometimes confused by the Klan’s animus against abortionists, or impute it to generalised patriarchal authoritarianism, but it was much more specifically about “race purity”: white domination can only be maintained by white reproduction.

The article is lengthy, but well worth your time to read; it contains a meticulous recitation of the thoroughly racist roots of opposition to abortion. My only quibble is that It gives only a nod to the White male patriarchy embedded in the numerous religious dogmas that require the subordination and submission of women. Without the benefit of that moral “fig leaf,” I doubt whether its clearly racist roots would have carried the movement so far.

I do absolutely agree with the essay’s conclusion:

The assault on women’s rights is part of the wider move to reclaim the “commanding place” in society for a small minority of patriarchal white men. And, as Alito’s decision shows, where legal precedent and other justifications cannot be found, myth will fill the vacuum.

No matter how ahistorical that myth…

 

What’s Different This Time? A Lot.

Back in the 60s, Bob Dylan told us that “the times, they are a-changing.” They still are.

I’ve been thinking about about the Supreme Court’s efforts to reverse social change, and the extent to which their targets have become too firmly embedded in the culture to be reversed.

Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973–almost exactly 50 years ago–and we sometimes forget how much American life  has changed since then. I’ve been thinking about what those changes may mean for the radical Court decision to overrule the constitutional right of a woman to control her own reproduction.

Consider just a few…

  •  Roe was argued in a void of sorts.Tthere was virtually no public discussion of women’s experiences with abortion, because it had been illegal in many if not most states, and coming forward to publicly explain and provide context to a decision to terminate a pregnancy would have labeled the woman a criminal. As Dobbs made its way through the judicial system, however, women faced no such restraint, and their stories have illustrated the multiplicity of situations women face, and the intensely personal impacts of their decisions.
  • Columnist Jennifer Rubin has written about one outcome of that public discussion–widespread recognition of the cruelty of forced birth. How do you defend GOP insistence that a 10-year-old girl impregnated by her rapist carry that pregnancy to term? Yet in that very real case, at least two Republican gubernatorial candidates have affirmed their belief that this child should be required to give birth. As Rubin noted, those utterances by GOP candidates weren’t anomalous: Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said that, in his view, a 12-year-old impregnated by incest should be forced to complete her pregnancy. Herschel Walker, the Georgia Republican Senate nominee, insists he wants no exceptions, even to save the woman’s life. Ohio state Rep. Jean Schmidt has called forcing a 13-year-old rape victim to give birth an “opportunity.” Even people with qualms about abortion are likely repulsed by this sick lack of concern for the lives and health of living women.
  • Poll after poll shows that most people who want to restrict abortion don’t want to ban the procedure entirely. Yet–as The New York Times reports– “There are no allowances for victims of rape or incest in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee or Texas.” In Idaho, a woman would have to file a police report to obtain an abortion, something virtually impossible for incest victims and others who live in fear of their attackers.”
  • As legal observers have noted–and survey research has confirmed--the U.S. Supreme Court is in the midst of a full-fledged legitimacy crisis, worsened by a steady stream of extreme decisions handed down by the conservative supermajority. Opinions about the Court are far more negative than they were in 1973.
  • The decision in Dobbs, as I’ve previously explained, rests on an analysis that threatens other rights–rights that weren’t recognized fifty years ago (and thus were not “deeply rooted” in Justice Alito’s version of American history) such as same-sex marriage (2015), contraception (1965) and interracial marriage (1967). That threat is widely understood, and it significantly expands the number of Americans who (accurately) view Dobbs as a personal threat.
  • The media environment today is dramatically different from that of 1973. Whatever their negatives–and I routinely post about those negatives–the ubiquity of the Internet and social media means that very few Americans are unaware of either the Court’s decision or its likely impacts. Digital communication has also made it much, much easier to organize political movements and raise dollars–and we are already seeing a strong political response online to what is being described–again, I believe accurately–as a theocratic and profoundly anti-liberty decision.
  • Over the past fifty years women have become considerably more empowered.
  • The percentage of Americans following the dictates of organized religion is at an all-time low.

I’m old, and I remember 1973.

In 1973, my mother–who was considered pretty liberated for her time– was still saying things like “Men won’t buy the cow if they can get the milk for free.” Women who had sex outside of marriage were considered sluts. Women who dared to have both children and careers were  “obviously” bad mothers. Women who weren’t married were pitied and called “old maids.” Women who earned more than their husbands were “castrating.” Women who played sports were unfeminine–and the very few women who wanted to report on sports were barred from male players’ locker rooms…It was 1974 before we could even get our own credit cards.

In short, a lot has changed since 1973. As a recent car commercial puts it, “this isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile.”  

 In 1971, Helen Reddy wrote our anthem..

In 2022, I think women really are going to roar.

 

 

What’s Next?

I recently had a disquieting political discussion during an otherwise lovely lunch with my youngest son.

It probably won’t shock readers of this blog to learn that our children and grandchildren are pretty political…and I’m happy to report that they all have developed what I consider to be excellent values. The differences arise from our views of America’s probable future. One son has already moved to the Netherlands, a granddaughter lives in northern England, and this son–our youngest–expects that America’s descent into autocracy and White Supremacy will prompt his children to eventually relocate as well.

Our discussion wasn’t exactly an argument, but we had very different predictions about the likely political fallout when–not if, since we agreed it will happen– the Supreme Court eviscerates or overrules Roe v. Wade. I opined that their “victory” will lead to a reduction in the passion of the pro-fetal-life movement, and energize women who have previously felt protected by Roe. My son disagreed–he sees the anti-choice zealots taking their fervor to state legislatures and–thanks to gerrymandering–tightening their red state control.

I should mention that this son is a lawyer, and a very good one. He knows how to frame and present a convincing argument….Needless to say, I left lunch depressed.

A few days after that conversation, I was a guest on a podcast called Who Gets What–the brainchild of two longtime friends, Morton Marcus and John Guy. After the recording stopped, Morton and I were talking, and he made an observation that I found both fascinating and relevant to the consequences of a reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Morton said he’d been looking for a truly objective, scholarly analysis of the multiple ways in which women’s “liberation”–the growth/emergence of women’s participation in all the “nooks and crannies” of society–has changed that society. As he noted, there’s been a lot written about the subject, but it’s mostly advocacy (pro and con), or focused on relatively small parts of the bigger picture. He’d found no analysis encompassing the truly monumental social changes triggered by the steady expansion of women’s participation in all parts of our society.

Morton’s observation is accurate, at least so far as I can tell–I’m unaware of any scholarship that addresses the entirety of the immense social changes that have occurred as a result of women’s emancipation from the confines of “barefoot and pregnant.”

However one defines the “women’s movement,” however, its power depends on reliable birth control.

Yes, we can look to history and find examples of powerful women; we can point to the suffrage movement and similar efforts to assert or enlarge women’s rights–but real change, I submit, came only with the ability of women to control our reproduction. Only then could we enter fully into workplaces (most of which no longer required brute strength), an entry that gave us another form of choice: the economic means to leave unsatisfactory marriages, or to renegotiate the terms of more agreeable ones.

There’s a reason the people who want to return the U.S. to the social structures of the 1950s are so focused on controlling women’s reproduction. (It isn’t just abortion; if you don’t believe birth control is next, I refer you to the Hobby Lobby case…)

The future of American democracy may well depend upon the extent to which American women understand the far broader implications of a loss of control over their reproductive lives. Yes, there are compelling medical, economic and psychological reasons to allow women to exercise the self-determination men take for granted. Yes, the arguments advanced by pro-fetal-life activists are inaccurate gaslighting. But if women lose control over their bodily integrity, they won’t just lose the momentum that has been building toward their full participation in American society, they’ll do a U turn.

Women’s equality will lose considerable–critical– ground.

I think that–deep down, if not consciously–activists on both sides of the issue understand that this fight is really between continuing inclusion of half the population in the life of the nation, or a return to some version of male social dominance. The question is whether the majority of non-activist women understand the actual nature of the debate, care about continuing their progress toward equal civic participation, and are sufficiently motivated to protect the hard-won improvements in women’s prospects and status.

What happens next–whether my son’s predictions or my own hopes prove accurate–ultimately depends on the answer to that question–and upon who wins those statehouses.

Memory Lane Is Gendered

My husband and I were kibitzing with Bill Brooks a few days ago. Bill was previously the editor of several small-town newspapers in Indiana, and in semi-retirement, he publishes the Urban Times, an outgrowth of several urban neighborhood newsletters. He mentioned that he’s planning to run a feature with answers to a question he intends to put to readers who are long-time residents of the city: What do you miss about Indianapolis that was once here but is now gone?

My husband (whose memory for such things is much better than mine) immediately responded by naming a couple of bygone festivals and civic celebrations. I was unable to come up with anything I truly miss, and later in the day, I brooded a bit about that inability. Granted, I tend to live in the present–but then I also realized that my lack of nostalgia is significantly attached to my gender.

To be blunt, it’s a lot easier being female today than it used to be–in Indianapolis and elsewhere. Not perfect–that “glass ceiling” may be cracked, but it’s still there–but immensely improved. A few examples from my long-ago youth:

When I went to college, I wanted to major in liberal arts, but my father insisted that I get a teaching degree, because if my eventual husband died, I would need something to fall back on. At the time, educated women were secretaries, teachers or nurses; I couldn’t type and the sight of blood made me queasy. Ergo! I’d teach.

I began my adult work life as a high school English teacher. When I became pregnant with my first child, however, I could no longer teach—Even though I was married, those days, once women teachers or librarians “showed,” we could no longer be in the classroom.

I went to law school when I was 30 and had three small children. There were very few women in law school then, and my most important epiphany revolved around the need for potty parity, since the few women’s restrooms in the relatively new building had been included–and located– to accommodate the secretarial staff.

After graduating law school, I was the first female lawyer hired at one of Indianapolis’ then “big three” law firms. To give you a flavor of the times, serial interviews with prospective associates were conducted by several of the partners, and I was in conversation with two who were being very careful not to ask improper questions (this was barely ten years after creation of the EEOC). Since I had three children, I thought it reasonable to volunteer my childcare arrangements. One of the partners was so obviously relieved that I wasn’t acting like a bra-burning radical feminist, he blurted out: “It isn’t that there’s anything wrong with being a woman. We hired a man with a glass eye once!”

In 1977, Bill Hudnut asked me to take charge of the City’s legal department. I was the first woman to be Corporation Counsel in Indianapolis, and at the time, Indianapolis had two newspapers. The afternoon paper, the Indianapolis News, had a front-page “gossip” blurb.  I still recall its juicy little item after my appointment was announced: “What high-ranking city official appointed his most recent honey to a prominent position…” Apparently, it was inconceivable that I’d been appointed because I was a decent lawyer, or because I represented a constituency Bill was reaching out to.

I could spend all day adding to this litany, but the bottom line is: things are better for women now. Not perfect, but much, much better.

My female students–even those who didn’t consider themselves feminists–were appalled at suggestions that they should expect  to be offered lower pay than their male classmates for the same positions. My granddaughters are incredulous when I tell them these stories.

I’m sure that, with some thought, I’ll be able to answer Bill Brooks’ question–able to come up with the names of retail establishments or festivals or restaurants that I miss. (To  be honest, what I really miss is the naïveté and uncomplicated patriotism that was facilitated by what I now know was my very incomplete understanding of American history.)

Overall, however, I’ll take today. Given the lunacy and ferocity of the backlash–the furious efforts to roll back the changes that a lot of us celebrate– I do worry quite a lot about tomorrow.