Lily Tomlin famously quipped, “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” I was reminded of this quote when I saw how those Republican-appointed Supreme Court Justices lied during their confirmation hearings about respecting precedent and then went right ahead and overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion.
I am not shocked that it happened – feminists have warned about this for years — but still, I wasn’t quite prepared for how far they would go, resurrecting the banner of “states’ rights,” which, of course, is the mendacity that sparked the Civil War, threatening precedents regarding LGBTQ rights, access to contraception, and more. But then I also didn’t expect fugitive slave laws to be resurrected for bounty hunters reporting on people obtaining or providing abortions. I didn’t expect that after weekly gun violence massacres that the Supreme Court would reject reasonable gun restrictions.
I believe this revanchist movement is the last gasp of a demographically doomed group of people who are trying to refight the Civil War and see if they can win this time. And I have reluctantly realized that these heartless politicians and judges have to be analyzed differently. It’s not that they don’t know that women will suffer and die. It’s that they don’t care. They believe sexually active women should be punished when facing an unintended pregnancy. That is a problem that is not going to be solved simply by telling more abortion stories.
The good news is that I have been surprised before, in a way that gives me hope. In the fall of 1985, Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), told her staff that we were going to organize the first-ever NOW national abortion-rights march. She reasoned that too many politicians–both Democrats and Republicans–privately supported abortion rights but were afraid to say so. We had to provide evidence of the constituents who would support them if they stood up for women. We needed to make it safe to publicly declare they were pro-choice.
I was the director of NOW’s women of color program then, and I was skeptical. I didn’t believe that enough people would march for abortion rights. In the Black community, we were still calling it the “A-word.” Too many Black Christians believed that abortion was a sin. Black misogynists called it self-genocide. This was the case despite the fact that Black women obtained a disproportionate number of abortions in America. (We still do – in 2019, 38% of all women who had abortions were non-Hispanic Black women.)
Fortunately, Eleanor didn’t heed my doubts, and in March 1986, more than 80,000 people showed up at the first March for Women’s Lives. Feminists have since organized marches domestically and internationally that have engaged millions of people, proving widespread support for abortion rights.
We know what Republicans are capable of, but we know what we are capable of too. The failed nomination of Robert Bork in 1987 signaled that Republicans were willing to appoint a Justice to the Supreme Court who was committed to overthrowing Roe. Feminists and civil rights leaders mobilized to defeat his nomination.
Since then, we have continued to warn about attacks on Roe while many called us Cassandras, predicting a dystopian future that they didn’t think would come to pass. They told us we were overreacting by calling it a “War on Women.” We were called hysterical—a frequent slur against women who stand up for themselves. Even some of our alleged allies who deemed themselves pro-choice “Independents” or Bernie Sanders supporters tried to claim there was little difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016. We were accused of being naive for believing that elections matter. Now we have five Justices on the Court who were willing to do what Bork never got the opportunity to do. Hillary could justifiably say, “I told you so!”
Faced with this predictable yet catastrophic situation, we have to march in the streets and vote at the same time. It’s not an “either/or” strategy; it’s an “and-and-and.” As one feminist song says, “When women are screwed, we multiply!” We have to again stiffen the spines of the politicians who claim they care about human rights. We have to hold them accountable for not doing all they could to protect abortion rights in the past, to address the filibuster now, to expand the Supreme Court, and to overturn the Hyde Amendment that restricts the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. We have to replace all politicians who want our support but then act like prom dates who forget our names the next day.
We must see this historic moment as our symbolic lunch counter, the time when young people stood up against injustice even knowing that they risked everything. Can we be at least as brave as those young Black students in the 1950s and ‘60s who knew they would be spit upon, beaten, and water hosed for standing up for civil rights?
If you thought all the important stuff happened before you were born, you were wrong. We are not the entire chain of freedom. That chain stretches from our ancestors to our descendants. Our job is to be the strongest link that we can be and ensure the chain doesn’t break with us.
Because I’ve been a community organizer for more than 50 years, I believe that the moral arc of the universe inexorably bends toward justice and human rights. Our opponents think that they are fighting us. In fact, they are fighting forces far beyond their control. They are fighting truth, history, time. With these existential forces aligned in our favor, we know they will never win.
So, pardon me, Lily. I can’t become cynical enough to give up hope. Hope is not the belief that the past can change, but that the future can.
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