As conservatives restrict abortion access state by state, women have begun to win political offices and even challenge President Trump for the highest office in the country. A discussion with feminist icon Katherine Spillar co-founder of Ms. Magazine and Executive Director of the Feminist Majority
TAYA GRAHAM: In the three years since President Trump took office, women’s rights have had some serious setbacks. Ten states have all but completely outlawed abortion, and the clinics, which provided a multitude of reproductive services, have been shuttered. The Violence Against Women Act expired and has not been renewed in Congress, and of course the ERA, The Equal Rights Amendment, has yet to be passed. The push for liberation and gender equality that started in the 60s and 70s seems to have reversed course, and the hope for equality and prosperity for men and women has been losing ground. The dystopian fiction of The Handmaid’s Tale seems to be becoming our new reality.
In order to discuss these issues and more I’m speaking with feminist icon, Kathryn Spillar. She is the executive editor of Ms. Magazine and Co-founder and Executive Director of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Kathryn, thank you so much for joining us.
KATHERINE SPILLAR: Oh, thank you.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, although I want to talk to you about the state of reproductive rights, I was hoping our conversation could be a bit more wide-ranging and touch on some of the other issues feminists are engaging with today. Is that OK?
KATHERINE SPILLAR: Sure.
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TAYA GRAHAM: OK, great. Now, it seems that we’re in the middle of a culture war with progressive ideas, socialized medicine, gun control, supporting LGBTQ rights on one side, and more conservative and even regressive values on the other, like restricting a woman’s right to choose or Mike Pence’s religious freedom laws, which actually make it legal to discriminate against LGBT people. And feminists find themselves right on the front lines of this war. Our country feels like it’s being pulled apart. Is this war on reproductive rights and abortion a part of this culture war, or is it something deeper?
KATHERINE SPILLAR: Oh, it’s definitely part of the culture war that’s being waged by overwhelmingly Republicans, who hold disproportionate shares of our Congress and our state legislatures and some of the governorships. But let’s be very clear. The American people long ago came to the conclusion that equality between women and men was a fundamental principle of our democracy and that women should have access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion and birth control. This is not a debate within the American public. This is a debate by those men–Republican men overwhelmingly–who hold power, who are using their power in an effort to pass these kinds of laws. I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that the laws are intended to punish women, not to protect women, not to achieve any kind of a healthcare outcome, but simply to punish women.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, it’s interesting you mention Republicans. Because Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador, took the stage at a keynote speech last week at an anti-abortion group’s annual gala, saying that allowing women to have autonomy over their bodies is quote “not real feminism.” How do you respond to that?
KATHERINE SPILLAR: I think feminists all across this country, and frankly all around the world, would significantly disagree. Having the ability to make decisions about your own healthcare, about whether or not you’re going to continue a pregnancy, about whether or not you ever become pregnant, is so fundamental to human rights and to women’s autonomy in the rest of their lives. How can you pursue an education if you might become pregnant and have to interrupt that education? How can you pursue work? How can you chase your dreams if you don’t have this most fundamental right to determine whether or not you’re going to be pregnant? So she could not be more wrong. And frankly, the vast majority of people, not only in this country but all around the world, disagree with her. She’s out of step, as are most Republicans in positions of power. They’re simply out of step with people.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, the most far-reaching of these laws is in Alabama, where Republican Governor Kay Ivey recently signed a bill making it a felony in the state for a doctor to perform an abortion in nearly all cases. And Nikki Haley herself signed a twenty week limit on abortions while she was governor of South Carolina. What kind of impact do you see this having on women, and what was it like when abortion was illegal in the United States?
KATHERINE SPILLAR: Well, before Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court, abortion was illegal in most states of this country, and even in places like California or New York, where abortion laws had been liberalized. Women still had to essentially say that if they weren’t able to get an abortion, they would commit suicide, or there was mentally something wrong with them. And so, you had to humiliate yourself just to seek access to this fundamental healthcare. We can’t go back. In fact, we won’t go back. Already, there are many alternatives to back-alley abortions that women suffered through and risked their lives, and some women gave their lives in pursuit of their own autonomy.
There is now medication abortion, which are pills which are widely available all over the world and will become more and more available, whether or not Republican governors sign these restrictive laws. Already, women are receiving these pills through mail order, and many women all over the world receive them through mail order. So they can’t stop abortion by simply passing restrictive laws. All they can do is make women seek more desperate situations in some cases, but women will seek abortion and women will have abortions.
TAYA GRAHAM: The 10 states with the most restrictive laws on abortion actually have the highest maternal mortality rates, meaning giving birth is actually dangerous to women in those states. And this number is particularly high for Black Women. The CDC just released a report showing most pregnancy related deaths are preventable. Is closing these clinics in these states hurting women, and how can these states that are pro-life of a fetus also be pro-life of a mother if they keep shutting down clinics that offer gynecological care?
KATHERINE SPILLAR: Well, that’s the hypocrisy behind these laws that are being passed. Up until just recently, they kept saying that these were for the health and safety of women so that they could improve the medical conditions of these clinics–which by the way, abortion is probably one of the safest, if not the safest, healthcare services in this country. Death or injury from abortion and complications is very, very, very rare. So they were already telling a lie that they were trying to make these services safer. But now it’s very clear, that isn’t even their goal. They’re shutting clinics everywhere so that women have no access in some parts of the country to reproductive healthcare services. And they’re putting in penalties of life in prison felonies. For a woman in Georgia, if this law was to become effective, she can’t even leave the state to seek an abortion in another state where abortion would be legal.
And that’s the other point that I want to make, is none of these laws are going to go into effect. They’re passing these laws as a message to their base, but they are not going to go into effect. These laws are unconstitutional. They will be struck down as unconstitutional by district courts. They will be struck down as unconstitutional by appeals courts. And I doubt very seriously that Chief Justice Roberts of the Supreme Court wants to entertain one of these laws. They simply want to keep chipping away at availability of abortion. They really don’t want to have to deal with this question of outlawing abortion entirely.
TAYA GRAHAM: So what you’re describing to me is that these Republican politicians are passing these laws to pander to their base. This sounds like a really cynical political maneuver on their part.
KATHERINE SPILLAR: They may think this is going to help their base, but I think they’ve overplayed their hand with these laws. What they have done is wake up women who maybe haven’t voted before or didn’t think their vote mattered very much. And we’re seeing it the public opinion polls. There is going to be a severe backlash to these Republicans who are passing these punitive, restrictive bans on abortion. 79 percent of people in this country do not want to see abortion made illegal. And the strongest opinions on this, or the most passionate opinions, are held among women and young people. Those are the constituencies that the Republicans have been losing in election after election. Women are voting against Republicans and for Democrats, and young people vote by a two to one margin for Democrats.
These laws are scaring people. They thought that the anti-abortion movement was just going to continue down a path of chipping away. They have now revealed their hand, and I think they’ve overplayed it. And so, I think this is going to show up in the 2020 elections in a major way. Republicans are risking forever becoming the minority party in this country if they don’t correct course and consider the impact that these restrictions have on women’s lives all across the country.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, I’m glad you mentioned that there are women who are getting out to vote and that there are women who are interested in running for office. Because in the 1990s, you launched an initiative–I think it’s the Feminization of Power Campaign–and it was intended to inspire women to run for political office. And last year, we saw this massive increase in women running for office. So first, let me ask you, how important is female representation in Congress? And second, how close are we to gender parity in government?
KATHERINE SPILLAR: Well, you’re right. The Feminist Majority started actually in 1987 with a campaign to encourage more feminists to run for office at the local level, at the national level, realizing how underrepresented women are at the decision-making tables when laws are passed, when budgets are decided, when social safety net programs are put in place or chipped away. And without a vote at the table, we can’t have an impact on our lives as a whole. And so, encouraging more feminists and more women to run for office was critical. We started in the late 80s, early 1990s with women’s representation in Congress at less than five percent. That’s now at about 23 percent, but we’re still not anywhere near parity, and parity is 50 percent. We’re 50 percent of the people of this country, we should have equal representation. And does it make a difference? You bet it does.
Look at what’s happening in Nevada, for example. Women are now a slight majority of the entire legislature, 52 percent. It’s the only state legislature in the country and in the history of the United States where women have had an equal voice at the table. Now, what are they doing? They’re addressing pay inequality, they’re addressing the lack of child care. But most importantly, in some ways, they have gone the opposite direction of Georgia and Alabama and Louisiana. They are putting in place stronger laws on abortion rights than they have historically had. So that’s the impact that equal representation will have. And we see it in every issue, in every state where women are underrepresented the most, as in Alabama and Louisiana and Georgia, these horrific laws get put into place. Where women have greater representation, we have better laws that meet the needs of women throughout their lives.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, let me problematize this question. What happens to the feminist movement when it’s women like Nikki Haley or Governor Kay Ivey who are elected to office to represent women?
KATHERINE SPILLAR: Well, look. There are going to be women who feel it’s in their interest to be the apologists for patriarchy, for male dominated laws and a system, who are perfectly comfortable sitting on a cabinet. President Trump’s cabinet, I think, is down to three women out of the entire cabinet and one or two People of Color. Simply it’s a bunch of old white men if you look at those cabinet meetings, look around the room. But they’re perfectly comfortable because they don’t feel privileged. And frankly, they feel, “You know what, if I can make it, anyone can make it,” not recognizing some of the privileges that they’ve had along the way. So they become apologists.
And you know, there always are going to be apologists who want to explain why things are the way they are, that men are just more equipped for public office, that women really have this responsibility of child rearing that keeps them from competition. And after all, that’s the reason they’re not getting paid equally, which of course is not the facts. So we just have to understand that that will happen. But the vast majority of women in this country identify as feminists, and the younger the demographic, the more likely they are to not only identify as feminists, but to want full equality and to want it now.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, the momentum from the Year of the Woman looks like it’s going to continue into the presidential campaign. But the Pew Research Center showed that the percentage of white women who voted for Trump was actually 47 percent, compared to 45 percent for Hillary Clinton. What would you say to those female voters to inform them, to make sure they don’t vote for President Trump again?
KATHERINE SPILLAR: Actually, white women split their votes. Those numbers are all within the margin of error. There’s no question they split their votes. White women are more likely to be in higher income brackets, and some of the voting patterns obviously are related to your economic status. But the majority of women in this country, especially Women of Color, Black Women, Latinas across the board have a very negative opinion of this president, are likely to vote against him and against Republicans in this next election. And the more they double down on these anti-woman laws, the more they aggravate this base across the country, especially among young women. So we’ve just got to make sure that women understand what’s at stake in this election, and that without more women in elected office and without Democrats both in the majority of the House and the Senate, that we’re going to continue to face these kinds of horrific laws that we all oppose.
TAYA GRAHAM: So my last question to you is this. We once again have a woman running for president. In fact, we have a couple of women running for president, which is historic in itself. So is America ready for a female president, and what kind of challenges do you think a female nominee might face? And if you had any advice for them, what would you give them?
KATHERINE SPILLAR: Well, I will not even pretend to give advice to the likes of Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand. They’re running hard, and they’re running on the issues, which is just critically, critically important. Part of the problem is, too often the media is chasing what they consider to be the leading horse in the horse race, and so people are not necessarily getting to hear all of the arguments. The extraordinary thing, I think, about the women who are running is boy, are they prepared. They have gone overboard to make sure people understand what they stand for and what they’re running on, unlike some other of their male counterparts, who are simply apparently running on their personalities.
But look, I do think that women, and Americans generally, are prepared to see women in the Oval Office as president. We’ve elected more women as governors in this last round of elections than ever before. Women are winning these seats in Congress and in the House and in the Senate. It was this huge pickup in women in the house that gave Democrats the majority. We are watching as Speaker Nancy Pelosi just is extraordinary in terms of leadership and her exercise of power. Really, I do think that the more that we see women in leadership positions, the more likely people are to vote for women running for president. And you know, it’s about time. It is about time.
TAYA GRAHAM: Absolutely. Katherine, I want to thank you so much for joining me today.
KATHERINE SPILLAR: Thank you so much. These issues are so critical for people to understand. Thank you for the chance.
TAYA GRAHAM: Absolutely. My name is Taya Graham and I want to thank you for joining me at The Real News Network.