As it happened, I was in Edinburgh the day Roe v Wade was overturned, and the next day I caught a train back to London and did what I usually do when I get anywhere near King’s Cross station. I took the short walk to the old St Pancras churchyard to visit the tombstone of the great feminist ancestor Mary Wollstonecraft, author of that first great feminist manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. To be there that day was to remember that feminism did not start recently – Wollstonecraft died in 1797 – and it did not stop on 24 June.
Women in the US gained this right less than half a century ago – a short time when the view is from Wollstonecraft’s memorial. I have regularly heard the opinions in recent decades that feminism failed or achieved nothing or is over, which seems ignorant of how utterly different the world (or most of it) is now for women than it was that half century ago and more. I say world, because it’s important to remember that feminism is a global movement and Roe v Wade and its reversal were only national decisions.
Ireland in 2018, Argentina in 2020, Mexico in 2021 and Colombia in 2022 have all legalized abortion. So many things have changed in the last half century for women in so many countries that it would be hard to itemize them all; suffice to say that the status of women has been radically altered for the better, overall, in this span of time. Feminism is a human rights movement that endeavors to change things that are not just centuries, but in many cases millennia old, and that it is far from done and faces setbacks and resistance is neither shocking nor reason to stop.
Wollstonecraft did not even dream of votes for women – most men in the Britain of her time didn’t have voting rights either – or of many other rights we now consider ordinary, but you don’t have to go back to the eighteenth century to encounter radical inequality on the basis of gender. It was everywhere in large and small ways into recent decades – and culturally still persists in the widespread attempts to control and contain women and the prejudices women still encounter about their intellectual competence, sexuality, and equality. [Continue reading…]