Carole Levine October 19, 2021
For more than 40 years I have worn a small silver charm in the shape of a coat hanger on a necklace that was often by itself, but after my mother died and I was given her Jewish Star necklace, I added it to that one. It has provoked some comment from time to time. Occasionally people ask about it. Usually it is younger people, most often young women. My most memorable conversation was at the checkout counter of a 7/11 store when the clerk noticed it and said, “Oh my, that hanger is soooo cute!” To which I replied, “Well, thank you. But I wear it as a symbol of what women will have to go back to if we ever lose our right to abortion and reproductive choice.” Her facial expression changed totally as she gave me a one-word response – “Bummer.”
That conversation took place at least 20 years ago. Fast forward to just three years ago. I was participating in a rally for reproductive choice at downtown Chicago’s Daley Center. I was there with a friend, and we were thrilled to see that the plaza was filled with women who were much, much younger than we were. Wow! The message that our reproductive rights are not yet secure, even here in very liberal Illinois, is reaching our younger generations, I thought. Then as the small band that was part of the event, began playing the 1963 Lesley Gore song “You Don’t Own Me,” wire coat hangers were being passed out to everyone in the crowd and you could hear some of the young women asking why? As one young woman turned to hand me a hanger, I pointed to the small one on my necklace and said, “I have had this one with me for over 40 years. I don’t need another… I need to be able to take this one off!” But that, it seems, was very wishful thinking.
With the death, a year ago of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg we lost more than just a champion for women’s rights and reproductive justice. We witnessed the total hypocrisy of the Republicans as they rushed to fill that Supreme Court vacancy, even as early voting was already in process for the 2020 election with the antithesis of Justice Ginsburg. This action starkly contrasted to what they did to Merrick Garland’s nomination during Obama administration when the seat was held open for 293 days until the end of the 114th Congress, leaving the seat to be filled by Donald Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch. Now, there was no waiting, Amy Coney Barrett was nominated, vetted and hearings were held, and her nomination was approved by the Senate in a record 35 days, just 3 days before the presidential election. It should be noted that she was voted out of the Judiciary Committee on a 12-0 vote, with every Democrat refusing to vote on her nomination. When Coney Barrett was confirmed by a 52-48 vote of the Senate, it created the lopsided 6-3 conservative/liberal Supreme Court make-up that we have seen in a number of decisions in the past year that has demonstrated the court’s animosity toward women’s rights as well as rights for people of color and those of limited means.
For those of us who have advocated for reproductive rights and reproductive justice most of our lives, our hope had been to be able to lay down our signs and placards by now. While I can understand those who believe that they are waging a moral/religious battle on the issue of abortion, I have to quietly counter that this nation was founded on a platform of separation of religion and state. And my religious beliefs teach that life does not begin until birth and a child’s first breath of air… so imposing another religious faith’s idea of when life begins as a tenant of our state or federal laws is an afront to my faith, even if I am not in the majority. And I find that oppressive. I do not want my grandchildren governed by religious faiths that they do not ascribe to… nor would I want to impose mine on others.
But having that conversation with certain members of the Texas (or Mississippi, or Georgia, or unfortunately a number of other states) legislature is like talking to a wall. Often, these mostly white, mostly men, see themselves as doing “God’s work” in passing restrictive laws that limit women’s control over their own health care choices.
Is there a way forward? I have to believe that there is. I do not think these kinds of restrictive laws would be conceived (an ironic choice of wording) and passed if these male leaders were not concerned about losing control. And the rising strength and formidable growth in women in political leadership (and in leadership in other areas of business and the social sector) and in control of wealth is seen as a serious threat. And they may be right, but time may be on their side. The sea change in putting more women into political office is moving, but not at a pace that may outstrip the state legislation that is restricting women’s reproductive rights and voting rights for minorities and low-income populations. Writing for the Center for American Progress in January of 2021, Robin Bleiweis and Shilpa Phadke took an optimistic tone regarding progress being made. They point to the record numbers of women, especially women of color, that ran for public office at the national, state and local levels in 2020 and the changes that came with the numbers that won seats in Congress, in state houses and on local school boards, and in local government. While Democrats far outpaced Republicans in the numbers and diversity of the women who stepped up and ran for office, there was an increase on both sides of the isle.
But Bleiweis and Phadke admit that women have a long way to go. They write: “Even with the strides made in 2020, women are far from reaching gender parity in political leadership. There are 118 women in the House (27 percent), 24 women in the Senate (24 percent), and nine women governors (18 percent); 49 out of 50 state legislatures are made up of less than 50 percent women. In order to ensure the United States becomes a reflective democracy, policymakers and advocates must address the significant inequities and barriers that women face when pursuing elected office.” What we are witnessing in state legislatures with their restrictions on reproductive health care, voting rights and especially with the gerrymandering of state and congressional election district maps, will limit the rights of many, but most often those being limited will be female and women of color and limited means. The backlash to 2020 has been quick and it has been very focused.
So, what do we do? For old advocates like me, we look at our options and access where to put our efforts. We know that the effort to defeat women by keeping us barefoot and pregnant is not acceptable (and never was). Voting and voting rights are critical and have to play a huge role in our work to maintain reproductive rights. As long as the statehouses are controlled by older, white men, our right to control our own reproductive health is at risk. We need to not only change the laws, but change those who make those laws. So, this also brings me to the federal level and the need for our elected officials to step up and restore what the Supreme Court decimated of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013 and again in 2021. We need to get rid of the filibuster and pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021. And we need it now.
And I will continue to wear my little silver coat hanger and hope that we never will go back to they days of back ally and coat hanger abortions. And maybe someday soon I can take it off and know that my grandchildren will not have to accompany me to reproductive rights protests. They can join me in protesting other things!