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Wednesday, June 22, 2022

How conservatives are weaponising feminism to bring down Roe v Wade

Iseult de Mallet Burgess examines how neoliberalism and 'choice politics’ are weaponised by some conservatives who want to roll back access to abortion in the USA.

CW: Abortion

“Empower Women. Promote Life.” 

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s anti-abortion campaign is centred around a slogan that uses the façade of feminism to justify a reactionary agenda. Fitch is the face of the abortion case poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, which began with oral arguments on December 1st. Fitch claims that abortion bans can “empower” women to “have it all” – utterly and wilfully deaf to the masses of lesser-privileged women who are and will be harmed by this agenda. 

The right to abortion is recognised in Roe v. Wade: the landmark 1973 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court ruled that access to safe and legal abortion is a constitutional right. Roe has been under attack for years – but in the Mississippi case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of a pre-viability abortion ban for the first time since Roe. Overturning or further eroding Roe would put more than 25 million women at risk of losing access to abortion, and in danger from unsafe, illegal abortions.

How did we get here? How did we get to a place in which the language of feminism is being used to dismantle the rights the movement fought to secure?

One answer is that today’s brand of mainstream, liberal feminism is an ineffectual and unfortunate result of the neoliberalisation of feminism – a decades-long process beginning in the late twentieth century, which watered feminism down so that it no longer threatens the status quo. A movement that once prioritised social solidarity and mass mobilisation now promotes individual achievement, self-optimisation and careerism in the name of “empowerment.” A movement once about liberation is now a de-politicised shell prioritising individual choice over structural analysis. A movement once critical of capitalism has become its handmaiden.

This process began with the rise of neoliberalism in the late twentieth century. Neoliberalism championed freedom, hyper-individualism, and self-optimisation. As women were granted greater freedom and autonomy through participation in the free market, second wave feminists began to view liberalism as the way forward for feminism. So although the second wave of feminism began as a critique of capitalist exploitation and the role of women in postwar, state-managed capitalist society, the movement was seduced by neoliberalism and allied itself with capitalism.  

One particularly unfortunate consequence of this process was the emergence of “choice politics” as a central tenet of the feminist movement. Choice politics supposes that any choice made by a woman is empowering by default, which rests on the idea that the act of making a choice is the ultimate expression of a woman’s autonomy and freedom.

Because of choice politics and the narrative of “women’s empowerment” which touts the careerwomen as the ultimate image of gender equality – and because neoliberal feminism is entirely ignorant of the structural aspects behind gender inequality (such as patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy) – the language of liberal feminism is apolitical, and easily adopted by anyone. 

Fitch’s argument is that because of feminism, women are now fully able to pursue both motherhood and a career, eliminating the need for abortion. To support her argument, she draws on her own experience as a (white, upper middle class) single mother. 

According to Fitch, women are no longer inhibited by unwanted pregnancies. This could not, however, be further from the truth: overwhelming evidence suggests that denying people access to abortion has consistently proved detrimental to their mental and physical health. What’s more, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, the likely scenario is that people with means and privilege like Fitch will still be able to access abortions, but women without the same privileges – such as women of colour, poor women, and undocumented women – will be harmed most severely. 

This is not at all to say that mainstream feminism is the sole culprit for conservatives’ languaging and agendas. The misappropriation of feminism is just a new approach by anti-abortion conservatives who have been waging war on reproductive rights for decades. It is, however, a particularly bleak perversion that women, such as Fitch, are increasingly becoming the face of this anti-choice agenda. 

Image Credit: Adam Fagen / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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