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Abortion fight is about white patriarchy clinging to power. It’s time for decent men to speak up | Will Bunch

The secret history of the U.S. abortion fight shows what it's all about: White patriarchy, and social control.

Protesters for women's rights march past Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to the Alabama Capitol to protest a law passed last week making abortion a felony in nearly all cases with no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, Sunday, May 19, 2019, in Montgomery, Ala.
Protesters for women's rights march past Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to the Alabama Capitol to protest a law passed last week making abortion a felony in nearly all cases with no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, Sunday, May 19, 2019, in Montgomery, Ala.Read moreButch Dill / AP

If you weren’t paying close attention, the prairie fire of strict anti-abortion laws jumping like flaming embers from red state to red state — punctuated by Alabama’s clearly unconstitutional (for now, anyway) straight-up ban that imposes a straight-outta-Gilead maximum sentence of 99 years on doctors performing the procedure — seemed to come out of nowhere.

But inside the bubbling core of the reactionary political movement of extremists known, politely, as Trumpism, they get it. They feel it in their bones — that finally having a potty-mouthed president who “talks the way we talk” about immigrants, journalists and feminists and who hears their chants of “Build the wall!” and “Lock her up!” (even if her left the stage 3 years ago) and now the new chastity-belt politics are all moving them toward the same place. A restoration of the way things ought to be. Which to them is the way things used to be.

“He’s getting the country back to the way things should be. The old ways,” a Trump enthusiast from Williamsport, Pa., named Robert Callahan, holding his baby granddaughter while running his boutique children’s clothing store, told Roll Call journalist John T. Bennett, who attended Monday’s Trump rally in upstate Pennsylvania so that you and I didn’t have to. Pressed on why he thought the president is doing “a great job,” Callahan suddenly turned to abortion, even though the current push is coming from state lawmakers and not the White House.

"He’s really moving us toward where the country needs to be.”

The old ways.

The sudden, stunning boiling-over of an abortion-rights battle that’s been mostly on “simmer” for the past 45 years has brought into focus two things that, frankly, should have been clear for a long, long time. The first is that while the abortion issue is, and always has been, a moral or religious choice for every individual, the politics of that dilemma have devolved into something else entirely: A bullwhip that’s become both a real-world tool of, and a symbol of an even bigger fight for, social control — to keep American society under the thumb of a white patriarchy with no qualms about crushing the rights of others and punishing those who step out of line.

The second thing is that that these strict laws — a proxy war for keeping women in their place — will only get worse until decent men start to speak out.

A good starting place for men is to learn the secret history of the anti-abortion movement in modern America. A push to repeal the first-wave anti-abortion laws of the 19th Century coincided with the rise of a women’s rights movement in the 1960s. The issue was certainly controversial — the Catholic Church, then as now, opposed abortion as well as other forms of birth control — but the original battle lines didn’t always match our 21st Century ideas about the red-blue divide.

One of the nation’s first abortion-rights laws was enacted in 1967 by California’s new governor, Ronald Reagan. What “dirty hippies” came out in 1968 and insisted abortion could be justified for reasons such as “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility”? That would have been the leading evangelical publication Christianity Today. When the Supreme Court decided in 1973′s landmark Roe v. Wade case to guarantee basic reproductive rights from coast to coast, all or parts of the decision had surprising support from groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention.

That lost history is chronicled by Dartmouth religious studies professor Randall Ballmer in a must-read piece from 2014 called “The Real Origin of the Religious Right.” While then-President Richard Nixon embraced the abortion fight as a way to pry loose Democratic Catholics in the North (he branded 1972 opponent George McGovern the candidate of “acid, amnesty and abortion”), Southern evangelicals had other fish to fry. Specifically, integrated schools.

As Ballmer chronicles in his 2014 piece, the eventual founders of the Christian right like Jerry Falwell were very busy in the years immediately after Roe v. Wade fighting for something else entirely: Tax-exempt status for the private so-called “segregation academies” formed in the 1960s to prevent Southern black kids from attending school with whites. Not surprisingly, Falwell’s movement struggled to turn a racist idea into a moral crusade. But zeroing in, instead, on abortion as a symbol of post-1960s moral rot in America, they realized, just might work.

“They are a politically reactionary movement — that’s the heart of what they are,” Ballmer told me this week by phone, explaining how evangelicals who didn’t see a Biblical reason to oppose abortion rights latched onto a political one when they could spin it as part of a broader threat to their “traditional way of life” that had thrived into the early 1960s — when a woman’s role was to bear children and stay at home and blacks were meant to stay in their separate, unequal schools.

“It meant a displacement of the white male power structure and a lot of people didn’t take kindly to that,” Ballmer added of the ’60s and ’70s social trends. But he also sees the arrival of Trump as accelerating a movement that was merely idling for much of its existence.

Some of that is the practical. Trump and his Senate GOP allies have been able to install 100 federal judges — the vast majority of them white men — including Supreme Court justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, whose own patriarchal instincts were won on the beer-soaked playing fields of Georgetown Prep. For the true believers eager to overturn Roe v. Wade, that means their moment to strike is now. That’s why you’re suddenly seeing not just Alabama’s near-total ban but also so-called “heartbeat bills” in the blood-red states of Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio that would effectively end abortions after six-to-eight weeks.

But a lot of this is also a cosmic embrace of Trumpist misogyny, with a president who’s given a voice to voters like Ohio’s Darrell Franks, a retired tool-and-dye maker who this week told the New York Times that in the race for the White House “I don’t want kinder, gentler. I don’t want some female that wants her agenda.”

The new abortion laws are essentially the Trump mob’s “Lock her up!” chant as public policy. Dig deeper and you can see the straight line from “massive resistance” against integrated public schools to massive resistance against female empowerment, to the current fraught moment when the white men who’ve held all of the power throughout all of American history fear even the slightest erosions from a #MeToo movement in the workplace and a more diverse population that will soon put whites in the minority. They want to “Build the wall!” not just at America’s southern border but around America’s lady parts.

You know ... “the old ways.”

This week, I was struck by something the writer Sarah Jaffe published at the height of the #MeToo conversation, about the need to define all of the issues facing American women as more than their component parts. “By naming patriarchy,” she wrote, “I hope that we can begin to understand the way the threads of power and dominance leak into every corner of our lives. Then we can see that violations are not purely or even mostly about sex, but instead reinforce a structure that offers power to a few by pretending to offer rewards to many. Patriarchy spreads the lie that there are rules we can follow that will keep us safe—that if we wear the right clothes, say no loudly enough, walk away, don’t laugh at men, work hard, no harm will come to us.”

In the past I might have left the column at that. Who better to express the fight facing women than a female voice, right? And that is true, but it’s also true that the power never yields without a demand, and the patriarchy will never yield unless that demand is also voiced by men. We men need to stop nodding our heads in quiet agreement with our sisters in the movement and start raising a fist, making a sign, pounding the pavement and exercising our vocal chords.

I’m familiar with this particular sin because I’ve committed it. I think my own journey on reproductive rights is pretty typical. When I first learned what abortion was, around those Nixon-McGovern/Roe v. Wade years, I was too wrapped up in adolescent angst to want to think about it. I wanted it to go away. Over a long time, I adopted a “pro-choice” stance the way a political candidate buries an issue position at the back of his web site. The hard work of riding the buses and marching on Washington — that was women’s work. After all, they called it “women’s rights.”

That was wrong, very wrong. Men: I’m doing the old-Jon-Stewart-right-camera trick and looking directly at you. If you care about fundamental human rights and everything that is happening to America in 2019, the right of women to control their own body isn’t some side issue. It’s everybody’s fight, and men need to start walking that extra mile alongside our sisters.

A national #StopTheBans campaign is underway, led by the abortion-rights group NARAL. Many events have been held Tuesday but more are in the works — information is here. If you can’t attend a march or a rally, find a pro-choice candidates to support, or speak out on social media, or follow the advice above and get you a pen and a paper, and make up your own little sign.

All those people out there screaming for “the old ways” won’t win if the silent majority that supports a new way — where freedom’s not just another word for entitled white males with something to lose — finally start raising its voice. And that chorus could use a few baritones.