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OUR BODIES, HER CHOICE

Alabama governor Kay Ivey is just the latest white woman to advance American misogyny

Kay Ivey signs abortion law
Hal Yeager/Alabama Governor's Office
Alabama governor Kay Ivey signs a bill that virtually outlaws abortion in the state.
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Reporter

On May 15, Alabama’s Republican governor Kay Ivey signed into law the single most punitive abortion law in America, and one of the most restrictive in the Western world (pdf). It makes providing an abortion a felony punishable with up to 99 years in prison except to save the mother’s life, with no consideration for incest or rape.

This is a law aimed at doctors, but one that strips women of multiple rights: The right to control their body, their reproductive choices, and their own future, to start with. It was written, however, by a woman, state representative Terri Collins, and signed into law by another woman.

“This legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God,” Ivey said of the law, while acknowledging it is currently unenforceable because it is at odds with Roe v. Wade. The aim is to overturn the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision, Collins said.

Roe v. Wade hinges on the idea that American women, as citizens of the country, have a constitutional right to privacy, and to determine when to have a child:

This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent.

Despite Ivey’s statement, Alabama’s track record on protecting “every life” is abysmal. It’s the fourth worst state in the US for infant mortality, with 7.4 deaths every 1,000 live births (paywall). Overall life expectancy (pdf) is one of the lowest in the country.

Ivey and Collins are clearly not thinking about the lives of women that are lost worldwide—and were in America, until Roe v. Wade came into effect—to unsafe abortions. They currently account for about 15% of the maternal deaths around the world, amounting to over 45,000 women a year.

The patriarchy’s female army

“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” Madeleine Albright famously said. It might be disappointing to witness women stripping away other women’s rights, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Women—overwhelmingly the white ones—have time and again supported, and in fact fought for, the patriarchy in the US.

It starts way back: In the decades-long fight for women’s suffrage that ended with the 19th amendment in 1920, it was women who “funded, staffed, and led” anti-suffragist movements, writes Manuela Thurner (pdf), who studied these movements and their claim that women would be “better citizens without the ballot.”

Anti-suffragist women believed voting would compromise their traditional social role. As Josephine Dodge, president of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, said in 1916: “We believe that women according to their leisure, opportunities, and experience should take part increasingly in civic and municipal affairs as they always have done in charitable, philanthropic and educational activities and we believe that this can best be done without the ballot by women, as a non-partisan body of disinterested workers.”

Women who opposed the vote thought their realm was domestic, and were much more interested in preserving what they considered full independence and power over their home, instead of competing with men for power outside. But there was something else, too: Rich, white women didn’t want to share their privilege and be grouped in with women of all backgrounds. “To give women the suffrage would only increase the ignorant vote and bring refined women into contact with an element that should not be brought into their lives,” wrote the New York Times in 1894.

“White women benefit from patriarchy by trading on their whiteness to monopolize resources for mutual gain,” writes Alexis Grenell, co-founder of Pythia Public, a political strategy group, in the New York Times (paywall). “In return they’re placed on a pedestal…but all the while denied basic rights.”

They were fundamental to maintaining segregation before the US civil rights era, in grooming their children and family to racist ideology, and actively campaigning against equal rights. White women, historian Elizabeth McRae writes, were “segregation’s constant gardeners,” using baby strollers to block school buses integrating schools in their neighborhood, and encouraging their own children to harass former classmates who went to desegregated schools.

Even now, some white women have been very open about the fact that their support for conservative, patriarchal politics is tied to their desire to keep other races from gaining power. Donald Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway once pointed to having a large family as “how I think we fight these demographic wars moving forward.”

“Don’t draft me”

In several occasions the Republican party has white women to thank for supporting a shift toward increasingly conservative positions. In the 1970s, for instance, they mobilized against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would explicitly give all Americans constitutional rights irrespective of sex. Stop-ERA advocates baked pies in support of legislators debating the amendment, and put signs reading “don’t draft me” on baby girls as a way to reject the idea that equality would be good for women. They were so successful that, decades later, the amendment still hasn’t been passed.

AP Photo
Phyllis Schlafly, national chairman of Stop ERA, at a Congressional hearing in 1976.

The fight against abortion rights, too, has leaned heavily on white women. It was Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan who pushed to limit abortion rights, as the Republican party pushed to win over Catholics from the Democrats. But women like Joan Andrews-Bell, who was arrested multiple times for breaking into abortion clinics in the 1980s, and Ivey and Collins today have played key roles.

In 2016 a presidential candidate was accused of sexual misconduct by as many as 17 women, was taped bragging about assaulting women, and launched relentless sexist attacks on his opponent—and still, a majority of white women (53% ) voted for him. In 2017, when alleged child molester Roy Moore ran for senate in Alabama, two-thirds of white women voted for him—he didn’t win because black, church-going women came out for his opponent Doug Jones.

By weakening protection for sexual assault victims, the Trump administration is systematically eroding society’s trust in women; by cutting global aid for reproductive health, it’s threatening women’s futures worldwide. It has installed a judge with anti-abortion positions who was accused of attempted rape to the Supreme Court—a man who is likely to decide the fate of Roe v. Wade, and of women in America.

And, the white women who created this situation aren’t sorry: So far, nearly half the donations to Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign have come from women. Statitiscs show that a quarter of them, are likely to have had abortions in their life—and yet somehow, they seem hellbent on creating a world that does away with every woman’s right to do so.

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