Women’s Rights, Democracy Inextricably Linked, U.S. Backsliding On Both

Women’s lead­er­ship in the United States still lags relat­ive to much of the world.
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Photos: University of Michigan\YouTube

Last fall, the United States was included for the first time on the annual list of back­slid­ing demo­cra­cies published by the Inter­na­tional Insti­tute for Demo­cracy and Elect­oral Assist­ance. Broadly defined as those exhib­it­ing “gradual but signi­fic­ant weak­en­ing of checks on govern­ment and civil liber­ties, ” back­slid­ing demo­cra­cies are meas­ured by categor­ies includ­ing repres­ent­at­ive govern­ment, impar­tial admin­is­tra­tion, and parti­cip­at­ory engage­ment.

The European think tank repor­ted that the United States shows signi­fic­ant lapses in effect­ive legis­lat­ive bodies and freedoms of expres­sion and assembly.

Around the same time, a sweep­ing abor­tion ban went into effect in Texas and inquir­ies about its correl­a­tion to our back­slid­ing demo­cracy were raised. The New York Times was among several news organ­iz­a­tions report­ing that such a descent is precisely when “curbs on women’s rights tend to accel­er­ate.”

However, there has been notably little discourse about the converse of this propos­i­tion: that Amer­ica’s long­stand­ing and abysmal record on myriad gender equity mark­ers has been the true harbinger for our down­graded status. Accord­ing to a United Nations report, the traject­ory of “de-demo­crat­iz­a­tion” is rarely analyzed initially through the distinct lens of gender equity and there are insuf­fi­cient efforts to system­at­ic­ally exam­ine the current implic­a­tions.

To be sure, the United States is in fact exper­i­en­cing an increase in women’s repres­ent­a­tion. Twenty-seven percent of members of Congress are now women, up 50 percent from a decade ago. On the Supreme Court, women will likely soon account for four out of nine justices, two of whom are women of color. Vice Pres­id­ent Kamala Harris is the first woman (and person of color) to serve in the role. At the state level, more than 30 percent of elec­ted exec­ut­ives are women, along with 31 percent of legis­lat­ors.

But these raw numbers alone are an insuf­fi­cient meas­ure.

Women’s lead­er­ship in the United States still lags relat­ive to much of the world. And the figures are a far cry from robust and mean­ing­ful repres­ent­a­tion, espe­cially for women of color. Today there are zero Black women in the Senate, and a Black woman has never served as state governor.

The United States also performs piti­fully on essen­tial ingredi­ents for women’s parti­cip­a­tion in the body politic. For example, while mater­nal mortal­ity has decreased glob­ally — drop­ping by 43 percent over the last three decades — rates in the United States remain on the rise. We currently rank 46th in the world. The crisis is partic­u­larly acute for Black women, who are three times more likely to die during preg­nancy and child­birth in Amer­ica than white women. Glob­ally, paid mater­nity leave aver­ages 29 weeks. We are one of only six coun­tries, and the only wealthy nation, without any form of national paid leave.

Further, the United States is an outlier on consti­tu­tional equal­ity, even as the Equal Rights Amend­ment now navig­ates final rati­fic­a­tion after a century-long fight. Eighty-five percent of United Nations member states have expli­cit consti­tu­tional provi­sions that prohibit discrim­in­a­tion on the basis of sex and/or gender. Of those with consti­tu­tions adop­ted since 2000, all do so; France is among those that have amended their older, estab­lished consti­tu­tions to acknow­ledge equal­ity.

Across domestic agen­cies we have too few guard­rails against abus­ive insti­tu­tional prac­tices and too many reports of barbaric treat­ment of women and girls, includ­ing of those who are incar­cer­ated or detained by the govern­ment being ster­il­ized without their consent, shackled during child­birth, or denied menstrual products.

And the list goes on.

These are not merely the byproducts of a demo­cracy on the decline. Rather they also drive a down­ward spiral — and can inev­it­ably lead to deeper inequal­ity and wider gaps in parti­cip­a­tion, a truly vicious cycle.

As indic­ated above, Amer­ica’s stand­ing in the global repro­duct­ive land­scape offers a real-time glimpse at what to expect from our back­slide. For the past two decades, as much of the world has expan­ded access to abor­tion, the United States is one of three coun­tries — joined by Nicaragua and Poland — actively rolling back rights. Though most Amer­ic­ans support legal abor­tion, we’ve now seen overtly uncon­sti­tu­tional laws glide through state legis­latures and be met with stag­ger­ing indif­fer­ence by the courts.

Later this spring, the Supreme Court will likely uphold the 15-week ban in ques­tion in Dobbs vs. Jack­son Women’s Health Organ­iz­a­tion, thereby gutting the preced­ent of Roe v. Wade. All of which has spurred even more extreme propos­als — like a bill in Missouri that would allow citizens to sue anyone who attempts to help a person seek an abor­tion out of state.

As the Times reporter above reflects: “For all the complex­it­ies around the ebb and flow of abor­tion rights, a simple formula holds surpris­ingly widely. Major­it­ari­an­ism and the rights of women, the only univer­sal major­ity, are inex­tric­ably linked. Where one rises or falls, so does the other.”

Except we cannot expect to meas­ure the ebb and flow of a truly inclus­ive demo­cracy without first look­ing to gender equity. It is not a chicken and egg equa­tion — but rather where we must start and end the inquiry. Women’s rights have been the canary in the coal mine all along.

By Jennifer Weiss-Wolf\Brennan Center

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