This week marks the 41st anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, which established the constitutional right of women to have abortions. Advocates on both sides are celebrating and condemning Roe and its implications at events in Washington and across the country. But in 1973, the same year that Roe was decided, another important yet generally overlooked landmark occurred in the struggle for women’s equality and self-determination: the first battered women’s shelter in the United States, Women’s Advocates in St. Paul, Minnesota, opened its doors.
Now, as women’s reproductive freedom faces an unprecedented onslaught of political and legislative threats, domestic violence is suddenly on the rise. Is there a causal link? Probably not. But it’s more than just a coincidence. The simultaneous attacks on women’s bodies in legislatures and homes across America are an ominous reminder that the political repression of women goes hand-in-hand with personal subjugation and vice versa. And it’s a warning that the gains won in advancing the equal treatment of women, whether big or small, must never be taken for granted.
Domestic violence has generally declined since the 1970s, a decrease in large part credited to the rise of the battered women’s shelter movement, which established intimate partner abuse as a public issue rather than a private matter. And yet rates of domestic violence have risen more recently, coinciding with the increased legislative and political push to curb the reproductive rights of women. The political vilification of women’s bodies and their self-determination known as the Republican “War on Women” likely didn’t cause the increase in domestic violence. Scholars and police attribute the increase in intimate partner violence to the overall downturn in the economy. And yet especially in the context of reactionary backlash against the advances women over the last 40 years, the increase in domestic violence seems to fit with an overall backlash aimed at putting women in their places economically, culturally and politically.
Make no mistake about it, the push to constrain women’s reproductive choices was never entirely about the moral conundrums about whether life begins at conception and when a fetus can be considered viable. In a 1966 feature on the birth control, U.S. News and World Report magazine asked, “Is the Pill regarded as a license for promiscuity? Can its availability to all women of childbearing age lead to sexual anarchy?” Over 40 years later, Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut” for seeking affordable access to birth control. And new forms of contraception are still condemned as “promiscuity pills.” I suspect it’s largely for this reason that even Americans who are personally conflicted about abortion nonetheless firmly support the Roe v. Wade decision and believe that abortion should remain a safe and legal option for all women.
And so this week, we don’t just celebrate Roe v. Wade for declaring the United States Constitution applies to women’s bodies and not just men’s guns. We celebrate the long arc of a movement—from the first battered women’s shelter in America to a landmark abortion rights ruling to the push for equal treatment in the home, the workplace, politics and beyond—that is about ensuring women can control their own bodies and lives. That cause is as important today as it was in 1973—and sadly, as imperiled, not because young women have in any way decreased their support for feminism or abortion as compared with their mothers, but because patriarchy remains as threatened and assertive as ever. Hopefully 2014 will be the year in which its last, desperate gasps are finally put to rest. There’s a cause that all women should rally behind.