While the majority of supporters of anti-abortion laws are white men, three women voted for Georgia’s abortion restrictions. Governor Kay Ivey signed Alabama’s ban. Women head grassroots anti-abortion groups.
Just as rape isn’t about sex (it’s about power), reproductive control also isn’t about sex (it’s about power). Abortion legislation exists to whip up fervor and consolidate power, and it’s only the beginning. The GOP is openly opposing birth control and rolling back rape and domestic violence protections. It’s a package deal, and the purpose is to maintain a serf class. The participation of women seeking power in the existing structures is inevitable, should be called out, but must not be allowed to distract us from the real power brokers. Trace the finances of most “grassroots” anti-abortion groups and you’ll find national organizations with broader goals.
Historically women had herbal knowledge that could end a pregnancy. It wasn’t as effective as modern medicine, but it was threatening enough that generations of women were literally burned at the stake to suppress it. That old Marx quote about controlling the means of production is on point; there are no resources more valuable than human labor. Women have been subject to animal husbandry for most of human history, sometimes with fancy dresses and parties to mark our sale; at other times, under chattel slavery, overtly and without ceremony.
Our purpose in Western culture has been to reproduce at the direction of those in power. We were sold or stolen into marriage for millennia, then whisked away until pregnancy prevented our escape or rescue. Perhaps you’ve heard of the honeymoon? In many cultures, we could be discarded at our husband’s whim, our children cast out or retained at his preference. We could be inherited by our husband’s nearest living male relative in some cultures. We had few legal rights before or after marriage, which was a contractual transfer of property from one man to another. In many places, the only alternative to being a man’s property was the convent, where we became property of the church.
Women who rejected both were the witches.
Coverture, the legal principle that subsumes a woman’s personhood in her husband’s identity, is dying a long and lingering death. When my mother-in-law divorced her abusive husband circa 1970, her father had to co-sign for her bank account, and credit was out of the question. In my great-aunt’s generation, divorce wasn’t an option at all. She died by suicide to escape an abusive marriage. Marital rape was still quasi-legal in at least 8 states in 2015. Women continue to report being denied sterilization by doctors without their husband’s permission, and conservative lawmakers are testing tolerance for the return of forced sterilization, often tied to concepts like welfare, drug use, or incarceration.
If you are legally defined as a woman in America, you are not fully vested with personhood.
A man asked me a “clever” question yesterday: If women tend to slightly outnumber men, how has this condition gone on for so long?
Men may be physically stronger than women but are not necessarily more dangerous, so why indeed? The answer eats its own tail like an Ouroboros: pregnancy incapacitates us, and incapacity keeps us pregnant. We have beautiful mythology around pregnancy and early maternity, but the truth is, it damages our vitality and health to the point where we never fully recover. There is credible evidence that human gestation developed not to the point where the baby’s head can (usually) fit through our hips, but to the metabolic limit of what women can sustain without catastrophic damage. Pregnancy takes everything from us. Then we don’t sleep for a couple of years. About the time they wean, we get pregnant again, by design.
Keep women randomly pregnant and our ability to organize, fight, and even educate ourselves is diminished. We produce an abundance of desperate workers and soldiers and breeders with equally little chance of escaping the cycle. Who can afford to go on strike with a pregnant wife and three mouths at home already?
Enter reliable birth control and safe abortion, and in just two generations young women have come to see reproductive autonomy as a fundamental right. Granted control of our reproduction, women are leading the charge for racial and economic equality, environmental recovery, and a host of other critical issues from the Senate to the board room and in the streets. In my lifetime we’ve had “The Decade of the Woman” and several times the “Year of the Woman,” but still no Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
In fact, coverture remains prevalent in our laws and precedents, and without the ERA there is nothing to prevent the U.S. Supreme Court from reversing course. This is the stated strategy of the far right: to pack the courts and overturn our hard won, if incomplete, humanity. This is not merely a fight over abortion. Birth control was once available only with your husband’s permission. They’d like to go further and ban the more effective forms entirely. Senator’s wives and daughters will, of course, fly to Europe for their reproductive care. Roe v. Wade was a ruling about the right to privacy for women. Overturning it will have far reaching consequences.
Support for abortion rights has never been higher. Birth control use is nearly universal — 98% of Catholic women use it. Someone said that it takes three generations for social change to become permanent: one to fight for change, one to normalize the change, and the third to experience it as natural. We are on the cusp of the third generation: our youngest women know birth control is routine health care. They don’t feel gratitude that it exists, but anger that it’s not better researched and funded. As they come to power, women’s reproductive autonomy becomes irrevocable. Pandora’s box opened in my mother’s generation, but our daughters are ripping off the hinges.
This is why conservative forces are moving so quickly. Their plan to stack the courts is not yet complete, but they can’t afford to wait any longer. (Long live RBG!) They’re losing, and soon they will have lost. Sexual oppression requires a cultural context of shame and stigma, and those lessons must be intergenerational to truly stick. They can’t afford to acknowledge sexual consent, because it shifts shame to coercive men. They can’t allow medically accurate sex ed, because knowledge neutralizes stigma. Nothing lifts a community out of poverty faster than empowering women’s reproductive control, and sexual shame is what keeps women from coalescing around that goal. Preventing that is the real goal. I only hope I’m right that they’ve shown their cards too soon. The response is up to us.
White Christians have been in power for a long time, and those in power seek to stay in power. Their outrage was never really about abortion; conservatives are already talking about reversing the protections against segregation and restoring anti-miscegenation laws. They explicitly exempt IVF clinics, which predominantly serve the wealthy. And let’s not forget the crickets when it comes to prenatal and infant health care subsidies. Anyone who thinks this is a moral fight over a sincere belief in the sanctity of life needs to wake the hell up. It’s not remotely about that.
The Jewish reverence for life is hard to overstate. We have thousands of years of legal precedent that places life above even biblical law, and millennia of eradication have resulted in seeing procreation as an act of resistance, and yet, we’re overwhelmingly pro-choice. The Torah refers to pregnancy as less than human life on several occasions. The penalty for a miscarriage through violence is not equivalent to murder, and before 40 days, the pregnancy is referred to being “as water.” The Torah is, of course, the same foundational book Christians call the “Old Testament.”
“Sanctity of life” is a rhetorical flourish engineered to whip up support, not a sincere belief held by those fighting to wrest power back into their hands. While white women focus on the right not to be pregnant, for other communities the right to safely deliver and raise children is equally threatened. Fictional Gilead is lived history for Black women (and explicitly inspired by Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic revolution), who were bred like livestock and used as lab animals in the horrific gynecological experiments of James Sims. Native American children were taken from their communities for generations, an act now defined as genocide. America’s maternal and infant mortality rates remain shameful, and when separated by race an even starker picture emerges. Forced sterilization has been used to control minority communities throughout American history. Anyone sincerely interested in saving the precious lives of unborn babies would start by helping all women safely carry wanted pregnancies to term.
As always, reproductive control is about power.
Inevitably, in a power differential there will be those who ally with their oppressor. The easiest way to control someone is to point to someone more oppressed, and then threaten demotion. White girls who insist on breeding with the “wrong” men are cast down to his community. In 1906, this was legally codified with the loss of citizenship for American women who married immigrants. Take any step outside of the power structure, and get demoted.
On the other hand, people who serve the power structure gain power. They become Governors of states like Alabama, as long as they toe the line. They become revered first ladies, any questionable history erased. They’re protected from rape, so long as the rapist isn’t a nice white boy whose future might be impacted by “a few minutes of action.” The price is absolute service to the power structure. Know your place or join the less fortunate.
Black women voted for Trump at only 4%, the lowest percentage of any group measured. There is no power block Black women can realistically ally with, and so they don’t fall into this trap in meaningful numbers. Black men have the option of identifying as “men” before “Black,” and 13% did when faced with Trump and Clinton.
White women voted for “pussy grabber” Trump at 53%, choosing affiliation with white men over coalition with other women. Sure, your husband might punch you in the face if you don’t undress fast enough, but the alternative is to be at the mercy of everyone. If our men are this bad, imagine what the men they’re warning us about must be like? Queue generations of women teaching shame and stigma to our own daughters, hoping they will avoid the very traps we are co-creating when we transmit these intergenerational messages.
Jewish voters broke for Trump at only 24%, lower even than non-religious voters, despite a prevailing narrative that we enjoy white privilege. Jewish people try to affiliate with power groups as much as any other group — see Stephen Miller et. al. — but there are always living Jews who remember being cast down the moment regressive policies re-emerge. We began reminding each other of this history the moment Trump was nominated. Our intergenerational memory tells us that affiliation with external power is temporary and unreliable.
This suggests a path forward: it is not merely the ability to affiliate that motivates complicity, it is the story we tell that matters. Women need to share the stories of our grandmothers’ abusive marriages, and our mother’s illegal abortions. If we talk about our history until the shame and stigma of being raped or having abortions evaporates, we help women place responsibility where it belongs: on the men who use and discard us at will. If you’ve been doing that, work for orgasm equality, or openly discuss your intentional celibacy; every time we take shame and stigma off the table, a conservative loses a vote. Make it safe for every woman, no matter her politics, to let go of her sexual shame if she can.
At the same time, hold women accountable for their hypocrisy. Don’t allow moral judgments rooted in sexual shame to pass unanswered. Call out the women who shame other women or who defend men’s behavior. Remind them that their power is illusory. Women can never be powerful by the consent of men; real power is unconditional.
We must also hold ourselves accountable. If you fight for abortion rights, but not for prenatal care for Black women, you’re holding up racism. If you aren’t aware of the jurisdictional loophole that lets white men rape Native women with impunity, take some time to listen to minority voices. If you exclude transgender health care from the conversation, you perpetuate the very gender roles that oppress us all. Strong women build strong diverse communities.
We need to confront messages of shame and division everywhere they occur. If you are a progressive feminist, insist that Black, Native American, and transgender voices are included. Your fear of forced pregnancy is not more urgent than a Black woman’s fear of maternal death or a Native American woman’s fear of unanswered rape. If you are a white woman, call out Governor Ivey. Don’t allow her to enjoy her borrowed power with impunity. Look around your community, find the apologists, and make their positions uncomfortable. Look inward, find your inconsistencies, and make yourself uncomfortable.
We are all tools of the power structure to whatever degree we have not examined our own participation. We are all accountable, but there is a tendency to prioritize castigation for women and minorities who participate in the power structure. That is itself part of the power dynamic, and we need to be equally aware of it. In Alabama, only 15% of the legislature is female. To focus on them while giving the countless men a pass is to play the game on their terms. Wars are won by defeating leaders, not foot soldiers. We need to balance our legitimate fury at those who betray their own communities with a refusal to be distracted by them. If we vote Governor Ivey out of office, but we do not address the most gender-unbalanced legislature in the nation, the power hoarders win. When we focus on Black and Jewish and female apologists of this administration, while ignoring the underlying white supremacy and misogyny that drives it, oppressors consolidate their power, while we divide ours.
It all looks bleak, but I think we’re actually winning. Every frank conversation about sex or open story about abortion carves away their foothold on our lives. As shame around reproduction and sexuality falls away, their power dissipates. If they don’t win soon, they won’t win at all. Now is the time to take back our power, share our stories, and demand our full humanity be acknowledged. Generations of our grandmothers fought hard campaigns in a struggle dating all the way back to the antique slanders of Lilith and Eve; we’re poised on the very cusp of victory.
Now is the time to win this war.