We can’t win our rights by voting. How abortion rights were won and how to get them back.

Talk Presented at meeting of

The International Socialist Organization, Austin

October 29, 2014

I’ll begin by quoting a story that appeared last Friday in the Austin Chronicle:

“On Friday, Oct. 3, the parking lot of Planned Parenthood on Ben White Boulevard overflowed; in “crisis management” mode, the relatively small staff scrambled to keep up with the unprecedented volume of vulnerable, abortion-seeking patients. Within 24 hours, the center would become the sole abortion care provider in Austin.

“Patients arrived in fear and anxiety. Many who had scheduled their procedures at previously open clinics were told they would now need to undergo a second 24-hour pre-abortion sonogram – as mandated by a 2011 state law – prolonging their procedure even further. For some women, that meant jeopardizing their safety – a woman threatened by domestic violence saw her window slowly closing; another, suffering a lethal fetal abnormality, was in dire need of immediate service.

“It was a similar scene all over Texas – when the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed U.S. Judge Lee Yeakel’s August ruling that found parts of Texas’ omnibus abortion law, House Bill 2, unconstitutional, it forced 13 clinics to close their doors, unable to meet the costly ambulatory surgical center building code requirements mandated by the final provision of HB 2. Overnight, the number of abortion clinics – already reduced from 41 in 2013 to roughly 20 due to other rules imposed by HB 2 – shrunk further, to just eight centers serving a population of 5 million reproductive-age women. [Most of these in urban centers along or east of the I-35 corridor.] Under the new rules, an estimated 1 million women would need to travel more than 150 miles (one way) for care, with low-income and rural women, those with the fewest resources, feeling the deepest impact.

On Oct. 14, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the stay ordered by the 5th Circuit and reinstated the injunction by Yeakel. The decision allowed the 13 closed clinics to reopen, but the order is only temporary. The 5th Circuit has repeatedly sided with anti-choice state officials on abortion regulations, including HB 2; there is little to indicate this time will be different.”

This is a sad and scary story—and it’s a story shared by women across the United States, where access to safe, legal abortion is no longer a reality for most. But it’s not the whole story. Here’s another part of the story. In June 2013, thousands of Texas women and men crowded the state Capitol building. Inspired by state legislator Wendy Davis’s filibuster, we raised our voices in a wall of sound that drowned out attempts by conservative legislators to ram through HB2. Awareness and energy had been building to combat the misinformation and lies promoted by anti-choice politicians. Hundreds of courageous women testified into the night about their families, their situation, and their abortions. The crucial moment that legislators attempted to pass the bill, the thousands present outside the House chamber roared in protest in an unforgettable moment of power and solidarity.

Although Governor Rick Perry was able to call another special session, and the bill ultimately passed, that moment in June last year taught us something very important. When we organize and raise our voices together, we can win. Although Wendy Davis, now running for governor, was the initial spark for the protest, the mass movement surpassed her. In the weeks and months after the filibuster, women and men continued to organize in grassroots groups. But there was a countervailing tendency.

Even the night of the people’s filibuster itself, we felt the pull away from militancy. As jubilant activists assessed what we had done and thought about next steps, leaders in the Democratic Party and the mainstream wing of the pro-choice movement were directing activists away from the Capitol to a nearby rally that was not about the power of thousands but about the need to look to the Democrats and the electoral process to win abortion rights. It was, literally, a drag. That diversion spelled the end of the mass movement and the beginning of relentless exhorations to campaign, block walk, and vote for Davis and the other Democrats running for office. The election is imminent and, like many of you, I feel the pressure to vote. But I want to convince you that placing your hopes at the ballot box, with Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte, is a mistaken strategy. In support of this argument, I will tell you about the history of social movements, particularly the fight for reproductive freedom, and the Democratic Party. And then I will talk about how abortion rights were won in the first place and how we can win them again as part of the struggle against the oppression of women.

But first, to figure out how to stop something like women’s oppression, we have to analyze where it came from in the first place. Socialist feminists, like the ones here who are members of the International Socialist Organization, have a particular and powerful way of understanding the origins of women’s oppression, how and why women are oppressed today. It is weird how conservatives say they’re against big government interfering in people’s private lives—unless the people in question are women and/or lgbtq persons. The conservative movement in the United States has always had both a classical, economically conservative wing that preaches the gospel of the free market and a socially conservative wing that preaches the gospel of, well, the gospel. These forces intersect at the doorstep of the home, as defenders of the status quo share an interest in promoting a vision of the ideal nuclear family.

The ideal of the private nuclear family is not “traditional.” In fact, it is a form of private life that really only became fully expressed under capitalism when industry and the market stripped laborers from the home and to exhausting hours of labor. The value of that labor does not return to the worker. Most of it goes to the employer in the form of profits. That’s how capitalism works. And capitalists and the government that is beholden to them have no interest in spending their profits on workplace childcare centers or material aid to struggling families.

When I had a baby 24 years ago this week, I had an abrupt wake-up call, which was part of why I decided to join the socialists. Infant care cost $600 a month. There is no help with laundry, housework, cooking, or child rearing, all necessary to raising the next generation of workers. There is hardly any (and less and less) public support for education, nutrition, affordable housing, and so on. All of this work has to be done or paid for by someone, however. And the ideology of the nuclear family tells us that that someone is us. Regardless of the hours worked and regardless of income or status, the family is the locus of private responsibility in a system that makes it harder and harder to provide for ourselves while a tiny elite grows enormously wealthy.

That arrangement seems unfair. How do businesses and the government get away with stealing the wealth that we create while leaving families on their own to sink or swim? The answer to this question is, sexism. Sexism is the rationale that says that women and men are fundamentally different, and that what makes women different is their natural desire and skill at nurturing–homemaking and motherhood. This idea did not come about with capitalism, but much earlier. Today, however, despite women’s entry in mass numbers into the paid workforce since the 1960s, society still relies on our allegedly natural calling to do housework, and scramble for the necessities of life without any help whatsoever. Socialists call this labor “social reproduction.” It is a process, dependent on women’s and men’s cooperation with the norm of the nuclear family, that makes production in the capitalist economy possible. So whenever a rich woman like Cheryl Sandberg tells you that the solution to having to work a double shift and struggle to balance home and work life is to “lean in” and do it all, tell her to go fuck herself.

Why have I spent so much time discussing the family under capitalism? Because we need to see clearly who benefits from the oppression of women and why the bullying of women is so virulent and vile. It’s not a matter of some men just being jerks; it’s not a matter of re-educating people to have egalitarian ideas. It’s not a matter of making sure everyone knows the science of reproduction and abortion, although that helps. The fact is, elites in capitalist society benefit from perpetuating sexism and holding up the family ideal. It is necessary to their ongoing power and profits. In other words, the problem of sexism is a system problem. And system problems require system solutions.

Socialists say that unless a woman has complete control over whether and when to have children, she cannot be free. But control over our bodies flies in the face of familial norms (just as lgbtq existence does—any combination of sexes and genders can head a family in the abstract. But because ideas about the role and place of women are what justify the privatization of social responsibility in the family, violations of heteronormativity are also threats to the system). Free women are threats to capitalism, not just to the privileges that men might enjoy. No wonder our rights are under attack.

You might know that a lot of the anti-abortion legislation getting passed in multiple states is spearheaded by the lobbying group ALEC. This outfit was behind HB2 in Texas. Wikipedia tells us that the American Legislative Exchange Council is an organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives for distribution among the states. According to its website, ALEC “works to advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public.” There’s nothing in there about abortion. So why is ALEC making abortion less accessible and persecuting abortion providers across the country? I think I’ve answered that question—but I’ll say it again. Free women—women in control of their reproductive lives—are threats to the capitalist system.

Damn right we are. Now, we’ve got neoliberal capitalism—more ruthless, faster, leaner, and less forgiving—ramping up exploitation around the globe, and conservative politicians eliminating our rights. The hope, the barest hope, that a candidate for governor like Wendy Davis, alongside Democrats running for other office, might slow down or stop this process, that hope is tempting. But there are three problems with putting our hopes in the ballot. First, elections have never automatically resulted in reforms against exploitation or oppression. To the contrary, to the extent that the Democratic Party can rely on progressives to vote for them, the less they actually have to do to promote justice. And when movements turn to electoral strategies, it is usally a symptom of defeat and a retreat. Second, pulling a lever every two or four years is the most limited and passive vision of political engagement possible. Third, and most important, democratic politicians are pro-capitalist politicians. They will never advocate change that undermines the privatization of social responsibility. That’s why Clinton, not Reagan, not Bush, was the President who ended welfare in America.

Specifically with regard to abortion, it was not a pro-choice presidency under Nixon (you know he was such a fan of women!) or a progressive Supreme Court that allowed for legal abortion in the United States. We know it was a fighting women’s rights movement that put reproductive justice at the center of a struggle for equality. In 1970, a Women’s Strike for Equality called tens of thousands of women to the streets of Washington DC calling for free abortion on demand, and between 1969 and 1973, hundreds of local protests called for the same.

But it was not just demonstrations. The women’s rights movement succeeded in changing the national conversation, changing the national consciousness, over matters of equal pay, domestic labor, childcare, and abortion rights.

Most of us are fully aware of the right-wing assault on abortion rights that began as soon as Roe v. Wade became the law of the land.

Many know about the 1976 Hyde Amendment that restricts federal Medicaid funding for abortion, effectively cutting poor women off from abortion care. We should also know that the Amendment has since been renewed every year, even during the many years there was a Democratic majority in Congress.

Democrat Jimmy Carter, campaigning for the presidency in 1976 and during his presidency, supported Roe to choice advocates while opposing it to conservatives. In 1977 he came out in support of Hyde Amendment restrictions on federal funding for abortion. When it was brought to his attention that poor women are the ones who suffer from such restrictions, while wealthier women could still access and afford abortion, he responded, “Life is unfair.”

The Reagan years saw a renewed ideological attack on abortion without a corresponding defense from our movement, which retreated into a defensive posture that remains largely in place today and rests on an electoral strategy.

Abortion supporters worked hard to elect Bill Clinton in 1992. Yet it is during his two terms in office that our side lost the most ground to an emboldened right wing. He stated opposition to the Hyde Amendment, but he did not vocally oppose states as they passed laws limiting access to abortion.

No national marches for abortion rights took place in Washington, DC between the election years of 1992 and 2004. Clinton’s first term witnessed the most anti-choice voting record in Congress’ history, yet Clinton’s only attention to the abortion issue in his second term was to promote sexual abstinence among teens to lower the country’s abortion rate. Politicians seeking “common ground” and “compromise” urged the movement to “reject extremism,” and the movement retreated to a defensive position where activism narrowed to electing Democrats (who continued to reapprove the Hyde Amendment restrictions on public abortion funding) and the argument narrowed to reducing abortions instead of unapologetically defending abortion.

Hillary Clinton said in 2004 that abortion is “a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women…There is no reason why government cannot do more…so that the choice guaranteed under our constitution either does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances.” I personally have never heard of anyone defending a right by saying it should never be exercised. And this mealy-mouthed pro-choice stance represented a retreat, not an advance, in our movement. That retreat became even more stark during the Bush presidency, where the right wing felt emboldened to challenge abortion rights in every state, in every possible way. They felt the zeitgeist was with them. And absent a fighting movement outside the voting booth, they did not hear our voices loudly enough to tell them otherwise. Pro-choice activists have continued to pursue a political “center” that has moved steadily rightward since the 1970s.

This chase has continued with Obama. Even as pro-choice activists hailed his election in 2008, we have not received in return even a modicum of the loyalty feminists have shown him.

For example, in March 2010 the President signed Executive Order 13535, which preserved restrictions on federal funding for abortion. No Democrat came out in opposition to this measure. Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer observed, “I want to see the status quo preserved,” but the status quo is states restricting access to abortion bit by bit, law by law. While the right wing has mostly abandoned a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade in favor of piecemeal access restrictions, Democrats are not fighting either to defend Roe or to protect access. And the restrictions continue to come, and they continue to affect poor women and women of color disproportionately.

Obviously, Wendy Davis and her Lt. Governor running mate are pro-choice. But that does not mean they can or will repeal HB2 or stop any further legislation eroding our rights. The Governor of Texas has little constitutional power and there is little to no chance that Democrats will take over the Texas legislature. Moreover, we have to look at politicians’ stances on multiple issues. On immigration, Wendy Davis is reactionary. On the death penalty, Wendy Davis is not on our side. She is unlikely to advocate for labor rights or against the excesses of big business. She won’t institute an income tax to level social support across the state.

Even if Wendy Davis or any other Dem had the best possible positions on every issue, it still would be misguided to place our hopes in elections. I’m not going to tell you what to do in the privacy of your own ballot box, but let me say this: If you vote, do so without illusions, and do not let any election be the end of your political activism. Neither business party will ever seek to overthrow the system that actually requires the policing of women’s reproduction; they are part of that system.

What is the alternative? Well, you’re here. From the photos that opened our meeting this evening you may have noticed parallels between abortion rights activism in the 1970s and our struggle today. Abortion rights were won in the streets and we will take them back and defend them in the streets.

(Much of the following historical narrative comes from this article.) Roe v. Wade marked a tremendous victory for women’s ability to control their own bodies. It literally saved an untold number of lives–of women who were no longer forced to seek out unregulated providers or attempt dangerous methods of self-inducing, such as coat hangers or douching with bleach.

The death toll from unsafe abortions before Roe is unknown, but some estimates put it as high as 10,000 each year. A University of Colorado study done in the late 1950s reported that 350,000 U.S. women experienced postoperative complications from illegal abortions every year.

Many of the victims of unsafe abortion were disproportionately poor women and women of color, who lacked the resources of their wealthy and better connected counterparts.

The women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s was an outgrowth of an overall radicalization in society, kicked off by the civil rights movement. The popular slogan of this era, “Free abortion on demand,” reflected a recognition that legalization alone wasn’t enough if poor women couldn’t afford to get access to abortions. Freedom of choice also meant being able to have children if one desired, which meant demanding access to free child care. The movement embraced demands against the ugly history of forced sterilization of women of color.

BY THE early 1970s, momentum was growing in favor of women’s liberation, and abortion rights in particular. In 1970, a national Women’s Strike for Equality brought out more than 50,000 women across the country–among the rallying points was free abortion on demand.

One important element of the movement was making visible the experiences of women who had abortions. The first abortion “speak-out” was held by the New York feminist group Redstockings in 1969, where women spoke publicly about their illegal abortions. Similar speak-outs soon took place in cities across the country. It was a scene that resembled when hundreds of Texas women took to the floor of the Texas legislature to tell their stories last year.

As the historian Leslie Reagan wrote:

Most important for changing the course of the debate and politics, feminists designated women as the experts on abortion…The speak-outs made clear that abortion was not a personal problem, but a problem for all women arising from the double standard. As women shared their stories, they created new knowledge and educated politicians, the medical profession, the judiciary and the general public about why women needed abortions and the problems of abortion, both legal and illegal.

Activists targeted the government and other institutions to pressure them to take a stand in favor of abortion rights. The Restockings speak-out, for instance, was called as a “counter-hearing” to the nearly all-male hearing in the legislature that Friedan had criticized. As the Michigan legislature debated abortion reform, activists in Detroit held a “funeral march” to protest the deaths of women killed in back-alley abortions.

Members of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU) and the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) disrupted the annual convention of the American Medical Association (AMA), demanding that it support repeal of abortion laws. When the AMA failed to do so, the WITCHes “hexed” the AMA. According to a CWLU report “the feeling of exhilaration and sisterhood was so rewarding that the WITCHes decided to hex the business establishment on a regular basis.”

By 1971, pressure had grown so great that President Richard Nixon felt compelled to come out with a statement affirming his opposition to abortion. To this statement, the New York Women’s Strike Coalition responded, “We will grant Mr. Nixon the freedom to take care of his uterus if he will let us take care of ours.”

This backdrop is crucial for understanding how Roe v. Wade (and its companion case Doe v. Bolton) came to be decided. While the number of people directly participating in the women’s liberation movement was relatively small, their actions had a tremendous impact on popular consciousness. By 1976, a Harris survey reported that 63 percent of American women supported “efforts to strengthen and change women’s status in society.”

All this had a direct impact on the Roe decision a year later, according to Stearns: “Blackmun’s description of the physical and emotional harm to women of an unwanted pregnancy, the stigma of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and the problems with bearing an unwanted child bears a striking resemblance to the language used by the Connecticut court.”

The past 40 years, during which our rights have been steadily eroded, shows that we have to confront politicians and the courts with our truths and our demands to control our bodies and destinies once again.

Last summer, we saw that the Democrats will fight heroically when we are watching. Wendy Davis’s filibuster was not just a matter of principle, but a product of thousands of women and allies descending on the Capitol during the first special session. And the filibuster alone didn’t cut it. SB5 was killed, however, briefly, by the fighting women of Texas and our allies.

History has shown that having the “right people” in office is never enough. And it isn’t even about politicians’ stated support, but about what they actually do in office that counts. We need to make it politically untenable for WHOEVER is in office to do anything but work for us. For that we need popular pressure.

For that pressure to be in place when we need it, we must look past the elections and organize to keep our demands in the public eye between elections and shift the public narrative. We need to be ready to apply public pressure once the elections are over.

Our movement should stop chasing the center and stand instead on an unapologetic defense of women’s right to choose. The days of making abortion “safe, legal, and rare” must give way to a fight for it to be “free, on demand, and without apology.”

So don’t just wait for Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte to save the day. You’ll be waiting a long time if you do. Do get involved in making change from below. We in the International Socialist Organization want to keep building the feminist army, what Perry and his cronies called the unruly mob, that shook the Capitol this summer. We want to put the politicians of both parties on notice. And we are building a socialist movement that can challenge the capitalist system and its rulers, who benefit from the oppression of women, the privatization of social responsibility, and the policing of reproduction.

I urge you to join us in these struggles.

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