By Jackie Brant
TW: Abortion Rights
At the State of the Union address Tuesday, President Donald Trump asserted a harsh anti-abortion stance. This comes after several weeks without mention of abortion policies from the Trump administration; of the past four addresses to Congress, the State of the Union address was the first time Trump has even mentioned abortion to members of Congress.
Many have been quick to assert that the reason Trump commented on abortion at all was to attempt to fire up his religious base for his upcoming re-election campaign. However, I would argue that it is highly significant that this sudden harsh stance just happened to coincide with one of the most powerful displays of women’s solidarity in congressional history.
The women sitting on the left side of the aisle Tuesday sent a striking and inspiring message to the country by collectively wearing white to the State of the Union address. While the tradition of wearing all white has been used for a variety of reasons by women throughout history — including creating an attention-grabbing visual effect for the fight for women’s suffrage and racial equality — the 106 women who chose to don all white outfits this past Tuesday symbolized a new era in the fight for women’s equality.
It is rare to see united fronts of any kind in politics these days. Party polarization has seemingly peaked under the Trump administration. There is seldom any cooperation between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and hardly any successful bipartisan initiatives enacted or bills passed. Despite these increasingly deep divisions, the Democratic Congresswomen of the 116th Congress — the most diverse in history —boldly expressed their solidarity with each other and the women of the United States, while simultaneously paying tribute to those who enabled them to vote and to hold these positions of power.
The all-white outfits highlighted these women’s willingness to support and protect each other despite other policy disagreements they might have. Most importantly, it showed Congress and the Trump administration what can happen when 106 powerful and diverse women stand in solidarity. Regardless of political party, I imagine that many women across the U.S. who were watching the State of the Union Address or who saw pictures of these 106 women felt inspired and empowered.
On the other hand, the topic of abortion has long been a dividing issue among women.As of 2018, only about 31 percent of women supported abortion being legal in all circumstances, and only 48 percent of women favored abortion being legal in certain circumstances. Finally, 50 percent of women identify as pro-choice, while 48% identify as pro-life, a nearly even divide.
It is essential that we begin to question why one of the most divisive women’s rights issues is the one that is the most talked about — particularly by Trump and the right. Most of the time when I hear Republican politicians engage in conversations about gender equality, the conversation centers almost exclusively around abortion. When people accuse feminists of being “too radical,” they almost always highlight feminist stances on abortion. Why do bipartisan discussions about gender equality consistently veer in this direction when inequalities of pay, health care, and safety are equally as pressing?
Politicians — particularly conservative men — have successfully used abortion to strategically divide and politically conquer women. Abortion increasingly seems to be an issue on which people are unwilling to compromise. Many pro-life individuals would not even consider voting for candidates who are pro-choice.
Growing up going to Catholic school, I encountered many women who identified as pro-life despite having otherwise progressive political views, especially regarding gender equality. Although their views on abortion and other gender-related issues such as equal pay were conflicting, they consistently identified as Republicans.
Although I’m sure many of these women would still be Republican regardless of their stance on abortion, I cannot help but wonder what would happen if conversations about gender equality didn’t revolve around abortion. What if other important issues were given as much media attention as abortion debates and bills?
This is why Trump’s comments on abortion in the face of an inspiring display of women’s solidarity simply cannot be a coincidence. Men — particularly ones in positions of power — benefit from keeping women divided. The women of the 116th Congress have consistently shown a strong united front.
This solidarity was embodied by their entrance to the State of the Union on Tuesday night. With the attention of the entire country, they sent a message to women across the United States that they would stand together. However, the feelings of unity that this image may have conjured in the women watching may have quickly dissipated at Trump’s very mention of abortion in the address. I cannot help but feel that these comments were meant to remind Republican women why they should not — or maybe cannot — be included in the Democrats’ display of solidarity.
Until women recognize that abortion is used by politicians to divide us, true equality seems out of reach. The sweeping policies that this change would require must be a bipartisan effort. Such legislation could be passed if women from both sides of the aisle stood in solidarity with each other. Thus, it is essential that we recognize the topics and rhetoric used to divide us, and reframe the gender equality conversation in a way that unites women from all backgrounds.