Women’s Rights Are Essential to Democracy. Why Do Philanthropists Treat Investments in Women as a Special Interest?

Divorcing gender justice from democracy is inconsistent, irrational and unnecessarily expensive. To separate them is to delay success and pay for it many times over. 

Democratic U.S. representatives, dressed in white to call attention to women’s rights, cheer during the State of the Union address by President Joe Biden on March 7, 2024. (Shawn Thew-Pool / Getty Images)

Last month the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether Idaho is allowed to enforce a near-total abortion ban—even for abortions performed in a medical emergency—in a challenge to the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) which requires hospitals to treat patients with life-threatening conditions. The case Moyle v. U.S. marks the second time this term the Court heard a case to limit nationwide access to abortion care, having considered a challenge to the legality of the abortion medication mifepristone in late March.

The chaotic state of play for abortion rights in the United States illustrates the consequences of failing to integrate efforts to strengthen democracy into strategies for advancing gender equity, and vice versa. 

In states with strong abortion rights support, we’ve seen how anti-democratic tactics have been used to undermine the will of the people—from passing legislation to undermine bodily autonomy, to stacking the judiciary with judges hostile to reproductive rights, to engaging in voter suppression tactics.

This backlash has exposed the playbook of an empowered movement, now dominated by white Christian nationalists. Gender and racial bias are weaponized not only to attain power, but to undermine the rights of women and degrade their participation in the body politic. 

EMTALA and Dismantling Democracy

The medication abortion case before the Supreme Court, challenging the FDA’s authority and decades of science to deny women access to safe abortion care, is just one example of how their investment in dismantling democracy, led by the architect of the judiciary strategy, Leonard Leo, is paying dividends. 

But the danger goes well beyond banning abortion. Gendered attacks are central to anti-democratic organizing, including incubating anti-equality policies that harm women and trans people at the state level to soften the ground for clawing back hard won rights nationwide. 

It is only possible for there to be a truly representative body politic in this country with bodily autonomy.

The fact a law literally designed to deny an abortion to a pregnant person specifically to save their life comes out of Idaho should hardly surprise anyone. The state has long served as a breeding ground for extremist attacks on human rights. In April, the Supreme Court allowed Idaho to continue to enforce its extreme ban on gender-affirming care for minors

It is only possible for there to be a truly representative body politic in this country with bodily autonomy. That is a reality embraced only tepidly by those holding the pro-democracy movement’s pursestrings. And it is to our collective peril. 

Looking to Reproductive Justice

Black women leaders in the reproductive justice movement have been sounding this alarm for decades—and often point to Mississippi as a prime example. Over a decade ago, voters there rejected a personhood amendment in 2011 but passed a restrictive voter ID measure—only to fight the abortion issue years later all the way up to the Supreme Court in the Dobbs case. 

Cassandra Welchlin, the lead organizer and co-convener of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, noted in 2021 that abortion battles are “about the criminalization of our communities… and also about voter suppression. And so we can’t look at this in a silo… These are issues we’ve been dealing with since the founding of our country. These are just tactics renamed and rebranded.”

Fast forward to Wisconsin in 2023, where the threat to abortion rights defined the state Supreme Court race, resulting in a bench more likely to protect abortion and voting rights.

For philanthropic leaders, the twin goals of strengthening democracy and advancing gender equity presents a compelling case for simultaneous investment. Not only does it maximize resources to align investments in women’s rights advocacy, civic education, electoral reform and institutional capacity-building, but it also fosters sustainable progress that enhances democratic resilience, promotes inclusive governance, and fosters a more equitable society.

These are issues we’ve been dealing with since the founding of our country. These are just tactics renamed and rebranded.

Cassandra Welchin

Globally, numerous case studies and research findings support the effectiveness of integrated approaches to gender equity and democracy:

  • Countries with higher levels of gender equality tend to have stronger democratic institutions and governance systems.
  • Programs that combine empowering women with initiatives to strengthen democratic processes have demonstrated clear and positive outcomes, including increased political participation, improved governance and enhanced social cohesion.

There is a deceptive myth about American democracy that continues to undergird philanthropic grant-making: that our democracy was reasonably functional in the past and is only now facing a crisis. It’s a myth grounded in white supremacist patriarchy, in which middle-class white men felt relatively secure and had faith in institutions.

This myth is how “women’s issues”—from equal representation to reproductive freedom and justice to equal pay – came to be treated by philanthropy as a special interest, distinct from democracy and relevant only to and the responsibility of women. 

Women and people of color were not a part of the vision of democracy at this country’s founding and have never been treated, even by the philanthropy community, as central to the vision of a modern democracy. Divorcing gender justice from democracy is inconsistent ideologically, and it’s also irrational and unnecessarily expensive. To separate them is to delay success and pay for it many times over. 

Up next:

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.


Shaunna Thomas is co-founder and executive director of UltraViolet, a powerful and rapidly growing community of people mobilized to fight sexism and create a more inclusive world that accurately represents all women, from politics and government to media and pop culture.