After Georgia and Alabama both approved near-total abortion bans within a week of each other, a chorus of people on social media said the solution was clear: Elect more women.
Some people pointed out that there aren’t many female lawmakers in the states that have passed restrictive abortion bans this year. The Alabama Senate, for example, has just four women. None of them voted for the ban. One of these senators abstained, one senator was out sick, and two senators voted against it.
— Satu Runa (@SatuRuna) May 15, 2019
Who'd have guessed that? ELECT 🚨 MORE 🚨 WOMEN!🚨 https://t.co/xx4HxJNHVI
— Melissa Schwartz (@MSchwartz3) May 16, 2019
And the bill was passed by 25 men.
We have to elect more women. Period. https://t.co/T8Rg1v1Fdf
— David Hudson (@nonfamousdave) May 15, 2019
It’s true that across state legislatures, the representation of women falls short. Women make up only 28.7% of all state legislators — a slight increase from last year, when the portion of women legislation was only 25.3%.
But women in office are not always reliable votes against restrictive abortion laws. Alabama’s abortion ban was sponsored by a woman, state Rep. Terri Collins (R), and signed into law by a woman, Gov. Kay Ivey (R).
In fact, throughout history, conservative women have played a role in restricting abortion access for other women and trans people.
For decades, Phyllis Schlafly served as one of the most prominent conservative voices in America, including when it came to anti-abortion rhetoric. Her positions have shaped the dialogue on abortion as much as any conservative man’s.
Schlafly said in 1994, “Every new advance in science, especially the DNA and ultrasound photographs of babies in the womb confirms the unique individual identity of each of us is present, human, alive and growing before the mother knows she is pregnant.”
She said of Roe v. Wade, “That effectively makes the baby the property of the mother. That proposition is inconsistent with individual human life.”
The generations of conservative women that have followed have been similarly influential.
On Thursday, one of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, Wendy Vitter, was confirmed to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. In 2013, Vitter led a panel called “Abortion Hurts Women’s Health,” where she referred the audience to brochures from anti-abortion activist Angela Lanfranchi. One of these brochures claimed birth control could result in poor relationships with partners and even “influence rates of intimate partner violence.” Lanfranchi has also falsely claimed that abortion increases women’s risk for breast cancer.
Catherine Glenn Foster serves as the president of Americans United for Life, an organization that creates model legislation for state restrictions on abortion access and that recently honored Meghan McCain with a Defender of Life in the Media award. Marjorie Jones Dannenfelser is the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which says its mission is to end abortion.
Many prominent female conservative lawmakers have been happy to be known for their anti-abortion views. In January, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced a bill to take funding away Planned Parenthood. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) is also known for her staunch opposition to abortion.
“There is no question that the restrictions on abortion we’re seeing on women’s rights and people who can become pregnant today is deeply intertwined with panic over birth rates and in particular white birth rates in this country.”
“Marsha Blackburn, in her campaign for Senate, made opposition to Planned Parenthood and support for inflammatory aggressively edited videos a centerpiece of her campaign,” said Erin Matson, co-founder and co-director of Reproaction, an organization that advocates for abortion rights and reproductive justice. “Joni Ernst cut her teeth and came to prominence through her work on personhood.”
In Alabama, six women voted to advance the abortion ban. In Georgia, 13 women voted for similar legislation. The racial breakdown of who voted for this legislation is also key to understanding what has happened. As The Root notes, of the 212 lawmakers who voted for these abortion bans, 211 of them were white.
Although the conservative movement is dominated by white men, white women serve an important role in anti-abortion work as “social enforcers of the patriarchy,” Matson said.
“Central casting has always called for a white woman in particular to enforce the patriarchy against other white women and patriarchy and racism against women of color,” Matson said. “I think it’s important to highlight the role whiteness plays in this because it is absolutely, there is no question that the restrictions on abortion we’re seeing on women’s rights and people who can become pregnant today is deeply intertwined with panic over birth rates and in particular white birth rates in this country.”
The Trump administration’s manufacturing of an immigration crisis, which is clearly not focused on white immigrants, is also part of this white panic that affects abortion access, Matson said.
Bart Bonikowski, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, told the New York Times that Trump supporters “have long held strong ethnonationalist sentiments.”
According to Bonikowski, “these sentiments have only recently become politically salient, as Trump, and other Republicans before him, have actively stoked fears of demographic and cultural change and channeled them into powerful resentments toward minority groups. For many voters, such resentments are not rooted in everyday experience, not least because they tend to live in ethnically homogeneous, predominantly white communities, but rather, they are shaped by powerful nativist narratives perpetuated by right-wing politicians, partisan organizations, and media outlets.”
Since Trump’s election, for example, prominent anti-abortion leader Kristen Walker Hatten began sharing more white supremacist content and identifying as an “ethnonationlist.”
Matson said people advocating for abortion rights need to pay attention to the evidence and elect people who will advocate for abortion access, instead of trying to solve the issue solely through gender representation.
“Putting women in leadership will not solve sexism by itself.”
“For decades, liberal feminists claimed that bringing more women into power would usher in feminist change. The nomination of Sarah Palin, who is extremely anti-abortion, as a candidate for vice president in 2008 was a turning point in making clear that putting women in leadership will not solve sexism by itself,” Matson said. “What we continue to see today with women leading and rubber-stamping attacks on abortion rights affirms that electing women and advancing policy that benefits women and people who can become pregnant are not the same thing.”
The idea that electing women will solve the problem of abortion access also erases transgender and nonbinary people.
Cazembe Jackson, who is nonbinary, has been telling his abortion story for years and wants to see more inclusion of transgender people in advocacy for abortion access. Jackson became pregnant after he was raped, and sought an abortion at a nearby Planned Parenthood clinic. Jackson said in many ways the abortion “saved my life” because someone at the clinic called a rape crisis center and set up a therapy appointment for him.
“The idea of having more women in office to solve problems like abortion access and doesn’t make a lot of sense for me. It was a woman who wrote the law and a woman who signed the into law in Alabama and there are constant situations like that,” Jackson said. ” … I do think it is about getting candidates into office that actually understand the issues.”
Jackson added that he believes there are ways to be inclusive of trans men and nonbinary people in abortion rights advocacy work while acknowledging that women are disproportionately affected by these laws.
“It should have been very easy for me to find my place in the reproductive justice movement, but it wasn’t. I didn’t see anyone else that was a trans man talking about having had abortions or other reproductive justice issues. Because often times, the way toxic masculinity works is that we have to only talk about so-called ‘male’ characteristics … so you don’t have a lot of trans people speaking out about abortions or about getting pregnant even though we do every day,” he said. “I think it’s really important for people who are not trans and queer to use inclusive language so we know it is safe for us to be part of this movement also.”
Jackson said he is gradually starting to see a shift in language. He pointed to Sister Song, a Southern-based organization focused on the reproductive lives of marginalized communities, as a group that is recognizing transgender people in its work and inviting them to the table.
“Black women and women of color have always been the ones who were the most accepting and loving of queer and trans people in my experience anyway,” Jackson said. “Those are always the people who love and take care of me — the black woman who called the rape crisis center for me and saved my life all those years ago. All of my experiences with reproductive justice has been at the feet of black women and other women of color leading that movement, especially in the South.”