The Fate of Women’s Rights Is Tied to the Fate of Democracy. How Can We Secure Both?

Demonstrators gather at Indiana University in Bloomington to rally in support of reproductive rights on Oct. 2, 2021. Since Texas passed its six-week ban in September of last year, dozens of states have followed in Texas’s footsteps. (Jeremy Hogan / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

This year, Ms. magazine will have been published for 50 years—and if we have learned nothing from the past five decades, it should be that change can happen swiftly, both for better and for worse. 

Earlier this year, we watched in horror as 20 years of women’s and girls’ progress in Afghanistan were wiped out with the Taliban’s rise to power.

Here in the U.S., the democratic institutions we have relied upon to advance women’s rights are under intensifying attack, and as in other authoritarian regimes, women are the canaries in the coal mine. 

States are passing increasingly harsh and sweeping bans on abortion access. Last week, without any debate or questions allowed, the Republican-controlled Oklahoma legislature passed a six-week Texas-style abortion ban which will take effect immediately. Earlier this year, Oklahoma passed a total ban on abortion that would make performing an abortion a felony, with up to 10 years in prison if convicted—that could go into effect as early as August, depending on the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision.  

Soon the Supreme Court is expected to further weaken, if not obliterate, women’s constitutional right to abortion, a decision that will threaten other fundamental rights people in this country have come to rely upon—including the right to birth control and the right to marry the person we love regardless of sex or race. 

The fight for abortion cannot be separated from the fight for other constitutional rights, including voting rights—it is a fight for self-determination, which is critical to a truly representative democracy.

In the Spring issue of Ms., researchers Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks explain how threats to women’s autonomy and civil liberties impact and mirror larger political trends around the globe where democracy is in decline and authoritarianism is on the rise. In a powerful analysis of the backlash against feminist progress—what we’re calling the patriarchs’ war on women—Marks and Chenoweth write, the “connection between sexism and authoritarianism is not coincidental … women’s political power is essential to a properly functioning multiracial democracy, and fully free empowered women are a threat to autocracy.”

As Chenoweth’s and Marks’s research shows, it’s been women’s progress—the right to vote, to own property, for reproductive rights and for civil rights for all people—that has led to an expansion of democracy globally in the 20th century.   

When the fate of women’s rights is tied to the fate of democracy—and when both are in dire straits—how can we help secure both? We must be prepared for what is nothing less than major battles for the survival and advancement of women’s rights—and our very democracy. 

In the Spring issue of Ms., we examine the backlash against feminist progress in the U.S.—from increasing restrictions on abortions at the state level, to restrictions on voting rights, to attacks on LGBTQ rights, and more. Join today to get our newest issue delivered straight to your mailbox—and fuel another year of our reporting, rebelling and truth-telling. 

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Katherine Spillar is the executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms., where she oversees editorial content and the Ms. in the Classroom program.