The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Where female activists have come since Dobbs — and what awaits

Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) shares a hug with women during the pro-choice Kansas for Constitutional Freedom primary election watch party in Overland Park, Kan., on Aug. 2. (Dave Kaup/AFP/Getty Images)

American women have been on an emotional roller coaster since the Dobbs Supreme Court decision ending the right to abortion came down on June 24. They knew the decision would eviscerate women’s rights and entail dire consequences. Still, as when a loved one dies, nothing truly could prepare them for the demise of 50 years of constitutional protection afforded by Roe and Casey. The full range of emotions (disbelief, anxiety, anger, dread) — reminiscent of their reaction to the 2016 election — reverberated in their texts, emails, Zoom sessions and other conversations.

As egregious as the opinion, the court’s refusal even to consider its consequences to American women sparked indignation. Women literally did not count in the constitutional calculation. Unlike gun owners or prayer-leading coaches, American women would have to take their chances with 50 legislatures and governors.

For weeks now, I have interviewed scores of women whose life’s work is reproductive care — doctors, ethicists, statisticians, clinic operators, researchers and advocates. Their stress and anxiety are palpable as they struggle to understand how doctors will square their medical oaths with government fiats. They agonize over women forced to travel out of state for care and for women who will lack care as doctors abandon red states. A common plea: “Why don’t these politicians come see what women and doctors are dealing with?” No, as with the Supreme Court, willful blindness lets them steer clear of the victims their barbaric bans create. Forced-birth apologists insist horror stories are “hoaxes” or too trivial in number to raise concern.

Arrogant pundits blithely declare that all will be fine because “democracy” will settle the issue. The same crowd that cheered when the court forbade states from working out gun regulation now is blasé about leaving women’s fates to politics, which thanks to vote-suppression crusades and gerrymandering, hardly constitutes pristine democracy. They evidence no understanding of the trauma and tragedy that await women in MAGA-dominated states.

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Lawmakers (such as the Indiana legislators who passed a near-total ban) who are willfully ignorant about pregnancy, miscarriages, rape and postpartum depression will congratulate themselves for forced-birth laws while women suffer.

Initially, women’s organizations and many progressives lashed out at Democrats. How could they fail to codify Roe? How could President Biden not fix this? They weren’t receptive to Biden and Vice President Harris’s admonition to roll up their sleeves and not give up. As they fumed and pouted that they were being asked to “vote harder,” Democratic infighting threatened to consume the party.

Beyond Twitter and the Beltway, however, American women and male allies got to work, registering voters, preparing ballot initiatives and keeping up a steady stream of protests. They forced Americans to grapple with inevitable horror stories.

In Michigan, organizers collected more than 700,000 signatures — hundreds of thousands more than necessary to qualify a pro-choice measure for the November ballot. And then came Kansas. There, The Post reported, organizers “mobilized Republican and nonaffiliated voters through partnerships with groups like Mainstream Coalition, a nonpartisan advocacy group.” Activists made broad-based appeals to protect freedom and stave off intrusive government (“Kansans don’t want another government mandate”).

On the night of the Kansas primary, the “no” vote jumped to a commanding lead. “Don’t get excited. This is the early vote,” the commentators warned. As votes came in, I could barely bring myself to “refresh” the screen, fearing the worst. But not this time. Finally, a blow to the forced-birth movement. Finally, evidence that Americans respect women more than they do six radical justices.

Women have been underestimated before. Women dominated the resistance to Donald Trump by making alliances, recruiting new candidates and reengaging in politics. Democracy must be defended from the bottom up. No political leader on high can ensure human dignity and autonomy for all Americans. Every expansion (and recovery) of rights is achieved through mass movements devoted to perfecting our union.

Certainly, a radicalized movement animated by toxic masculinity and White grievance confronts female advocates. It has always been so, as I was reminded reading “Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club That Sparked Modern Feminism” by Joanna Scutts. Roughly 110 years ago in Greenwich Village, N.Y., an extraordinary association of women — journalists, artists, activists, authors, academics, social scientists and reformers — forged a loose association, the Heterodoxy. The group’s members launched fights for suffrage, access to birth control, equal pay and safe workplaces. They wrestled with the definition of “feminism” and devised child-care arrangements for working mothers. They ended the city’s ban on married teachers — and secured maternity leave. Bonds of friendship nurtured in their weekly meetings buoyed them through defeats, public scorn and a crackdown on “subversives.”

One might be depressed that 110 years later women still fight the same battles. I choose to see things differently. Whether in 1912 or 2016 or 2022, women have never been handed respect, equal rights or autonomy. Women bound by friendship, shared ideals and aspirations for self-definition have always done the hard work democracy demands of citizens. Despite setbacks, the battle is not lost so long as women organize and bolster one another.