Historian Linda Hirshman: We need a "revived feminist movement" ready to fight "white innocence"

Bestselling author on the history lesson post-Roe feminism is about to learn: "White women are going to die"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 1, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Abortion rights activists react to the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Abortion rights activists react to the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Last month the right-wing justices on the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision, taking away women's reproductive rights on a national scale. This decision was no surprise: It was the result of a decades-long campaign by the "conservative" movement and its Christian-fascist shock troops to return women to second-class citizenship. 

Following the Supreme Court's decision, numerous Republican-dominated states have enacted or enabled laws that ban or restrict abortion, in some cases effectively mandating forced pregnancy and forced birth even in cases of rape and incest. Some of the most draconian actual or proposed laws may allow rapists to claim "parental rights," create a surveillance and bounty system for women who choose to terminate pregnancies and the medical professionals who assist them, and limit women's freedom of travel, speech, association and other supposedly inalienable rights.

The net result of the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision may well be the deaths of thousands of women and girls in the United States. That is by design; the Republican-fascist movement is eager to turn the U.S. into a close approximation of Margaret Atwood's fictional Republic of Gilead.

The campaign to take away women's reproductive rights and freedoms and turn them into the de facto property of their husbands or fathers is a lesson in power. Fascism is a whole-society system with few if any limits. As a practical matter, taking away women's reproductive rights and freedoms means severely limiting their other civil and human rights as well.

Many women, especially middle-class white women who have benefited from the privileges of race, class, sexual orientation, income, citizenship and so on, are now learning the truth of the adage that "the personal is political," which is more than a slogan from women's studies courses. For many Black and brown women, and women of other marginalized groups, this is hardly new information. 

Ultimately, the Dobbs decision is just the opening salvo in what is a broad-spectrum war by the Republican-fascist movement to take away the civil and human rights of Black and brown people, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities and other targeted groups. Their ultimate goal is to replace American democracy with an apartheid Christian fascist plutocracy. 

Lawyer and cultural historian Linda Hirshman is the author of several bestselling books, including "Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment," "Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World," and "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution." Her most recent book is "The Color of Abolition: How a Printer, a Prophet, and a Contessa Moved a Nation." Her writing has also been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, Politico, Slate and the Daily Beast.

In this conversation, she reflects on the feelings of despair and hopelessness that the Dobbs decision has created for many women. That energy, she argues, must now be transformed into effective resistance and other positive social-change work.

Hirshman says the response to the Dobbs decision and the broader assault on women's human and civil rights must involve learning from the successes of the abolitionist movement, the gay rights movement and the feminist movement. It must combine effective symbolic politics with moral appeals, ground-level mobilization and a willingness to disrupt day-to-day life for elites through civil disobedience and other forms of direct action. As she puts it, being "polite" and "nice" and "respectable" will not win back or protect reproductive rights and freedoms — or Americans' hard-won civil and human rights more broadly.

Throughout this conversation, Hirshman highlights how race, class and gender intersect, and argues that too many white women deluded themselves into believing their rights were immune from the right-wing's attacks, as a result of the public or private bargain they had made with white men to be partners in white supremacy and other systems of privilege.

Given the Age of Trump, rising neofascism, and this escalating unrelenting assault on democracy and human rights and freedom here in the U.S. — and now the direct assault on reproductive rights and freedoms — how are you feeling?

I am having a very bad time with it, because it feels like there's no exit. Many of my colleagues and friends are talking about leaving the country. That is an act of despair. It is hard for someone like me, who has always been an activist, to look at a landscape and not see any avenues for activism. There are things that can be done. In many ways, the hardest thing for me is watching my own side — the liberals, the progressives and the Democrats — not take up the cause and do something.

Feeling like the entire society is hostile to your citizenship and your humanity — which is what's happening now — is to some extent a new experience for white women. It is for me.

I wrote a book about America before the Civil War. Both the Whigs and the Democrats were unwilling to take on the evil of slavery. It took a third party to do that. But those were long years of despair in people for people who resisted slavery. That's a little bit how I'm feeling now. The Republicans want to oppress women and the Democrats do not want to take up the issue, just like before the Civil War, for fear that it will cost them votes.

The day the Dobbs decision was announced, Democratic members of the House went outside and sang songs on the Capitol steps. To me, that was a pathetic display that summarized so much about why the Republicans and the larger right wing are steamrolling them. They should have been ashamed of themselves.

They certainly should have been ashamed. But their behavior is to some extent a reflection of their advanced age and their politically formative experiences in a different time. The moment at which they flourished is when they stopped the clock. It's a different country now.

How does this feel to me as a white woman, in comparison to how living in America has to feel to people who are not white? White women get a lot of passes. Given America's long history of oppression, white women have a lot of ascribed privileges. We as white women also have the opportunity of making a private bargain with a white man to protect us further from the inequality and injustice of American society. Feeling like the entire society is hostile to your citizenship and your humanity — which is what is happening now — is to some extent for white women a new experience. It is for me.

What is the role of white racial innocence in this crisis? The Republicans publicly announce what they are going to do, and then they do it. Yet there are so many voices, especially among white people, who continue to act surprised. It really is infantile behavior. White racial innocence has facilitated the horrors of the Age of Trump and these attacks on human and civil rights.

White innocence is very potent, especially when you're still a majority of the electorate. It's a huge problem. Things are going to happen now where white women are going to get sick and die because of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. They're going to die from ectopic pregnancy. They're going to die from being unable to be cleaned out after miscarriage and septic shock. There are going to be some deaths.

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The question is now — and this draws from my study of the abolitionist movement — will we be able to make political street theater out of these deaths, the way that the Black Lives Matter movement was able to use the murder of George Floyd to raise awareness and generate action? One of the ways of undercutting and making headway against white racial innocence is to use street theater to show white women that they are not safe in this moment because of the end of Roe and the other things that the Republicans and the right are doing.

What world do people live in to be "shocked" and "surprised" all the time, be it from the revelations of Trump's crimes during the Jan. 6 hearings or the reaction to the end of Roe v. Wade? I am a Black working-class person in America. To be so naïve and supposedly so shocked all the time by bad things is not a luxury that Black and brown folks are afforded.

There are actually two pieces to it. White women don't think it's going to happen to them. Let's say that only a fifth of white women will eventually need an abortion. Those white women figure that they have enough money to be able to get an abortion, no matter what. White men, even liberal white men, largely don't think this matters anyway. They don't care about what's happening to women in this country and how much worse it is going to get. I bring to this conversation a lifetime of living with those men.

Twenty years ago, I saw what was coming and wrote a novel about how they were going to prohibit abortion in the red states and forbid women from leaving and start to hunt them down at the borders. It didn't take a genius to see that: All you had to do was look at the history of the Fugitive Slave Act.

There are a number of things the Democratic Party can do to be on the side of women and also to create some political capital and momentum out of this injustice. We need a revived feminist movement in America. We also need a revived alliance among several movements, such as the racial civil rights movement and the environmental movement.

What does resistance mean, in this context, and what does it look like? You're not going to get out of this without a cost. Too many Americans don't want to pay the cost: They want painless resistance.

Let's consider the gay rights revolution as an example. People sacrificed for the movement. We know that people are capable of sacrificing for social change. There were a lot of white people in the abolitionist movement as well. Why do such people sacrifice and otherwise get involved in these movements? One of them is that change is often top-down. Everybody criticizes the bourgeois white women's movement of the 1960s, but those women had maneuvering room. They had a little extra money. They had a little extra time. They could get it started. It is obligatory upon the people who have some maneuvering room to put that work in to create moment and action.

That is true at present for the elites in the Democratic Party and in the media as well. They just can't sit around saying to poor people in obscure places, "You have to vote and save the republic."

A revived feminist movement has to take the moral high ground. I am done with talking about the reproductive rights struggle as being a matter of "choice." Choice feminism got us exactly nothing.

We also need to do something that is not the norm anymore, but I think really needs to happen. We have to have weekly in-person meetings. That's what makes the right-wing white churches so powerful. They're getting together every Sunday, regardless. While they're together, they share the message. They learn who can be trusted, who cannot be trusted.

The new feminist movement has to focus on a set of core issues. People are not interested in a movement that is too broad and dilutes itself by taking on too many issues.

You cannot defeat these people unless you use moral language. We are fighting evil. How are you going to defeat these forces if you use their language? I refuse to say "pro-life." How are they pro-life? Why don't we describe them accurately as "anti-women's rights"? Or "pro-forced abortion"? Or, at this point, "pro-rape"? How can you even resist if you use their language?

You absolutely cannot. I have never in my long career of chronicling major American social movements seen a successful one that used relativist language. Clear moral language is essential.

Black Americans understand what it is like to be made into a thing. White-on-Black chattel slavery and then Jim Crow taught us that lesson. Fascism turns people into things in order to oppress and destroy them. Many white people, especially white women, now have some experience of what that feels like. But they lack the vocabulary and experience to fully grapple with the nightmare and its implications.

The behavior of white women has always been hard for me to understand, because they're making a bargain from weakness ... they don't seem willing to organize and rise up to care for themselves.

Why are they not protecting themselves? The behavior of white women has always been a little hard for me to understand, because they're making a bargain from weakness. They get the short end of the stick, yet they don't seem to be willing to organize and rise up to care for themselves. In this moment, we could get a lot of traction if we could just get the white women, who are still a very large percentage of the voting public, to care enough for themselves to form a kind of resistance movement.

Isn't that one of the great bargains of whiteness? White women think of themselves as white first and sacrifice their interests as women, especially their shared collective interests with women of color and poor women. That is one of the great bargains that comes with buying into whiteness and white privilege. Many scholars and activists have highlighted how white women as a group have allied with white men in service to white privilege and made their identity as women secondary.

I was a union-side labor lawyer. I know scabs when I see them. And what do scabs get? Scabs get a little bit more money than they would make if there were no union on the scene. When white women make a bargain with white men, they may be a little better off than if there wasn't a feminist movement at all. As part of that bargain with white men, they rationalize by thinking, "I'll have enough money to protect myself from a life on the street, or to raise the children or get an abortion if I need one." In exchange for that, white woman give up their full citizenship. But the voting booth is private: The boss doesn't have to know. White women need to vote for the Democrats. Their husbands won't know.

What does symbolic politics accomplish in this struggle? What substantive political work did all those "pussy hats" do?

Street theater can matter, but it has to be in concert with organized activism. From the Women's March in 2016 we got Indivisible and Run for Something. I don't want to denigrate street theater and symbolic politics, but it is not a substitute for a social movement. Demonstrations are like epiphenomena. The real work are the meetings, the publications, the petition campaigns, the voter registration, the solicitation of candidates. Without that, the demonstrations are just futile.

What does effective resistance look like in an America where the Republicans and other powerful right-wing forces have rejected democracy, and are outright hostile to it? The country is an "anocracy." Republicans and fascists and other right-wing elements do not really care about people marching or voting.

How do you make people pay attention? You disrupt the orderly carrying out of the things they like to do. During the Vietnam War, it got to the point where Lyndon Johnson could not speak anywhere except a military base. At that point, he said he would not run for president again. That's why the demonstrations at the Supreme Court justices' houses are eliciting so much hysteria. They broke through their bubble, and they touched them. So the response of the complicit Democrats and the authoritarian Republicans was immediately to rush in police and protect them. But I take a different lesson from what happened: My lesson is that those protests and disruptions mattered. Where else can that tactic be used? Every time those justices meet, every time they go to speak someplace, and so on.

There are many among the country's mainstream political class who condemn any form of confrontational politics to protect women's human and civil rights, or democracy and civil society more generally. Making Supreme Court justices uncomfortable when they are out to dinner, or protesting at their homes, has apparently become a great crime. With this approach, Black people would still be slaves in America. Women would still be the property of their husbands and not be able to vote.

We must not be deterred by knowing that the pundit classes and Democratic Party officials are going to say, "You must not raise your voice."

You absolutely must make them uncomfortable. Unsettle and challenge and make the powerful uncomfortable. We must not be discouraged or deterred by knowing that the pundit classes and the consultant classes and the octogenarian rich Democratic Party officials are going to say, "You must not raise your voice." Such people have been telling social change movements that they must not raise their voices forever. You don't get to eat in peace until you stop trying to force us into bearing our rapist's children.

Part of resisting this war on women's rights is to make it visible and legible that the right has used lethal violence, including terrorism, as a key part of its strategy. 

What you need to do is make the violence visible. That's what the civil rights movement did at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. You need to put a camera on it. We're not seeing the right-wingers murdering abortion doctors because they don't have to do it anymore. They have now won their fight. They will wait for the coercive power of the state to enforce their agenda.

The Justice Department and the Department of Transportation and FEMA should be sending buses to post offices in the states that have abolished abortion, those red states, and putting out notices announcing that anybody who needs an abortion should come to the post office and get on the bus. They will be driven to the nearest abortion clinic, in another state or in Canada. That will provoke the red-state governors into using the state police. That will also provoke the white supremacist misogynist element of the anti-abortion movement to come out with their guns. This will make the violence against women visible. We have to do that. We can't do it any other way.

What will white women, especially middle-class suburban women, have to sacrifice in what will likely be a long struggle to protect the human and civil rights of all women in America?

They're going to have to confront the fact that their interests are not completely aligned with the white men in their lives. There is going to be strife and conflict and discord. That's what we as white women are going to have to sacrifice. Many white women are deadly afraid of that.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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