Reviews | What Roe’s inversion means for women’s work

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Roe has been my lifelong doctrine. When I graduated from high school, the photographs from the last year were included in a memory book. One of the pages invited us to imagine our careers and our salary in 10 years. I predicted that I would be a lawyer making $35,000 a year very realistically. I was not stupid. I knew race and gender could make that much harder to achieve. It never occurred to me that I should temper my aspirations because I was a girl.

Over a lifetime, Roe had pushed women into the paid workforce so much that it was fitting that high school seniors were asked to answer a gender-neutral question about their economic aspirations. Flipping through this book today is like reading a fairy tale, the old ones from Grimm and not the new ones from Disney.

I grew up choosing where and how I work because Roe v. Wade gave me many of the same basic human rights as men, for example. Millions of women have, to varying degrees, been able to do the same.

With Roe v. Wade reversed, we don’t have the same rights in all labor markets. In a global market, a self-employed person is one who can migrate with Dobbs. Women can’t assume that we can work safely in Idaho the same way we can in Oregon or Washington. I can’t negotiate pay or time off with an employer with the same risk profile as those who can’t get pregnant. An employer who offers lower pay in a state offering abortion care is indirectly profiting from the inability of women to take our jobs in the open market across the country. Thanks to a rogue court, women’s lives are now more determined by the accidents of our birth than they were a week ago.

These birth accidents include the limitation of women’s lives by making them dependent on corporate benevolence. Some companies, including Dick’s Sporting Goods, immediately released statements that they would offer employee reimbursements for travel for abortion services. The largesse of Dick’s and other corporations is remarkable. But it forces the women to disclose their medical condition to a boss they must hope is well-meaning. It means nothing to also hope that the management or leadership of the company does not change. Well-meaning employers can come and go. They also vary in how well-meaning they are in terms of promises of support to their employees.

Months before the ruling was officially released, Starbucks also released a statement promising to support employees seeking abortion care. But its statement adds that it cannot guarantee this benefit to workers in unionized stores. Union campaigns at Starbucks have increased worker power. Many of these workers are women and people at risk of becoming pregnant. Potentially attaching support for abortion care to non-unionized labor is a perfect example of why corporations should not be the arbiters of human rights.

The majority opinion in Dobbs argues that it is simply a matter of making abortion rights a state decision. In reality, judges make it the privilege of a society. A society cannot hold together when half the population has to rely so much on the kindness of strangers to do something as basic as work.

The economy, work and jobs matter for more reasons than money. Jobs and income are the basic units of U.S. citizenship, in practice. Jobs are how we earn dignity. Income is one of the ways we finance the state, through taxes and production. Jobs are also how the state fulfills its responsibility to us, relying on employers to provide goods like health care and social security.

For only 58 years of the 246-year-old national economy, women have enjoyed – thanks to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act – the full citizenship that we effectively buy through our jobs. We were able to migrate from the South to the North and the West, in search of better wages and more opportunities. Access to abortion provided women with more and better economic opportunities, and those economic opportunities made women more viable in the eyes of the law. We concocted economic opportunities, albeit for less pay than men, yes. But any paid work made us freer by making us more whole in the eyes of the courts and institutions.

Today, we pay more for this freedom than men. And it’s a prize that our children will inherit. Many people who celebrate the Dobbs decision are nostalgic for a pre-World War II American economy. This economy has prevented women from competing with men in the paid labor market. He also relied on unions to protect the incomes of working-class men. This economy is gone. This economy will not magically provide good jobs and good wages for men to pass on to their wives and children.

As a black woman, I inherited the debts that white racism imposed on the livelihoods of my grandparents and great-grandparents and their great-grandparents. I know what that legacy looks like. It makes your life poorer. It impoverishes your communities. And that dooms a society.

That we are all less free than we were on Thursday is, even now, a cliché. But in fact, this is more true for poor women and trans men than for others. Do not confuse specific harm with localized harm. When women cannot move freely through this country, confident that they have basic human rights when they migrate, we are all entrenched in the poverty of their choices.

There are even worse days to come. By all accounts, the overturning of Roe v. Wade is just the beginning of decisions that could overturn hard-won human rights for all Americans. Justice Clarence Thomas indicated that LGBTQ rights, access to birth control and healthcare privacy could be in the court’s crosshairs.

I’m still in shock to wake up in a new world. But this feeling cannot solidify into inertia. We can and should donate to organizations that provide abortion services in local communities. At the same time, donations will not save us. Consumer citizenship has taught us to think of our politics as a set of transactions that we can buy like we would a car or a new pair of shoes. Restoring human rights will require direct political commitment and formidable resistance. I don’t particularly have hope.

Judge Samuel Alito wrote the majority decision. Journalist Stephanie Mencimer wrote in Mother Jones that it would always be “Alito” who would write the majority decision. Alito says the court cannot concern itself with how its decisions affect people. Linda Greenhouse in The Times described the opinion as arrogant. I expect arrogance from a conservative court. It’s more important to me that the decision is so bold.

This is a court that is not afraid of the electorate and is not ashamed to show its hand. The emperor doesn’t care if he doesn’t wear any clothes. Nancy Pelosi read a poem. President Biden has issued a lukewarm pledge to women’s rights. Nobody seems to be afraid of the people. It’s the people’s fault.

The fight is now shifting to the states, where many jurists are unsure how to interpret this new reality. Some states struggle with knowing who has what authority. Other states want to refuse to enact Dobbs’ dictates but don’t know how. We should be here to figure out what life will be like after Roe v. Wade. It is going to be difficult. Setbacks are certain. But there is no other way forward and so many ways back.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tresiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at the Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and 2020 MacArthur Fellow.

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