AAs it happened I was in Edinburgh the day Roe v Wade was cancelled, and the next day I caught a train to London and did what I usually do when I get near the King’s Cross station. I took a short walk to the old St Pancras Cemetery to visit the headstone of the great feminist ancestor Mary Wollstonecraft, author of that first major feminist manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. To be there that day was to remember that feminism didn’t start recently — Wollstonecraft died in 1797 — and it didn’t stop on June 24.
In the United States, women won this right less than half a century ago – a short time when the view is from the Wollstonecraft Memorial. I’ve heard opinions regularly over the past few decades that feminism has failed or achieved nothing or is over, which seems to ignore how completely different the world (or most of it) is now for women. of what it was half a century ago and more. I say world because it’s important to remember that feminism is a global movement and Roe v Wade and its overthrow were just national decisions.
Ireland in 2018, Argentina in 2020, Mexico in 2021, and Colombia in 2022 all legalized abortion. So much has changed over the last half century for women in so many countries that it would be difficult to list them all; suffice it to say that the status of women has been radically altered for the better, on the whole, in this period of time. Feminism is a human rights movement that strives to change things that are not only centuries old, but in many cases millennia, and which is far from done and facing setbacks and a resistance that is neither shocking nor reason to stop.
Wollstonecraft didn’t even dream of votes for women – most men in Britain of his day weren’t allowed to vote either – or many other rights we now take for granted, but he You don’t have to go back to the 18th century to come up against radical gender inequality. It was everywhere, on a large and small scale, over the past few decades – and persists culturally in the widespread attempts to control and contain women and the prejudices that women still face about their intellectual competence, sexuality and of their equality.
Half a century ago, it was legal in the United States to fire women for being pregnant – it happened to Elizabeth Warren, then a young schoolteacher. The right to access birth control – for married couples – was only guaranteed by the 1965 Griswold decision which this rogue Supreme Court could also target. The right to equal access to birth control for single persons was not settled by the Supreme Court until 1972. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act 1974 made discrimination by which single women found it difficult to obtain credit and loans while married women regularly demanded that their husbands co-sign for them.
Marriage in most parts of the world, including North America and Europe, was, until very recently, a relationship in which the husband controlled by law and custom his wife’s body and almost everything she did, said and owned. Marital rape was hardly a concept until feminism made it one in the 1970s, and the UK and US didn’t make it illegal until the early 1990s. 17th century Englishman Matthew Hale argued that “a wife’s husband cannot himself be guilty of actual rape on his wife, on account of the marital consent she has given and she cannot retract”. That is to say, a woman who consented once could never say no again, because she had consented to be possessed. Incidentally, the current Supreme Court decision revoking reproductive rights repeatedly cites Hale, who is also well known for condemning two elderly widows to death for witchcraft in 1662.
Wollstonecraft, who had taken part in the French Revolution, wrote: “The divine right of spouses, like the divine right of kings, can, one hopes, in this enlightened age, be disputed without danger. Contested, but hardly defeated for nearly two centuries. As coercive control and domestic violence, men still impose their expectation of dominance and punish independence, while right-wing Republicans seek to lower women to a lower status before the law and in culture, citing this ancient text of the Bible as their authority.
Their Supreme Court could then tackle marriage equality. I have long thought that matrimonial equality, that is to say equal access for same-sex couples, would be impossible if marriage as an institution had not been remade, thanks to feminism, by a relationship freely negotiated between equals. Equality between partners threatens the inherent inequality of traditional patriarchal marriage, which is why – along with homophobia of course – they are so hostile to it. And, of course, this is also new; a very different supreme court recognized this right in June 2015, only seven years ago (and Switzerland and Chile only did so in 2021).
The past decade has been a roller coaster of wins and losses, and there’s no easy way to add them up. The gains have been profound, but many of them have been subtle. Since around 2012, a new era of feminism has opened up conversations – on social media, in mainstream media, in politics and in private – about violence against women and the many forms of inequality and oppression, legal and cultural, obvious and subtle. Recognition of the impact of violence against women has broadened profoundly and has yielded concrete results. The Me Too movement was widely derided as a celebrity circus, but it was just one manifestation of a feminist push started five years earlier, and it helped lead to changes in federal and state laws. laws governing sexual harassment and abuse, including a bill which passed the Senate in February and the president signed into law in early March.
The sentences this week of R Kelly to 30 years in prison and Ghislaine Maxwell to 20 years are the consequence of a change in who would be listened to and believed, that is, who would be valued and whose rights would be defended. People included in conversations in court who had not been heard there before. Perpetrators who had gotten away with crimes for decades – Larry Nassar, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein among them – lost their impunity and belated consequences befell them. But the fate of a handful of top men isn’t what matters most, and punishment isn’t how we remake the world.
The conversations are about violence and inequality, about the intersectionalities of race and gender, about reshaping gender beyond the simplest binaries, about what freedom might look like, what desire might be. , which would mean equality. Just having these conversations is liberating. Seeing younger women go beyond what my generation perceived and claimed is exhilarating. These conversations are changing us in ways the law cannot, making us understand ourselves and each other in new ways, reimagining race, gender, sexuality and possibility.
You can take away a right by legal means, but you cannot take away the belief in that right so easily. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson decisions in the 19th century failed to convince black people that they did not deserve to live as free and equal citizens; it simply prevented them from actually doing so. In many US states, women have lost their access to abortion, but not their belief in their right. The outcry over the court’s decision is a reminder of how unpopular it is and how horribly it will affect women’s ability to be free and equal before the law.
It’s a huge loss. It doesn’t exactly take us back to the world before Roe v Wade, because in both imaginative and practical terms, American society is profoundly different. Women have much more equality before the law, in access to education, employment, institutions of power and political representation. We believe much more in these rights and have a stronger vision of what equality looks like. That the status of women has changed so drastically from what it was in, say, 1962, let alone 1797, is proof that feminism works. And the hideous Supreme Court decision confirms that there is still a lot of work to be done.