Women’s Rights and Democracy Are Inextricably Linked

We cannot expect to meas­ure the ebb and flow of a truly inclus­ive demo­cracy without first look­ing to gender equity. Women’s rights have been the canary in the coal mine all along.

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Demonstrators rally against anti-abortion and voter suppression laws at the Texas State Capitol on Oct. 2, 2021 in Austin. (Montinique Monroe / Getty Images)

This article was originally published by the Brennan Center.

Last fall, the United States was included for the first time on the annual list of back­slid­ing demo­cra­cies published by the Inter­na­tional Insti­tute for Demo­cracy and Elect­oral Assist­ance. Broadly defined as those exhib­it­ing “gradual but signi­fic­ant weak­en­ing of checks on govern­ment and civil liber­ties,” back­slid­ing demo­cra­cies are meas­ured by categor­ies includ­ing repres­ent­at­ive govern­ment, impar­tial admin­is­tra­tion and parti­cip­at­ory engage­ment. The European think tank repor­ted that the United States shows signi­fic­ant lapses in effect­ive legislat­ive bodies and freedoms of expres­sion and assembly.

Around the same time, a sweep­ing abor­tion ban went into effect in Texas and inquir­ies about its correl­a­tion to our back­slid­ing demo­cracy were raised. The New York Times was among several news organ­iz­a­tions report­ing that such a descent is precisely when “curbs on women’s rights tend to accel­er­ate.”

However, there has been notably little discourse about the converse of this propos­i­tion: that Amer­ica’s long­stand­ing and abysmal record on myriad gender equity mark­ers has been the true harbinger for our down­graded status. Accord­ing to a United Nations report, the traject­ory of “de-demo­crat­iz­a­tion” is rarely analyzed initially through the distinct lens of gender equity and there are insuf­fi­cient efforts to system­at­ic­ally exam­ine the current implic­a­tions.

To be sure, the United States is, in fact, exper­i­en­cing an increase in women’s repres­ent­a­tion. Twenty-seven percent of members of Congress are now women, up 50 percent from a decade ago. On the Supreme Court, women will likely soon account for four out of nine justices, two of whom are women of color. Vice Pres­id­ent Kamala Harris is the first woman, and person of color, to serve in the role. At the state level, more than 30 percent of elec­ted exec­ut­ives are women, along with 31 percent of legis­lat­ors.  

But these raw numbers alone are an insuf­fi­cient meas­ure. Women’s lead­er­ship in the United States still lags relat­ive to much of the world. And the figures are a far cry from robust and mean­ing­ful repres­ent­a­tion, espe­cially for women of color. Today there are zero Black women in the Senate, and a Black woman has never served as state governor. 

Amer­ica’s long­stand­ing and abysmal record on myriad gender equity mark­ers has been the true harbinger for our down­graded democracy status.

The United States also performs piti­fully on essen­tial ingredi­ents for women’s parti­cip­a­tion in the body politic. For example, while mater­nal mortal­ity has decreased glob­ally—drop­ping by 43 percent over the last three decades—rates in the United States remain on the rise. We currently rank 46th in the world. The crisis is partic­u­larly acute for Black women, who are three times more likely to die during preg­nancy and child­birth in Amer­ica than white women. Glob­ally, paid mater­nity leave aver­ages 29 weeks. We are one of only six coun­tries, and the only wealthy nation, without any form of national paid leave.

Further, the United States is an outlier on consti­tu­tional equal­ity, even as the Equal Rights Amend­ment now navig­ates final rati­fic­a­tion after a century-long fight. Eighty-five percent of United Nations member states have expli­cit consti­tu­tional provi­sions that prohibit discrim­in­a­tion on the basis of sex and/or gender. Of those with consti­tu­tions adop­ted since 2000, all do so; France is among those that have amended their older, estab­lished consti­tu­tions to acknow­ledge equal­ity. 

For the past two decades, as much of the world has expan­ded access to abor­tion, the U.S. is one of three coun­tries—joined by Nicaragua and Poland—actively rolling back rights. 

Across domestic agen­cies we have too few guard­rails against abus­ive insti­tu­tional prac­tices and too many reports of barbaric treat­ment of women and girls, includ­ing of those who are incar­cer­ated or detained by the govern­ment being ster­il­ized without their consent, shackled during child­birth or denied menstrual products.  

And the list goes on. These are not merely the byproducts of a demo­cracy on the decline. Rather, they also drive a down­ward spiral—and can inev­it­ably lead to deeper inequal­ity and wider gaps in parti­cip­a­tion, a truly vicious cycle.

As indic­ated above, Amer­ica’s stand­ing in the global repro­duct­ive land­scape offers a real-time glimpse at what to expect from our back­slide. For the past two decades, as much of the world has expan­ded access to abor­tion, the United States is one of three coun­tries—joined by Nicaragua and Poland—actively rolling back rights. 

Though most Amer­ic­ans support legal abor­tion, we’ve now seen overtly uncon­sti­tu­tional laws glide through state legis­latures and be met with stag­ger­ing indif­fer­ence by the courts. Later this spring, the Supreme Court will likely uphold the 15-week ban in ques­tion in Dobbs vs. Jack­son Women’s Health Organ­iz­a­tion,  thereby gutting the preced­ent of Roe v. Wade. All of which has spurred even more extreme propos­als—like a bill in Missouri that would allow citizens to sue anyone who attempts to help a person seek an abor­tion out of state. 

As the Times reporter above reflects:

“For all the complex­it­ies around the ebb and flow of abor­tion rights, a simple formula holds surpris­ingly widely. Major­it­ari­an­ism and the rights of women, the only univer­sal major­ity, are inex­tric­ably linked. Where one rises or falls, so does the other.”

Except we cannot expect to meas­ure the ebb and flow of a truly inclus­ive demo­cracy without first look­ing to gender equity. It is not a chicken and egg equa­tion—but rather where we must start and end the inquiry. Women’s rights have been the canary in the coal mine all along.

Ms. and the Brennan Center (BC) for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute at the NYU School of Law, co-published 11 essays as part of a groundbreaking series, “Abortion Is Essential to Democracy.” In the series, BC experts argue that voting rights and democracy are connected to abortion access. The essays all directly comment on the decision for the Supreme Court to hear oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson. Read all 11 essays here.

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About

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is the executive director of Ms. partnerships and strategy. A lawyer, fierce advocate and frequent writer on issues of gender, feminism and politics in America, Weiss-Wolf has been dubbed the “architect of the U.S. campaign to squash the tampon tax” by Newsweek. She is the author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity, which was lauded by Gloria Steinem as “the beginning of liberation for us all,” and is a contributor to Period: Twelve Voices Tell the Bloody Truth. She is also the women and democracy fellow at the Brennan Center. Find her on Twitter: @jweisswolf.