With one eye on the calendar, I’m poring over my memorabilia from decades of abortion-rights demonstrations. This season marks the seventh year of the final seven-year cycle before a traditional yovel, Hebrew for a jubilee year, of Roe v. Wade. This fragile piece of landmark legislature was passed in the U.S. Supreme Court on January 22, 1973. May it not wither in advance of our celebrating that milestone in 2023.
Our reproductive rights are under significant threat right now, and are being re-litigated in U.S. courts. Like many women who were fertile in the pre-Roe era, I’ve been having flashbacks to life in the early 1970s. An undesired pregnancy then was a potential disaster, and even a wanted pregnancy in the life of an ambitious woman could detour her career trajectory. Either way, women of reproductive age and capacity could be blamed for having made “bad” choices.
Lilith magazine was born in fall 1976. Its planning and gestation started almost at the same time that Roe was being debated. Feminists who were on the ramparts for abortion rights and reproductive freedoms were not talking about having children, but rather about the need—and the right—to terminate a pregnancy. Conversations were rarely about the children we already had, or about the need for quality childcare, or tax credits for families, or universal pre-K. One of the first overtly “feminist” talks I ever gave was to a group of women who asked to hear about my experiences after I’d lived for several months in Jerusalem. I described my surprise, bordering on incredulity, at the assumption in Israel that every woman would be part of the paid labor force. What made these work lives possible was the near-universal availability of quality early-childhood daycare that was reasonably priced, hyper-local, and highly accessible.
My shock came when I compared this reality to how in some circles of highly educated women in the U.S., biases against babies were very real. In Lilith’s early days very few of my sister feminists had young children (I had two by then), or were pregnant, or were talking about becoming pregnant. Some women considered it retrograde—even inappropriate—to have children. “Dress for success” often meant that women present themselves at work in ways that kept their families in the shadows. No such strictures existed for men; in fact, it was considered impressive when a male co-worker mentioned his kids in a chat, or displayed their photos at work.
Years after Lilith launched, when I told a few people that I was pregnant with my third child, two particular responses threw me back on my heels. (I’m getting personal here.) I still remember how one patriarchal family friend laughed, then bellowed gleefully, “Another blow against feminism.” And then, days later… a staunch, self-identified feminist, a woman who’d been fighting misogyny and antisemitism for decades, became enraged by my news, her fury apparently fed by a belief that children interfered with furthering the feminist revolution.
The right to make our own reproductive choices, as best we can within the limits of biology and science, is at risk right now. Many people who will need—or want—to terminate a pregnancy will be unable to access a safe abortion. Others will ultimately be prevented from using the technologies that have opened alternative routes to family formation. In both cases lives may be lost, essential freedoms taken from us.
And this is important not only to individuals, but also to our workplace cultures. One positive change we can celebrate is that family responsibilities are starting to be more nearly compatible with being productive at work. At Lilith, I made a conscious choice, long after my own children were grown, that there would be no opprobrium for leaving a meeting to take care of a sick child, for bringing a baby to work for a few hours when other arrangements unravel, for taking needed time to care for a family medical crisis, or wanting private space to use a breast pump. (Remember when we used to work in an actual office, in real time, with actual other people?) Not all work can be done with a baby in your lap, and I recognize how privileged these options are. But the shift away from male-centric work styles, and toward more humane expectations and practices, must include support for reproductive rights along with all else promised in the future of work; these are all human needs.
The long, difficult march to empower people to make private personal decisions about when and whether to bear children looked like it had reached its desired destination with the passage of Roe those 49-plus years ago. All my posters and campaign buttons are supposed to represent mileage markers along the route to victory. Yet those rights we lobbied for may be confiscated in mere months. The very same principles—religious freedom, bodily autonomy, economic justice and more—for which Jewish women and more than two-thirds of all Americans applauded that 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision are vulnerable again.
Own your power, Reader, to support all the organizations working to keep reproductive justice guaranteed by law. Cheer people for whatever indisputably personal choices they’re going to make in both their productive and their reproductive lives.