The Arizona Abortion Fight Is a Reminder That Progress Is Not Linear

The shock of the Arizona ruling is real. But those who care about the future of gender equality should remember: Change is slow, fitful and rarely progressive.

Pro-abortion rights demonstrators rally in Scottsdale, Ariz., on April 15, 2024, a few days after the state’s top court ruled a 160-year-old near-total ban on abortion is enforceable, thrusting the issue to the top of the agenda in a key U.S. presidential election swing state. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

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April’s U.S. political news admittedly brought many horrors—from Alabama legislators advancing a bill to define sex based on “reproductive systems,” not gender identity; to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing an Idaho ban on gender-affirming care for minors to take effect; to the Arizona Supreme Court upholding an abortion ban from 1864, which opens the door to criminalizing health providers with up to five years of prison time if they provide abortion services. Tucson Mayor Regina Romero called the ruling “a huge step backwards.”

Legal changes in the present may appear to be reversing earlier advancements, as Romero said. But advocates of equity need a better grasp of history so they are realistic about the intermittent successes of movements for social change. After all, there’s no such thing as outright progress in the history of gender equality.

There is no doubt that the Arizona statute and the repeal of Roe v. Wade will continue to levy devastating blows against women’s reproductive freedom. But those who express a belief in an arc of justice bending toward gender equity need to consider that history tells a different story.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries looked to be a golden age for women’s rights. U.S. and U.K. women only got the right to vote after the World War I, following decades of reform movements advocating for political enfranchisement. The bars to women’s suffrage fell across much of the globe in the ensuing decades. But barriers to women’s access to the vote have long persisted, even where the law technically afford them the right to the ballot the world over.

In the U.S., the Equal Rights Amendment stalled less than a decade after Roe v. Wade, thanks in part to a coordinated conservative counter-campaign financed by business interests, especially the insurance industry, which opposed equality. (After all, sex discrimination is highly profitable.)

Women’s economic equality remains elusive. According to the Pew Research Center, “progress toward narrowing the pay gap has all but stalled in the 21st century,” with American women earning 82 cents for every dollar earned by men as recently as 2022. The gender pay gap endures, despite gains in women’s educational attainments in the last 60 years. Pew reports that “a wide gulf separates the earnings of Black and Hispanic women from the earnings of white men.” In 2022, Black women earned 70 percent as much as white men, and Hispanic women earned only 65 percent as much.

The advancement of gender parity in this country has been nonlinear and unevenly distributed along racial, ethnic and class lines. And yet the narrative of gender progress has persisted, contributing to both shock and dismay when major challenges to gender equality like the Arizona ban arise.

As a historian of feminism and history professor for 30 years, I observe students and some faculty colleagues who hold fast to the expectation that gender equality evolves inevitably from exclusion to total freedom.

The assumption is also that women sought emancipation, then the civil rights movement demanded the same for Black Americans, then came queer and trans campaigns for marriage equality, recognition and legal equality.

But these movements did not happen serially. They happened simultaneously. Debates about equality in the U.S. and beyond emerged from the shared context of women’s liberation, civil rights, LGBTQ+ and decolonization movements of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

The 1969 Stonewall riots with protests by members of the LGBT community took place in the same year Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman in Congress and California adopted the first “no fault” divorce law, allowing divorce by mutual consent.

I observe students and some faculty colleagues who hold fast to the expectation that gender equality evolves inevitably from exclusion to total freedom.

The myth that progress happens like dominoes—via one social movement and then via another—is remarkably durable. But it ignores the way that the histories of women’s rights and civil rights were entwined. And the fact that queer and trans advocates did not come along later, but were at the battlements from the start.

The Third Annual Lesbian Pride Parade June 24, 1995, in New York City. The parade commemorates the Stonewall riots of 1969. (Evan Agostini / Liaison)

The shock of the Arizona ruling is real. But those who care about the future of gender equality need to understand its past and manage their expectations for change—which is slow, fitful and rarely progressive. Given the present political and cultural climate in the U.S., it is time for citizens, voters and policymakers to abandon the fantasy of steady, consistent progress toward justice. 

The fight for full gender equality is a long game—as is racial equity and fair treatment of LGBTQIA+ persons. It is urgently necessary to learn from the past, assume that setbacks are norm, and strategize for relentless, ongoing collective struggle.

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U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Antoinette Burton is a professor of history and director of the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and author of the forthcoming book, Gender History: A Very Short Introduction. She is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.