Generation Roe: Have We Always Known Roe Was an Aberrance Only Two Generations Would Experience?

The potential repeal of Roe v. Wade will be among the most consequential setbacks for women in U.S. history. It is one thing to fight for equal rights; it is quite another to lose existing rights and have to fight for them all over again.

Reproductive rights outside the Supreme Court during oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on Dec. 1, 2021. (Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Following the Supreme Court’s Dec. 1, 2021, hearing on the restrictive Mississippi abortion law, most Court observers agree that January 22, 2022 will likely mark the 49th and final anniversary of Roe v. Wade as a fixture of American law. Since the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in 1973, Roe has done far more for American women than legalize abortion. The ruling has also provided a framework for women’s legal personhood, as separate and distinct from our maternal capacity.

I was born in 1974, nearly 18 months to the day after Roe. The women of my generation, along with the following generation, have been shaped by access to legal abortion and the subsequent guarantee of full personhood. The birth control pill, first approved by the FDA in 1960, promised reproductive autonomy, but abortion rights helped make it true. As we approach the overturning of Roe, how should we understand both its significance and its demise?

First, we must understand Roe as an integral and early component of the equity legislation and court rulings of the 1970s and 1980s. Title IX, passed by Congress in 1972, decreed (among other things) that educational institutions no longer discriminate by sex. So previously all-male institutions, including my alma mater Georgetown University and several Ivy League hold-outs, opened their doors to women for the first time. And we walked on through. Today, women comprise nearly 60 percent of all college students.  

Likewise, in a series of high-profile cases between the 1970s and the 1990s (many of which argued by Ruth Bader Ginsburg), the courts ruled women must be allowed access to graduate and professional schools too. Since 2015, women have outnumbered men in law schools. And, in 2019, for the first time, females outnumbered males in U.S. medical schools. It is hard to overstate the significance of these seismic changes in American women’s daily lives. Men still outnumber women in senior positions in nearly all fields; but before Roe, women weren’t even in the building, let alone able to see the glass ceiling.

Men still outnumber women in senior positions in nearly all fields; but before Roe, women weren’t even in the building, let alone able to see the glass ceiling.

Of course, the majority opinion in the Roe decision does not explicitly say anything about women’s access to education or careers—but the right to control one’s reproductive life has everything to do with one’s ability to complete an education and pursue a career. The stupendous gains women have made in all facets of society since Roe, namely the improvements to women’s health and safety, far outpace those of any other time in history.

For poor women, the implications of Roe are even more stark.  When I came of age, the majority of people who had abortions were middle class, but over the past 20 years the demographics have shifted such that the majority of women who have abortions are low-income. In part, this is because wealthier women have more reliable access to effective birth control and, thus fewer unintended pregnancies. The Turnaway Study examines the long-term implications for women who are denied abortions and finds these women experience “an increase in household poverty for at least four years.” Overall the study concludes women who attain safe abortions are “more financially stable, set more ambitious goals, raise children under more stable conditions and are more likely to have a wanted child later.”  

Overturning Roe will not only limit women’s options and endanger lives, it will also produce more subtle psychic shifts. Growing up in the era of Roe meant women knew, even if only implicitly, that the laws—as contested and underenforced as they are—were on our side. The law prohibits sex discrimination and assault and Roe ensured that a women’s maternal capacity did not unintentionally determine her life’s course. Sexual assault and harassment remain endemic (and, as Catherine MacKinnon has established, de facto sexual harassment has increased after de jure forms of discrimination were outlawed).

But at our core, the women of Generation Roe knew the laws were on our side which empowered women to persist in challenging discrimination and harassment in all sectors of society.

What might overturning Roe do to that courage of conviction and moral authority? Will women still feel confident demanding bodily autonomy and equality when the law in dozens of states will require, among other horrendous Gilead-esque outcomes, that 12-year-old girls who are raped by their fathers carry their babies to term? And when the Supreme Court rules that the rights of unborn fetuses trump those of women and girls?

Will women still feel confident demanding bodily autonomy and equality when the law in dozens of states will require 12-year-old girls who are raped by their fathers carry their babies to term? And when the Supreme Court rules that the rights of unborn fetuses trump those of women and girls?

In the days and weeks following the Supreme Court abortion hearings on Dec. 1, 2021, I have been haunted by a line from Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s spectacular 2019 novel Fleischman Is in Trouble. The female narrator observes:

“It was like those T-shirts all my daughter’s friends were wearing to school now, the ones that said THE FUTURE IS FEMALE in big block letters. How they march around in broad daylight in shirts like that. But the only reason it’s tolerated is that everyone knows it’s just a lie we tell to girls to make their marginalization bearable.”  

Have we known all along that Roe v. Wade and the autonomy it guaranteed was just a short-term aberrance only two generations of women would get to experience? When I teach U.S. women’s history, I often tell students that contrary to how textbooks present change over time, history is not the inevitable march of progress, onward and upward toward equality for all. Rather, it is a series of achievements, resistance, partial victories and setbacks.

But the potential repeal of Roe v. Wade will be, to my mind, among the most consequential setbacks for women in U.S. history. It is one thing to fight for equal rights; it is quite another to lose existing rights and have to fight for them all over again.

Some women (including most notably Justice Amy Coney Barrett) contend women do not need access to safe legal abortion in order to have equality and autonomy. But the research simply does not bear this out.

Moving forward, the women of Generation Roe must continue to speak out and join forces with other generations of activists to ensure we will not be the only ones to have experienced full personhood, unencumbered by laws seeking to define all women as mothers whose interests are subsumed by their children, born and unborn.

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About

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin is professor of history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and the author of Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener. A distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, Hamlin speaks about the history of women across the country and regularly contributes to the Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine and other media. Follow her on Twitter @ProfessorHamlin.