Abortion-rights proponents have been sounding the alarm on the possible fall of Roe v. Wade for decades, even before Donald Trump nominated three justices to the Supreme Court. Among them is New York’s Rebecca Traister, and in recent weeks she’s sounded off on the Democratic Party’s failure to fully rally around the issue, the limits that privilege has within the issue, and the slippery slope of what lies ahead.
After a draft of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade leaked earlier this month, we’ve been faced with the reality that abortion could be banned in half the country. The court’s official ruling is expected by the end of June, and 26 states will likely ban abortion outright if Roe is overturned. “There’s going to be this sense that those with privilege are going to be able to just keep getting the care and have the world that they’d gotten used to. I don’t think that’s true,” Traister tells the Cut’s editor-in-chief, Lindsay Peoples. “I think that those are false promises — just like the promise that Roe was never going to get overturned was a false promise.”
To talk about how we got here and what’s next, Rebecca Traister joins us on the latest episode of In Her Shoes.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Lindsay Peoples: Rebecca, I’m very excited to have this conversation with you today. We’ve talked about a lot of our abortion coverage for the Cut for a while now, but I specifically wanted to talk with you for our podcast episode because your name has become so synonymous with abortion and reproductive rights. Why has this always been so personal to you and part of your purpose?
Rebecca Traister: It’s a great question. I will say that given that my beat is so broad — and has been since the beginning of writing about gender, politics, and inequity in this country, which I started to do almost 20 years ago, when I was writing for Salon.com — there’s been no way to write about that broad beat without writing about abortion politics. When I first started writing about politics (again, this is like in 2003 or 2004), I think many of my first stories about political figures were about their stances on abortion. It was in 2004 — Democrats were running away from abortion as if that is what lost them the presidential election. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton were distancing themselves from abortion-protection politics in a way that I was horrified by 18 years ago.
More personally than that, I would say that one of the very first political demonstrations I ever went to was in junior high school. My friend’s mother took me to Washington for one of the big pro-choice marches, and it was the first time that I’d ever been at a massive political gathering like that. I was writing term papers about abortion politics when I was in the ninth grade. So there’s this sort of personal history. And then, as far as journalism goes, it’s just been impossible to write about the politics of gender, race, sexuality, inequality, and injustice — which has been my job — without having made abortion central to it.
Lindsay: No, that makes sense. I do think, though, because when we talked about this a month or two ago, you were saying how you’ve been frustrated by this conversation around reproductive rights and people not taking it seriously for 20 years. Was there a specific moment in your work where you felt things are not going to get better and people aren’t taking it seriously enough? Or do you feel it was a culmination of a lot of different things that you saw over the past 20 years?
Rebecca: Well, there are different stages of my feelings, like, This is not going to get better and People aren’t taking this seriously enough. I mean, I can break it down into five moments where I knew that Roe was going to be gone. And the first was in the Javits Center on the night that Trump won. The next was on a plane when I saw the headline that Anthony Kennedy was going to resign under Trump, permitting Trump to choose his replacement. The next was the confirmation day of Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. And then there was the night that Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. And then the day that Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed. And so I have this constellation of every one of those times it hit me physiologically. I felt some physical version of the reality hitting me, culminating so far with the leaked draft of Alito’s opinion fully overturning Roe, which was not a surprise to me. And yet I sat on the couch, like, all cold and my teeth chattering for hours. It was such a weird experience. I was not surprised at all, and yet it was a physically shocking experience for me that night.
Lindsay: You said that you weren’t surprised at all. I think predicting that something is happening and it happening are two different feelings. But how did your conversation shift, and what did you say to people in conversations, whether it be with women in your circle or just women in politics that were saying that you were being too hysterical and that it’s not going to happen? And then this draft leaks and everybody’s like, Oh, shit. Actually, this is going to happen.
Rebecca: Well, it’s interesting. Not everybody is saying, Oh, shit, this is going to happen. A lot of people are still saying, among my friends and peers who also write about this for a living, this has just been how we talk, right? “Roe will be gone at the beginning of the summer.” Now that could mean — and it still could — a complete overturn. Roe is overturned, or it could just mean the gutting and hollowing out of Roe.
And that’s the position that John Roberts has reportedly been advocating for, but that is in its own way. And there’s a lot of debate about what’s more dangerous is the sort of official “We keep Roe,” but it is meaningless because once you uphold the 15-week ban that’s in question in this case, you are doing away with the very notion of viability. And so there’s no legal difference between that 15-week ban and a six-week ban or a two-week ban. Because you’re doing away with the standard of viability. So Roe is gone with Roberts’ moderate opinion, but pundits can say, “But Roe is still standing,” which, of course, has been the fantasy under which people have been laboring for the past 40 years, even though Roe has been significantly hollowed out and diminished by Hyde and state restrictions. The other is the full overturn.
And, of course, that’s what the Alito document was. The Alito document was shocking in its brazenness. And I think that raised a real alarm for people who did not ever think that was going to happen. And I have been assured my whole life, right, “Roe is never going to go. Roe is never going to go.” And I’m sure the “Just calm down. Don’t be hysterical” contingent — they’re going to want everybody to just calm down, don’t be hysterical, in every circumstance.
They’re also the people, who, believe me, after this happens this summer are going to say, “There’s still plenty of states where you can get abortions.” There’s always going to be a contingent that is going to tell you that this is not a problem. And to raise the alarm that it is a very real problem that there are human beings and their families and their friends and their communities that are suffering and going to suffer further. It makes people who are in obviously comfortable positions of power very uncomfortable. And so the impulse is always going to be, “No, you’re being overdramatic.” And, yes, that is what I have been told. I wish I had the confidence sort of to tell everybody who’s ever told me that I’m being hysterical to just fuck off, but I fundamentally —
Lindsay: You should have.
Rebecca: I should have. It’s people with the most authority who say “Just calm down.” I just have kept doing my work and maintained that, actually, there was a lot to be concerned about. And that’s what motivated a lot of the work that I do. Look at just the past five years in this country. The planet is warming. There is —
Lindsay: Everything’s up in flames.
Rebecca: There are people being shot in supermarkets, Black people being shot in supermarkets by white supremacists. You have the police running over crowds after they protest. The brutal killings of unarmed civilians. You have a pandemic that the government is actively turning its attention away from just as it spreads, with the comfort that those with access and privilege are still going to be able to get treatment for that illness.
And you still have people saying, “Just calm down. Everything’s fine.” And that’s the dynamic that’s going to take place with abortion. And there’s going to be this sense that those with privilege are going to be able to just keep getting the care and have the world that they’d gotten used to. I don’t think that’s true. I’ve written about that. I think that those are false promises — just like the promise that Roe was never going to get overturned was a false promise.
Lindsay: One-hundred percent.
Rebecca: I think people want to stay comfortable. There’s a lot of banding about the idea of the use of woke as a pejorative. And I think it’s actually a pretty racist pejorative. Woke politics has come to stand in as a pretty racist and, I think, sexist word to denigrate people who have progressive ideas about injustice and inequity. But if you think about what woke means or what its original reference point is, it’s, like, people who have been awakened to something that they were asleep for. And one of my points of curiosity has always been “Who can afford to be asleep? Who can sleep?” And people have a very strong desire to remain asleep. It’s comfortable when you’re asleep.
Lindsay: Yeah, it’s less work.
Rebecca: It’s a lot less work, and it’s a lot less fear. People don’t want to be scared. And people, especially those who are used to having power and the comfort to remain asleep, are going to fight hard to insist that “Don’t worry. There’s nothing to wake up for here. You don’t have to lie awake at night afraid. You can go back to sleep.” And it’s very hard to fight against a tide that powerful.
Lindsay: I hear that. Obviously, a lot of this is who has certain privileges and who doesn’t. But I also think that a lot of this boils down to the language that we use and certain language that you can now tell scares certain people, or it makes people feel a certain way, even when you were talking about just the Democratic Party’s refusal to really talk about defending abortion rights blatantly and not tiptoeing around it. I still can’t even really wrap my head around why they have continued to play it so safe. So, I mean, I want to hear your take on this, but I think, also, just the use of the word abortion — and there’s a clear strategy around politicians not wanting to use the word or not wanting to just blatantly say, “This is the right thing to do, and we all need to rally.”
And I think that seems crazy to me: that we’re in that place in 2022 where it still feels like something that is so divisive for politicians, even politicians that you may like or support in the Democratic Party. And I’m curious why you feel like this specific language is obviously holding people back in some way?
Rebecca: Well, I think the roots of it are really, really deep. So it starts with the idea that everything about … and it’s gendered; it’s about women and women’s bodies and gender-nonconforming people’s bodies. And it is really hard to overestimate the degree to which a capitalist white patriarchy is the thing that this country was built around. And, I mean, that sounds jargony, but it’s just so real, right? Our systems, our modes of communication, our government, our businesses, our economy, were all built from the ground on the idea that the people who would hold the most power in this country (again, politically, socially, sexually, and economically) were white men — wealthy white men, straight men, cis men.
Of course, those systems have been complicated and challenged, and it’s not just white men in power anymore. It’s not just straight white cis men in power, and that is absolutely true. But we certainly haven’t altered the system that they built. We haven’t altered its expectations and its rules. And so part of how we get to the notion that we can’t even talk directly about abortion, what it is, or even really have thoughtful conversations about people’s different religious attitudes about it, which are real and philosophical attitudes. There are ways to have these conversations, but in order to do it, you have to have a real openness and conversation about what’s at stake. And there has been a reluctance on the part of a Democratic Party. It’s socially, certainly in schools, to not even think about the fact that this is a country in which there’s tremendous controversy about whether or not we teach sex-ed, whether we have sexual education in this country.
But controlling reproduction has been one of the most effective ways to, first of all, keep racial boundaries really strict and therefore racial hierarchies really strict — and, also, gendered hierarchies in terms of who has power, who has economic power, who has domestic power, who has professional power, who has power within families. So controlling bodies and reproduction is really key to the maintenance of the system. And part of what that has meant is that we don’t even have those conversations about reproduction. Reproduction is kept in a realm. It’s not just abortion; it’s the mechanics of pregnancy itself.
Our colleague Irin Carmon just wrote a piece about the real physical realities of pregnancy — all the blood and the nails breaking and all of these different things that happened to the bodies of pregnant people. And I saw so much reaction to this that was like, “Oh my God, I had no idea.” And it’s like, “Right?” We don’t even tell people what pregnancy entails. We don’t talk about it. And we laugh. There is, when I was growing up, it was like, “Oh, can you believe that on I Love Lucy, when she was pregnant, they didn’t even say the word pregnant. They didn’t even acknowledge her pregnancy. We couldn’t talk about pregnancy.” And I’m like, “Okay. So we’re a little better than that.” But we still — there’s just not common, regular, everyday discourse about what this entails.
And then, I think, that a right wing building steam at the end of the ’70s, joining with an economically conservative Republican Party, this thing happened, which was the joining of a religiously conservative sort of Moral Majority right wing in this country, with the economic conservatives under Ronald Reagan, the building toward the Reagan years in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
And they mounted an incredibly effective and strategic anti-abortion crusade. And they used all the language, all the good stuff: life and love and family. And at that point, the Democratic Party was still controlled by a lot of anti-choice Democrats who were still in power. And I’m using the language of choice here, because it’s reflexive because I was raised on it. I think it’s bad language, and I just used it. And you didn’t have pushback. It wasn’t led by people who had a sort of deep and rigorous understanding of how abortion care is crucial to familial thriving and to freedom and to economic stability. And there wasn’t a countervailing force coming from the left, at least within a political, an electoral realm, that was willing to push back against the gobbling up of all that language. And once they got that language, faith — and there are so many faiths in this country that absolutely fully support access to abortion as fundamental.
But somehow the right wing ate up all that language. And nobody tried to get it back from them in any muscular way. And it has been decades now. And then the more they owned that language, that language of life, even as anti-abortion forces were blowing up clinics and killing providers in their places of worship. Somehow the anti-abortion rights still managed to lay claim to this language of life and faith, respect for life, even as they were enacting violence, even as they were getting in the face of patients who needed care on their way to get the medical care that they needed, the health care that they needed. There was no willingness to say, “Wait a minute — no, access to this legal procedure is fundamental to familial thriving and stability.” And there are all kinds of people of faith who are willing to explain how it is not at odds with all kinds of religious belief systems.
There just wasn’t that appetite for it. Again, as I said earlier, I remember first writing about this with absolute fury in 2004, when the Democrats were saying, “No, no, no. We should make it rare.” And then the other thing saying, “There shouldn’t be litmus tests for Democrats. We should have a big tent. We should welcome more anti-choice Democrats.” And meanwhile, the anti-abortion Republican Party was doing really incredible strategic work: running for school-board seats and state legislatures, gaining control of these state legislatures where they then passed incredibly restrictive laws that prevented all kinds of people from getting the care that they needed. You had the development of the Federalist Society, which was a pipeline of judges built to overturn Roe and erode all kinds of other freedoms and protections that were won in the mid-20th century and earlier.
There were pipelines of judges and systems that were being put to work. Mitch McConnell stole a Supreme Court seat from a popularly elected president. And there just wasn’t a party that resisted that could effectively fight back, in part because they’d ceded all kinds of this language to their opponents. Because they were too scared, I think, to actually stand up for the bodies of women and gender-nonconforming people, people with a uterus. They have always, a Democratic Party has for a long time, been really anxious about its own base — about aggressively, muscularly, robustly representing people of color, poor people, women, and gender-nonconforming people. And you can see the results of that in a sort of failure to muscularly fight this encroachment, which has been happening over a period of decades. And through that entire time, people in the media, people in political journalism, people in the Democratic Party, keep saying, “Don’t worry. It’s not really going to happen. You’re all hysterical. You’re all being overdramatic. This is not going to happen. We’ve got it under control.”
But they did not have it under control — even the systems that they control. Even the political mechanisms themselves were either perverted and broken, as in Mitch McConnell stealing the Supreme Court seat, or working as they were originally supposed to, like the Electoral College to give more power to white-supremacist voters. And that’s how two of the presidents, the Electoral College, won the White House over a majority of voters in the United States in two instances. And those two instances landed us with … Plus the perversion of the system by Mitch McConnell landed us with the Supreme Court majority we have now.
Lindsay: But don’t you feel like part of this language that I think is saying, “This is never going to happen; people are being hysterical” or that “Things are not going to be as bad as we are assuming”? Not necessarily projecting is really coming from the place that people keep reiterating that specifically white upper-class cis women will be fine. And so then if they’ll be fine, everybody else is fine. This is something that you and I have talked about before that is a huge struggle because I often feel as a Black woman, and specifically a Black woman in this role, you don’t want to always use your time just trying to shake people into realizing there are so many problems that they just blindly ignore all throughout their day. Whereas I feel even when there were protests a couple weeks ago and still going on, all of my friends who are women of color were like, “Okay, yeah, we got to go. This is what we do. We show up. We show up for other women, whether they feel like this is important. We show up for other people, whether they feel this is actually going to change anything or not. We showed up all throughout the pandemic at BLM protests; we show up again.”
Whereas I feel like it still feels like there is this disconnect of, I think, racially connecting between classes of women, if that makes sense? And I think that has been really hard for me as well. Because it often just feels like you have to — I don’t want to spend my time educating people on like, “This is really important. You have to understand this.” Because you can only tell people so much. If they don’t want to believe it, they don’t. But I think also feeling the burden continues to fall on marginalized communities. And just a general frustration around not taking things seriously enough.
Rebecca: Yeah. I mean, this goes back to the thing I was saying before about who can stay asleep. You’re absolutely right. That first of all, I mean, white women vote Republican. They always vote Republican.
Lindsay: I mean, that still baffles me.
Rebecca: It doesn’t baffle me. There’s a lot in it.
Rebecca: This is how the system is built. This is something that Brittney Cooper … She’s the person who sort of best articulated for me the shape of it. In a white patriarchy, it’s minority rule, which is part of what we’re actually talking about politically, literally with presidents who were elected by a minority of voters. So this is not just imagining jargon about white patriarchy; this is minority rule. That’s what the country was built around. And it is, in fact, what the country still has in lots of contemporary iterations, including the Donald Trump presidency.
And the Senate, the fact that these more populous states, if it were broken down, I can’t remember what the numbers are, but this is designed to keep power with the party that represents the interests of the wealthy, the white, and the male. Okay. But it’s a minority, right? And so theoretically, if that minority only can count on its own selves to show up for itself, it could be overwhelmed by a majority, even though it has a disproportionate share of the power by a billion.
Rebecca: But you actually have to put incentives in place to get members of the majority to support your shit. There are two directions that these things go on offer for. And whiteness is particularly alluring to white women who wind up in a community and family in marital, familial relationships as wives, partners, daughters, sisters, neighbors of white men and therefore directly benefit themselves — and benefit themselves even independent of their relationship with men, as white people who enjoy all kinds of economic and professional and social and sexual advantage. White supremacy benefits white women.
And then, in the other direction, patriarchy: The benefits of patriarchy are extended to men in all kinds of communities of color and otherwise overburdened communities. And that is the other sort of direction of appeal. And how do you get this minority to gain any kind of traction? And, again, the whiteness is a much … For the white women, the white women are on that with a lot more enthusiasm than any other sector because, again, they benefit so directly.
But the thing that you were describing, which is Black women in particular showing up over and over again, it’s something that Brittney said to me. And for years, it’s like neither of those things is on offer for Black women — neither whiteness, nor patriarchy, the benefits of neither, which is one of the reasons that there’s been no sort of incentive permitting sleep. I remember focus groups after the 2016 election with white women from the Midwest who voted for Trump who were told afterward. Well, if they’d known that abortion was at stake, they wouldn’t have voted for Trump.
Now I don’t know that was true, because if you were voting for Trump at that point, the sense that it’s not going to affect white women, white people, is something that I’ve really thought a lot about. Because it is such a description of the last 40 years in abortion reality. And this is something that I think I want to be really clear about. The description of a world in which white middle-class people are going to be fine and be able to get the abortions that they need is an overdue description of basically life practically since Roe. It is not a description of life after Roe. And we haven’t been honest. Mainstream media, the Democratic Party, I would say even a lot of reproductive organizations have not been straightforward about the level of inaccessibility of abortion that has existed over decades.
And so there was this period over the past few years where it has become perhaps even more fashionable and correct to say, “Some version of white middle-class people are going to be able to get abortions.” But that’s actually — that’s been projected as the future thing when, in fact, it’s just the overdue acknowledgment of the reality now and since the late ’70s. The irony is that I think that people have said it in an attempt to say, “Look, this is an issue of racism, of economic inequality.” It’s trying to convey the disproportionate harm that all kinds, that certainly abortion restrictions and insurance limitations, Hyde Amendment stuff, waiting periods, all that stuff — the disproportionate harm that it does to already overburdened and underresourced communities.
That’s true. And it is also true moving forward into an era where criminalization is going to be part of the picture. That criminalization, incarceration, all of these things disproportionately harm overburdened communities already and are going to continue to disproportionately harm those communities moving forward. But the articulation of it, which says, “Nothing’s going to change if you have certain kinds of privilege,” I think not only isn’t true moving forward, but this is the thing: We’re fighting the impulse to go back to sleep. We’re fighting to keep people awake, and people are scared — for very good reason on all kinds of fronts. The human impulse, I guess, is to not think about the hard and scary stuff. And so I think that that message, like, Oh, white people are going to be fine, is totally anesthetizing. And it’s anesthetizing to classes of people who actually have … You talk about the people who continuously and rigorously show up to protest, to work, to vote.
And the irony is that it’s the people who don’t do that — the white women who vote Republican or don’t pay any attention at all, or can sort of remain outside of it because of the fantasy that none of this affects them — who are actually people who have enormous resources. That’s one of the things you saw between 2016 and 2018: the mobilization of white suburban women that happened after the election of Donald Trump. One of the reasons it had an impact. And this sucks, by the way. Let me just say I’m not describing this as a great thing — those were women who had time to go to meetings multiple times a week. They had time to knock on doors. They had money — money to give to candidates, money to host gatherings in their homes. And it was a massive political force that was unleashed. And it sucks because that’s not to overcredit those women.
But this is also the reason that there are incentives in place to keep them asleep. There are whole systems that rely on those women either not paying attention or voting for Republicans. Because those women do have power, in part because of their racial and class privilege.
Lindsay: And they don’t even use it. It kills me.
Rebecca: Yeah. There were some of those women who really were awakened. I mean, I reported a lot on them between 2016 and 2018. And I also think there’s a story that’s told about them that’s not totally accurate, which is that a lot of them actually were — there was an easy wiping away of those women, as they just wanted to go back to brunch. And some of that was 100 percent true, okay? But there was also a dismissal of them that worked to dismiss them. There was a sense that this was dilatant and it was coming from Democratic Party people. It was coming from the consultants who were saying these women are unserious and from the Democratic Party itself. Some of those women were really awakened briefly and politicized and learned a lot and were — I use this word with some hesitation, but to some degree were sort of radicalized in a way that none of them expected to be. But then what they found themselves with was a party that didn’t want to talk about any of this stuff anymore. And that, also, is part of what we’re looking at right now.
Lindsay: Yeah. I mean, what would be your hope? Or for women listening to this and saying, Okay, what should I do? Because I think, obviously, what we’re doing on the Cut right now is offering so many resources and information: if you need to go get an abortion, if you would like to look into getting an abortion for yourself or a friend or a family member, all the different kinds of ways that even if you are having issues finding access, ways around that. But I think, also, part of — a big part of this is education and action, whether it’s donating or just understanding more about what you need to be involved in or watching. And so I’m curious about what you would want women in your circle, or women that come up to you at panels, like they did a couple weeks ago, to be aware of and to be watching for?
Rebecca: Okay. So there’s micro and macro.
Rebecca: Because I think that people need to think about that model of how the right did this, which was getting its people really engaged on minor, what seemed like small-potatoes, local elections, right? This is key in the local elections. And the Democratic Party has been really bad at prioritizing local elections. Often, there’s all these stats about all these local races that Democrats didn’t even run in. So on the one hand, one of the most important things is to not be lulled into complacency or not caring or not prioritizing this. And it means starting to think about the politics around you at a school-board level. It means seeking out candidates who you support, especially if we’re talking about middle-class people. Supporting them with dollars and time and energy, the kind of stuff that we were talking about. It may mean running yourself — thinking about running for office and learning how to do it responsibly, not just jumping in.
There are great organizations. Run for something. There are all kinds of higher heights. There are all kinds of organizations that train candidates. And that’s something to think about, but, also, look around you and see who in your community — encourage the people who inspire you to run for office and then support them again with your time and your money. So there’s that kind of paying attention to local politics. There’s the not looking away from the reality and not looking away from what it’s been. There’s also this sort of personal level, which is talking about this stuff much more openly with your friends, challenging friends who don’t want to talk about it — actually having real conversations about the realities of pregnancy and abortion but also about the realities of how all kinds of policies are interwoven around these issues.
There are books that are incredibly useful on these topics. And it’s worth it to read them and think about them and then recommend them to friends. Read Dorothy Roberts’s Killing the Black Body. Read Michele Goodwin’s Policing the Womb. Read Robin Marty’s Handbook for a Post-Roe America. Read Katha Pollitt’s Pro. There are so many good books that have been written about this. There’s so much powerful journalism. It’s a very real thing that we can all do to learn more. I have learned so much over 20 years from reading my colleagues. And I understand the issue so much better than I did 20 years ago, even though my understanding remains imperfect. And we can all do that.
I didn’t go to school on this. I didn’t, in fact at all, study it in school. I mean, I never took a gender-studies class when I was an undergraduate. I didn’t know any history around any of this stuff until I was already working and already writing about it. But that kind of education is available to all of us who can go to a library. And it’s really worth doing for the people who have the time and ability to read and learn and then insist on having those conversations within their communities.
Lindsay: We will add to the list for sure, but we always want people to be as informed as possible but also take action. And this is such an important issue that we hope you all take seriously. And thank you so much, Traister. We bow down as per usual.
Rebecca: No, thank you. Thank you for having me.
Lindsay: We really, really, really appreciate it.