Feminist Concerns Are Democracy Concerns

The United States was officially designated a backsliding democracy in late 2021—a full six months before the fall of Roe v. Wade. At the time, journalists warned that such a descent is precisely when “curbs on women’s rights tend to accelerate.” But can a country that has never truly addressed women’s equality ever be a thriving democracy? And are democracies that have abysmal records on gender equity destined to falter? Explore “Women’s Rights and Backsliding Democracies“—a multimedia project comprised of essays, video and podcast programming, presented by Ms., NYU Law’s Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network and Rewire News Group.

Audience members at the “Women’s Rights and Backsliding Democracies” symposium. (Brooke Slezak / NYU Law)

Last month, several members of the Rewire News Group team gathered at New York University School of Law, where Rewire News Group joined Ms. magazine as media co-sponsors of an important legal symposium, “Women’s Rights and Backsliding Democracies,” organized and hosted by the NYU Law’s Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network. The daylong event would have felt timely and appropriate regardless of the place this country finds itself in following the Supreme Court’s lawless reversal of Roe v. Wade. But with an entirely new and different threat to abortion rights and access looming around medication abortion that has taken place largely in the shadows, the timing and programming of the event was downright uncanny. 

First is the inescapable reality that the fate of our democracy is completely and totally interwoven with the current fight to control our bodies. And I’m not just talking about abortion bans, either.

As autocracy expands, it threatens the very ability of women and LGBTQ people to exist, let alone participate fully in public and civic life. It’s a means of reinforcing a very specific gender ideology into the state via things like abortion bans, and it depends on rationalized violence to sustain itself and hold power. This point was driven home most specifically in the panel dedicated to backsliding rights and democracies abroad, but its message resonated deeply with the current state of affairs in this country.

As our rights backslide, so too does our democracy—which is why feminist concerns are always and inevitably democratic concerns.

A woman casts her ballot in Chicago’s mayoral race on Feb. 28, 2023. (Kamil Krzaczynski / Getty Images)

Across the United States, nearly 500 anti-trans bills have been introduced in state legislatures in 2023 alone, some that would forcibly detransition children and adults. Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative advocacy organization that has launched a multi-pronged attack against medication abortion in the federal courts with the hopes of setting the stage for some kind of nationwide abortion ban in 2024, is intricately connected to and helping drive this current wave of anti-trans panic.

And those lawmakers like Montana’s Zooey Zephyr or Nebraska’s Meghan Hunt that have dared to stand up to these attacks? They’ve faced investigation, public censure, and in Zephyr’s case, removal, by their conservative colleagues. All for holding the line between bodily autonomy and democratic participation.  

This expanding autocracy does something else as it grabs hold—it attempts to redefine who is and who is not a person under the law. That’s why we see anti-choice advocates pushing for fetal personhood at the same time they are advocating against civil rights protections for LGBTQ people. If they can control who is and who is not considered a person under the law, their ability to hold tight to power calcifies.

Global Justice Center’s Christine Ryan spoke about this point most directly when addressing the fight to secure reproductive autonomy in Ireland. She spoke in detail about the connection between Ireland’s abortion ban and that country’s recognition of fetal personhood as a direct result of the United States shipping its worst policies and political actors overseas. 

Meanwhile, Alejandra Cárdenas of the Center for Reproductive Rights spoke about cross-coalition organizing in Latin America that has resulted in the widespread restoration of rights. It was hard not to hear echoes of recent elections— like the state supreme court race in Wisconsin for example, in her remarks. There, a coalition of organizers secured one state supreme court seat in a race that was, rightly, framed as one that could decide the fate of both reproductive autonomy and democracy. 

As our rights backslide, so too does our democracy—which is why feminist concerns are always and inevitably democratic concerns. This is a point we need to reinforce over and over and over again as this country gears up for the 2024 presidential election—the first since the Court stripped core rights away in Dobbs

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Jessica Mason Pieklo is a senior vice president and executive editor at Rewire News Group. She is also the co-host of the Rewire podcast Boom! Lawyered.