Feminists Against Authoritarianism

Feminists Against Authoritarianism

Minority rule is a major obstacle to ensuring abortion rights.

Activists prepare to canvass for Proposal 3, which added the right to abortion and contraception to the state constitution, in Dearborn, Michigan, on November 6, 2022. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Last summer, soon after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Kansans turned out in record numbers to reject a ballot amendment that would have stripped the right to abortion from the state’s constitution. The overwhelming “no” vote—59 to 41 percent—was followed by similarly promising results in the midterm elections. In November, voters in Michigan, California, and Vermont affirmed the right to legal abortion, and Kentuckians and Montanans rejected anti-abortion amendments. Support for abortion rights helped Democrats win up and down the ballot. Across the country, Americans asserted what advocates have known for years: if voters could decide, abortion would be legal. 

These victories have been much celebrated—and for good reason. The amendments that enshrined legal abortion are helping women and pregnant people access lifesaving healthcare. They also demonstrate that Democrats can loudly endorse abortion rights and win. The unequivocal results from Kansas, Michigan, and Kentucky should theoretically offer cautionary tales for anti-abortion politicians: you’d think it would be difficult for an elected official to criminalize abortion and keep his seat.

But the way we lost Roe illustrates the limits of such wins. Back in 2011, Mississippi voters resoundingly—58 to 42 percent—rejected a statewide ballot amendment that would have defined personhood from the moment of conception. But the Republican legislature kept discussing bills designed to ban abortion and passing laws that made it more difficult for physicians to perform the procedure. In 2018, the state legislature passed a law banning abortion after fifteen weeks. Even though lower courts uniformly decided that the ban was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court took the case, and in June last year, the new conservative majority upheld the Mississippi law and overturned Roe. Three days later, the Mississippi attorney general certified the state’s trigger law, banning abortion in the state.

The implications are clear: minority rule is a major obstacle to ensuring abortion rights. 

As Lisa Corrigan, an expert on social movements and Professor of Communication and Director of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Arkansas, said last year, “There are no minority rights when the minority rules. Restrictions on voting rights and erosion of freedom of speech are essential to state rule. . . . The political minority is where the authoritarian impulses find expression.” In other words, when officials can act without public approval, they can further disenfranchise people who already have less power, including women and Black voters.

Many Republican state lawmakers across the country are embracing openly undemocratic rhetoric and policy, including endorsing voter suppression laws. And since the 1990s, Republican operatives have become more strategic about gerrymandering political maps. These strategies, which they accelerated in 2010 and 2020 (pivotal redistricting years), have given white, rural voters and their chosen lawmakers disproportionate power in Congress and state legislatures, incentivizing Republican leadership in states like Mississippi to favor fringe partisans when they set their agendas. In states such as Florida and Ohio, it is now functionally impossible for voters to swing control of the state legislature from Republicans, at least in the near future. Meanwhile, in November, Democrats lost control of the House—and any possibility of codifying Roe in Congress—by seven seats, after Florida drew maps that enabled Republicans to pick up four new congressional seats and the Supreme Court blocked orders from lower courts to force Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana to draw new majority-Black districts to satisfy the Voting Rights Act. 

At the same time, the Republican Party (with the assistance of the Federalist Society) has filled the federal judiciary and Supreme Court with unelected ideologues who hold lifetime appointments. Unless national Democratic leaders make dramatic changes to the Court and its authority, including expanding the number of justices, those judges are poised to spend decades setting national precedents by upholding laws enacted by semi-autocratic state governments. 

With these problems in mind, I want to highlight another ballot amendment as a cause for hope. In 2018, Michigan voters approved an initiative that reformed the redistricting process so that citizens—not political officials and their operatives—controlled the map-drawing process. Previously, Michigan was one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. Now, its districts much more closely match the political balance of voters in the state—which has made races for the state legislature more competitive and allowed Democrats to flip control of the Michigan legislature in November, securing a Democratic trifecta in the state for the first time in forty years. The makeup of the new government will, among other things, guarantee that abortion remains legal in the state.

As we work to expand abortion rights nationwide, we can look to the example of the organizers who made those ballot amendments possible. Expanding voting rights, and advocating for other pro-democracy reforms, is a necessary first step to ensuring reproductive rights.

During the Obama administration, as a freelance reporter covering abortion, I frequently saw state-level Republican lawmakers propose voting and abortion restrictions on the same day. The Supreme Court had just gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, and Republican states were racing to limit access to the ballot. Since then, anti-democratic policies and principles have only become more obvious and extreme. The most visible manifestation is Trump’s Big Lie and his allies’ efforts to take over election administration in states nationwide. But authoritarianism is also creeping  in across the nation via state policies that mostly fly under the radar. 

Some forms of repression are unambiguous. State bans on books, or on teaching the history of subjects like slavery, have made headlines across the country. Less discussed are the anti-protest laws enacted in most of the states that have banned abortion. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, since January 2017, twenty states have enacted thirty-nine bills that limit the public’s ability to dissent and, in some cases, to gather. In Iowa, for example, “rioting,” which according to statute means three or more people assembled in what the state deems “a violent manner,” was once a misdemeanor but is now a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $7,500. Simply obstructing a sidewalk during a “riot” can bring up to two years in jail and a fine of $6,250.

This summer, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds asked a state court to lift its injunction blocking the state’s ban on abortions after six weeks. Iowans who protest these laws may now be imprisoned. By punishing protesters, the state transforms them into criminals—and, in this instance, alienates feminist activists from a broader public that supports legal abortion. Decades of federal and state laws have siloed abortion providers from the rest of the medical system. But in the five states that have criminalized abortion—Idaho, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma—women and pregnant people considering or seeking abortion are now isolated not only from the medical system but from their own communities: they’re unable to speak freely about what they’re experiencing. At the same time, we cannot simply protest ourselves out of this situation. The primary aim of protest is to hold the powerful to account and to draw attention to sway public opinion. But the public already supports legal abortion; it’s part of the reason why most of the lawmakers who’ve banned abortion have tried to insulate themselves from democratic pressure.

For years, the anti-abortion movement used a strategy of pushing incremental laws, such as requirements for dimensions of clinic hallways, that were deliberately crafted to seem arcane so that they wouldn’t draw public opposition. Likewise, specific limitations on the ability to vote, protest, speak, receive an education, and so forth, may appear to many Americans as barely consequential, and certainly not the most important issue they’re facing. It’s only when we view these bills as part of a larger movement that we see the direction they are taking the country. 

Abortion rights, trans rights, Medicaid expansion, universal childcare, and many other policies would help deliver a measure of reproductive justice in the United States. But if we focus solely on any of these issues, the only victories we’ll win will be regional. The only way we can restore and expand our rights nationwide in the long term is to wrest the levers of government back from an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party. Feminists need to see ourselves and our work primarily as in opposition to theocratic autocracy, or we’re not going to sustain effective forms of opposition.

After years of reporting on abortion, I knew that the reversal of Roe was going to cause myriad forms of physical and emotional suffering. And I knew, because I’d heard them say so explicitly, that well-connected evangelical leaders want to “expand the Kingdom of God” across the country, and in doing so create a nation where women are primarily wives and mothers in heterosexual marriages. And yet it wasn’t until the fall of Roe that I began to connect the dots between diminishing abortion access and rising authoritarianism.

“Misogyny and authoritarianism are not just common comorbidities but mutually reinforcing ills,” Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks wrote in Foreign Affairs last year. From Benito Mussolini to Jair Bolsonaro, authoritarian leaders have promoted misogynist rhetoric and policies that maintain strict gender roles, condone violence against women, and control women’s bodies. Hierarchical gender rules work in conjunction with “nationalist, top-down, male-dominated rule,” as Chenoweth and Marks wrote. “Although such efforts to reassert a gender hierarchy look different in different right-wing settings and cultures, they share a common tactic: to make the subjugation of women look desirable, even aspirational, not only for men but also for conservative women.” 

Seeing anti-feminist rhetoric and state legislation through the lens of rising authoritarianism is useful for a few reasons. First, it allows us to see any individual anti-abortion bill as part of a broader effort to isolate some Americans as “others” and promote a nationalist ideology wherein only people who obey patriarchal sex rules deserve to be treated as full citizens free from state interference. (The same goes for anti-trans legislation.) When we understand that, we won’t need to engage with the fine print of individual bills, or argue on terms set by Republican politicians or conservative interest groups. And when we understand that these bills are intended to divide us from other people and diminish our collective voice, we can have better conversations with each other, our neighbors, and the public about what to do about them. 

Another benefit of this perspective is that it connects us with so many people. Freedom is a core American value; it’s part of the reason that many voters across political ideologies support legal abortion. And when we see that the underlying problem is state officials pushing authoritarianism, we don’t have to create a hierarchy of grievance or compete with other people the state is oppressing. The laws and rhetoric designed to ban abortion, suppress Black people’s vote, restrict trans people’s right to exist, imprison and demonize immigrants—they’re all part of the same power grab. 

We’ll also better identify the task at hand, which is much more expansive than messaging and organizing differently about abortion. Yes, that’s important. But activists and advocates who have been working on the ground, particularly on the state level, know that we cannot achieve long-lasting gains on any single issue without making sure our democracy works the way it is supposed to work.

I understand why hearing stories about states denying people abortions—including after rape or for miscarriage care—fills many of us with despair and rage. We must channel our rage into years-long, nonstop activism to end gerrymandering and voter suppression everywhere in this country. Consider Michigan. The 2018 ballot amendment that led to fairer state legislative districts in Michigan—and thereby protected abortion access in the state—was the result of intense organizing. One group leading the effort, Voters Not Politicians, gathered 425,000 signatures to get the amendment on the ballot. That work required volunteers willing to show up week in and week out. This year, Voters Not Politicians led the campaign for a wide-ranging ballot initiative that would dramatically expand access to the ballot in Michigan. The initiative won with 60 percent of the vote. Michiganders can now hold their lawmakers to account, and the state is not at risk of falling into the hands of election deniers.  

Volunteering to gather signatures for a voting rights ballot initiative might not feel like a satisfying response to profound injustice. We must, however, keep in mind that we have arrived at this moment because for decades liberal donors have not adequately supported state-level campaigns and movements. The Democratic Party neglected (and still largely neglects) this work except immediately ahead of major federal elections. We cannot repeat those patterns. Instead, we should take inspiration from organizers who have made inroads at the local and state level nationwide. Forget the pundits who decide that whole states or regions are lost causes. Now that the Supreme Court has shown it will use red states’ laws to set national precedents, we cannot rely on a strategy that leaves anyone behind.

Meaghan Winter has reported on abortion for many outlets and is the author of All Politics is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States.

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