On some level, Jessie Steigerwald had been anticipating this moment since Donald Trump was elected president. “My immediate reaction was, ‘There goes the Supreme Court and there goes Roe,’“ said the 53-year-old Lexington woman.
Still, the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling on Friday — reversing a nearly 50-year precedent and the expectations of bodily autonomy for two generations of women — reduced her in a way she hadn’t fully expected.
“I feel like my humanity has been diminished today. What am I if I am not in charge of my body?” asked Steigerwald, who poured her frustration into yet another demonstration on Friday, this one in Lexington. “But I’m still powerful. I’m going to take my little, small diminished power and put it together with all the other small, diminished people’s power.”
The most momentous setback to women’s rights in decades came in the wake of this era’s biggest surge in women’s activism — an irony lost on no one. Women marched and marched and marched, most notably at the Women’s March of Jan. 21, 2017, viewed as the largest single-day protest in US history. They organized and mobilized. They disrupted the Senate confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh and made impassioned personal pleas to senators in elevators.
Some, like Steigerwald, showed up at demonstrations wearing blood-red cloaks and haunting demeanors, using imagery from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” to show what forced pregnancy would look like in the modern world.
None of it changed the outcome that so many had foreseen: Their daughters lost the guarantee of reproductive rights their mothers fought for. And now, these women realize, they are going to have to march some more.
“I have to be honest with you, it’s not easy,” said June Rowe, 78, a member of Mystic Valley Action for Choice, who has concerns about a broader erosion of women’s rights, beyond abortion. “It’s always an uphill battle. You feel like you’re now like Sisyphus climbing the hill again.”
Many of the signs and fears expressed at the Women’s March on Washington in 2017 focused on the threat Trump posed to abortion rights. That notion drew derision at the time as an overreaction. But on Friday evening, the Women’s March organization released a video compilation of clips from commentators and politicians calling the marchers “hysterical,” and their concerns about an abortion reversal “scare tactics.”
“We told you. You didn’t listen,” the video was tagged.
But women did listen, and mobilize in tremendous numbers, noted Lauren Duncan, a Smith College professor who teaches on the psychology of political activism. In recent years, their efforts were hampered by the coronavirus pandemic and overshadowed by crises over gun violence and police brutality to Black people. Regardless, the abortion rights activists could not match the efforts of highly organized opposition, which had been working to overturn Roe v. Wade for decades.
“This is a long game that the right has been playing. This is the fruition of what they’ve been working toward for a long time,” Duncan said. She pointed to decades-long Republican efforts to fill courts with conservative judges and state houses with anti-abortion legislators who would bring legal challenges like the Mississippi case at the center of the Supreme Court ruling.
“I don’t think this is because we weren’t protesting enough or contributing to Planned Parenthood,” Duncan said. “I think this is a case of the conservative right wanting this for a very long time and doing whatever they could to get it done.”
Hundreds of demonstrations have sprung up across the country since the ruling, Rachel O’Leary Carmona, executive director of the Women’s March, said on Saturday. “I think it’s safe to say that women and allies are mobilized now in a way that is very similar to post-2016 election fervor,” she said.
Though the ruling had been well forecast — a leaked draft opinion was published by Politico in May — people were still struck hard by it, she said. “For many of us growing up, we were told that Roe was settled and this was a right we would always have,” she said.
Dismissing women’s concerns as overstated is not unique to this movement, said Duncan, who warned that “Women are not taken seriously,” even within progressive social justice campaigns.
“The history of the civil rights movement — actually any movement you can choose — women’s concerns were always pooh-poohed,” Duncan said.
History is little comfort to young activists such as Siobhan Reidy, who led a 2020 demonstration in downtown Boston opposing Trump’s third nominee to the Supreme Court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett. There, she pledged that Roe v. Wade was “settled law, and she will not take that away from us.”
On Friday, after Roe was reversed, Reidy began fretting that the Republican Party could pass a federal abortion ban if it reclaims majorities in Congress in the midterm elections.
“I will be completely honest: I don’t have much faith that they won’t get the House and the Senate, given voter restriction laws and the historic low turnout from Democrats. Which is terrifying as a young woman,” said Reidy, a recent college graduate who now faces a “mountain of student debt” and the expectation that she will earn less in the workforce than her male peers.
“To go into a world that’s already falling apart and have one more thing on top of it that’s going to hurt everyone – is really terrifying.”
Abortion opponents swiftly began pursuing a more comprehensive ban on abortion the day of the ruling. Former vice president Mike Pence immediately proposed a national abortion ban. And in Massachusetts, one of 16 states where abortion rights are expressly protected under local law or constitution, the Catholic Action League made clear it would not be satisfied with state-by-state restrictions.
“Hopefully, after today, many innocent lives will be saved,” C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League, said in a statement Friday. “But, so long as the legal personhood of the unborn child is denied, hundreds of thousands will continue to be killed each year in the United States of America.”
To the defeated advocates who had been rallying for reproductive rights, that means a new round of battle is just beginning.
Lora Venesy, whose advocacy for women’s empowerment began over a decade ago, said her friends had coined a phrase for their feelings now: “Sadraged.”
“It’s so weird to feel sad and enraged at the same time,” said Venesy, 53, of Concord.
To Tami Gouveia, who led the Massachusetts chapter of the Women’s March on Washington in 2017, the Supreme Court ruling was less a rebuke to marchers’ efforts than a vindication.
“It is exactly the reason why we marched,” Gouveia said. “We saw this coming. We knew this was coming.”
What she now fears is a larger “rollback of civil rights writ large.” The far right, she said, wants to “create a new day where the bodily autonomy of anybody who’s not a white cis gender Christian man is called into question.”
“We have to take the political muscle that we have been building over the last five years and put that to use,” said Gouveia, who is now a state representative and a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.
Steigerwald, the head of a women’s nonprofit and a cofounder of the handmaids-themed protest group, the Boston Red Cloaks, decided not to wear her arresting red cloak to the demonstration she held in Lexington on Friday. Feelings were just too raw, she said, and she wanted to counter the mind-set that seemed to have been advanced with the Supreme Court ruling: that “a fetus is more important than the living, human woman in front of you.”
“There needs to be no confusion that the Supreme Court has decided to harm people — actual people who are born,” Steigerwald said. “They’re not hurting fictional characters. They’re hurting people.”