Beyond the general outrage among progressives over Alabama’s passage Tuesday of the nation’s most restrictive abortion law, some activists and commentators have voiced additional anger over the fact that the state legislature is nearly 85 percent male, with a mere four women in the state Senate.
But given the domination of conservative Republicans in state politics, it’s unlikely that more women would have changed the outcome of the vote. The bill passed the Senate along party lines, 25 to 6. The House sponsor of the legislation, which bans abortion at the moment of conception, and provides no exceptions in the case of rape or incest, was a woman. The measure was quickly signed Wednesday by the state’s female governor, Kay Ivey (R).
Political journalists and pundits often frame abortion as an issue that galvanizes women under the idea that they have the right to control their bodies and their reproductive choices. That view leaves out women who are staunch opponents of abortion and see themselves as protectors of unborn life. Many such women are just as eager as conservative men about the chance to get the issue in front of the conservative leaning Supreme Court in the hope of overturning Roe v. Wade.
Regina Wagner, a political-science professor at the University of Alabama, said that “being conservative was the more important, more dominant aspect” for the Republican women in the state legislature, who all backed the bill, which only allows abortions when the woman faces a serious health risk.
Republican women don’t always mirror their male counterparts’ policy priorities, including on the issue of abortion, Wagner says. In previous research, she said, Republican lawmakers she’s interviewed for previous research have avoided the issue of abortion, focusing instead on child care or discrimination in the workplace. Others take offense that abortion is set aside as a “women’s issue.”
Kelly Dittmar, a political-science professor at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, said it is important “to remember in all of our political analysis and elsewhere that woman are not monolithic, whether in their beliefs or their behavior, and that’s especially true for women officeholders.”
The female lawmakers who have championed bills are often dismissed or derided as being used by GOP men to put a female face on antiabortion measures, characterizations that Dittmar cautions could be inaccurate and unfair. “They are equally compassionate about what they consider their pro-life position on this issue,” she said.
Dittmar is co-author of “A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Presence Matters,” published in 2018, based on interviews with female members of Congress. Despite their disparate positions on abortion, she said, both Democratic and Republican women were passionate in their insistence that “we understand this issue in a more direct way, how it directly affects women.”
Indeed, state Rep. Terri Collins (R), the sponsor of the measure, declared: “This bill is about challenging Roe v. Wade and protecting the lives of the unborn because an unborn baby is a person who deserves love and protection. I have prayed my way through this bill. This is the way we get where we want to get eventually.”
In Georgia, where a bill banning abortion after six weeks was signed into law earlier this month, women make up 30.5 percent of the state legislature. Democratic women are the vast majority of the female members — 55-17 — but the GOP controls both chambers of the legislature.
Georgia Republicans, however, lost about a dozen seats in last year’s election, which saw Democratic turnout increase dramatically thanks to the strong showing of the party’s gubernatorial nominee, Stacey Abrams, who came within 55,000 votes of winning that contest. Political observers predict that Republicans will lose several more seats in 2020, in part because of the strict abortion bill, which is expected to energize women and people of color in the Atlanta suburbs. Republicans currently hold just under 60 percent of the seats in the legislature.
In Alabama, women are 15.7 percent of the legislature. Democratic women also outnumber Republican women (15-7) — there are no Republican women in the state Senate — but the GOP holds a 75 percent majority in the legislature.
Wagner said that unlike Georgia, which is closer to tipping purple, Alabama probably will remain deep red for the foreseeable future. She says there are fewer opportunities for lawmakers who are more politically progressive to join the legislature.
The gender imbalance in Alabama is profound, said Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign. Her group, which advocates a government that looks like the communities it represents, estimates that although men are about half of the population in Alabama, they hold more than 80 percent of elected offices from the local to federal level. “In Alabama, it’s really striking, the overrepresentation of men,” she said “The power structure is so controlled by men that [women] are playing on their turf. That is not to say that women who supported this legislation don’t believe in it, but the whole system, from top to bottom, is so stacked in favor of the male life experience and perspective I think that’s the important backdrop here.”
Dittmar said the Alabama state legislature, as well as any legislative body, would benefit from having more women.
She said that there are some issues in which it will be important that “women’s voices from various perspectives are centered in the debate because it is going to affect them more than their male counterparts,” Dittmar said.
In South Carolina, she noted, a female Republican lawmaker who supports restrictions on abortion persuaded her colleagues to include an exception for rape in a bill now being debated by revealing that she had been sexually assaulted as a teenager.
“The fact that there were zero Republican women in the Alabama Senate, I think that’s problematic, even if those women would have voted with their male counterparts, it’s still important to have women’s voices in those debates.”