The Supreme Court and the Women’s Movement

The 1970 Women's Strike for Equality


The naming of a new Supreme Court justice has developed into a national discussion about the possible direction of court decisions in the future. However, there is no one questioning the very existence of a system of nine unelected justices with lifetime appointments making momentous decisions that affect people’s everyday lives. Millions are looking at the cabal and fearing that they will take away women’s right to control our own bodies. There is also fear that this small group of the privileged could determine the next President, instead of counting the millions of votes cast.

At the same time, an estimated 15-26 million people have been fearless in the streets demanding an end to systemic racism, protesting police violence and decrying past “reforms” that have changed nothing. These mass action protests have been resilient and continuous for over 100 days.

In the middle of this momentous uprising was the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who many women saw as a champion for women’s rights and equality while on the Supreme Court. But actually the most important work she did was before she was ever on the court. She was a civil rights lawyer who built the legal foundation to challenge systemic sexism. This was a time when women had no legal rights. There was discrimination in every area of life. Women were even barred from having their own bank accounts or sitting on juries.

Ginsburg had experienced discrimination. She lost a clerical job for being pregnant. She was told by the Dean of the Harvard Law School that she had to explain to him why she should be allowed to take the place of a male student. She was denied positions at New York City law firms and was told by “liberal” Supreme Court Justice William Brennan that he would never hire a woman as a law clerk. 

In an interesting BBC interview a few years ago, Ginsburg was asked if she had planned for women’s rights to be the issue she would pursue when she graduated from Columbia University Law School. She replied that was not her plan, “but there was an uprising of women. A movement demanding women’s rights.” She could see around her the mass mobilizations demanding “Free Abortion On Demand” and “Free Child Care.” While Ginsburg was not among the 50,000 women marching down Fifth Avenue in the August 26, 1970 Women’s Strike For Equality, the movement in the streets was what influenced her by her own admission. She created the Women’s Rights Project at the mostly male ACLU and laid the groundwork with over 20 lawsuits which became the foundation for current legal prohibitions against sex discrimination.

In the same BBC interview, she was asked about the current attacks on abortion rights in the United States: “What do you think can be done about the large number of states who are restricting abortion rights?” Ginsburg replied that we need a movement like the one that existed when abortion was totally illegal.

What did she mean by this statement? The movement she was referring to was the massive women’s liberation movement that was independent. That movement wasn’t controlled by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and so-called private non-profits, and most of all was not merely a vehicle of the Democratic Party. It was a grassroots movement demanding equality and an end to women’s oppression. 


In 1970 Ginsburg decided to focus exclusively on women’s rights through her work at the ACLU. In 1969, an activist organization called the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC) was formed. This national campaign was created as an opportunity for the energized women’s liberation movement to move forward, breaking out of closed-circle discussions of women’s oppression to organizing a fight for a concrete goal that would change women’s lives. Only with the right to control their own bodies can women reassert their identity as fully productive, not only reproductive, lives. At the time, women were branded as criminals and forced to risk their lives at the hands of backstreet abortionists. Freedom to decide when and if to have a child is a basic prerequisite for women to have any control over their lives.

Influenced by the general radicalization, feminists formed WONAAC. They were uncompromising in their clear and precise demands: Repeal All Abortion Laws, No Forced Sterilization, No exceptions. This basic democratic right was particularly relevant to working-class Black and Puerto Rican women who accounted for the majority of botched abortion fatalities.

WONAAC took a totally mass action approach. They organized three national conferences in different cities that were attended by hundreds of women. In 1971, they organized a massive national march on Washington. In 1972, there were local actions all across the country. They successfully publicized and defended Shirley Wheeler, who was tried and convicted of having an abortion. 

The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision came from a conservative all-male Supreme Court. The decision was written by Justice Harry Blackmun who had been appointed by President Richard Nixon. It said that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion without government restriction. 

As attacks on women’s right to choose abortion have escalated over the past decades, the use of independent mass action was replaced by useless legislative strategies. Women were told that they needed to spend their time and energy in corralling votes for Democrats who would protect their rights. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Forty-Four Years of the Hyde Amendment 

The major Democratic Party betrayal of full reproductive rights for women is their continuing reauthorization of the Hyde Amendment, which bars using any federal funds to pay for abortion except to save the life of a mother. This means Medicaid recipients, who are women already struggling financially, cannot choose to have an abortion. This amendment disproportionately hurts women of color and this is the 44th year that this piece of legislation has existed. The Hyde Amendment is attached to the federal budget and must be reauthorized whenever there is a budget bill. It has been over four decades that Democrats have continued to reauthorize the Hyde Amendment. In 2010, President Obama signed an executive order which made the Hyde Amendment also a part of the Affordable Care Act. 

Today, we need a women’s movement which takes on more issues than abortion rights. Our struggles are not only for reproductive justice but against physical abuse and femicide. In the United States, over 50 percent of the 37 million people living in poverty are women, and the wage gap between women and men is the widest in the western world. Our fight is also for racial justice and environmental justice and immigrant justice. An effective feminism of the 99% must focus on mass action and solidarity. We must be anti-capitalist, eco-socialist and anti-racist.

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