200 Steps Back

My mother was always going to marches and meetings when I was a kid. As one of the founders of the Essex County, NJ chapter of the National Organization for Women, she fought for a lot of aspects of women’s lives that it would seem unthinkable for us to be without today: credit cards in our own names instead of our husbands’ (made law in the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974); protections from getting fired for getting pregnant (the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978); being able to choose whether to have sex with our husbands (spousal rape was not criminalized in all 50 states until 1993); the ability to serve on juries (all states: 1975), to fight on the front lines in the military (rule restricting women from combat units rescinded by the Pentagon in 2013); access to birth control (the Supreme Court legalized birth control for unmarried people in 1972, and held that states could not place any restrictions on the advertisement, sale, and distribution of contraceptives to individuals of any age in 1978). And in 1973, the right established by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, for all women to have access to abortion during the first trimester, and with only limited restrictions during the second.

As a teen in the 1980s, when my mom would complain about how women were portrayed in TV shows like Charlie’s Angels (objectification) and The Brady Bunch (subservient homemaker), I remember thinking how annoying it was for her to go on about this stuff. For one thing, The Brady Bunch was all reruns, so Carol Brady was completely a relic of the past, duh! And in general, women had come so far since my mother’s adolescence; she and my father were teaching me that I could do anything I wanted. Did such minor points as the Brady boys being encouraged to be doctors and astronauts while the Brady girls were encouraged to be nurses and models, or the fact that Angel Jaclyn Smith’s boobs had a starring role in every episode, really matter, when all of the important stuff was already settled?

Guess what? It wasn’t.

In the era of third-wave feminism, in which I came of age, and now in the fourth wave, it’s often felt like, at best, we’ve been taking two steps forward and one step back. A lot of the time, it’s felt like we were treading water against a strong current, trying not to continuously drift slowly in the wrong direction. Clarence Thomas got appointed to the Supreme Court despite despite a history of sexual harassment in 1991, Brett Kavanaugh got appointed despite a history of sexual harassment and assault in 2018 — not to mention that we elected a Serial Harasser/Assaulter-in-Chief in 2016. Only in 2017 did the #metoo movement start to help make women feel like we could come forward with allegations of those acts, and we still have to watch Bill Cosby’s conviction be overturned, and Marilyn Manson and Louis CK get nominated for Grammys as we face repercussions at work and in our personal lives that make us wish we’d stayed silent. Health care plans are still not required to pay for birth control, which can make accessing it prohibitive for a lot of women, and we still haven’t gotten rid of the Hyde Amendment, which went into effect in 1980 and forbids federal funds from paying for abortion except in limited cases. Increasingly more conservative U.S. Supreme Courts chipped away at the protections for abortion, changing the standard to fetal viability, allowing states to mandate waiting periods, unnecessary regulations on abortion clinics, or other requirements that had no other real motivation other than to impede access. Women left the workforce in droves during the pandemic, because we overwhelmingly still make less than our partners, even at the same jobs (women doctors: 25% less; C-Suite execs: 24% less; women lawyers: 15% less…) and because childcare is still considered our responsibility — while we can’t pass paid family leave or subsidized childcare, or make the child tax credit permanent, because of two Democratic Senators, one of whom is a woman.

Now, thanks yet again to the Supreme Court, we are in the process of taking a massive number of steps back. It seems clear that the six-to-three conservative majority is planning to destroy the Constitutional precedent set by Roe v. Wade, despite the avowed conservative “respect” for such precedent and opposition to “judicial activism” — rules that apparently don’t apply when it comes to the rights of women. The only question seems to be how completely they will decimate it when the decision comes. They are already ruining lives in Texas by not staying a ban, that is blatantly in violation of Roe, that is even now preventing women from getting abortions after six weeks, so before most even know that they are pregnant, even if they are victims of rape or incest.

We might ask, How did this happen? But we all know: we let it happen. I could blame Democratic men, because they are the ones who said they cared about abortion but clearly not enough to make it a priority; not enough to codify protection for a woman’s right to choose in federal law, and not enough to vote against Supreme Court justices who we all knew would threaten Roe (tons of Democratic men voted “Yea” on Thomas and Roberts, and a handful did on Alito and Gorsuch, using their obviously-bullshit evasive answers on abortion as cover). But the truth is, we, women, got complacent. Just like in the 80s, when I thought my mother was overreacting to the television I watched, we believed clearly we were at a point where the United States of America valued us as humans as much as they valued men, or just desperately wanted that to be true so we could get on with living our lives as if they did. Just like I did in the 90s, when I pretended to like sports and was game to go to strip clubs and bars with groups of guys who didn’t listen to a word I said, women didn’t want to push too hard to be heard because we wanted men to like us, and not think we were shrill. Just like I did in the aughties, when I was sexually harassed by my landlord and had a boyfriend who thought it was cool to dress like a pimp, we thought we should just laugh off that stuff or ignore it, because other things mattered more. Just like I did in 2016, when I agreed that Hilary was a flawed candidate, we accepted the stories we were being told because we wanted to believe that we were still making progress and that waiting our turn was the way to get what we needed, rather than harping on the things that they kept promising that they were going to get to eventually but never did.  

As women tend to do, we have waited patiently, compromised too easily, and trusted other people to take care of us the way we’ve taken care of them, and we’ve done it for too damn long. We can’t fix the backsliding of the past, but now is the time to use the groundswell of support for abortion rights to jumpstart the move forward again. The way we make that happen is by doing all the things they tell us not to do: take decisive action; speak out, and do it loudly; don’t take “No” for an answer, and fight aggressively until we get to “Yes.” And finally, we need to rise to the task that women traditionally suck at most of all: putting ourselves first.

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