Disclaimer: This post reflects solely the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors
In January of 1973, the US Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, which ruled in favour of a woman’s right to abortion. This was a significant advent for American women in a time of heightened sex roles and gender inequality.
The decision, it seemed, was a strike against sexism. No longer would men be able to control the choices a woman makes about her body.
In the decades that followed, the US made significant progress in the area of women’s rights: On 7 July 1991, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Thirteen years later in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act was passed to provide funding for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other gender-related violence. In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to run for President. And, most recently, in January 2021, Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first female vice president.
Things seemed to be going well for the US in terms of gender equality. Unfortunately, however, it appeared that the other shoe was destined to drop.
On 2 May 2022, Politico obtained leaked information that the Supreme Court had voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. The news has since sparked nationwide rallies, with thousands outraged by how this decision could set women back decades.
Like surely many others, I was initially surprised by this news. Shocked. America had come so far with gender rights–how could they muck it up this way, in 2022?
But after my initial shock, I quickly remembered the world that I am living in.
This is the fact: We like to believe that Western society–and the US in particular–has gone beyond sexism. After all, the West is regarded by many living within it to be the pinnacle of a great nation. But although many Americans believe that sexism is over, all those harrowing statistics about harassment and rape and gendered violence continue to exist.
Because sexism is not over. People –especially men– like to believe that sexism is a thing of the past because we no longer live in a society where blatant expressions of female-directed hate are tolerated. You cannot go into the workplace and start treating your female coworker like a servant, and you cannot justify this by saying she is a woman. Similarly, people will not tolerate you saying things like “Women belong in the kitchen” or “women are just incubators for the future generations.” Indeed, these behaviours and words echo the voice of Incels who, for the most part, find zero support in the general population. Just because we do not have that age-old, 1950s, use-your-housewife-as-a-slave sexism, people believe that sexism must be, poof, gone.
But that is not the world that I am living in. That is not the world that billions of women are living in. Because sexism is not just surface-level locker room talk and explicit gendered violence. Sexism is when men who catcall women on the street do not take no for an answer. Sexism is when Stacy’s boyfriend tells her that she is “overreacting” when he controls what she wears and who she talks to. Sexism is the women in America who are the primary victims of domestic abuse, or the 65% of women who are harassed in public, or the 38% who have been sexually harassed in the workplace. Sexism is when 9-year-old Mary is told “boys will be boys” in response to Little Jimmy terrorising her in class. Sexism is alive and well; just because women in America have obtained legal rights does not mean that they have obtained social status.
And this is what leads to confusion like that on 2 May 2022. How, we ask, could the Supreme Court backtrack on a seminal decision, one that has advanced women’s rights since the 1970s? I answer that with a different question: How could they not?
How could they not backtrack on Roe v. Wade, given the society that we live in? America–and the West more generally–is a place where people like to believe in peace and love and all that flowery stuff; we like to believe that we are social justice warriors, leaders of the Free World, who have overcome the misfortunes of racism and sexism and other forms of bigotry. But all we need to do to remove that wool from our eyes is look at the statistics. See how many women in America have been, and continue to be, disproportionately victimised by domestic violence, sexual assault, covert street harassment, and hate crimes. Does this really look like a world where overturning Roe v. Wade is a surprise?
Not to me.
And that is the problem. It seems that people need blatant acts of sexism to occur before they can recognise that sexism exists. Tell someone that your boss explicitly fired you for being a woman, and people will reel at the injustice and illegality of it. Tell someone that you have been sexually assaulted, however, and they will ask you how you were dancing, who you were talking to, and what you were wearing.
But women have legal rights, now, people will say. That is enough, right? Not right. Sure, we have the right to vote, the right to non-discrimination, and the right to gender equality–but legal rights say nothing about social status. Do I really have the right to non-discrimination if I am 14% less likely to be promoted at my job compared to a male with equal qualifications? Do I really have the right to gender equality if I live in a society where people think “what were you wearing?” is a correct response to my saying that I have been sexually harassed?
Legal rights are fine and dandy, but it seems to me that they have done nothing in terms of undoing the profound implicit bias that underlies sexist behaviour in the first place. And this implicit bias–this covert sexism that runs women’s lives–keeps women’s social status at practically zero.
So what we are seeing right now with Roe v. Wade has not set women back…
We were never set forward in the first place.
By Serena Romanelli,
Serena is a current postgraduate student at UCL completing her master’s degree in Human Rights. She is interested in all areas of politics, though is especially passionate about human rights research and the intersection of political science and psychology.