With the news that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is circulating a draft decision that would overturn the Roe vs. Wade decision and allow states to outlaw abortion without exception, if they choose, people keep asking me how I feel. They’re asking because they know that I gave many year— most of my life, in fact—to the fight for women’s rights. My husband, who knows me best, simply came and gave me a kiss when he heard the news.
How I feel about it is not complicated. It’s encapsulated in the quote from Jill Ruckelshaus, above. Jill was a very brave woman, a Republican who fought within the party for women’s equality. She held many offices, in the White House, at the state level, and in the UN, and they all revolved around women’s rights. (Her husband, Bill Ruckelshaus, was a very brave man, one of the Justice Department officials who refused Nixon’s order during the Saturday Night Massacre. Look it up.)
Many of us did what Jill urged. We fought first for the ERA, which would enshrine women’s equality in the U. S. Constitution, so that any abrogation of our rights would need to be justified at the highest level of scrutiny, and also for women’s reproductive rights. I was an officer, then President of Illinois Now, during the times when we fought tooth and nail to keep the Radical Right from throwing young and poor women under the bus after Roe became law. (Note, we did not then realize that we should also be fighting for the rights of trans men, or nonbinary people, to control their reproductive rights.)
It was vicious—Phyllis Schlafly was often in our state—but worse were the religious zealots who flung blood at us, bashed us with their signs, spat at us, and otherwise showed their fine Christian principles, while we escorted women into clinics or lobbied legislators. Once, at a counter-demonstration, one of them, a kindly looking grandfather type, told my son that his mommy had tried to kill him. They sent a constant stream of postcards of bloody ”fetuses,” to make sure I knew that they knew where I lived. They called to threaten my life and that of my family. I had a job and two children, and then I came home to work nearly all night every night, after brief family time, on our issues, making calls, drawing up agendas and memoranda and emails, writing speeches which I then had to deliver, though it made my knees shake. I learned to not let it show.
We had little help in the media. Once, we organized an evening of personal witnessing in downtown Chicago by women who had had illegal abortions, and both women and men who had lost mothers, sisters, aunts, friends, to backalley abortions. Several media figures accused us of “sensationalizing” the issue with that program. None covered it as the chilling, agonizing look backwards that it was.
So how I feel is that I cannot outlive Brett Kavanaugh’s or Amy Coney Barrett’s, or, in truth, this conservative majority’s time on the court, barring some Cosmic intervention. We will need a Constitutional amendment to make all people truly equal before the law and national legislation like the Women’s Health Improvement Act, to codify Roe vs. Wade. I will fight as hard as I can as long as I can, but younger and healthier women and men, trans and nonbinary people and will have now to lead the charge.
So be brave, in your mind, in your interactions with others, in your speech, in your actions. And in your writing! All our lives depend on you.
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