OOrganized feminism has been on the decline in the US since the 1980s, with second-wave radicalism giving way to a more diffuse, less focused feminist movement composed of NGOs, campus activists, online discourse, and HR inclusion initiatives. In a way, that’s normal. Students of the movement have long spoken of celebrations and fallow years for feminism, bursts of activism followed by long and vicious backlashes.
But feminism may never have suffered a setback as dramatic and immediate as this June. The Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization reversed the great legal achievement of the second wave era, reversing Roe versus Wade and ending constitutional abortion rights.
The result was chaos, with so-called “trigger bans” being enacted in some states, long-dormant laws from before women’s suffrage being revived in others, and still other states left in limbo as abortion rolled in and out emanates legality, depending on the inclinations of the judge ruling on the injunction. Children and adolescents 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 above their own health and potential. Women whose pregnancy is doomed are forced to wait, carry fetuses they know will not live, or slowly bleed their miscarriages until either the fetus dies or they become septic.
An incalculable level of cruelty is now being imposed on pregnant women, and there is also an insidious kind of humiliation imposed on all women, pregnant or not. Millions of American women and transgender people today live in states where their lives are not theirs, where an unplanned pregnancy can derail their education, career or aspirations, where they must live under the outrage of knowing the state is allowing them to do so force can give birth. This violation is not the kind of acute horror story we see coming from states where bans are now in place. But it’s an injury inflicted on every single woman in America.
This outrage is political. For the past five decades, during the Roe era, American women have been afforded a basic level of respect through abortion rights. They could not be forced to carry a pregnancy to term; Their bodies were, on paper at least, their own. This principle gave women a sense of worth and equality before the law, a sense that the freedoms and responsibilities of self-determination and self-respect—of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—belonged to them. The idea was that Roe would make women full citizens—not members of a lesser class who needed policing or protection, but equal participants in the American project.
This idea was so powerful and strong to the identity of American women that it didn’t matter what Roe’s reality was. It didn’t matter that the decision itself was based on legal privacy considerations rather than a safer, more honest argument about equality; it didn’t matter that the Supreme Court had never granted American women their own individual right to refuse pregnancy. In its 49 years of existence, Roe has become more than just the 1973 court ruling and its logic. It became a symbol, an acronym for the basic requirements for full citizenship for women.
Dobbs deleted both the law and the symbol. Women no longer have a constitutional right to abortion, and we no longer have the dignity that right gave us. We are now subject to laws in many states that criminalize and police us, that judge our need for medical care by whether we suffer enough to deserve it, that in many cases treat clumps of tissue ridiculously far from anything human, as having rights and interests that trump our own. In one of the most intimate and vital aspects of our existence, we are not treated fully as adults, we are not allowed to make our own decisions, we are not trusted to know our own interests, and we are not valued in our own right. During pregnancy, women are now less citizens than subjects.
In his majority opinion on ending the constitutional right to abortion, Samuel Alito claims that he is not harming women at all based on their gender, that he is merely handing the issue “back to the states” as if some state law prohibits or restricts abortion, women did not do it inherently less equal. But Alito contended that women who didn’t like Dobbs’ decision could simply vote to reverse its effects in their own states and hope a majority of other voters would agree with them that they are full citizens with self-determination should. “Women are not without electoral or political power,” Alito said, perhaps regretfully. If they didn’t like the status of second-class citizenship that his verdict gave them, why didn’t they just choose not to? Maybe we will. During next month’s midterm elections, American women will be able to vote en masse to restore reproductive freedom.
Of course, the vote will not be enough to restore abortion rights and full woman citizenship in America. For this we need the revitalization of an organized and radical feminist movement committed to local engagement, long-term relationships, institution building and direct action. The seeds of this movement are already beginning to sprout in the local abortion funds, clandestine mutual aid efforts and grassroots mobilizations that have helped fill the well of Dobbs’s need. And, of course, voting isn’t easy for everyone — it’s been made less easy and less meaningful by the actions of the same Supreme Court.
But the midterm elections present an immediate opportunity for American women to wield the political power Alito spoke of. The election may preserve Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, which may thwart 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 law. The election of Democratic governors, attorneys general and lawmakers can mitigate or reverse the effects of state abortion bans and anti-women laws: A local election means for many voters a choice between a district attorney who will prosecute abortion patients and providers and one who will not.
Alito’s entire opinion oozes contempt, but the phrase about American women — that we are “not without electoral and political power” — felt like a challenge. American women have power, perhaps more than Samuel Alito realizes. It’s time to reveal his bluff.