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Women’s Rights and Backsliding Democracies

The United States was officially designated a backsliding democracy in late 2021, when it appeared on a prominent European think tank’s annual global ranking.

Around the same time the U.S. made its debut on the list—still six months before the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, but with Texas’ unconstitutional six-week abortion ban already in effect, rendering abortion care all but inaccessible in the nation’s second most populous state—advocates and journalists raised real-time questions about the correlation between regression on abortion rights and degraded democracies. A New York Times article asserted that such a descent is precisely when “curbs on women’s rights tend to accelerate.”

We think that’s a proposition worth flipping on its head. Rather than clocking the downward spiral from this point forward, we might ask: “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?” According to the United Nations, the trajectory of “de-democratization” is rarely analyzed initially through the distinct lens of gender equity and there are insufficient efforts to systematically examine the current implications. This installment of Women & Democracy engages this critical conversation. We joined forces with NYU Law’s Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network and Rewire News Group to convene a full-day symposium in New York City on April 14, 2023. We encourage you to watch, listen, read—and learn from the global and national leaders and experts who weighed in with us.

Women & Democracy is our collaborative series, spearheaded by Ms. EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR PARTNERSHIPS AND STRATEGY, Jennifer Weiss-Wolf. Each quarter Ms. will publish a new microsite, together with a dedicated partner, that focuses on key issues impacting full and fair representation in our democracy.

  • The U.S. Democratic Backslide and Gender Equity: Its ‘Own Form of Intersectionality’

    A recent NYU symposium featured activists discussing U.S. democracy, gender, authoritarianism abortion, and women in politics. Read More

  • Dobbs, Abortion Rights and the State of U.S.Democracy

    Melissa Murray and Jessica Valenti at the NYU School of Law symposium, “Women’s Rights and Backsliding Democracies," talk abortion and the Supreme Court. Read More

  • Global Authoritarianism, Women’s Rights and the Power of Feminist Organizing

    By 2022, 58 percent of all countries had experienced a decline in checks on government power and two-thirds saw regression of human rights. Read More


Ms. Studios

Is Dobbs a Canary in the Coal Mine?

Is there a correlation between the status of reproductive rights and the health of our democracy? Lindsay Langholz of the American Constitution Society speaks with Ms.'s Jennifer Weiss-Wolf.

The fate of our democracy is completely and totally interwoven with the current fight to control our bodies ... which is why feminist concerns are democratic concerns.

Jessica Mason Pieklo, executive editor, Rewire News Group

The point is to sow so much uncertainty that even in places where abortion is legal, people don’t know if they can get the care they are legally entitled to. Doctors will be afraid. Pharmacists will be afraid. And because this is all changing so quickly, that feeds into that chaos too.

Jessica Valenti, feminist author and columnist, Abortion, Every Day

I don’t think we can understate the distortive effects of gerrymandering. ... It explains the extreme nature of abortion bans that are being passed. You just don’t get those kinds of extremes unless you so distorted the nature of the state legislature.

Melissa Murray, Frederick I. and Grace Stokes professor of law, NYU Law; faculty director, Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network

Women’s power as decision makers in the political process does not reflect our numbers or our needs. Who holds legislative or executive office ... matters tremendously to the design, the enactment, the implementation and the enforcement of laws that can help us or harm us. That includes the power to select the judges who interpret these laws.

Chisun Lee, director, Brennan Center's Elections and Government Program

Happy anniversary, 10 years since Shelby County. It’s also 10 years since Mississippi voted simultaneously on ballot measures for fetal personhood and voter ID. The fetal personhood measure failed and voter ID passed, and Mississippi of course goes on to pass the law that overturns Roe. It took less than 10 years. ... I think about the moment where they happened to be on the same ballot, and what could have been. How can we avoid making the same mistake again?

Irin Carmon, senior correspondent, New York magazine

It is impossible, truly impossible, to be a young Black girl in D.C. during the war on drugs and not know who was destroying our communities by design. And so for me this connection between medicine and policy has been a necessity.

Jamila Perritt, president and CEO, Physicians for Reproductive Health

When we talk about abortion, we also have to address pregnancy. We have to normalize pregnancy. We have to normalize the fact that pregnant people work and parent and do all kinds of things. We vote. We could sit on the Supreme Court. Let’s have a pregnant justice!

Ria Tabacco Mar, director, ACLU's Women's Rights Project

There’s a connection between an authoritarian idea of the presidency and the power of the elite on the Supreme Court. We need the rule of law. We need an honest Supreme Court.

Victoria Nourse, Ralph V. Whitworth professor of law, Georgetown University Law Center

The United States performs dreadfully on myriad ingredients needed to ensure equitable participation in the body politic. ... What if we looked at the United States’ persistent abysmal track record on gender equity as the potential smoking gun for its downward spiral?

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, executive director, Ms. partnerships and strategy; executive director, Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network at NYU Law

What is more authoritarian and more a rejection of basic individual freedoms, than believing the government should be able to force you into pregnancy and motherhood?

Jill Filipovic, author, OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind and The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness

Around the world, patriarchal authoritarianism is on the rise, and democracy is on the decline. The connection between sexism and authoritarianism is not coincidental, or a mere character flaw of individual misogynists-in-chief. Women’s political power is essential to a properly functioning multiracial democracy, and fully free, empowered women are a threat to autocracy.

Zoe Marks, lecturer in public policy, Harvard Kennedy School and Erica Chenoweth, professor of the First Amendment, Harvard Kennedy School; professor, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University"

Change happens over time. It is not an on-off switch. ... Democracy and autocracy emerge out of trends, and they can be identified, named and changed.

Meg Satterthwaite, co-director, Center for Human Rights and the Global Justice at NYU Law

After 1996 it was a huge improvement for women in Afghanistan. And then, in 2021, all of these achievements, all of these developments, went to zero. Women no longer have rights in Afghanistan; they’ve been erased from public life. I hope today I can bring their voice here.

Negina Khalili, lawyer and former prosecutor for the Afghan government; visiting professor, Loyola University

The Green Wave movement has become more emboldened and stronger and more intersectional and democratic in its approach. To me that says there just can’t be any type of revolution without feminism.

Alejandra Cardenas, senior director of legal strategies, innovation and research, Center for Reproductive Rights

The Irish abortion movement is a success story. ... What was really different about the last five years of the campaign was that feminists were able to get other movements on board—from the labor movement working very closely with migrant justice groups, to those who had campaigned for marriage equality in the country successfully in 2015. They transferred their lessons and their energy to abortion.

Christine Ryan, legal director, Global Justice Center

If you want a vibrant pro-democracy movement, then the people with the fewest democratic rights really need to be at the center.

Yifat Susskind, executive director, MADRE