There are staggering numbers of women helping to drive the anti-abortion fight. Currently at the center of the action is Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch. She petitioned the Supreme Court to review Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which, according to the recently leaked court opinion, will result in Roe v. Wade being overturned. Fitch uses her own story of raising three children as a divorced, single working mother to justify her anti-abortion position: that overturning Roe will “empower” women, giving them a chance to “redirect their lives.” Fitch disregards the fact that the majority of women who seek abortions are already mothers and that working parents in the United States are disadvantaged by the lack of government-mandated parental leave and subsidized child care.
As a result, motherhood is more likely to empower women who have the financial and social means to succeed in this role. For many women, having children, or having more children, increases their financial needs and makes regular employment more difficult, pushing them into poverty, which the child welfare system often conflates with neglect. Far from being empowered, these women experience the humiliating intrusion of investigations to determine their parental fitness and custodial rights.
Beyond Fitch’s blindness to the actual experience of many mothers in this country, what is so insidious about her position is that it rests on the assumption that only motherhood truly empowers women. It extends the traditional conception of motherhood as the only natural position for women and the only acceptable realm within which to assert power, leaving power in all other realms primarily to men.
The notion that we must have children to fully realize ourselves reflects a view of women as fundamentally incomplete. We are not sufficient on our own but can gain value as an extension of a man or by becoming a mother. Through self-sacrifice and care of others, we can be made whole. Our role as subservient caregivers determines not just our identity but our humanity. For anti-abortion activists, an embryo or fetus is more important than the woman whose body it resides in, and her life should be sacrificed for it. This clump of cells is more human than she is.
Women and girls have long been taught that we are only as good as what we provide to others. The residue of these messages plagues me even after significant efforts to educate myself about where they come from and to disentangle them from my sense of self-worth.
As a psychologist and parent of two young children, I spend the bulk of my day caring for others. These are meaningful activities and certainly challenge me to grow in valuable ways. But what challenges me the most is not doing for others but allowing myself to just be. Trusting that I am enough as I am to have value and rights.
My struggles are mirrored by so many of the women I see in therapy, who feel they must meet others’ needs before voicing their own, shrink themselves to make room for others, and not burden anyone by their existence. They wonder why they lack confidence, and they blame themselves.
These challenges often get worse with motherhood; many women feel that they lose themselves as their needs are subsumed by those of their children. Women who become mothers show declines in psychological health compared with women of the same age who are not mothers. They have higher rates of depression, and those rates increase with added life adversities (poverty, divorce, underemployment), which are more prevalent among women of color. Women with children are also at higher risk of intimate partner violence and are less likely to leave abusive partners than women without children.
The messages that lead women to internalize a sense of inferiority come from all the usual sources—the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions (particularly mothers), wage gaps (which widen substantially when women have children), and fights over women’s rights to govern their bodies—but also directly from other women.
Our society weaponizes women against women. For Fitch to ascend the ladder of the conservative political structure, she had to make herself useful in a way that members of the male majority can’t: As a woman on their side, she lends them credibility in the fight to take away women’s rights. Worse, Fitch transforms their intentions to assert dominance and control into a message that, through submission to authority and acceptance of the position conferred on us by men, women can be empowered.
Like our worth, our power has traditionally been determined by our relationships to men and our roles as mothers. This is how women perpetuate the idea that our lives are about deference and self-sacrifice. That in losing ourselves through the care of others, we find ourselves—as we ought to be by patriarchal standards. And having children is a way to justify our existence.
Women like Fitch, and there are many, are not likely to give up their alliance with this power structure, because it has put them among the oppressors rather than the oppressed. But millions of women—and trans and nonbinary people—suffer as a result. We have been taught to accept the forces of oppression rather than struggle against them, and that if we suffer, it’s our own fault for wanting more than the role afforded to us. That is the kind of “empowerment” Fitch is advocating: empowerment through submission and compliance with a system that benefits wealthy white men above all. Empowerment that comes at the expense of women’s agency, autonomy, and humanity.
In our fight for abortion rights, women must help one another see ourselves as human first. Only then can we choose whether to become mothers.