At 88, Gloria Steinem has long been the country’s most visible feminist and advocate of women’s rights. But at 22, she was a frightened American in London who had an illegal abortion from a pregnancy that was so undesirable that she actually tried to throw herself down the stairs to end it.
Her reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling that Roe v. What Wade set aside is concise: “Of course,” she wrote in an email, “without the right of women and men to make decisions about our own bodies, there is no democracy.”
Steinem’s blunt remark cuts to the heart of the despair that some opponents feel about Friday’s historic turnaround in the 1973 case that legalized abortion. If a right so central to the overall struggle for women’s equality can be revoked, they ask, what does it mean for the progress women have made in public life in the intervening 50 years?
“One of the things I keep hearing about women is: ‘My daughter will have fewer rights than I do. And how can that be? ‘”Says Debbie Walsh, of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “If it goes, what else can go? It makes everything feel insecure.”
Reproductive freedom was not the only claim to second-wave feminism, as the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s is known, but it was certainly one of the most exciting issues, along with workplace equality.
The women who fought for those rights remember an astonishing decade of progress from about 1963 to 1973, including the right to equal pay, the right to use birth control, and Title IX in 1972 which prohibits discrimination in education. Roe v. Wade a year later granted a constitutional right to abortion.
Many of the women who identified themselves as feminists at the time had an illegal abortion or knew someone who did. Steinem admits to a “talk” meeting she attended in her 30s about abortion as the moment when she switched from journalism to activism – and finally felt she was capable of talking about her own secret abortion.
“Abortion is so linked to the women’s movement in this country,” says Carole Joffe, a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco Medical School who studies and teaches the history of abortion. “Together with improved birth control, legal abortion meant that women who were heterosexually active could still participate in public life. It has made possible the great change we have seen in the status of women over the past 50 years. ” Joffe says many women, like her, now feel that the right to contraception may be at stake – something she calls “unthinkable”.
One of them is Heather Booth. When she was 20 and a student in Chicago, a male friend asked if she could help his sister get an abortion. It was 1965, and through contacts in the civil rights movement, she found a way to connect the young woman, almost suicidal with the prospect of becoming pregnant, with a doctor who was willing to help. She thought it would be a one-off, but Booth eventually founded the Jane Collective, an underground group of women who provided safe abortions to those in need. In total, the group performed about 11,000 abortions over about seven years – a story told in the new documentary “The Janes”.
Booth, now 76, sees the Roe v. Wade revolution as a cold challenge to the victories of the women’s movement.
“I think we are at a crossroads,” she says. “On the one hand, there were 50 years of a change in the condition of women in this society,” she adds, recalling that when she grew up, women could only respond to job advertisements in the “women’s section” to list just one. . example.
“So there has been progress towards greater equality, but … if you ask where we stand, I think we’re at the point of a knife in a battle between democracy and freedom, and tyranny, a dismantling of long-fought freedoms. “
Of course, not every woman feels that abortion is a right worth preserving.
Linda Sloan, who has been volunteering with her husband for the anti-abortion organization A Moment of Hope in Columbia, South Carolina for the past five years, says she appreciates women’s rights.
“I strongly believe in and support women who are treated as equals to men… (in) jobs, salary, respect and many other areas,” she says. She says she tried to instill those values in her two daughters and two sons, and maintains that with her work at two women’s shelters, trying to empower women to make the right choices.
But when it comes to Roe v. Wade comes, she says: “I believe that the rights of the child in the womb are equally important. To quote Psalm 139, I believe that God “formed my inner parts” and “bound me together in my mother’s womb.”
Elizabeth Kilmartin, like Sloan, volunteers at A Moment of Hope and is deeply delighted with the court’s decision.
In her younger years, she considered herself a feminist and studied women’s history at university. Then, over the years, his abortion was deeply opposed, and no longer considered herself a feminist, because she believed the word was co-opted by the left. “No women’s rights have been violated in the decision to stop killing babies in the womb,” Kilmartin said. “We have all kinds of women in power. Women are no longer oppressed in the workplace. We have a female vice president … It’s just ridiculous to think we’re so oppressed. ”
Cheryl Lambert falls squarely in the opposing camp. The former Wall Street manager, now 65, immediately recalled the profits she made earlier in her banking career and became the first woman to be appointed an officer at the institution she worked for. She calls the court decision “a suction”.
“My thought was, in what era are we living?” says Lambert. “We are moving backwards. I’m just furious on behalf of our children and our grandchildren. ”
Lambert himself needed an abortion as a young mother when the fetus was found to carry a genetic disease. “I thought it would be easier, not harder, to have an abortion in this country,” she says.
Now she and many other women fear a return to dangerous, illegal abortions of the past – and an excessive impact on women without the means to travel to abortion-friendly states. Yet many are trying to see a positive side: that as gloomy as the moment may seem, change can come through new energy at the ballot box.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” said Carol Tracy, of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia.
Steinem also issued a note of determination.
“Women have always taken power over our own bodies, and we will continue to do so,” she wrote in her email. “An unfair court cannot stop abortion, but it guarantees civil disobedience and disrespect for the court.”
Associated Press reporter Maryclaire Dale contributed to this report.
For Associated Press’s full coverage of the Supreme Court ruling on abortion, go to https://apnews.com/hub/abortion.