It seems like every year women’s history Month gets less political and more corporate-celebratory. Yay, women! Who would have dreamed in 1980, when Jimmy Carter proclaimed the first Women’s History Week, that we would see Hershey’s honoring the month in 2023 by releasing limited-edition chocolate bars. But we have bigger issues than candy.
Around the time of the Dobbs decision last summer, Michelle Goldberg and Susan Faludi each wrote a piece for The New York Times warning that women were being pushed backward, and both criticized the feminist movement for failing to meet the moment. Faludi argued that feminists had become obsessed with celebrity and individualism, while Goldberg noted the numerous ways that feminism was increasingly unpopular—perceived as “cringe” by young women, and less favorably by younger men than by their fathers. I’m friends with both writers, but I am an optimistic sort. I sent off a pitch letter to the Times arguing that, despite some setbacks, women were forging ahead. More girls than ever go to college and grad school, I pointed out, where they receive the majority of degrees at every level. Girls’ and women’s sports are huge. Teen pregnancy and motherhood are the lowest they’ve been in decades. Evangelical women are calling out abusive pastors. But I never heard back, and it’s just as well, because I fear my gloomy friends are right.
No matter what progress takes place in other areas, abortion bans and related cutbacks to reproductive rights undermine it. The freedom to plan one’s childbearing is not just one item on a list; it’s fundamental to making progress on everything else. How could unwanted pregnancy not affect women’s education, sports, political participation, mental health, ability to work, ability to escape domestic violence or poverty—to say nothing of health and safety in pregnancy and childbirth? Activist groups are doing fantastic work raising money, organizing travel, and getting pills to those who request them, but it is just not possible to get everyone who lives in an abortion-ban state to a clinic hundreds of miles away.
To turn the situation around, we need action of every kind—electoral wins, political pressure, but also popular protest. Mass movements, like the 2017 Women’s March, can bring people together and spark ongoing local and individual activism. In Chile and Argentina, women protested for weeks on end to win legal abortion. Why not here? Successful protests don’t happen spontaneously. The 2004 March for Women’s Lives, one of the biggest demonstrations ever held in D.C., took a whole year of planning. But where are the groups that could do the work of organizing now? Planned Parenthood and NARAL seemed to have been blindsided by Dobbs, although for years they warned us it was coming. The Women’s March and NOW are shadows of their former selves.
I’m not saying mass demonstrations are magic. In fact, maybe the numbers are down because people have become discouraged by how little marching in D.C. has accomplished. The same amount of time, money, and energy might be better spent on, for example, getting out the vote for Janet Protasiewicz, the pro-choice liberal Democrat running to tip the balance on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Nor am I criticizing the many, many people who are knocking themselves out to win back and advance our rights. But we need a lot more of these people.
There are signs of hope. Michigan’s new Democratic-majority Legislature—achieved with pro-choice votes—voted to repeal its 1931 ban on abortion drugs. Walgreens has partially backed off its announcement that it wouldn’t sell mifepristone in the 21 states whose attorneys general have threatened legal action (including four—Kansas, Montana, Iowa, and Alaska—where abortion is legal). After an enormous uproar, including calls for a consumer boycott and California’s announcement that it would not renew its $54 million contract with the chain—Walgreens now says it will sell mifepristone in the states where abortion is legal. In the words of Heather Booth, longtime progressive activist and cofounder of the Jane Collective, the pre-Roe abortion network, “When we organize, we can win.”
Perhaps one problem is that we’re missing a crucial layer: the grassroots feminism that used to exist on the local level. As the historian Claire Potter put it in an e-mail to a feminist listserv, since the 1970s, there’s been a “massive collapse of local feminist institutions—lesbian bars, women’s bookstores, women’s centers at colleges and universities.” I could reply that everything’s moved to the Internet, but maybe the Internet is part of the problem—there’s no substitute for IRL. (Let me put in a plug here for a real-life feminist bookstore, Women & Children First in Chicago. They’ll mail you any book you want, and you can also buy books on their website for the Chicago Books to Women in Prison wish list.)
I have no answers. I write, I read, I press the donate button. Sometimes I think feminism has become too theoretical and abstract; sometimes I think it has become a form of wellness—yoga, candles, endless self-affirmation. I try to believe that feminism’s successes have produced the current backlash, not whatever its shortcomings may be in focus and messaging. But the hard facts are there: Despite gains in education, women in 2022 made 82 cents on the male dollar—for Black women and Latinas, it’s much less—and that is only two cents more than women made in 2002.
Maternal mortality is on the rise. Millions of women want to work and cannot because they can’t find affordable childcare. Nearly three women a day are murdered by intimate male partners—and yet the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled that domestic abusers should be allowed to keep their guns. I could go on and on. Adding insult to injury, we still don’t have the Equal Rights Amendment, a century after it was first proposed.
So enjoy your chocolate and savor the many shout-outs to heroines past and present. But this year, let’s not just celebrate our history. Let’s make some, too.