It’s difficult to reflect on the achievements of our foremothers when women in this country had more rights last March than we do today.
Women’s History Month is explicitly about progress, but if we’re still marking firsts and fighting again for old victories, let’s fall out of love with the narrative of the shattered glass ceiling. It feels like it’s time to look up from the glass shards on the floor — with a new impatience and new strategies.
One month into my six years at NARAL, and still early in my career, I was asked to staff our president for an event. As a newcomer to the movement, I was excited to talk with her on our cab ride back to the office. I shared with her my new awareness of our opponents, just how relentless and aggressive they were. She responded: “The other side fights so hard because we have Roe, and they want it. We have the holy grail.”
In the light of this day, that memory stings, but the trap seemed clear even then. We were, and had been for over 35 years at that point, in a perpetual defensive crouch over a precious artifact.
Before and during the Roe era, the strategies to defend reproductive rights were set by a segregated movement. There were women of color warning that simply having the right to an abortion would be insufficient — pointing out in real time that access barriers, geographic and economic, would preclude many from exercising that right. This proved true all the while that Roe was intact.
In 1994, a group of Black women formally abandoned this strategy. They developed a new framework — Reproductive Justice — that acknowledged race, class, and the linkage between abortion and childbearing. Nevertheless, the abortion rights movement stayed the course even as anti-abortion activists shuttered clinics.
Post Dobbs, the entire country is living in abortion opponents’ excited imagination of access deserts. Their state bans are locking into place, and they are now aggressively pursuing an end to the abortion pill, which could breach those borders.
We must get clear on how we got here.
There may be factions and decades to reconcile, but future collaboration depends on difficult conversations. Namely, why did it take so long, and the decimation of what was at least a critical firewall, to understand that abortion rights were an incomplete strategy? Does everyone embrace that? Why is the movement’s funding and infrastructure concentrated, when perspective and judgment are distributed?
And any time we plan the work, we should ask whether we are beginning with incremental progress in mind, and if so, whose patience will be required? If it’s she who is most deeply buried by the problem, and if she is not with us in crafting the solution, we should begin again.
Principal, The Raben Group