Is Violence the Last Gasp of the Patriarchy?

It’s time we connect the dots between insurrection, the probable demise of Roe v. Wade, and lack of action to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment—all of which fuel the pervasive gender gap in power, pay and leadership roles.

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Rioters outside the U.S. Capitol building during the January 6 insurrection. (Tyler Merbler/ Wikimedia Commons)

During my half-century of working for women’s equality, I’ve often said the violent reaction to women’s progress was simply the last gasp of the patriarchy. Then, bingo, it rears its head again, like Groundhog Day. Cue replays of The Handmaid’s Tale.

A year ago, we watched in horror as a vicious attack on the Capitol threatened to turn America into the authoritarian country my grandparents came here to escape. This year, as the media replayed clips from January 6, I wondered why no one was connecting the dots between this insurrection, the probable demise of Roe v. Wade, which represents women’s right to reproductive self-determination, and lack of action to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment—all of which fuel the pervasive gender gap in power, pay and leadership roles.

Photos of members of Congress hiding under the benches and the feral clawing at the Capitol windows by a howling mob that was 86 percent male and 93 percent white took me back to my years leading Planned Parenthood at the peak of attacks, up to and including murders, on reproductive health providers.

When the targets of such vitriol and violence were “just” women, law enforcement was slow to act if at all. Media reported with false equivalence, akin to Trump’s “good people on both sides” assessment of the 2017 white supremacist, anti-Semitic mob in Charlottesville. The brave women and men who served family planning and abortion patients despite this antipathy took on a bunker mentality. The burden was placed on Planned Parenthood, and our patients, to protect ourselves; the organization spent vast sums of money beefing up security. I once had to get the mayor to intervene when, rather than protecting us, our police chief told us to “close our clinics” if we heard an incursion was planned.

How Did This Happen?

In analyzing the events of January 6, 2021, equality advocate Jackson Katz correctly acknowledges “the insurrection was an overt and violent assertion of white male centrality and entitlement.” A look back at the history of reproductive rights and justice clarifies that racism and sexism are joined at the heart of women’s struggle to achieve bodily autonomy.

White men have always had a legal and moral right to their own lives, but neither the court of law or the court of public opinion has declared unequivocally that women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights after all.

When the targets of such vitriol and violence were “just” women, law enforcement was slow to act if at all. … I once had to get the mayor to intervene when, rather than protecting us, our police chief told us to “close our clinics” if we heard an incursion was planned.

The purposefulness of pregnancy among most women in America is evidence of many victories: Contraception was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, and pre-viability abortion was legalized by Roe v. Wade in 1973. Yet these victories carried the seeds of their own demise, because the decisions are not grounded in an assertion of the moral and legal agency of women; instead, they’re based on an assumed right to privacy.

Paradoxically, the personal freedom to make childbearing decisions privately had to be won through the political process. Author Jane Smiley rightly observed that pregnancy is the most public of conditions, and the state of a woman’s uterus is the most public of political battlegrounds.

While I would like to think that the violence we witnessed on January 6 signaled (again) the last gasps of the patriarchy, my time fighting for reproductive rights has shown me otherwise. In many states, it has become more difficult for people to participate in the democratic process—by design. Knowing this, women cannot sit by and hope that our right to privacy will stand the test of time. We must be deliberate, intentional and persistent to end the cycle of tying women’s autonomy to the whims of a court or politics.

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A Planned Parenthood clinic in Knoxville, Tenn., burned down on New Year’s Eve, 2021. The clinic was closed for renovations at the time of the fire. (Knoxville Fire Department / Facebook)

What Do We Do About This?

Because of my long view of history, coming from a lifetime on the forefront of the women’s movement, people have frequently asked me this exact question, often from a place of fear rather than power. That must change.

Here’s the formula:

Power Up the Message.

Don’t be shy. Consistently deliver the values-based message that reproductive autonomy is inherently tied to women’s civil, moral, and human rights to live as equal citizens, to contribute to the economy, and to never again be “barefoot and pregnant.” Enlist the media to amplify the message accurately. Leverage well-timed street theater but don’t expect that to win what must be won at the ballot box.

Collect Grassroots Power.

Align with diverse organizations whose missions intersect. Build the movement fearlessly. Hold corporations and politicians accountable by visibly rewarding those who tangibly support women’s rights and withhold your business and vote from those that don’t.

Women Leaders, Use Your Powerful Voice.

You have the power of your positions because others have fought for you to have had these rights. Use it. When corporate women leaders spearhead or visibly support initiatives to secure reproductive rights and justice, other business leaders will follow. Move women’s rights out of their silo; build into companies’ culture and policies the assumption that women’s rights are like other civil rights. This also gives men a much-needed way to fight for the cause and benefit from it.

Keep the Pressure On.

Elected leaders must move urgently to pass federal and state laws that guarantee women’s civil and human rights, including the big three: the Equal Rights Amendment, the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Freedom of Choice Act, along with voting rights. Contact your local and national leaders and be relentless in expressing your views and supporting those whose votes deserve yours in return.

Do not be deterred or discouraged by threats or displays of violence. Stay focused on our goal. We have the power to keep the dystopian world of the Handmaid’s Tale at bay, build a world where each of us can make our own childbearing decisions, and onward from there to true equality and justice for all.

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About

Gloria Feldt is the New York Times best-selling author of several books, including Intentioning: Sex, Power, Pandemics and How Women Will Take The Lead for (Everyone's) Good and No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. She is a sought-after speaker and frequent contributor to major news outlets; and the co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a leading women’s leadership nonprofit working to achieve gender parity by 2025.