“Hard is what we do,” new Emily’s List president Laphonza Butler told the hundreds of supporters gathered at the group’s annual gala—the first in three years thanks to Covid. It was supposed to be a celebration for this organization devoted to electing pro-choice Democratic women—of surviving Covid, of Butler’s new role, and of our first female vice president, Kamala Harris, the night’s keynote speaker. But after news leaked the night before that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade and crush abortion rights any day now, it also became a wake.
Hard is what we do. I’d like to be able to tell you that the mood in the room, and at the group’s conference the afternoon before, was fired up and determined to prevail. It was those things, but it was also, to be honest, a little bit despairing. Women have lived through so much trauma in the past six years. The pussy-grabber won the presidency against our first female nominee (though he lost the popular vote). Millions of women then marched in protest, from Washington, D.C,. to Ketchikan, Ark.; thousands ran for office, many of them won. Nancy Pelosi, the first female House Speaker, took the helm for another term. Women elected Joe Biden president, defeating Donald Trump; Harris, not only female but Black and of Asian descent, became his historic partner.
But we know how it all turned out. Trump got to appoint three right-wing Supreme Court justices—another guy who didn’t win the popular vote, George W. Bush, appointed two others—and we’re about to lose rights we worked so hard to obtain and then, pretty much ever since, worked to hold on to. Dozens of women I spoke to on Tuesday said the same thing: Our daughters will have fewer rights than we did. We are the first generation to have to say that. This isn’t how the world is supposed to work. Or so I thought.
I was lucky enough to be with my daughter and friends, having a great grilled dinner in their backyard, when the news leaked Monday night. We cleared the table, barely, and hiked over to the Supreme Court Building to join a surging protest. Practically everyone was young; there were plenty of men there too; spirits were high; and I enjoyed the rousing chants of “Fuck Alito!”—I’m not ashamed to admit it.
Fuck Samuel Alito, indeed. That preening asshole took such obvious joy in telling us “abortion” isn’t mentioned in the Constitution and in deriding “abortionists.” His brazen, craven decision flaunts the thrill this conservative court majority takes in undoing decades—maybe, soon, a century—of expanded human rights, for women, Black and brown people, LGBTQ folks, workers, and maybe, soon, straight white men who’d like to choose whether and when to have families. Because, as many have said before me, Alito has laid the groundwork to undo the famous Griswold decision that, unbelievably, “legalized” contraception in 1965.
Earlier on Tuesday I got to moderate the Emily’s List “Rising Stars” panel—the first Rising Star award recipient was Stacey Abrams in 2014, who also spoke Tuesday night. I’ve moderated it at least four times (we’ve lost count), and I love it—I’ve met extraordinary women and I always come away inspired. This time, too. But even these rising stars were a little bit dimmed by the awful news.
Georgia Representative Bee Nguyen, running for secretary of state, won the 2022 award. She’s normally ebullient, indefatigable, but she was slightly subdued on Tuesday. In a moving speech at the gala, she dedicated the award to her mother, a Vietnamese refugee who put five daughters through college. “My mother is a hero,” she told the rapt crowd. Whatever happens to Roe, some young women know their mothers had fewer rights than they do.
And indeed, Nguyen told me Wednesday morning, “I wanted to affirm her humanity and her heroism because so often immigrant women are overlooked,” adding, “The threat of losing our right to choose reminded me of what my mom sacrificed.” And given that Georgia has passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws and has one of the worst maternal mortality rates, she admitted, “I felt the trauma that many of us have experienced in Georgia for so long.”
Trauma. Hard is what we do. Yes, it is, and we’ll do it again. It just felt so unjust, almost unbearable, that all of these women gathered, who are already working hard every day, must take on these new challenges—helping women access abortion in states where it’s banned, protecting rights in states where there will still be access, trying to protect against a rollback in LGBTQ and other rights that seems likely to flow from this draft decision.
Although sneering Alito wrote it, I felt the most rage about the decision against Brett Kavanaugh, the accused attempted rapist who clearly lied during his confirmation hearings about considering Roe established precedent, and Amy Coney Barrett, who didn’t even bother to lie. Barrett said something when arguments were made before the court in December that chilled me then, and chills me to this day. Why do we need abortion, she asked, to lift “the consequences of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy” when there’s an easy adoption option? “Why don’t the safe-haven laws take care of that problem?”
Safe-haven laws, if you haven’t heard of them, let a parent drop a baby off at a fire station or a hospital to relinquish custody, supposedly no questions asked. I cannot imagine the anguish of a mother who makes use of a “safe haven” to give up her baby. If a woman who bore five children and adopted two, like Barrett, has so little empathy for other women, we are well and truly fucked. While pro-choice people are accused of treating the termination of a pregnancy lightly, here is Barrett treating the abandonment of an actual, living baby as a good thing.
“How dare they?” Kamala Harris asked Tuesday night. “How dare they tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her own body?” I’ve never seen Harris so angry. It didn’t feel performative. My bottom line from this front line of longtime feminist activists: Women are angry, we are grieving, and we are also tired, but tired is a luxury we know we don’t have.