Tag Archives: women’s rights

Too Weird To Win?

The problem with living in a bubble…

One benefits of a truly mass media is that it exposes its audience to the larger popular culture. Today, it’s easy to occupy an information bubble occupied by people who share your particular  beliefs.

A few days ago, I shared some of the positions of the New Right’s “intellectuals.” Those positions weren’t just extreme; as a recent essay from The New Republic characterized them, they were also weird. The essay argued that when these people run for office, they tend to be too weird to win elections. (Herschel Walker was a different kind of weird, but the observation still holds.)

The right is getting weirder. That might begin to cost Republicans elections in years to come and undermine their own appeals to American patriotism in a way policy extremism alone could not. American voters see the political parties as equally extreme in policy, ignoring evidence that Republicans have moved right much faster than Democrats have moved left. However, a party fixated on genital sunning, seed oils, Catholic integralism, European aristocracy, and occultism can alienate voters not because of its positions but because of how it presents them—and itself. Among the right’s intellectual avant garde and media elites, there is a growing adoption of habits, aesthetics, and views that are not only out of step with America’s but are deliberately cultivated in opposition to a national majority that the new right holds in contempt.

This is a different—though parallel—phenomenon from the often raucous, conspiratorial personality cult that surrounds Donald Trump and his devoted base. This new turn has predominantly manifested among the upper-class and college-educated right wing. Indeed, as Democratic strategist David Shor noted, as those with college degrees become more left leaning, the remaining conservatives have gotten “really very weird.” In this well-off cohort, there exists a mirror of the excesses often attributed to the college-educated left, fairly or unfairly: an aversion to mainstream values and an extreme militancy.

This segment of the Right has evidently abandoned American exceptionalism, along with the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Their “disgust with equitable citizenship, personal liberty, and democratic self-governance” are common threads running through their pronouncements.

These New Right thinkers consider America’s philosophical foundations not just mistaken, but immoral; they express “a new fascination with medieval Catholicism and imported European extremisms.” According to the essay, this faction of the Right

has shed its American and conservative roots and seeks a radical shift—a national “refounding.” Indeed, leading right-wing intellectuals like John Daniel Davidson have said that “the conservative project has failed” and that people like them constitute the educated vanguard of a “revolutionary moment.”

Whatever else one might say about this rejection of Americana–whatever other danger these people may pose to civic peace–  this is not a politically salable approach. Research confirms that nine out of 10 Americans believe being “truly American” involves respecting “American political institutions and laws.”

Americans consistently affirm that liberty, equality, and progress—the core values of republicanism and the Enlightenment—are ones they try to live by. While the content and meaning of those values have always been contested terrain, opposing them is a nonstarter.

In the midterms, candidates embracing these positions did not do well, even in states where an R next to one’s name virtually guarantees a win.

John Gibbs, a Republican nominee for a Michigan swing seat, founded a think tank that argued for overturning the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The country, he said, had “suffered” from women’s suffrage. He narrowly lost his bid. Blake Masters and J.D. Vance—two Republican candidates for Senate funded in part by tech billionaire and new-right linchpin Peter Thiel—have embraced new-right ideas and actively courted the “weird right.” Vance has questioned whether women should leave violent marriages; Masters has praised domestic terrorist Theodore Kaczynski’s infamous manifesto, argued against legal access to contraception, and openly said that democracy is a smokescreen for the masses “stealing certain kinds of goods and redistributing them as they see fit.” (Americans on balance like democracy; legal contraception is almost universally popular; and Kaczynski’s unpopularity is so widely assumed that pollsters rarely ask about him.) Masters, perhaps unsurprisingly, lost his bid to unseat Mark Kelly, and Vance badly underperformed in his blood-red home state.

The claims that characterize this slice of the body politic are increasingly bizarre: the essay points to assertions that meat substitutes will turn men into women. (One Texas Representative has declared that a man who eats cultured meat, “will turn into a SOCIALIST DEMOCRAT.”)

At the base of all this is misogyny. (Perhaps these guys all  have small winkies…)The New Right wants American women to be subservient to men and dependent upon male breadwinners.

Sorry, weirdos, but that horse has left the barn…



Pins And Needles

To subscribers who received these introductory paragraphs  yesterday–accidental “pre-post.”  Sorry.

I will be honest–the last several weeks have been painful. Initially, I devoured political news and punditry, but for the past couple of weeks, I’ve even avoided most of the news–including financial updates and coverage of the sort of policy debates that usually engages nerds like yours truly.

Because–let’s be candid–what difference will any of it make if we lose our chance to build the America I’ve inhabited mentally for these many years.

I don’t want to hear from the nay-sayers and holier-than-thou-ers who will predictably lecture me on the multiple ways in which America the Country has routinely failed to live up to the America of my goals and aspirations. I know that history–but even at its worst, it hardly justifies handing the country over to the drooling haters, know-nothings, QAnon believers and (perhaps worst of all) the otherwise “nice” people who never bothered to learn about or follow government and politics and so mindlessly continue to cast their ballots (if they bother to do so) for a GOP that no longer exists.

All this is by way of explaining the dread leading up to an “after the votes are counted” post. Of course, votes are still being counted…

So–as of today, what do we know?

Well, for one thing, we know that the predicted “Red Wave” failed to materialize. (Unfortunately, so did the Blue Tsunami I was hoping for, but that was admittedly a pie in the sky hope.) Virtually all the headlines I saw yesterday focused on the failure of the GOP to make the gains they’d confidently predicted.

Red Wave? Nah–pink puddle.

Paul Ogden really nailed it in his comment yesterday. After detailing the headwinds Democrats faced, he wrote “I can’t begin to tell you how historic yesterday’s election was.  It’s never happened before where the party in power does so well in  a mid-term despite horrible numbers going into the election.”

Robert Hubbell echoed that conclusion in his daily newsletter, writing that preventing the anticipated Red Wave was “no small thing.” Democrats battled gerrymandering, “a slew of voter suppression laws, inflation at a 40-year high, a sustained disinformation campaign against democracy, and low presidential favorability ratings. Despite all that, they made a strong showing that should give Republicans pause for the next two years.”

What should give Republicans pause and what will give Republicans pause, of course, are two very different things. That said, the pundits who confidently predicted that concerns about inflation would overwhelm fury about abortion were proven wrong– at least according to exit polls. Voters reported that the two issues were fairly even motivators. (Hmm…a temporary rise in the price of eggs versus loss of a fundamental right to personal autonomy…sure, those seem roughly equivalent. Not.)

In the five states where abortion rights were on the ballot, voters massively supported those rights. Even in Kentucky!

Here in my deep Red state of Indiana, the election denying, sexual assaulting, incompetent (and arguably criminal) candidate with an R next to his name won his election for Secretary of State, and will be in charge of the election in 2024 if he hasn’t been arrested before that. (In non-urban areas of Indiana, it takes more than stupidity and criminal behavior to defeat a Republican.Even in suburbs that are slowly turning purple, regressive culture-war candidates for Congress and school boards eked out depressing wins.)

In urban areas of the state, however, sanity mostly prevailed. Indianapolis’ incumbent Prosecutor won handily, and we re-elected our highly competent, legislatively-skilled and all-around nice guy Congressman, Andre Carson. In Northwest Indiana, where Republicans had mounted a challenge to the first-term Democratic Congressman, the Democrat prevailed.

What is abundantly clear is that America is conducting something approximating a civil war between Blue cities and the Red states in which they are located.

The bottom line–if there is such a line–seems to be that neither party delivered a knock-out punch. Those of us who want to elect candidates who are actually interested in governing–on addressing the thorny policy issues we face at the local, state and federal levels–will have to contend with at least two years of gridlock (at best) and sustained culture war  waged by would-be autocrats(at worst).

The good news is: we lived to fight another day…


Everyone Else Has To Vote

Jennifer Rubin is one of the clearest-eyed columnists around, and as the MAGA movement has demonstrated both its staying power and its ability to mesmerize  and propagandize angry voters, her clarity is welcome.

In a recent column for the Washington Post, Rubin “told it like it is.”

Right-wing pundits and Republican apologists are quick to blame “elites” or “the left” for a failure to respect and recognize the legitimacy of a MAGA movement based in election denial, White Christian nationalism and hostility toward robust democratic elections. It’s a demand for acceptance that is eerily reminiscent of other periods in U.S. history (e.g., the 1850s, the 1920s, the 1950s), which can illuminate the depth of our national problem.

Rubin referenced the eerily similar situation from just before the Civil War. Quoting from Jon Meacham’s recent book on Lincoln, she reminded readers that the South “could hear nothing more — could absorb nothing more — once it was told that the rest of the nation had found its way of life morally wanting. It felt judged, and it hated it.”

Substitute “election denier” for “the South,” and you have a fair approximation of the current state of American politics. Now, one side believes its viewpoint is essential to maintaining its power and its conception of America. It insists its followers can be “seen” only if the rest of us agree with their delusions and conspiracies.

That, of course, is not the way democratic systems work. Of course, the MAGA folks, as we have seen, are more than willing to jettison democracy if that’s what it will take to protect their status as the only “real” Americans–a status that they perceive (correctly) is endangered.

If there is no possibility of principled compromise–after all, how do those of us who occupy a fact-based reality “compromise” with delusion?–what can the rest of America do? Rubin doesn’t pull punches:

Aggravated by declining economic prospects, overwhelmed by the opioid epidemic and utterly divorced from mainstream news sources, they unsurprisingly glob onto conspiracies, hold up former president Donald Trump as their champion and refuse to process any information that conflicts with the victimhood they embrace.

While there are certainly persuadable voters who drift between the parties, one cannot attribute Democrats’ losses in certain areas of the country to “poor messaging” or even a specific policy failure. None of that would make any difference. It’s fantasy to think there is a segment of White male working-class voters eager to vote Democratic if only Democrats had not passed the American Rescue Plan or avoided dealing with bias in policing.

Rubin quite properly scorns the notion that policy differences explain the MAGA movement. The die-hards of MAGA are neither motivated nor mollified by policy. That said, she  also recognizes that the appeal of conspiracies and various bigotries grows in situations of precarity and financial insecurity, which means that efforts to address those problems makes sense. As she notes,it pays political and economic dividends to “draw down the venom” in communities where people feel left behind.

She also recognizes that Democrats running in states with very different political cultures will necessarily run different sorts of campaigns.

The paragraph I found most insightful, however, was this one:

Everyone else has to vote. There is no substitute for high engagement, high turnout and an educated electorate. If 90 percent of the money spent on ads that viewers literally tune out were devoted to organizing on college campuses and other low-turnout environs, the results would be quite different for the pro-democracy, pro-pluralism forces.

Everyone else has to vote.

Before every election, we hear that “this election is the most important in our lifetimes.” This year, that warning rings true.

We can argue about causes of inflation, how to  understand and address crime, how best to combat climate change….and a million and one other truly important issues. But a few short days from now, the ballots we cast will decide questions that are massively more important and fundamental. Next week, Americans will vote to confirm or deny our most basic aspirations–adherence to democratic norms and the rule of law, and affirmation of the legal equality/autonomy of all citizens, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation.

Next week, our choice isn’t between Candidate A and Candidate B. Our choice is between the American Idea and White Christian Nationalism. We can hammer out our policy differences after we save democracy.

Rubin is right: Everyone who isn’t the product of MAGA madness–every American who occupies the messy, imperfect and maddening reality-based community–has to vote.


Religion And Patriarchy

The current assault on women’s autonomy, led primarily by people espousing fundamentalist versions of Evangelical Christianity, has awakened many Americans to the considerable influence of religion on American law and culture. That influence is not new, although the extent of it has largely gone unrecognized. Indeed, through most of American history, people have vastly underestimated the profound and continuing influence of culturally-embedded attitudes that originated with religious ways of interpreting reality. Most of us today recognize the impact of purportedly religious beliefs on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and support for the death penalty, but what is far less obvious is the degree to which religiously-rooted worldviews continue to influence seemingly secular policy debates, including economic policies.

Many of the cultural perspectives that shape our policy preferences were originally religious, and those religious roots have influenced our adult worldviews—including the worldviews of people who reject theological doctrines and do not believe themselves to be religious. The much-ballyhooed “values” debate isn’t a conflict between people who are religious and people who are not, nor is it a struggle between people holding different religious beliefs. It’s a debate between people operating out of different and largely inconsistent worldviews, and whether they recognize it or not, many of those worldviews originally grew out of different and frequently inconsistent religious explanations of the world we inhabit. Those inconsistencies don’t just reflect differences between major religions—different theological approaches taken by Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.—but also between denominations within those religions, especially the numerous denominations within Christianity. Calvinist beliefs, for example, continue to exert a major influence on American economic policy.

As women have slowly moved into the mainstream of American life, the doctrinal and
structural differences of the major Abrahamic religions have shaped both their official
responses and the culture. That has especially been true of religions like Catholicism that
prohibit women from the priesthood and consider both abortion and artificial birth control
sinful.  It wasn’t until 2020 that Pope Francis changed church law to allow a somewhat expanded role for women within the Catholic Church. The decree allows women to serve as readers, altar servers, and assistants to priests during service or in administering Holy Communion; however, the priesthood remains exclusively male.

As Frank Bruni has written  “For all the remarkable service that the Catholic Church performs, it is one of the world’s dominant and most unshakable patriarchies, with tenets that don’t abet equality.”

For women to get a fair shake in the work force, they need at least some measure of reproductive freedom. But Catholic bishops in the United States lobbied strenuously against the Obamacare requirement that employers such as religiously affiliated schools and hospitals include contraception in workers’ health insurance.

The autocratic structure of Catholicism, which discourages dissent from approved messaging, and requires the exclusion of women from the pulpit, operates to reinforce the subordinate status of women. Recent revelations about an internal “faith group” within Catholicism underscore that message.  People of Praise (which counts current Supreme Court Justice Amy Comey Barrett among its members) calls for complete obedience of women to their husbands, “emphasizes the importance of childbirth, pregnancy and the abandonment of autonomy and privacy it supposedly entails, as a core part of what it means to be a woman.” The Catholic Church remains adamantly anti-abortion, recognizing an exception only when it is clearly required in order to save the life of the mother.

The response of liberal Protestantism to cultural change has been very different. The largest Mainline  Protestant denominations include the United Methodist Church (UMC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Presbyterian Church (PC-USA), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Church (ABC- USA, not to be confused with the Southern Baptists, considered below) the United Church of Christ (UCC), and Christian Church Disciples of Christ (DOC). Sometimes referred to as the “Seven Sisters,’ these denominations have seen significant growth in the ordination of women; as of 2010, approximately 10% of Protestant pastors were female.  A survey conducted in 1987 suggested that women entering pastoral positions brought liberal commitments in religion, theological discussions, and cultural values to their congregations. Those commitments translate into their current supportive positions on abortion and birth control; a recent study by Pew categorizes them as supportive of abortion rights, albeit with some restrictions.

When it comes to religion and women’s rights, historians note that Quakers and Jews have been longstanding and prominent proponents of female equality. Quakers are among the least “top down” of Christian sects, and as far back as the early 1800s, Quaker women who were recognized as being “called” were allowed to travel to share their gifts of ministry, usually with a chaperone. The most famous was probably Lucretia Mott (1793-1880). The Quaker acceptance of women’s education and ministry set Quakers apart from the rest of organized Christianity, and may explain the disproportionate presence of Quaker women in the abolition movement. That activity led to gatherings of women who were also concerned about the need for greater rights for women. Of the four women who led the planning for the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848, three were Quakers.

Like Quakerism, Judaism has no single authority able to prescribe what is “kosher” in Jewish law and observance. Throughout the ages, Rabbis have argued about the proper meaning of biblical and Talmudic passages, and individual Jews have followed those that they found persuasive. Women’s status has varied, but the prevailing attitudes have usually been more progressive than those of surrounding cultures. In Judaism, descent is matrilinear—a Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother. Jewish law requires women to obey the same negative commandments that men must follow (the “thou shalt nots”), but excuses females from ritual duties that are time-bound, presumably in recognition of women’s maternal obligations. As far back as Talmudic times, evidence suggests that at least some women were educated in the Bible and Jewish law. During and after the Middle Ages, because many Jewish women were the family breadwinners in order to allow the man of the house to study, the culture has been very accepting of women entering the workforce and later, the professions.  With respect to worship, progress has been more recent: Reform Judaism ordained its first female rabbi in 1972, and Reconstructionist Judaism followed suit 1974. Today, there are more than a thousand women in the rabbinate, as well as a growing number of LGBTQ Rabbis, and congregants are accustomed to seeing women as Rabbis and Cantors within Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues.

The Orthodox movement within Judaism has been considerably slower to accept women’s full participation; in Orthodox synagogues, men and women still sit apart, and until very recently there have been no female Rabbis. Feminists within Orthodoxy have been actively advocating for reforms, and in 2013, a first group of female rabbinical students graduated from a New York seminary, but there is still considerable resistance within Orthodoxy to giving them pulpits, and similar resistance to many of the changes that Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements have made.

With respect to abortion, Jewish law affirms that protecting existing life is
paramount at all stages of pregnancy; however, Judaism does not consider a fetus a person until the head emerges from the womb. In Jewish law, the interests of the pregnant individual always come before that of the fetus. Jewish sources explicitly state that abortion is not onl permitted but is required should the pregnancy endanger the life or health of the pregnant individual, and “health” includes psychological as well as physical health.

American Muslims have only recently been numerous enough to affect social attitudes about women. Worldwide, Islamic practices vary widely. The Koran does require the education of women, and gives women certain rights if divorced by their husbands. According to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, in the United States, Muslims are more likely than white Evangelicals and Protestants to have favorable views of feminists. The Institute has found that “American Muslim women denounce gender discrimination inside and outside of their community.”

Evangelicals and the Status of Women

Evangelicals, like the rest of America’s religious landscape, are diverse; however, the more fundamentalist White Evangelical Christian denominations are currently united in their opposition to women’s reproductive autonomy. That contemporary reality has tended to obscure the history of American Evangelicalism, which was far from monolithic in its approach to gender, and considerably less political than today. In some Evangelical denominations, women were allowed to be ordained and otherwise vested with spiritual authority; in many others, women were—and still are—forbidden from holding leadership roles.

A major tenet of Evangelical Christianity is the doctrine of complementarianism—the belief that while men and women are equal in creation, they are distinct in function. “Biblical womanhood” reflects this belief in “separate spheres.” Men are to be the leaders of the church and the home, and women are meant to support and submit to them. This doctrine has a long history in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), one of the largest and most influential of the Evangelical churches. As one religious historian wrote,

Southern Baptist leader John Broadus answered the question “should women speak in mixed public assemblies?” with a definitive “no” in 1889. The year before, when Southern Baptist women formed the Woman’s Missionary Union, they assured male leaders that they only desired to be supportive, not independent as women in some other denominations were.

As the writer noted, that thinking—advanced by the world’s largest organization for Protestant women– “shaped the views of generations of Southern Baptist women and in turn, those of their Evangelical neighbors and friends.” This approach to the roles of men and women persisted; in 1974, the wife of one influential Southern Baptist pastor wrote to a widely-approving audience that the man should lead and the woman should be submissive.

As the broader American culture changed, some Southern Baptist women pushed the denomination to rethink that submission. The SBC held a consultation on women’s roles in 1978, and a later organization, Baptist Women in Ministry, argued for an expanded role for women within the denomination. Within the broader Evangelical movement, there were also challenges to complementarianism and the traditional understanding of women’s roles. In 1988, Christians for Biblical Equality sought to empower women in Evangelical churches. About the same time, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was formed to revisit the accepted definition of biblically-appropriate gender roles.

These efforts largely failed. In 2000, despite the emergence of Evangelical women arguing for more equal status within the faith, the SBC reaffirmed its adherence to complementarianism, publishing a proclamation that wives should submit to their husbands and pastors should be male.

Evangelical theology doesn’t simply elevate men over women; it considers homosexuality and gender-fluid identities to be sinful and unnatural, and rejects efforts to secure equal legal rights for LGBTQ Americans. As Evangelicals have become more and more political, and as the Republican Party has become more and more dependent upon the Evangelical vote, those beliefs have powered what has come to be called the Culture War, and the transformation of Evangelical theology into a political movement. As a result, any effort to examine Evangelical theology today must contend with the fact that, in today’s America, Evangelical is no longer a religious descriptor. It has become a political label.

Numerous studies have confirmed that a significant percentage of contemporary Americans who claim an Evangelical identity rarely attend religious services. In 2008, 16% of all self-identified Evangelicals reported “never or seldom’ when asked about their church attendance. By 2020, that number was 27%. In 2008, a third of self-identified Evangelicals who never attended church claimed to be politically conservative. By 2019, that number approached 50 percent. In addition, growing numbers of Catholics and Muslims now call themselves Evangelical. Apparently, many Americans think that being very religiously engaged and very politically conservative makes one an Evangelical.

Even more troubling, a growing body of research confirms that American Evangelicalism hasn’t simply become a political rather than religious identity; to a very significant extent, the American Evangelicals who dominate today’s Republican Party are more properly identified as White Christian Nationalists, and they are focused not upon faith but upon the defense of White male Christian privilege.

When it comes to women’s rights and the current effort to ban abortions, it is manifestly dishonest to argue that opposition to reproductive choice is grounded in Christian theology. Pastors to whom we have spoken—both those who describe themselves as “pro-life” and those who are “pro-choice”—agree that the bible is silent on the issue. Religious historians have documented that the roots of the anti-abortion movement lie elsewhere.  It wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after the Court decided Roe v, Wade—that Evangelical leaders, goaded by Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion as “a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term.” As noted religion scholar Randall Balmer has written, these political figures felt that objecting to abortion would be seen as “more palatable” than what was actually motivating them, which was protection of the segregated schools they had established following the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

According to Balmer,

Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.

It was rightwing anger about civil rights laws that originally motivated the “Right to life” movement. Political actors were savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots Evangelicals to defend racial discrimination wouldn’t cut it—that they would need a different issue if they wanted to mobilize Evangelical voters on a large scale. Distasteful as that reality is, evidence clearly shows that the Christian Right’s political activism, including but not limited to its opposition to abortion, was largely motivated by a defense of racial segregation, not by religious doctrine.

A lengthy 2022 article from the Guardian reported on the extensive relationships between White supremacist and anti-choice organizations.

Explicit white nationalism, and an emphasis on conscripting white women into reproduction, is not a fringe element of the anti-choice movement. Associations between white supremacist groups and anti-abortion forces are robust and longstanding. In addition to Patriot Front, groups like the white nationalist Aryan Nations and the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker party have also lent support to the anti-abortion movement. These groups see stopping abortion as part of a broader project to ensure white hegemony in addition to women’s subordination. Tim Bishop, of the Aryan Nations, noted that “Lots of our people join [anti-choice organizations] … It’s part of our Holy War for the pure Aryan race.” That the growing white nationalist movement would be focused on attacking women’s rights is maybe to be expected: research has long established that recruitment to the alt-right happens largely among men with grievances against feminism, and that misogyny is usually the first form of rightwing radicalization.

In his decision in Boggs v. Jackson, Justice Alito claimed that reversal of Roe “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 is deeply dishonest and easily disproven. As historians have exhaustively documented, early American common law (as in Britain) generally permitted abortions until “quickening”, or perceptible fetal 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 wasn’t until the 1880s that every US state had some laws restricting abortion, and not until the 1910s that it was criminalized 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.

As the Guardian reported, anti-abortion fervor has not been motivated by the moral or religious beliefs generally cited by anti-choice activists. In fact, the first wave of anti-abortion laws was 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 color, 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 civilization. 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.

A post on the website of FiveThirtyEight.com put it succinctly,” the anti-abortion movement, at its core, has always been about upholding white supremacy.” Women’s rights were collateral damage.

Of course, religious beliefs– whether seen or unseen, “up front” or latent, rooted in religious belief or racism– are not the only powerful influences shaping American worldviews. American culture also reflects popular understandings of the country’s constituent documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—documents that are widely venerated (although apparently much less widely read and/or understood). Religion scholars credit the First Amendment’s religion clauses, which mandate the separation of church and state, for America’s religiosity—a religiosity that flourished here at the same time that Europe was becoming far more secular. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government from privileging the beliefs and practices of certain religions, while the Free Exercise Clause protects individual beliefs. As a result of the operation of those two clauses (for which the phrase “separation of church and state” is shorthand) the United States has nurtured a wide diversity of religions, including numerous denominations within the country’s dominant Christianity. As the foregoing description illustrates, there is no uniformity among them on the status of women, or the extent of female agency, or on the permissibility of birth control or abortion.  What we do know about religion’s influence on the status of women (globally as well as within the United States) is simple: the lower the level of religious affiliation and fervor, the higher the level of gender equality.

Tomorrow: The Legal Context

The Essence Of The Argument

Okay–back to basics.

Morton Marcus and I are currently working on a book examining the causes and effects of women’s legal and social equality.

We understand that the movement toward equality is still a work in progress. We are also well aware that women’s progress has engendered considerable resistance–and that, in a very real way, that progress will be on the ballot November 8th.

As we approach a midterm election that will be crucial for women–not to mention American democracy– it seems appropriate to share some of that book’s relevant analysis.  What follows is long, despite the fact that I am breaking those arguments into three posts, and you may wish to skip or skim it, but it represents my understanding of the barriers  to women’s equality erected and defended by paternalism, religion and culture.

On November 8th, we will be voting on whether to keep or dismantle those barriers.

I have omitted the footnotes; if you want citations, ask me.


Let’s begin with the obvious: there are genuine biological differences between men and women, and those differences profoundly and understandably shaped human cultures for thousands of years. Over time, science and technology have operated to minimize the social impact of those differences, although the differences themselves remain. In addition to changes in the job market that have made physical strength less important and inventions that significantly reduced the time spent on housework, women can now plan, defer or abstain from procreation without the necessity of celibacy, a reality that allows females to pursue educational and career choices that used to be available exclusively to males. Those choices have facilitated their ability to participate more fully in civic and political life.

Despite those advances, the drive for gender equity in the workplace and polity continues to be hindered by the persistence of attitudes and traditions more appropriate to bygone generations, and especially by religious beliefs that powerfully influence the country’s politics and culture. As the second section of this chapter will explain, a number of religious denominations work assiduously to impose their doctrinal beliefs about women (and what they believe to be the proper, subordinate place of females in society) through legislation applicable to everyone. Those theological positions support and strengthen a cultural patriarchy rooted in history, politics and privilege. As we will see, religious arguments are used to justify the still- significant resistance to women’s personal autonomy—and to motivate the increasingly frantic efforts of the political Right to reverse women’s social, legal and economic progress.

                                                                    Biology and Destiny
For generations, there have been two major biological impediments to women’s equal participation in society and especially in the workforce: women’s relative lack of physical strength vis a vis their male counterparts, and the fact that women get pregnant. Those two realities have exerted a major effect on cultural attitudes about men and women. For a very long time, most jobs required manual labor—and often, brute strength—and most (although not all) females were physically unable to undertake such tasks. Over the years, as technology has improved, the job market has also changed and fewer jobs today require physical strength. An increasing number instead require education, intellect and/or particular skills, qualifications that are more evenly distributed between the genders and even, in some cases, are more likely to be possessed by women.

In 2020, Janet Yellen authored a report for the Brookings Institution that focused on the prior century’s history of women’s employment. As she noted, early in the 20th century, most women in the United States didn’t work outside the home, and the few who did were primarily young and unmarried. A mere 20 percent of all women were “gainful workers,” and only 5 percent of those were married. (Yellen did point out that those statistics understated the economic contributions of married women who worked from home in family businesses and/or in the home production of goods for sale. The statistics also obscured racial difference—African-American women were about twice as likely to participate in the labor force as White women at the time, and were more likely to remain in the labor force after marriage.) When women did work outside the home, it was often taken as evidence that the husband was unwilling or unable to support the household. As a result, men tended to view a wife’s paid employment as a shameful statement on the husband’s role as a breadwinner. As Yellen wrote,

The fact that many women left work upon marriage reflected cultural norms, the nature of the work available to them, and legal strictures. The occupational choices of those young women who did work were severely circumscribed. Most women lacked significant education—and women with little education mostly toiled as piece workers in factories or as domestic workers, jobs that were dirty and often unsafe. Educated women were scarce. Fewer than 2 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in an institution of higher education, and just one-third of those were women. Such women did not have to perform manual labor, but their choices were likewise constrained.

As a result, as Yellen notes and many of us vividly remember, there was widespread sentiment against women, especially married women, working outside the home. Even in the face of severely limited opportunities, however, increasing numbers of women did continue to enter the labor force during this period. As a result, some 50 percent of single women worked by 1930, as did nearly 12 percent of married women. Mores and social attitudes were slowly changing, partly as a result of what is often referred to as the “first wave” of the women’s movement, which focused on suffrage and (to a lesser extent) temperance, and which culminated in the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote.

Between the 1930s and mid-1970s, women’s participation in the economy—especially the participation of married women–continued to rise, spurred by several social changes. The growth of mass high school education was accompanied by a similar rise in graduation rates. New technologies led to an increased demand for clerical workers, and clerical jobs were seen as appropriate for women, because they tended to be cleaner and safer. And while there were still bizarre rules that kept many women out of the labor force—for example, female librarians in most cities could not be married, and female school teachers who became pregnant were dismissed once they “showed”—these restrictions were gradually removed following World War II, although it wasn’t until 1986 that United Airlines was ordered to pay $33 million in back pay and to reinstate 475 flight attendants who had been forced to quit in the mid-1960s because of a no-marriage rule.
By far the most consequential change, however—the development that eliminated the major impediment to women’s full participation in economic and civic life—was the introduction of reliable contraception, primarily although not exclusively the birth control pill.

Before the advent of reliable birth control, every sexual encounter carried the risk of pregnancy, and pregnancy generally meant the end of a woman’s economic independence. A pregnant woman was almost always unemployable; for that matter, a married woman in her childbearing years was similarly unemployable, since there was always the possibility of pregnancy and the resulting need to care for offspring, seen as a uniquely female responsibility. Most women were therefore economically dependent upon the men to whom they were married. (Refusing to marry was no panacea: unmarried women were routinely labeled “old maids,” and were objects of pity and/or derision.) If her marriage was unhappy, or worse, violent, a woman with children was literally enslaved; given the barriers she faced to participation in the workforce and her resulting inability to support herself and her offspring, she usually couldn’t leave. Absent charitable intervention or inherited wealth—or friends or relatives willing to house and feed her and her children—she was totally dependent on her husband’s earnings.

Access to reliable contraception –and in situations where that contraception failed, abortion—was thus absolutely essential to women’s independence. If women could plan when to procreate, they could also plan when not to procreate. They could choose to schedule or defer motherhood in order to pursue education and career opportunities. The availability of the birth control pill didn’t simply liberate millions of women, opening possibilities that had been foreclosed by reasons of biology, its availability and widespread use triggered enormous changes in social attitudes that in turn opened the door to legislation that advanced both females’ economic independence and women’s ability to more fully participate in the civic life of the nation.

A 2010 article in Forbes marking the fiftieth anniversary of the pill acknowledged its immense significance. The article began by noting the then-current workforce status of women:

For the first time in U.S. history, women have overtaken men in the workplace. More specifically, they’ve overtaken men in professional roles. As of 2009, women represented half of all U.S. workers and are the primary or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American households. That’s a far cry from 1967, when women made up only one-third of all U.S. workers.

Without the birth control pill, women would almost certainly not have made it into powerful senior positions. While the political and social will to bring a critical mass of women into the workplace was certainly there–the advent of the birth control pill coincided with the second wave of feminism and the fight for equal rights–the pill gave women a tangible tool to level the playing field with men. They no longer had to be mothers first and careerists second. The pill allowed for both their entrance–and ascendance–in the workplace.

To be sure, there’s no denying the pill triggered the sexual revolution for women as well. Because they no longer had to worry about getting pregnant, it freed them up to have sex outside of marriage. But it was the workplace where the pill made its most lasting impact.
Together with women’s new prominence in political and economic life, that sexual revolution, such as it was (the punditry continues to argue about its nature, extent and consequences) ran headlong into what is perhaps the most regressive element of American culture: fundamentalist religion.

Tomorrow: religion and women’s rights