Abortion and authoritarianism: Why women's freedom threatens male supremacy

The notion that men are superior to women is the root of all human inequality. That's why we must fight it

By Robert S. McElvaine

Contributing Writer

Published October 23, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

A man scowls as he confronts a pro-choice demonstrator outside a pregnancy center in Little Rock. (Greg Smith/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
A man scowls as he confronts a pro-choice demonstrator outside a pregnancy center in Little Rock. (Greg Smith/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Will America's future be one of democracy and women's control over their own bodies or one of authoritarianism and forced pregnancy? The two issues most motivating Americans to vote for Democrats in the rapidly approaching midterm elections are far more intertwined than is generally recognized. 

At a time when right-wing extremists are hellbent on making American states — or, as many intend the whole nation — into the fictional Republic of Gilead, it is appropriate to turn to Margaret Atwood. "Tyrants and dictators like Adolf Hitler and Nicolae Ceausescu have often dictated the terms of fertility and criminalized those who did not comply," she pointed out in 2017. "It's no accident that Napoleon banned abortion. He said exactly what he wanted offspring for — cannon fodder. Lovely!" 

Speaking of authoritarian regimes, Atwood said in 2020, "What it comes down to is that they assert their right to control reproduction, and they assert their right over people's bodies. All totalitarianisms, no matter what they say their aims are, no matter what's on the flag, they all have in common the rollback of women's rights." 

Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who has conducted a transnational and transhistorical study of authoritarian regimes, makes the same point.  "Control over female bodies," she writes in her 2020 book, "Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present," is invariably among the goals of the insecure males who call themselves by that name.

To understand, and try to overcome, both the treatment of women as property and the basis of authoritarianism, we must dive into the deep history of humanity. When we do so, we find that those two evils emanate from the same source. 

It is more than mere coincidence that the desperate, redoubled quest to outlaw abortion gained traction during an era in which women have achieved a greater degree of autonomy in other areas. The underlying question is not whether a fetus is a person. Rather, it is whether a woman a person, or simply property.

That oldest and most consequential question in human history is the deep font of the struggle to control women's bodies, which is why it is so crucial to the self-doubting men who turn toward authoritarians.

The original sin

It is often and correctly said that enslavement is the original sin of America. Less recognized is another foundational condition shaping much of recorded history and our lives today: Sexism is the original sin of humanity.

Misogyny is the gateway drug to all other hatreds, all other relationships of dominance and subordination. The belief that men are superior to women is the model on which all other vertical divisions — race, class, nationality, master/slave, religious hierarchies and so on — have been constructed. The subordinate position in these relationships is always depicted as corresponding to women.

Consider the 1975 Alice Cooper song "Only Women Bleed," which — believe it or not — hints at the origin of what is at stake in the struggle over a woman's right to control her own body. The foundation of the conviction for thousands of years that "he got the power" and "she got the need" is the erroneous idea that men have the "seed" and women's purpose and need is to "take" that seed.

The seedtime of sexism

A very deep history lies beneath this subject. To understand it, we need to go back to what can accurately be termed the seedtime of sexism.

Creative power had presumably been seen as female in most societies over the vast eons in which our distant ancestors lived as hunter/gatherers, dependent on plant and animal food produced by nature. Terminology like "Mother Nature" and "Mother Earth" are remnants of that belief. Men appeared to have little or no role in reproduction. Here's a striking example of that way of thinking: Nearly a century ago, anthropologist Phyllis Kaberry tried to explain the role that men have in creating babies to a group of indigenous women in Australia. One responded that she had proof that men have nothing to do with making new life: Her husband had died many months before she gave birth. Another woman summed it up succinctly, "Him nothing!"

Misogyny is the gateway drug to all other relationships of dominance and subordination. The belief that men are superior to women is the model on which all other vertical divisions — race, class, nationality, master/slave, religious hierarchies and so on — have been constructed.

In addition to being seen as the possessors of the power to create life, women in most hunter/gatherer societies were also co-providers through the collection of plant food. Those roles appear to have resulted in women having a rough level of equality with men in many of those societies. The development of agriculture, in all likelihood by women, more than 10,000 years ago began a mega-revolution that radically altered human life.

Agriculture led to both animals and women being domesticated. Increased food supply made population growth possible. Women spent more of their lives bearing and raising children. When the plow was introduced — in some areas roughly 6,000 years ago — and men began planting seeds in the rutted ground, a seeming correspondence was noticed. The furrowed soil resembled a woman's vulva, and it occurred to men that planting seeds in a groove in Mother Earth seems analogous to a man "planting" what came to be called semen (Latin for seed) in the groove between the labia of a woman.

This correlation came to be taken as an operational equivalence, and it overturned the understanding of which sex has creative power as readily as a plow overturns soft, moist soil. "Who will plow my vulva?/ Who will plow my high field?/ Who will plow my wet ground?" asks Inanna in "The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi," a Mesopotamian poem from around 1750 BCE. Men were elevated to the all-powerful creators — authors — of new life and so those with authority. Women were reduced from being thought to possess sole power to create new life to the counterpart of dirt — a place for men to plant their seeds. The common reference that continues to this day to women who do not conceive as "barren" is a reflection of the belief that they are soil.

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Both human gametes are microscopic, and the sperm is even smaller than the egg. Semen, however, is visible and it is obviously the case that a woman becomes pregnant only after it is "planted" in her. Yet, for those who thought much about the view that semen is the seed of a new life there were a few difficulties that needed to be explained away. One is that women also produce a visible fluid, and its discharge ceases during pregnancy. Wouldn't that indicate that menstrual fluid also contains something necessary to the creation of new life? The other is that offspring sometimes resemble their mother. How can that be if the woman provides nothing to the new life except a place, analogous to soil, where the generation can occur?  

In his 4th century BCE explication on female inferiority in "Generation of Animals," Aristotle sought to answer those questions. In a convoluted argument, he achieved his objective of propping up the belief that men are the sole authors of life. Hippocrates had previously hypothesized that each sex provides life-giving material. Aristotle rejected that idea by taking it as axiomatic that "it is impossible that any creature should produce two seminal secretions at once." So it followed, he claimed, "that the female does not contribute any semen [seed] to generation."

Menstrual fluid, Aristotle suggested, was a weak, powerless concoction that merely provided the lifeless material to which semen gives life. A woman, he declared, is merely "an infertile male" who "lacks the power to concoct [seed]." The female "is as it were a deformed male" and menstrual fluid is an impure form of semen lacking "one constituent … the principle of Soul." This argument seemingly solved the problems Aristotle had set out to address. A woman cannot produce new life, but if she provides the matter that will become a child when it is given life by a man, then of course it could resemble her. If the material given life by a man is necessary, that seemed to explain why menstrual discharge ceases during pregnancy.  

The reversal of reproductive power based on the Seed Metaphor (so central in human history that it merits capitalization) can be found in numerous ancient texts. A few examples:

  • In Genesis 13, God tells Abram, "I will make your seed like the dust of the earth."  
  • "The mother is no parent of that which is called her child, but only nurse of the new-planted seed that grows," Aeschylus has Apollo proclaim in "Eumenides" (circa 458 BCE). "The parent is he who mounts." 
  • In Sophocles' "Antigone" (circa 442 BCE), when an astonished Ismene says to Creon, "What? You'd kill your own son's bride?" the king calmly responds, "Absolutely: There are other fields for him to plow."
  • "Your wives are a place of sowing of seed for you," verse 223 of the second surah of the Quran instructs men, "so come to your place of cultivation however you wish."

The evil effects of taking this metaphor literally have been monumental on a scale similar to those that flowed from accepting the story in the second and third chapters of Genesis as literally true. In both cases, those consequences centered on seeing women as inherently inferior.

Considering women as the functional equivalent of tilth — prepared soil ready to be seeded — reclassified them as property: real estate in which men grow their crops of children. Property owners have rights; property (implying that which is properly, or rightfully, owned) does not.

Viewed in the light of the Seed Metaphor, planter was an especially appropriate term for American enslavers. Many of them were planters of their "seeds" in enslaved women, using them as fields in which to grow a cash crop: more enslaved human beings. "I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1820 of the value of enslaved women. "What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption."

The long and pernicious afterlife of the conception misconception

The improvement of the microscope in the 17th century and beyond made possible the identification of two components in sexual reproduction, but the functions of sperm and egg were still unclear. The ovum was seen through a microscope in 1827. But the fact that the woman produced ova did not necessarily mean she was a source of life. The egg could readily be seen as the container of the matter to which Aristotle had contended the man's seed gives life and soul. Indeed, after sperm had been seen under microscopes, the already existing idea of preformism, which held that organisms grow from preexisting tiny versions of themselves, crystalized into the concept that the homunculus — the "little man" — was inside the sperm. 

It was not until the 1870s that it began to become clear that a new life resulted from the combination of life-giving material from both parents. It is therefore ludicrous to claim that the "traditional" Christian view was that life begins at conception, since through the first nearly two millennia of the Christian Era, no one clearly understood when or how conception took place.

Although educated people have known for well over a century that the Seed Metaphor is inaccurate, it goes on like a zombie, eating the brains of people across modern cultures much as it did in the past, insidiously germinating the poisonous misconception that women are and ought to be property for the use of men. 

It was not until the 1870s that it became clear that new life resulted from the combination of life-giving material from both parents. So it's ludicrous to claim that the "traditional" Christian view was that life begins at conception.

The message to women is unmistakable: Your only purpose is to carry his seed. That is the dominating, degrading and debilitating — authoritative, in a word — lesson that has been taught to women for thousands of years. And it is the cracking foundation beneath the authority that Roman Catholic bishops, evangelical pastors and other insecure men fear is being "usurped."

Authoritarianism is an extreme manifestation of the power relationship based on the never-to-be-questioned inequality between men and women. That is the motive force in the rise of authoritarian rulers and would-be rulers around the world, from Russia to Hungary to Turkey to Brazil to the Philippines to the United States. A man claiming unlimited power over others asserts that he is in the position of a god, the Author to whom all others are subordinate. Authoritarians are males terrified that they aren't "real men."

 Ironically, the weak men who are so attracted to these "strongmen," apparently believing that some of the authoritarian leader's supposed virility will be infused in them if they submit — offer themselves — to him, are unconsciously putting themselves in what they classify as the woman's place: subordinate, powerless, submissive, obedient, serving, groveling before "The Man." They act like Ilsa in "Casablanca" when she says to Rick, "Oh, I don't know what's right any longer. You'll have to think for both of us, for all of us." Please, Dear Leader, tell me what I must think and do. Picture Mike Pence and other members of Donald Trump's entourage telling him that serving him was the greatest honor they could imagine. They were presenting themselves for "The Man" to plant his putative manhood in them.

Authoritarianism, forced pregnancy, and the "great replacement"

This deep history explains why the issue in Dobbs v. Jackson is seen by many anxious males as monumental. If male dominance is to be maintained, women's reproductive freedom must be curtailed. It isn't really about choice, as such, but about denying women the right to make the choice. Ancient Romans, for example, were "pro-choice," but the choice was solely that of the man. His supposed creations were his, not hers. Farmland has no say in whether crops planted in it will be allowed to grow or be pulled out or plowed under. The patria potestas, the authority of the father, was absolute.

Thou shalt not pull up what man has planted. That sentence sums up the position of many churches today — and, alas, the radical right-wing majority on the Supreme Court.

In the decades since women began moving toward equality, male supremacists have intensified their efforts to put them back "in their place," accurately described by Atwood in "The Handmaid's Tale" as "two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices." As George Carlin put it in a 1996 routine, "Pro-Life Is Anti-Woman," those who oppose women's control over their own bodies "believe a woman's primary role is to function as a brood mare for the state."

After Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected removing abortion protection from the state constitution, one postmortem used Seed Metaphor terminology to describe the position of forced-pregnancy advocates. They want "to treat a woman's body like it's a high-yielding 160 acres of Kansas farmland," Priti Gulati Cox wrote. Presumably without being aware that she was doing so, she pointed out that those who sought to deny women's ownership of their bodies are applying Thomas Jefferson's 1820 argument on the value of enslaved women: "The higher the yield, the higher their value." 

The connection between authoritarian regimes and the use of women as fields in which to grow new members of the favored race is undeniable. "Cradles are empty and cemeteries are expanding," Benito Mussolini warned in 1927, language often echoed by the American right today. "The entire white race, the Western race, could be submerged by other races of color that multiply with a rhythm unknown to our own." One of Mussolini's programs was called the "Battle for Babies." It presented awards to prolific women for being such rich, productive soil (if not quite in those terms), while banning abortion and contraception. If that sounds familiar to Americans in 2022, it should. On July 21, 96 percent of Republican members of the House of Representatives voted against legislation to protect access to birth control.

The connection between authoritarian regimes and the view of women as fields for growing new members of the favored race is undeniable: "Cradles are empty and cemeteries are expanding," Mussolini warned in 1927.

American right-wing extremists have chosen the racist and misogynist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as their model. He and others on the radical right in Europe and the United States have taken up fear-mongering about the "great replacement" of white Christians by others (whether identified or not). In July, Orbán gave a speech in which he declared, "We mix within Europe, but we don't want to be a mixed race." One of his own top aides characterized it as "a purely Nazi diatribe worthy of Joseph Goebbels." Yet the American radical right's admiration for Orbán remains undiminished. The Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) still welcomed him to speak at their gathering in Texas in early August.

This is easily overlooked, but much of the replacement fear authoritarians fire up among insecure men is not only that they will be replaced by people of other skin colors, cultures or religious faiths, but also that they will be replaced by the original "other": women. 

CPAC also held a 2022 meeting in Budapest. On May 19, Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said there that one way to reduce the supposed "replacement" of white people in the United States was to grow our own population by outlawing abortion. This is an interesting twist on the use of enslaved Black women as soil to grow more people who would be classified as Black and owned by the seed planters. Now white supremacists want to use white women to grow crops of "free" white children. The color of the "soil" has changed, but the treatment of women as owned real estate remains a constant.

Forced pregnancy fits into the "great replacement" hysteria not only on the premise that it will increase the white population, but also in that again classifying women primarily as soil will remove many of them from the workforce as competitors with men. On the day the Dobbs decision was announced, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Minnesota explicitly argued that abortion leads to women having careers.

"Our culture," Matt Birk pronounced, "loudly but also stealthily, promotes abortion. Telling women they should look a certain way, have careers, all these things." Forced pregnancy, in this worldview can help put women back in their proper place: serving and servicing men, not replacing them: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church) as the Nazis defined women's roles. And, of course, opening their furrows for men to plant the seeds that will produce more and more white babies.

"Question Authority"

The 1960s slogan "Question Authority" is key to the attainment of equality by women, and nothing questions male authority as much as women having the power to control their own bodies. Preventing women from deciding whether to continue a pregnancy is the sine qua non of the regime of male dominance and female subordination. Acceptance of that right recognizes that women and men are the co-authors of new life and have equal "authority." Equality of the sexes is the foundation of an equal society. As long as women are seen as inferior, authoritarianism remains a danger.

The war on women's choice is Armageddon for insecure men because if women have control over their own bodies, they are their own bodies — that is, they are equal human beings, not property owned by men.

That way lies the unraveling of male dominance and so it is on the issue they call "pro-life" (in truth, forced pregnancy), where self-doubting men who are terrified of equality with women have dug in for their last stand. Because the concept that men are superior to women is the foundation for all other claims that one classification of people is superior to another, to question male authority endangers the whole edifice of inequality that has been raised upon it.

Deuteronomy 22:29 declares that a woman must marry her rapist. Italian law had this requirementmatrimonio Riparatore, "rehabilitating marriage," to restore a raped woman's reputation — well into the second half of the 20th century. After the Dobbs decision, in many states a woman — or even a 10-year-old girl — may be required to carry and deliver the child of her rapist. The message to women in the abortion laws passed in several states over the past few years is essentially the same as that in Deuteronomy: When you're fucked, you're fucked. Anxious, fragile men are determined to keep it that way.

Women and secure men must work together to establish, once and for all, that women are not real estate, but equal human beings. One place to start is by mobilizing to ensure that those who are unequivocal in their affirmation that women are free human beings have the political power to pass a federal law protecting women's bodies from government control. Women being slaves of the state is what authoritarianism looks like. To surrender women's freedom is to surrender all our freedoms.

By Robert S. McElvaine

Historian Robert S. McElvaine teaches at Millsaps College. He is the author of "Eve’s Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History." His latest book, "The Times They Were a-Changin’ – 1964: The Year the Sixties Arrived and the Battle Lines of Today Were Drawn," has just been published.

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Abortion Analysis Authoritarianism Dobbs Dobbs Decision History Roe V. Wade Sexism