Why Feminist ‘Empowerment’ Couldn’t Save Roe v. Wade

What is women’s empowerment in a world without Roe V. Wade?

More women have college degrees than their male counterparts, in certain cities young women earn more than young men and there are more Fortune 500 women than ever. But, Roe fell.

More women are directing Hollywood’s highest-grossing movies, Ariana DeBose just became the first openly queer woman of color to win an Oscar, and there’s a woman playing Thor. Still, Roe fell.

Over 60% of American women, 42% of Republican women included, consider themselves feminists. Gallup recorded the highest percentage of American women in polling for three decades that they believe prefers to work away from home at more than 50%. But, Roe fell.

How could a cornerstone of American women’s rights crumble at a moment of otherwise expansive economic, cultural, and social empowerment?

Roe’s death exposes an inflection point in mainstream liberal feminism’s foundation that has predominated for the past decade. This version of feminism—is it the fourth wave?—has been preoccupied with individual achievements, feel-good symbolism, and cultural representation. This has meant that it is not paying enough attention to the complex mechanics of state legislative races and federal courts. Fourth wavers believed that women’s reproductive rights were generally secure and the only obstacles to their freedom were cultural or emotional. Each time a woman was nominated for an Oscar, released a successful album or received a promotion, it became a familiar refrain: representation is key!

It matters. It should be celebrated. However, the majority of mainstream feminists came to the conclusion that cultural representation had as much importance as votes and seats. Empowerment was no longer a way to an end but a goal in and of itself. Many feminists—particularly rich, white, well-educated ones—assumed that changing hearts and minds was the difficult part. Writing laws and winning seats in a democracy would naturally follow.

Continue reading: Supreme Court Rejects Roev. Wade.

But that’s not how our democracy works. Nearly 60% Americans don’t wish to see the government. RoeMore than 30 percent of Republicans had their opinions overturned. The number of Americans who identify as “pro-choice” reached a record high in the weeks after a leaked draft opinion showed the Supreme Court was poised to upend a half-century of constitutional precedent. And yet, the course of American history doesn’t always follow public opinion. Take the recent Republican presidents, who were defeated in the popular vote but appointed four Supreme Court justices that voted against. Roe.

RoeIt was largely due to better understanding of power and how it works in the country by anti-abortion activists, policymakers. They didn’t rely on inspiring movies or heartfelt Oscar speeches or Twitter hashtags to advance their cause. Instead, they have been able to elect conservative state legislators with remarkable success. Mitch McConnell used hard power in the Senate to stop President Barack Obama from naming a Supreme Court justice. President Donald Trump was then able to name another anti-abortion Justice. Chosen conservative judicial activists Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s HealthThis is the mechanism to get this right-wing court overturned Roe.

Continue reading: We are only just beginning the Fight Over Abortion.

All of this was not the fault of mainstream feministism, although many feminists raised alarms over the danger to abortion rights. For decades, state-level abortion access has been protected by local reproductive rights groups. Feminist organizations like Planned Parenthood or NARAL, as well as feminist organizations like the Center for Reproductive Rights, have litigated to defend abortion rights. Some national organizations, however, have been accused of focusing on state politics more than national races. EMILY’s List has been working to elect pro-choice women at all levels. In a post-Roe world Democratic Governors are now the last line of defense against abortion access in their respective states.

However, Roe’s fall shows that liberal feminists have been outsmarted. McConnell’s allies and they focused too much on empowerment instead of looking at the technicalities of political mechanics. They failed to see that only power can be achieved.

Outside the Supreme Court, Washington, D.C., June 24, 20,22, anti-abortion activists celebrated Roe V. Wade’s overturning decision.

Gemunu Amarasinghe—AP

As guilty as you.As anyone else.. One piece I wrote back in 2014 strikes me now as the epitome mid-aughts feminist blindness. Entitled “This May Have Been the Best Year for Women Since the Dawn of Time,” the essay starts with this cringey hyperbole: “Since the dinosaurs roamed, since the pyramids were built, since the locomotive was invented, there has never been a better year for women than 2014.” I listed reasons that seemed important at the time, but look superficial in retrospect: the success of Frozen, a handful of new women CEOs, Beyonce dancing in front of the word FEMINIST at MTV’s Video Music Awards.

This thinking is sometimes called Girlboss Feminism. It is sometimes referred to as White Feminism. It is the Empowerment Industry Complex, as I see it. It doesn’t matter what you call it, at the moment it seems like a distracting distraction.

While the Empowerment Industrial Complex was busy debating changing contours of feminist soft-power, anti-abortion Republicans had been building hard power state-by-state, seat-by-seat. Republicans had raised $30 million in 2010 for control of 21 legislative chambers. Many states would later pass strictest restrictions on abortion.

Continue reading: These States Will Ban Abortion If Roe V. Wade Is Returned

While online feminists interrogated celebrities about whether they called themselves “feminists” and what “empowered” them most, conservatives were amassing the raw power to pass trigger laws in 13 states. While progressive nonprofits threw galas celebrating female inspiration, and brands spent millions on body-positive ad campaigns, and celebrities partnered with NGOs to promote “women’s empowerment,” the state and local organizations fighting to protect reproductive rights groups—many of them led by women of color—got too little funding and attention.

As the left counted the Oscar nominees, and the Top-Grossing Movies that passed the Bechdel Test, the Republican operatives were building an impressive pipeline of conservative judges to fill future Supreme Court vacancies. 2014, the year I dubbed the best ever for women, was also the year in which Republicans won the Senate, putting McConnell in position to block Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the high court.

“The failure of folks to pick up the shovel and fight this on the state level is why we’re in the position that we’re in right now,” says Nsé Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan civic engagement organization devoted to building the power of voters of color in Georgia. “I see that as a failure of the large influencers and culture makers and popular feminists to really flank state level activists.”

Elizabeth White, a pro-abortion rights activist, leads chants in protest to Dobbs V Jackson Women’s Health Organization’s ruling at the Supreme Court of Washington on June 24, 2022.

Brandon Bell—Getty Images

It’s not thatCultural representation is not important. It’s just not enough—not even close. “Representation is important but not sufficient,” says Amanda Litman, co-executive director of Run for Something, which recruits and trains young progressives to run for state and local offices. Gender representation doesn’t always align neatly with feminist advancement. It is impossible to make changes to the Supreme Court composition, or preserve the right to abortion. Out of the record-breaking 147 Congress women, 41 are Republicans. Many Republicans support abortion. Women run all the national anti-abortion groups. For the first time in history, four women serve on the Supreme Court at the same time—and Justice Amy Coney Barrett was key to sealing the demise of Roe. Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election with more votes than Trump received from white women. This also was representative. It also matters.

Trump’s election exposed flaws within the Empowerment Industrial Complex’s math. Many believed that empowerment politics was a rallying cry for seeing and being, as though obstacles such as wealth inequality, structural racism and voter suppression could all be overcome with enough feminist inspiration.

Continue reading: The Anti-Abortion Pregnancy Centres Collect Troves Of Data that Could be Used Against Women

That’s it. Roe has fallen, it’s clear that women have bigger problems than representation. Post-Roe world, many women’s lives will be defined by new laws in their state restricting their bodily autonomy—not by someone’s empowering speech at the Grammys. When you are forced to deliver children you didn’t want to have and can’t afford to raise, you may not care whether you see yourself reflected in the latest superhero blockbuster.

“It was a boiling frog situation,” says Meaghan Winter, author of Politics are all local. “People didn’t realize how bad it was until it was too late.”

So, in spite of everything that women have accomplished over the past half-century, ROe fell. Now it’s up to the feminist movement to regroup and recalibrate. As long as the stories are inspiring, they can be a great tool for building political power. It is possible to save abortion rights, provided that feminists put their efforts into electing local and state allies. A post-abortion world,Roe America, that’s the kind of representation that matters most.

Julia Zorthian and Mariah Espada contributed reporting

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