Organized feminism has been on the decline in the US since the 1980s, with the radicalism of the second wave giving way to a more diffuse, less focused feminist movement consisting of NGOs, campus activists, online discourse and HR inclusion initiatives. In a way, this is normal. Students of the movement have long spoken of feast and fallow years for feminism, eruptions of activism that are followed by long and virulent backlashes.
But feminism has perhaps never received such a dramatic and immediate setback as it did this June. The supreme court’s decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization undid the major legal achievement of the second wave era, reversing Roe v Wade and ending the constitutional right to an abortion.
The result has been chaos, with so-called “trigger bans” blasting into enforcement in some states, long-dormant laws from before the era of women’s suffrage being revived in others and still other states left in limbo, as abortion flickers in and out of legality, depending on the proclivities of whichever judge is determining whichever injunction. Children and teens who are pregnant as a result of incest, rape or exploitation are now forced to travel across state lines for abortions, because they live in states where a fetus or embryo is valued more highly than their own health and potential. Women whose pregnancies are doomed are forced to wait, carrying fetuses they know will not live, or to slowly bleed out their miscarriages until either the fetus dies or they go septic.
There’s an incalculable amount of cruelty now being forced on pregnant women, and there’s also an insidious kind of debasement being imposed on all women, pregnant or not. Millions of American women and trans people are now living in states where their lives are not their own, where an unplanned pregnancy can derail their educations, careers or plans, where they must live under the indignity of the knowledge that the state can compel them to give birth. That injury is not the kind of acute horror story that we see coming out of states where bans are now in effect. But it is an injury that has been done to each and every woman in America.
This indignity is political. For the past five decades, during the Roe era, American women were endowed with a basic level of respect by the right to abortion. They could not be forced to carry a pregnancy to term; their bodies, at least on paper, were their own. This principle lent women a sense of worth and equality under the law, the sense that the freedoms and responsibilities of self-determination and self-respect – of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – so revered in the American tradition were theirs, too. The idea was that women were made, by Roe, into full citizens – not members of some lesser class needing monitoring or protection, but equal participants in the American project.
This idea was so powerful and potent to American women’s identity that it did not matter what the reality of Roe was. It did not matter that the decision itself was built on legal reasoning about a right to privacy, instead of a more secure, more honest reasoning about equality; it did not matter that the supreme court had never recognized American women as having their own individual right to reject pregnancy. Over the 49 years of its existence, Roe became more than just the 1973 court decision and its logic. It became a symbol, a shorthand for the baseline preconditions of women’s full citizenship.
Dobbs erased both the law and the symbol. Women no longer have a constitutional right to an abortion, and we no longer have the dignity that that right gave us. We are now, in many states, subject to laws that criminalize and surveil us, that assess our needs for medical care based on whether we are suffering enough to deserve it, that in many cases treat blobs of tissue, laughably far from anything human, as having rights and interests that trump our own. In one of the most intimate and life-defining aspects of our existence, we find ourselves not quite treated as adults, not allowed to make our own choices, not trusted to know our own interests and not valued in our own right. In pregnancy, women are now less citizens than they are subjects.
In his majority opinion ending the constitutional right to abortion, Samuel Alito asserts that he’s not hurting women on the basis of their sex at all, that he is merely handing the issue “back to the states”, as if any state law banning or restricting abortion did not inherently make women less equal. But Alito asserted that women who did not like the Dobbs decision could simply vote to reverse its effects in their own states, and hope that a majority of other voters agreed with them that they should be full citizens with self-determination. “Women are not without electoral or political power,” Alito said, perhaps somewhat regretfully. If they didn’t like the status of second-class citizenship to which his ruling had consigned them, why didn’t they simply vote themselves out of it? Maybe we will. During next month’s midterm elections, American women can vote en masse to restore reproductive freedom.
Of course, voting will not be sufficient to restore abortion rights and women’s full citizenship in America. For that, we will need a revival of an organized and radical feminist movement, committed to local engagement, long-term relationship – and institution-building and direct action. The seeds of that movement are already beginning to germinate in the local abortion funds, clandestine mutual-aid efforts and grassroots mobilizations that have helped fill the well of need in the wake of Dobbs. And of course, voting is not easy for everyone – it has been made less easy, and less meaningful, by the actions of the same supreme court.
But the midterm elections represent an immediate opportunity for American women to exercise that political power of which Alito spoke. The elections can preserve Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, which can stave off Republican ambitions to ban abortion nationwide; if the majorities are large enough, they may even be able to fulfill Joe Biden’s promise to reinstate Roe by statute. Voting for Democratic governors, attorneys general and state legislators can blunt or reverse the impact of state abortion bans and misogynist laws: a local election, for many women voters, means a choice between a district attorney who will prosecute patients and providers of abortions, and one who will not.
Alito’s whole opinion drips with contempt, but the line about American women – that we are “not without electoral and political power” – felt like a dare. American women do have power, perhaps more than Samuel Alito realizes. It’s time to call his bluff.