U.S. Culture Is So Deeply Patriarchal, We Can’t Even Admit Overturning Roe Is About Women

Focusing on other consequences of the overturning of Roe v. Wade makes us forget the Supreme Court’s decision is really about misogyny.

Pro-choice demonstrators rally on Mother’s Day in Boston on May 8, 2022. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images)

After the leak of the Samuel Alito opinion that will most likely overturn Roe v. Wade, Joe Biden responded with the requisite solemnity and a sleight of hand that made attacking reproductive rights not really about women. Biden asked: “This is about a lot more than abortion. … What are the next things that are gonna be attacked?”

Over at the Daily Beast, Wajahat Ali opines that “if the Supreme Court can overturn Roe v. Wade, it can ban interracial marriage. They won’t stop with reproductive rights. We need to fight back, now.” 

On my Twitter feed, people are also extremely concerned about everything but the patriarchy. “Obergefell is next,” more than a few people warned this morning.

But here’s the thing: Overturning Roe is actually about misogyny. Period, full stop. And the fact that so many of us cannot talk about that, even people with supposedly progressive values, says a lot about how deep patriarchy runs in the veins of all red-blooded Americans.

Don’t get me wrong—the people who will suffer the most are poor women and women of color. As Sung Yeon Choimorrow, Marcella Howell and Lupe M. Rodríguez wrote here in Ms., “People of color make up 60 percent of abortion recipients.” Also, I do understand that not just women get pregnant and that the gender-queer and trans community will suffer greatly from the overturning of Roe.

But let’s just focus on the fact that the multi-decade movement to overturn Roe is about hating women. In patriarchal cultures, the state controls pregnant people as a way of signaling to them that they are not in charge of their bodies. The point of overturning Roe and restricting access to abortion is to push women out of full citizenship. The state decides who is a citizen on the basis of race and nation of origin, but also on on the basis of gender and sexuality. This is what is known as sexual citizenship.

For most of the history of nation states, women were not granted full sexual citizenship. Nor were LGBTQ+ people. The way the state denies sexual citizenship to trans people is by denying trans people the right to access hormones or gender-affirming surgeries or to play sports or to change their state-issued documents. The way gay and lesbian people were long denied sexual citizenship was by not being able to serve in the military or be legally married. The way the state denies women full sexual citizenship is by telling them they have no control over whether or not they give birth.

The state decides who is a citizen on the basis of race and nation of origin, but also on on the basis of gender and sexuality. This is what is known as sexual citizenship.

And so, when as a culture we move on from the deeply misogynist impulse to force women to bear children against their will to other presumably more important rights, we reinforce the patriarchy. We refuse to witness the horror of it or by acting as if this particular form of state violence isn’t enough, but could really have terrible consequences for other, more important groups of people than women as a group.

Let’s just sit with the fact that in the U.S. women are not full sexual citizens and therefore not fully human—even as we complicate it with which women will be the most likely to suffer the consequences of this Supreme Court explosion of misogyny and the fact that not all people who need abortions are women. Let’s not forget the patriarchal impulse at the heart of this decision to ask, “What’s next? Gay marriage?”

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Laurie Essig is a professor of gender studies at Middlebury College and the author of several books, including Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self, and the Other.