Could this be the end of American women’s leadership?

By Wendy McCarthy

July 8, 2022

abortion rights protestors
This issue is never over. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

In my adult lifetime, American women have been the heroines of contemporary feminism.

The women in my school staffroom gave me The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, to read, perhaps as a warning and reminder to grow and value my teaching career. And on no account to end up in the suburbs trying to build a career as a perfect wife who had no political opinions. It had a great impact on me as a young single teacher in 1963.

In 1965 I was married and teaching in London and Pittsburgh, away from Australia for three years. I was constantly observing the constructs of women’s lives and reading feminist literature.

The Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL), founded in 1972, was based on an article ‘How Women see the White House’ written by Gloria Steinem for the first edition of Ms Magazine and originally published as an insert in New York Magazine.

I was the Convenor of WEL NSW and we became an enthusiastic group whose primary purpose was to form a women’s lobby and interview all candidates for the 1972 federal election about their attitudes to issues being enunciated by the Women’s Liberation Movement.

The WEL intervention was described in the Age as the ‘political bombshell of the 1972 election as it changed the nature of public debate by and about women and must go down in history as the first in which the average woman is really interested and much of this interest is due to WEL’.

Although there is always more to be done, the voices of Australian women have grown in power and influence in the past 50 years. In 2019, when NSW removed abortion from the Crimes Act, abortion became a health matter after 119 years. As the leader of the Pro-Choice campaign, I can declare that the NSW result took a 50-year commitment.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote in The Australian ‘The dark clouds of disrespect, a lack of equity in our nation and an increasing fear for the safety of many women, in their own homes as well as our public spaces, lifted on May 21, when the Morrison government’s values offer was strongly rejected by Australian women and men’.

The gender voting patterns subsequently revealed that the women’s vote took out the Coalition government. As women said at the Australia-wide marches in 2021, Enough is Enough. It put to bed the hairy old chestnut that women will not vote for women. They did.

For days after, we spoke of feeling light and being reassured that decency had been reinstalled in the leadership of our nation, even optimism that the primary issues of concern to women would be addressed, including early learning and childcare, climate change, aged care, women’s safety and the implementation of the Jenkins Report.

I spoke to expatriate friends in the US and the UK who were celebrating the idea that Australia might matter again internationally.

That feeling was shattered for me and many of us who follow American politics when, on June 24, the US Supreme Court officially reversed Roe v Wade, declaring the constitutional right to abortion upheld for nearly half a century no longer exists.

This means that abortion rights will be rolled back in nearly half of the states immediately. For all practical purposes, abortion will not be available in large parts of the US. It is likely that more restrictions will follow.

When I heard this on the early news I found myself going into denial.

I turned off all media and read a novel. The consequences of this decision were simply too big to think about. Not sure where to start, I kept reading.

I have loved the US for a long while and taught American History and Problems of Democracy in a high school in Pittsburgh in the 1960’s. I think of it as the best and the worst in the world but always capable of redemption. I now wonder how it came to this and how damaged are the hearts and minds of American citizens are. This is not what they voted for. How it can be sustainable?

I sat in a room with Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 2016 (confession: girl crush) observing her work the room when asked to speak. She left the stage and walked the aisles. She enchanted the schoolgirls in the audience while advising them to study law because it would be so beneficial to their lives.

How hollow it sounds now. Access to full health care will depend on geography? Really? How did we, the Australian people move on a prime minister, and they, the American people, are left with despair, sadness and danger?

It could really not be possible.

Early the next morning, I read the statement from the dissenting judges, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the court decision means that:

“Young women today will come of age with fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers. And that from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of. A state can force her to bring a pregnancy to term even at the steepest personal and familial costs…With sorrow for this Court, but more, for the many millions of American women who have today lost a fundamental constitutional protection — we dissent.”

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court majority, said the 1973 Roe ruling “must be overruled” because they were “egregiously wrong” and amounted to “an abuse of judicial authority.” He said that the American constitution does not confer a right to abortion and that abortion is a matter to be decided by states and voters in the states. Justice Alito has been on the court since 2006; he was nominated by former president George W. Bush. Alito demonstrates the power of the long game. He has been unrelenting in his determination to overturn Roe and has finally succeeded.

It will be a long way back.

We need to understand and remember this in Australia.

This issue is never over.

Health is not the issue here; it is about control and religion.

Margaret Attwood wrote in her essay I Invented Gilead. The Supreme Court is making it real, “Women were nonpersons in U.S. law for a lot longer than they have been persons. If we start overthrowing settled law using Justice Samuel Alito’s justifications, why not repeal votes for women?”.

Women were nonpersons in US law for a lot longer than they have been persons. If we start overthrowing settled law using Justice Samuel Alito’s justifications, why not repeal votes for women?

Reproductive rights have been the focus of the recent fracas, but only one side of the coin has been visible: the right to abstain from giving birth.

The other side of that coin is the power of the state to prevent you from reproducing.

The US Supreme Court’s 1927 Buck v. Bell decision held that the state may sterilise people without their consent. Although the decision was nullified by subsequent cases, and state laws that permitted large-scale sterilisation have been repealed, Buck v. Bell is still on the books.

This kind of eugenicist thinking was once regarded as ‘progressive,’ and some 70,000 sterilisations — of both males and females but mostly of females — took place in the US. Thus a ‘deeply rooted’ tradition is that women’s reproductive organs do not belong to the women who possess them. They belong only to the state.

There are many political lessons for all of us in this shocking situation.

It was reassuring to have prime minister Albanese and health minister Mark Butler make strong statements about the security of reproductive health in Australia.

Yet, imprinted on my brain is Sky commentator Paul Murray crying in disbelief and I assume rage on election night that it had come to this, despite his reassurances to viewers that their reality would win. Had we gone the Morrison /Trumpian way who knows?

This is a long game and vigilance matters.

In better news, we have new and welcome allies, with employers such as BHP saying they will help US employees access abortions, following the lead of Australian tech companies Atlassian, Canva and Culture Amp.

Now that is leadership to be proud of.

For young women in the US, this is an unthinkable burden. I asked a second-year medical student in Australia how her friends in college reacted to the news. She said some sat on the couch crying. It was so emotional and primal. I yelled, “No it can’t be true!” We spoke for hours trying to make sense of it. It doesn’t make sense. How can men do this to us?  Do they hate us? What about their mothers and sisters and wives? Do they make decisions in an abstract world?

I answered that in the end, it is all personal/political and without power, women cannot shape their world. Fifty years ago the landmark Roe v Wade ruling protected a woman’s right to abortion under the US constitution.

Today, the US stands among a handful of countries that have, since the 1990s wound back abortion access. Despite all the signs and warnings, the shockwaves are being felt across the world. I predict it will have a huge impact on USAID programs.

Never assume in these matters that wins are forever.

And, is this the end of American women’s leadership?

Yes, and no.

The rise of Trump and the defeat of Hillary Clinton was a devastating blow to my peer group but there will be another wave of young women who are contemporary feminists and tech-savvy.

The young women I spoke to are receiving their information and inspiration through Tik Tok and other social media. Sadly, the energy of many will be subsumed by providing care to the millions of women at risk of death and injury from forced pregnancy.

It is the saddest of futures to contemplate.


Lightning bolts, abortion bans and the glorious history of women going on strike

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