On the bleakest day for American women in my lifetime, the texts and the tears started flying back and forth within seconds of the New York Times news flash on my iPhone.
“It happened,” I texted a friend who is a leader in the abortion rights movement in Minnesota.
Her one-word answer described the swamp I stayed stuck in all day after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion nationwide on January 22, 1973. I was 15 and a half years old. I am 65 now. That means I had the safety and protection of legal abortion throughout my reproductive years, a right that my two grown sons will not inherit.
“Shit,” my friend responded, placing a period after the single word in her text, as though to emphasize the finality, the inevitability. Then she helped organize a massive vigil in downtown Minneapolis at 5:30 that afternoon, Friday, June 24, 2022.
“Join us in grief, rage, and in loving community,” her email invitation said. Contrary to stereotypes about the godless nature of pro-choice activists, my friend is a minister.
Amid the dozens of articles, headlines and notes from radio broadcasts or podcasts that I have saved since June 24 — “Roe Ruling, Remapping Turned Tide,” about the DFL sweep of the Minnesota statehouse; “Democrats Flip Script in Abortion Rights Debate,” from the New York Times; “Covert Network Provides Pills for Thousands of Abortion in U.S. Post Roe,” in the Washington Post; “Court at Odds with Public,” two days after a decision that has stripped a generation of their rights — one quote stands alone.
“Women didn’t talk about it much, they didn’t do a bunch of marches and protests, they didn’t post on social media, they probably didn’t even tell their husbands,” GOP strategist and former Senate majority leader Amy Koch told the Star Tribune after her party’s defeat in the midterms. “But they were ticked off and they went out to vote.”
She got the last part right. But Koch’s assumption that women were disengaged from the debate — that any woman who cares about the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health is, by definition, heterosexual and married — and that many people, of all genders, have not been out marching, protesting, phone banking and strategizing on social media is, to my experience, just plain wrong.
It also helps explain why Republicans fell short in this year’s midterm elections in Minnesota (“State GOP Surveys Wreckage” was the headline for this piece). “Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world,” anthropologist Margaret Mead once said. Especially if those people have lost their rights.
I know a 32-year-old man who got a vasectomy within weeks of the Dobbs decision, not wanting to put a female partner through an unwanted pregnancy and certain that he never wanted kids himself. I have a good friend, a lesbian, who came to the United States from Europe as a child; she and her wife are contemplating moving back to her liberal homeland, where she doesn’t have to fear that their legal marriage could be undone.
“What happens to all the babies born into unsafe conditions?” asked a report on National Public Radio the Monday morning after the Dobbs decision was announced. States with the strictest abortion laws also tend to have the fewest social services, the program host pointed out.
My neighbor, like me, is more than a decade past her reproductive years. We feel this decision deeply, especially as mothers — her to three daughters, me to two sons — but we wouldn’t primarily feel its effects. White, middle-class, still supported by the safety net with which I was raised, I could afford to cross state lines for a safe and legal abortion, if I were of childbearing age and wasn’t lucky enough to live in Minnesota, an oasis of sanity and compassion in the Upper Midwest.
Thirteen states have enacted laws banning abortion with limited exceptions since the Dobbs decision. I am hosting a fundraiser for 30 people this coming Saturday for Our Justice, an organization that raises money to house women seeking abortion care in our state. This is what we’ve come to: individual solutions in individual states, as though women’s autonomy were not a national value (which, of course, it’s not).
I saw a woman last summer at the dog park with a T-shirt that read: Pro-Cat, Pro-Feminist, Pro-Choice. “I agree with all but one of those,” I told her, and then I paused before dropping the punchline: “I’m allergic to cats.” The woman told me she’s a teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools and can’t wear political T-shirts or buttons to her job. So she wears a pro-choice T-shirt when she’s out running errands on weekends and notes whether anyone responds.
The first time I saw a Handmaid’s Tale outfit at a pro-choice rally was at the Minnesota State Capitol in spring 2019. “Since you creeps won’t get out of our bedrooms, we’re coming for your House,” the woman’s sign read. I didn’t know then that the costume would become contentious, that women of color whose earlier family members had no choices, who had no agency over their bodies, would see it as another symbol of white, clueless privilege. Still, at that time and place, it was powerful for me.
Nearly three years later, in May 2022, the same outfit had a more chilling effect at a Planned Parenthood rally after the Supreme Court’s draft document leaked, once the reality of Roe’s demise felt closer, more real. This Handmaid paused after consenting to have her photo taken, striking the pose of submission that personifies the point novelist Margaret Atwood was trying to make when her book — now better known as a TV series on Hulu —was published in 1985.
A reproductive rights rally at the State Capitol this past July brought out thousands of people who looked more angry than afraid. I shouted out information about the event till I was hoarse on June 25, the day after the Supreme Court decision was announced. I was tabling for Planned Parenthood at the Pride festival in Minneapolis alongside another Boomer woman who had shared her abortion story at a rally the previous day. She left our shift early, emotionally drained and physically spent.
By contrast, I found the energy and support at the Pride festival to be inspiring, a spirited day of action that helped me feel less frightened and alone.
“I don’t see the point of going to a rally,” my husband said before I convinced him to join me at Planned Parenthood’s Twin Cities headquarters back in May. Similarly, a letter writer told the Star Tribune right after the Dobbs decision: “I guess the rallies are supposed to send a message to [elected officials], but I believe personal messages have more impact.”
It’s the energy, the camaraderie, the crazy and creative signs, the righteous outrage, the relief of being among like-minded people in a society that has turned right so hard and fast it leaves me bruised: Those are the reasons to attend a rally.
At the National Day of Action, dubbed the Women’s March, in Minneapolis on October 2, 2021, I volunteered to get people on the mailing list for UnRestrict Minnesota, a coalition of groups focused on reproductive rights, racial equity and gender equality. Then I started taking photos of T-shirts and signs. Some were provocative (“If my uterus could fire bullets, you wouldn’t regulate it”), others straightforward (“Patriarchy hurts everyone” and “Racist people suck”).
But one spoke volumes by speaking the simple truth. It quoted Ruth Bader Ginsburg during her Senate confirmation hearing for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, perhaps the last time a prospective jurist was honest about their views on Roe v. Wade, which declared abortion to be constitutionally protected.
“The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity,” the sign said, quoting Ginsburg flawlessly. “It is a decision she must make for herself. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”
Donald Trump may never set foot in the White House again. But he will leave behind a legacy of a six-judge conservative majority on a nine-person court that will undo the social progress of my youth. Our downfall as liberals and progressives, in the 2016 presidential election and beyond, was that we failed to see it coming. Instead, we bickered among ourselves, refused to coalesce around a candidate and hated on Mitch McConnell rather than emulating his focus.
Being right doesn’t matter once your rights are gone.