The USA Supreme Court decision to overrule Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion after almost 50 years in a 5-4 ruling, has divided the nation and is a dark day for women everywhere – not least for the swiftness and eagerness with which the ruling was taken up by those states which instigated “trigger” laws.
One woman, who had made an appointment for an abortion, was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “When I went to bed, I had my appointment and everything was set. And then today it’s like pre-1973.”
As NBC News noted, “Never before has the court granted, and then taken away, a widely recognised constitutional right.”
The issue of abortion has never been about preserving lives. It has always been about preserving power over women and their lives. History has shown this to be a preoccupation of men throughout the ages.
In her 1992 ground-breaking book The War Against Women, Marilyn French said that “the drive to control female reproduction is a silent agenda in every level of male activity”.
As French noted then: “The drive to criminalise abortion is unremitting. The criminalising campaign forces women to fight the battle over and over again, when they would prefer to spend their energies on other struggles for women’s rights.”
“No treatment of a man’s body, including castration and fatherhood burdens him equally for the rest of his life; he does not bear children for whom he will be responsible for decades. Men can therefore compartmentalise their experience in a way that women cannot.”
Re-reading French’s book three decades later in the current political climate is a sobering reminder of how the war against women is never over, as each new generation of women faces a backlash for the gains of the previous generation.
In that same year, (1992), as the editor and reporter for the Accent pages of The Age newspaper, I interviewed Susan Faludi about her new book, Backlash – The Undeclared War Against Women (1992 Chatto and Windus).
Faludi described that particular backlash as “an insidious and invasive campaign against equal rights for women, and particularly against the gains women in Western countries have made since the 70s”.
Back then, Faludi wrote that women were told the fight for equal rights was both over and unnecessary, and that the price for women had been loneliness, burnout and infertility.
Backlash proponents drew together these contradictory messages to conclude that women had been enslaved by their own liberation. But, as Faludi, said, it was their continuing lack of equality that enslaved them.
The solution, she said, was for women to mobilise.
“The trick now is to translate that anger into political action by capitalising on demographic strength – which is quite phenomenal. Women in most countries are more than 50 per cent of the population. In areas where we have won our battles, it’s because we have banded together,” she said.
But women are not a homogeneous group, and as the Supreme Court decision has shown, they don’t always share the same views (although they always share the consequences of such decisions) so mobilisation is not as easy as it sounds.
As The New York Times reports, “Demonstrations continued to roil across the country” and Americans are “steeling themselves for a fight – whether for further restrictions OR to elect politicians in the mid-term elections who favour abortion rights.”
Still, as Susan Faludi would be pleased to note pro-choice women in America are banding together, and with the support of the Western States, which have vowed to “fight like hell to protect our rights and values”.
In a rallying tweet Cori Bush, a Missouri Congresswoman who spoke out about her own abortion as a teenager, declared:. “Abortion care IS health care. It was so before this. And it will remain so after this. We don’t care what a far right, extremist supreme court that is in a crisis of legitimacy says. Your racist, sexist, classist ruling, won’t stop us from accessing the care we need.”
I hope she’s right.
Marilyn French’s last line in The War Against Women, now feels sadly familiar and circular: “After millennia of male war against them, women are fighting back on every front.”