Abortion politics in America: 1980-2018

March to defend abortion rights, Washington DC, 1989

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write:  With Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the US Supreme Court, the majority of justices are against women’s abortion rights, and they are threatening to overturn Roe v. Wade. This is the second of two posts about the abortion wars in the United States. In retelling this history we are looking for insights that might help us to fight for abortion rights going forward. The first article [here] was about how Roe v Wade was won in 1973. The Roe v Wade verdict gave women in the US the right to a legal abortion.

In this post we take up the story in the early 1980s. After 1973 anti-abortion campaigns sprang up in every city and state. In the beginning, at the heart of almost all of them was the Catholic Church. The Church as such did not organise the campaigns because of wider anti-Catholic feeling would have made the anti-abortion campaigns vulnerable and narrowed their support. But the Church as an institution, and bishops all over the country, did everything they could to start and then support broader anti-abortion campaigns.[1]

The Catholic Church was as opposed to contraception as it was to abortion. Both were aspects of the Church’s opposition to female desire in all its forms, and a deep conviction that women and men were unequal. This misogyny went along with a consistent policy of protecting male priests who had sex with children.

Where the Catholic Church led in the mid-1970s, by the late 1970s others followed. Evangelical protestants and the newly conservative Republican Party widened the campaign, condemning promiscuity, enjoining premarital abstinence and elaborating what they termed ‘traditional family values’. The spin was meant to counter both the economic pressure on households pushing women into the workforce and the speed with which sexual mores had changed with the pill.

In the years between 1960 and 2000, the American workforce was transformed, so that almost half of workers are now women. Equally, the sexual revolution and the pill transformed intimate lives. So those who were pushing the ‘traditional family’ of a male breadwinner and a female homemaker faced a contradiction. They were appealing to values that were quite contrary to the lives their congregations and likely constituents actually lived.

By 1975 women were joining the workforce in droves, some through necessity, many for choice. And in 1975 being against contraception and sex was a non-starter. But the conservative right and the Catholic Church identified abortion as the perfect place for a pitched battle between the traditional values they were pushing and the feminist advance. The subject of abortion was emotive, the arguments, pro and con, confusing and feelings ran very deep on both sides.

The debates over abortion in America in the 1980s centred on teenage sluts, as if they were the majority of women having abortions. And there was a constant racist undertone to these judgements. In the speeches of Ronald Reagan and other conservatives, the enemy were black teenage girls having babies to get on welfare.

A quick look at the statistics reveals these prejudices for the lies they were. However, the racism worked well for the conservatives. It diverted attention to specifics and away from the ways abortion was being used to attack feminism across the board. Continue reading


Defending Abortion after Kavanaugh (1): Lessons from History 1964-1980

Judith Widdecombe, abortion pioneer in MIssouri

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: Kavanaugh’s confirmation after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony now taints the Supreme Court. And not by chance, a majority of the justices on the court are now expressly against abortion rights.

This is the first of two posts looking to the history of abortion rights in America. Both focus on lessons learned at each stage in the struggle. They are valuable lessons, and lessons we can use in the fight to preserve abortion rights in the future.

We make two central points in this post. Abortion rights were won by a mass movement, not the Supreme Court. Second, the abortion wars continue because abortion has come to stand for women’s equality,  sexual freedom and desire.

This post draws on Jonathan’s ten years of experience in the 1980s as a counsellor working for a feminist abortion clinic in London. Of course that was 30 years ago, and Britain is not the US, but much that he learned then informs what follows.

In the early 1960s, Nancy was in high school in St. Louis, and lived with constant fears of getting pregnant ruining her chances of the life she wanted for herself. She did not get pregnant then, but later supported four close friends through abortions and as they put their lives together afterwards.

Judith Widdicombe

Our story begins in the 1960s, when abortion was illegal in every state in America. Our protagonist is Judith Widdicombe, a nurse who lived in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood and worked the evening shift in the labour ward at a Catholic hospital. Her husband had a delivery route for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Together, they spent one evening a week as volunteers for the Samaritans, a phone helpline for people who were thinking about suicide. [1]

Widdicombe noticed there were quite a lot of calls from women who were not thinking of suicide. But the women said they had been told this was a phone line for desperate people, and they were desperate, because they were pregnant. Could the Samaritans help?

The Samaritans could not, but there were so many of these calls that Widdicombe asked other volunteers if they were getting them too. They all were. So she asked friends outside the Samaritans if any of them knew how to get an abortion in St. Louis. One of them told her about a secret abortion referral service. Continue reading

Michael Kimmel, #MeTooSociology and Feminist Betrayal of Sex Workers in Academia

Juniper Fitzgerald writes: I’ve made an entire alter ego out of the things people hate most about women: bodily autonomy and self-determination in the form of sex work and body modifications, among other things. The recent allegations against prominent sociologist Michael Kimmel, a man known for his scholarship on masculinity and masculine entitlement, unveil the things people love most about women—complicity in the form of apologetics and silence, among other things.

As a former sex worker and sociologist, the allegations against Kimmel sent me spiraling in ways I did not anticipate, and not just because I have repeatedly experienced sexual harassment in my academic career. I am particularly revolted by the allegations against Kimmel because I disavowed my hard-earned sex worker gut feeling in order to elevate his career.

[This article was first published online at Tits and Sass.]

The lauding of Kimmel as a feminist hero and the white, cis women who still defend him, are particular kinds of institutional, personal, and professional betrayals. Black feminist sociologists like Patricia Hill Collins have, for years, pointed to the “insider within” position of marginalized people, explaining how social, racial, and sexual marginalization contributes to a clearer vision of society (a fish doesn’t know it’s in water, after all).

Despite my sex worker red flags going off every time I used to show Kimmel’s TED Talk in the college classes I teach, titled Why Gender Equality is Good for Men, I’ve used his work for years. I’ve assigned his books. I’ve suggested him for paid lecturing gigs. More than anything, that’s how the “game” of academia works—in order to succeed, one must deny the knowledge gained as an “insider within.” Having played the game of sex work and the game of academia for quite some time, I always suspected that Kimmel was the kind of man who’d believe that fucking him was its own form of liberation. But I pushed that feeling to the side because YAY FEMINISM!

The allegations against Kimmel produced the hashtag #MeTooSociology, which is teeming with horror stories of sexual assault in higher education. Relatedly, after experiencing sexual harassment as an undergraduate and graduate student, I decided to do my Ph.D. dissertation on the sexual harassment that sex working femmes in academia experience.

In my dissertation, I interviewed 20 sex workers who were either students or faculty at an accredited university in the U.S. or U.K. Every single one experienced unwanted sexual attention in intellectual spaces—classrooms, offices, conferences, etc.—because of the lingering perception that sex workers are perpetually available. I also included my own experiences in academia as a once current, now former sex worker. I have been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and propositioned by no less than nine cis men in academic positions of power. Continue reading

The Rise of Socialism in the United States

Striking teachers occupy the state capitol building in West Virginia, March 2018

Tabitha Spence writes: The American electoral field is witnessing a leftward shift not seen in at least the past four decades. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 bid for president on the Democratic Party ticket sent shock waves throughout the country, as he openly identified as a (*gasp*) socialist, opening up possibilities for the American Left that had been hitherto foreclosed. [This article was first published in the Daily Times in Pakistan.]

To understand the resurgence of the American Left, one needs to look to the country’s largest socialist organisation, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which is rapidly growing. The group’s membership has ballooned from a paltry 5,000 members in November of 2016 to nearly 50,000 members today. Last year, fifteen members of the Democratic Socialists of America won seats in local elections in thirteen different states, in addition to the 20 members already holding elected office nationwide. This year, dozens of DSA members are contesting in the midterm elections, some of whom have already cleared the Democratic primaries and will be facing Republican opponents in November.

The successful victory in the Democratic primaries for congressional seat of a New York district by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is indicative of this trend. The 28-year-old waitress from the Bronx led a remarkable grassroots campaign to unseat 20-year incumbent Jim Crowley, a seasoned congressman with the backing of corporate donors and the political elite within the Democratic Party. A similar campaign is being run in Delaware, where Air Force veteran Kerri Evelyn Harris is challenging sitting Democratic Senator Tom Carper, known for serving the special corporate and military interests that have bankrolled his campaigns over the past fourteen years.

Given the Cold War nostalgia regarding socialism that continues to haunt the narratives of history in public school curricula and the framing of politics by the mainstream media, this is an unprecedented turn of events. Personally speaking, growing up in central Texas and rural Nebraska I had never heard the idea of ‘socialism’ being invoked in a positive light, as it was widely considered to be a dirty word associated with authoritarianism, famine and gulags. Yet a month ago while visiting my family in Texas I became a proud, card-carrying member of the DSA, and many of my family members (the Trump supporters as well as Hillary supporters) are engaging in discussions and debates about democratic socialist policies in a serious way. How did this incredible reversal of possibilities unfold? Continue reading

Pence, Trump and Evangelicals

Mike Pence may well be the next president of the United States. Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale explain the relationship between Trump and evangelical Protestants like Vice-President Pence.  [This piece was first published in Turkish in Cumhuriyet ,August 12, 2018.]

For thirty years, the right wing of the Republican Party in the United States was dominated by politically organized evangelical Protestants. Their politics rested on three pillars. First, they were for sexually conservative ‘family values’ and against abortion, lesbians and gays, adultery and sex workers. Second, they were racists, especially towards black people, Muslim and immigrants. Third, they were pro-business and anti-tax.

Evangelical (‘fundamentalist’) white Protestants are only 17% of Americans. By contrast, more moderate white Protestants are 13%, Catholics are 18%, and 24% of Americans now say they have no religious affiliation. So evangelicals could never dominate politics. But they could dominate the right of the Republican party, using racism to appeal to a wider audience.

Then came Trump. He is different. In the last 40 years of neoliberalism, the US has become the most unequal of the rich countries. To understand his appeal, you have to understand the bitterness among ordinary Americans. In real terms the pay rate of the median man now is the same as it was forty years ago, in the time of his grandfather. Continue reading

Sexual politics and Trumpgate

Students in Concord, California, breaking out of their high school to join gun control protests

The balance of power has shifted and Trump is going. Sexual politics has been central to this, Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write. The turning point, the hinge of history, is Michael Cohen’s guilty plea over payments by him and Trump to two sex workers. That is not a sideshow.

When Trump was elected, the left, the feminists, the anti-racists, the liberals, the Democrats were in despair. Then came the women’s march on 21 January 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration.

Everyone, on all sides, was astonished it was so big. Two things made it big: Trump’s anti-abortion politics and that the president was a pussy grabber (his words). They made it big because a third of Americans have had an abortion, the great majority of Americans love someone who has had an abortion, and every woman has been insulted or groped by a pussy grabber.

Before the march, many Democrats were inclined to follow Obama’s advice and try to work with Trump and influence him over the next year. The march stiffened them. Then, almost immediately, the occupations of the airports to defend Muslim immigrants made the politicians braver. And #metoo has meant a crucial shift in power at work. Pussy grabbers, rapists and abusers are losing their jobs.  Continue reading

Far Right Racism and Gang Abuse

By Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale.

Three years ago we posted an article about gang abuse of young women in Oxford. This article is of national relevance now, because the fascist and hard racist right is making hay with campaigns against Asian and Muslim abusers. Two weeks ago 15,000 people marched in central London calling for freedom for Tommy Robinson. There were 500 anti-racist counter-marchers. Things are getting serious. Continue reading