Which way forward for women in 2017?

jan-2017-wom-poland-2By CHRISTINE MARIE

Hundreds of thousands are joining the Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21. On the same day, at least 200 sister marches are taking place in cities and towns all over the United States.

The outpouring, which reportedly began as two social media posts in response to the defeat of Hillary Clinton by a grossly misogynist Republican Party candidate famous for joking about sexually assaulting women, has grown in less than two months into a massive and historic event, endorsed by the major women’s rights organizations. The chairs of the coordinating body include three prominent women of color from non-profit organizations involved in fighting racism, police brutality, and surveillance.

Women from all walks of life, many of whom have never marched in a feminist demonstration, are getting on buses and trains to make their mark on the Trump inauguration spectacle and to flex their political muscles in anticipation of what will likely be the most concerted assault on reproductive justice and the lives of working women since the 1980s.

The new administration’s agenda

The Trump administration that is being assembled has given every indication it will carry out a serious, perhaps devastating, attack on reproductive justice and the wages and welfare of low-income families. An assault is planned on abortion rights; the accessibility of contraception; overall health care; education; working conditions and standard of living of low-wage women; the few remaining social safety nets for children; and the movements for Black lives, immigrant lives, and Muslim lives, all of which are anchored by women.

Trump and the anti-woman right wing that has the majority in Congress promise to immediately defund Planned Parenthood. The right-wing establishment is expected to quickly try to prohibit the non-profit from receiving any federal insurance payments, including Medicaid. Since the use of Medicaid funds for abortion services was prohibited in 1976, the new blocking of Medicaid and similar payments would translate into the cutoff of the most basic gynecological and reproductive health service to some 1.5 million low-income people.

At the same time, quick action to undo parts of the already horribly inadequate Affordable Care Act may eliminate the alternative funding source for this kind of care for 55 million women, men, and young people.

Trump also pledged to quickly pass a national ban on abortion after 20 weeks. The 20-week ban, already enacted in 16 states, is particularly mean-spirited as it impacts women around the time that most fetal abnormalities become apparent. It is also a restriction on abortion that disproportionately affects low-income women, who, in order to take advantage of increasingly scarce facilities, often need time to raise funds, find transportation, arrange time off of work, and so on.

And while Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and other organizations have sometimes successfully fought the rush of reactionary state legislative measures driven through by new Republican majorities in the courts, the likelihood of a federal measure, and the growing limitations on access, are already resulting in deadly DIY abortions and victimization flowing from new efforts to criminalize women who fail to bring pregnancies to term.

Democratic Party: ally or foe?

The defunding of Planned Parenthood, the end of Affordable Care Act subsidies for contraception, and a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks are just the tip of the iceberg of the Republican majority’s sexist wish list—which begins with the prize of overturning Roe v. Wade. But, of course, the undermining of that 1973 decision legalizing abortion began the day after it was first ruled. Both Democratic and Republican Congresses and presidents have continued to weaken it ever since.

While there is, today, a well-publicized legislative effort to overturn the Hyde Amendment, which denied poor women funding for abortion, this divisive amendment only stayed on the books for 40 years because successive Democratic majorities refused to junk it.

It must also be said that the erosion of national support for reproductive justice to its current 69% has been the product not only of the treachery of mainstream politicians on both sides of the aisle but of the decision of mainstream women’s rights and reproductive justice groups to keep the struggle on the tiny playing field offered by Democratic and Republican Party politics.

Should these groups have relied on the party that initiated the racist 1996 “welfare reform” and dismantled the major safety net for low-income women and their children to defend abortion rights? Was it rational to look to the Democratic Party, whose criminal justice “reform” destroyed communities of color with the tools of the mass incarceration and surveillance state? Whose full-throated support for barbaric U.S. military interventions led to astonishing levels of rape, death, and other victimizations of the women and children of Afghanistan and Iraq?

Did it make sense to continue to let the Democratic Party set the agenda for our defense when they basically threw women under the bus in the implementation of Obamacare?

Julia Felsenthal, who profiled several of the major leaders of the Women’s March on Washington for a July 10, 2017, article for Vogue, concluded that their commitment to a large intersectional progressive movement “could offer a blueprint to the flailing Democratic Party.” If we are to face the doubling down on women of the most reactionary wing of the big business parties, this unspoken but seemingly obvious orientation of backers of the march to encourage women to see their future tied to the victory of Democratic Party candidates in the 2017 mid-term elections is, by any historical measure, an unreliable path forward.

Changing course and learning from history

If we cannot rely on the anti-Trump Democratic Party to mount an uncompromising defense and expansion of women’s rights, what hope can we have? In truth, the political situation for women and the prospects for change was much more dire when the first major abortion victories were won almost a half-century ago.

The efforts to legalize abortion in the United States took off in the mid-1960s in a country that was deeply conservative on gender and everything else. The political climate had been darkened by the McCarthyite witchhunt of the 1950s. Yet, public opinion was shifted and mass pressure was built for a radical overturn of the existing restrictions on abortion. This was not accomplished by barely perceptible incremental change inside the Democratic Party, but by radical and militant propaganda events, well-publicized tribunals in which working women told their stories and publicly identified with the movement, and repeated mass actions of thousands of mostly young women whose politics were, in the majority, far to the left of the electoral machines.

These activities were, at their most effective, decided upon and implemented out of mass meetings and large, democratic conferences that were independent of the Democratic Party. Women could join a local group, set their political agenda, decide the actions needed, and collaborate in large national gatherings to call national demonstrations without having their agenda limited by the pragmatism and cynicism of parliamentarianism.

Within a few years, this activity created a massive groundswell of support for women’s right to control their own bodies and a Supreme Court decision that amounted to legalization. In the 1980s, women of the left organized a broad, independent, and effective physical and political defense of clinics targeted by the right.

These are the kind of movements we need to build coming out of the March on Washington. They need to be movements that we control from the bottom and whose parameters are set by what the majority of working women need, not by a strategy for the mid-terms in which our needs are secondary.

Women of the socialist movement were some of the anchors of those movements then, and they will be the first today to devote themselves to building a movement independent of the big business parties and focused on moving towards mobilizing the vast majority of working women around all the things that we really need: full reproductive justice, affordable 24-7 child care, universal health care, a dismantling of the racist criminal justice system and ICE, and union-scale wages on which one can support a family with dignity.

Throughout the building of such an independent movement, we must also construct a socialist political party. Without the fundamental change to a socialist society based on human needs, instead of one based on the misery and inequality of the profit system, our full liberation will always be out of reach.

(Photo) Last year 7 million women in Poland took to the streets, and thousands walked out of work. As a result, the right-wing government withdrew legislation attacking women’s reproductive rights.