COMMENTARY

Supreme Court stands up for centuries of entrenched misogyny: It's a grim history lesson

Five men in black robes — and yes, one woman too — stand ready to crush women's autonomy. How did we get here?

By Elayne Clift

Published December 9, 2021 5:45AM (EST)

Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court of the United States Supreme Court of the United States on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Justices will weigh whether to uphold a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks and overrule the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court of the United States Supreme Court of the United States on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Justices will weigh whether to uphold a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks and overrule the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In her memoir "Recollections of My Nonexistence," Rebecca Solnit writes, "To be a young woman is to face your own annihilation in innumerable ways." Nothing proves her point more powerfully than the debacle seen at the Supreme Court last week, as the justices debated the likely demise of legal abortion in this country.

With stunning ignorance of and disregard for women's lives, five men and one woman in black robes pontificated and danced around the real issue before them — women's bodily integrity, agency and personhood. Instead, they reprised the overwhelming oppression of females that has existed for millennia in fear of women's autonomy, joining the generations of (mostly) men who view women as nothing more than state-owned semen vessels. 

The argument before the court, which aimed at gutting 50 years of precedent in the matter of abortion, reminded many women of the medieval practice of disappearing women into convents and monasteries and later into asylums where they were diminished, demoralized and drugged into passivity.  

RELATED: Republicans' anti-abortion crusade won't stop — even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade

Imagine this: You are a woman with three children living in poverty when you have a contraceptive failure and are forced to carry the pregnancy to term. You are a woman 19 weeks pregnant with a much-wanted child when you learn that anomalies render the fetus unviable and continuing the pregnancy could endanger your own life, but you are denied an abortion. You are a college student who has been awarded a scholarship for advanced study when you realize you are pregnant. Denied a safe abortion, you schedule a clandestine, illegal one. You are a 13-year-old child who has been raped by her stepfather and is now told she must bear her rapist's child. 

Try to imagine living with the crippling fear these scenarios engender.

And yet the Supreme Court is trying mightily to hold women hostage because male power brokers are so threatened by female agency that they must control women at all costs and condemn them for believing they are entitled to fully lived lives grounded in equality and human rights. 

There is, of course, one woman among the six justices now chomping at the bit to effect the demise of legally sanctioned abortion. She should have been able to relate to issues relevant to pregnancy, for she too has borne children, felt them wiggle in her belly, done the hard labor of delivering them into the world and loving them when they arrived. Yet she argued that women don't need abortions because they can easily dump their newborn babies into adoption or foster care like so much detritus, while her male colleagues grappled with numbers, the vagaries of viability and the rights of fetuses over living women.

The reckless and dangerous disregard for women's lives and lived reality during the justices' discourse was nothing short of staggering: a showcase for America's Taliban.


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It was also shocking to hear Scott Stewart, counsel for the state of Mississippi, which seeks to limit abortion to 15 weeks of gestation — clearly as a gateway to overturning Roe v. Wade. His responses to questions from the justices were befuddled, obfuscating, superficial and just plain ridiculous. This is the man Donald Trump put in charge of immigrant detention centers, despite is total absence of any qualifications for the job. Still, he was kept busy keeping monthly updated logs of females' menstrual cycles during their incarceration, in an effort to prevent legal abortions from happening. 

The foundation of entrenched, continuing misogyny women face yet again is the same one women like Emmeline Pankhurst and Alice Paul faced when they risked their lives for women's' suffrage, the same one Margaret Sanger battled in her fight for contraception and sex education, the same one second-wave feminists fought against when they marched in every country in the world before, during and after the UN Decade for Women. It is what women like Virginia Woolf, Tillie Olsen, Betty Friedan, Carol Gilligan, Carolyn Heilbrunn, Audre Lorde and the multitudes who preceded or followed them wrote about: The trivialization, objectification, marginalization and silencing of over half the population in this country and around the world.

None of us who have been in the trenches for years fighting for equality, autonomy, economic justice, reproductive health care (which includes abortion), privacy, choices and other basic human rights — all of which are at risk with this Supreme Court — imagined we might find ourselves back to square one in this moment, living in fear, facing limited opportunities and the denial of our chosen paths. Never did we imagine that in the 21st century we would again live with the oppression of patriarchal power, such that sexism, racism and violence prevail.

When Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked this question during the SCOTUS debate, "Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts?" she was asking a question so vital that it could have an impact on the outcome of the case being considered.

That question also invoked the patriarchy and misogyny that once again prevails as a dominating force in women's lives. Sadly, especially for our daughters and granddaughters, the stench of annihilation is likely to be with us far into the future.

More on the Supreme Court and the possible end of Roe v. Wade:


Elayne Clift

Elayne Clift is a writer in Saxtons River, Vermont.

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Abortion Commentary Feminism Reproductive Rights Supreme Court Women's Rights