Claire McGing: Overturning of Roe raises crucial questions about gender and access to power

Claire McGing: Overturning of Roe raises crucial questions about gender and access to power

Abortion rights campaigners protest outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Friday following the US Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v Wade. Picture: AP/Gemunu Amarasinghe

Last week, the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v Wade case, ending the only federal protections for abortion in America. 

The court’s move means abortion could soon be banned in up to 26 states; 13 states have trigger laws banning or curtailing terminations of pregnancy almost immediately. 

It is difficult to fathom the magnitude of this ruling for tens of millions of Americans. People of colour, the poor, undocumented migrants and other marginalised communities will be disproportionately affected by abortion bans (as the modern history of abortion shows us, including on the island of Ireland, privileged groups will find a means to travel).

The ruling raises critical, globally applicable questions about gender and access to politics and power. Who makes fundamental decisions about women’s rights? Who puts them there? And crucially, would more women in leadership roles make a difference in the lives of women, all women?

Three of the five Supreme Court justices of the majority opinion are men. Two of the three dissenting voices are women. 

In the aftermath of the ruling, the Los Angeles Times calculated that male senators accounted for 91% of the votes to confirm the five justices who overturned Roe v Wade. 

An uncomfortable truth for white progressives in America is the role the white female voter played in securing Trump’s success in swinging the court to a conservative majority. File picture: Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
An uncomfortable truth for white progressives in America is the role the white female voter played in securing Trump’s success in swinging the court to a conservative majority. File picture: Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

In large part, this figure is explained by the underrepresentation of women in politics in Washington (at present, only 24% of senators are women) and the interplay between gender and party affiliation.

Former president Donald Trump nominated three of the justices who overturned the ruling. 

An uncomfortable truth for white progressives in America is the role the white female voter played in securing Trump’s success in swinging the court to a conservative majority. A plurality of white women (47% to 54% depending on the poll) voted Republican in the 2016 presidential election. 

White women have only voted more Democratic than Republican twice in presidential elections over the past 70 years. Race, not gender, has always been the primary driver of white women’s electoral behaviour. 

By contrast, 94% of black women and 68% of Latino women cast a vote for Hillary Clinton. These women will pay the highest price for the Supreme Court’s ruling.

In most legislatures around the world, the overwhelming majority of elected representatives are men, despite historic gains in all regions. The suffragettes hoped that by granting women the right to vote and to run for parliament, women would positively advance policy and politics in a ‘man-run system of society’. 

Indeed, there is substantial global evidence to suggest that an increase in the number of women parliamentarians leads to a heightened focus on reproductive rights and other gendered issues such as violence against women, social services, healthcare and childcare.

However, in no political system are women voters a monolithic group and the salient differences among women are as significant as those among men. 

This point is important because elected women leaders, being white and middle class, rarely mirror the social backgrounds of women in the electorate. 

This is why the question of whether women leaders have a positive impact on women’s human rights is so complex. Which women are best represented by the status quo? 

While in the past, political scientists simply ‘counted’ the number of women in politics — and women’s electoral representation in the symbolic sense remains important, not least in providing role models for girls and women — a greater focus has been placed on capturing (the lack of) women’s diversity in politics and assessing policy changes through an intersectional lens. 

Women are not all the same — they are affected by policy differently, as the US case shows — nor should their representatives be the same.

Black and minority ethnic women are overwhelmingly underrepresented in Irish politics and this is to the detriment of our political discourse. It is a matter of national shame that it took until 2020 for a Traveller woman, Senator Eileen Flynn, to take a seat in the Houses of the Oireachtas. 

Further, working-class women, migrant women, disabled women, LGBTQ+ women and rural women all remain underrepresented as candidates and politicians.

What can be done? Encourage women from underrepresented backgrounds to run for public office (the next local election takes place in 2024). Provide support when they do run. Make the decision to run yourself — your voice needs to be heard.

However, individual motivation is not enough to meaningfully advance women’s diverse representation. Research I conducted with Dr Pauline Cullen (Maynooth University) following the 2019 local election shows that women candidates from marginalised and minoritised backgrounds face myriad structural barriers to their participation, including gendered and racialised abuse. 

To effect real change, it is incumbent on political parties to recruit diverse women candidates in a timely fashion (not in the weeks prior to an election to fulfil a quota), nurture and resource their candidacy and provide post-election support, win or lose.

  • Claire McGing, a social scientist, has published extensive research on gender politics and electoral politics in Ireland.

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