Women’s Rights Are Going Backward in America

International organizations are warning about a global backlash against women's rights, and the United States is not an exception. With battlefields over women's rights and gender norms moving to courts and social media, the fight isn't over.

Last March, On Women's History Month, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a stark reminder about the ongoing issues against women's rights globally, including in the U.S.

The article listed Afghanistan, where Taliban extremists banned girls from receiving education, and China, whose censorship policies consider feminist content as "harmful speech."

The HRW cited increasing restrictions to women and girls' sexual and reproductive health and rights in the states after the Supreme Court stripped federal protections for abortion.

However, gender equality encompasses much more than the ability to make reproductive choices.

Progress has been stalled

Women now outnumber men in the U.S. college-educated workforce, accounting for 51% of those ages 25 and older, according to the Pew Research Center data.

At the same time, women make up only a third (35%) of workers in the 10 highest-paying occupations, such as pharmacists, lawyers, and physicians.

The gender pay gap — the difference between men's and women's earnings — has remained relatively flat in the last two decades. In 2022, American women earned 82 cents for every dollar men made, a two-cent increase since 2002.

Top government positions are still primarily occupied by men: in 2023, only 28% of U.S. congressional members and about a third of state legislators were women.

Continuous attack on reproductive rights

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson, 14 states have already imposed near-total abortion bans, often without exceptions for rape or incest.

The decision had a detrimental effect on patient care in a country where nearly 7 million women of childbearing age already lived in maternity care deserts. In a post-Roe era, some hospitals no longer deliver babies or provide obstetrical services, while women with life-threatening pregnancies are forced to seek abortions in other states.

In vitro fertilization (IVF) providers in Alabama temporarily suspended services in February following the state Supreme Court ruling proclaiming embryos created through IVF are children. Providers cited fear of legal consequences if embryos are destroyed during the process of pursuing IVF.

Responding to society's uproar, Alabama lawmakers passed the bill protecting IVF providers from civil and criminal liability. However, the legislation does not address the status of embryos, leaving the IVF process still at risk.

The future of mifepristone, the first pill of two medications used in medical abortion, is also uncertain. The Supreme Court will hear the case in which a conservative groupchallenges the U.S. Food and Drug Administration policies expanding access to mifepristone, such as allowing it to be prescribed online and mailed to patients.

The ruling, expected in June, could have a nationwide effect, including in states that protect abortion rights.

David Cohen, a professor of law at Drexel University, has recently called for repealing the 1873 Comstock Act that prohibits mailing anything that can produce an abortion, such as abortion pills, instruments, and supplies.

"If they can't be mailed, then there's no way abortion clinics or abortion doctors can get those pills or supplies. It would be really hard for anyone to have an abortion," he tells Healthnews.

Although the law hasn't been enforced for over 100 years, Cohen says it could change with Donald Trump's victory in the 2024 presidential election.

The rise of trad wives

Gender roles underwent an enormous change in the last decades, with more women gaining education and entering the workforce. As of 2022, males were the primary breadwinners in 55% of opposite-sex marriages, compared to 85% in 1972.

Many women are now free to choose whether to get married or have children. However, the "tradwife" influencers who took social media by storm in recent years seem poised to change it.

Self-proclaimed traditional wives or stay-at-home girlfriends with hundreds of thousands of followers online show their glamorous lives as homemakers who wear impeccable outfits while making bread from scratch and waiting for their husbands to return from work.

Tradwives are usually devoted Christians, are unemployed, rarely leave the house, and have little or no control over family finances.

“I don’t need backups; I trust my husband,” says Estee Williams, a trad wife with over 150,000 followers on TikTok alone, answering to a question: what if her husband divorces her?

Sophia Sykes and Veronica Hopner, researchers at Massey University, New Zealand, and the authors of the report on the tradwives ideology, say they are exclusively positioned within a highly conservative right-wing landscape.

Tradwives challenge the modern role of women in society by co-opting and retrenching patriarchy. Moreover, they actively contribute to societal shifts towards more conservative, more traditional living.

"Some tradwives use their position of influence to present traditional perspectives on wifely submission and gender roles. We found that all of the women we looked at were opposed to abortion rights, and many voiced opposition to birth control. All of these women are cisgender, and several discussed transgender women and lesbian women as unnatural," Sykes and Hopner tell Healthnews.

The researchers note that the tradwife trend is not an inherent threat to women's rights, and women choosing to prioritize a life lived at home as a wife and mother is not problematic.

What may be problematic is when women are led to believe that they don't have a choice, and — as we saw with more extreme tradwives — when a position of influence is used to promote very limiting perspectives on the role of women — and other groups — in society more broadly.

Sykes and Hopner

Tradwives themselves deny that their lifestyle makes them subservient to their husbands. Rachel Joy, also known as zimcolorado on TikTok, says she and her husband serve one another.

“My husband serves me in the way of proceeding providing and loving, and I serve him in the way of keeping the house a welcoming space and respecting him,” Joy explained in a video.

@zimcolorado It’s surprising to me how many times I’ve caught a modern day feminist mindset in myself. I few times I have literally gasped at myself once I realized some of my thoughts and actions that I knew were not right. Being a woman is such a gift and has its own special place! So many people think that if you’re a woman in a traditional marriage you’re automatically subservient to your husband. I say we both have our own special roles that compliment each other and when they are lived out properly it is such a wonderful experience! My husband serves me in the way of proceeding providing and loving, and I serve him in the way of keeping the house a welcoming space, and respecting him! We both serve one another! . . . #homemaker #traditionalmarriage #tradwife #traditionalwife #feminineenergy #homemakerlife #housewife #homemakerlifestyle ♬ original sound - Rachel Joy

Mariel Cooksey, an MA graduate in religion and conflicts, wrote that with the rise of social media platforms like TikTok, Generation Z girls, informally called Zoomers, will be introduced to the tradwife lifestyle.

"Zoomers' foray into tradwifery signals a massive change in the movement. Not only is this ideology becoming more mainstream with younger, right-leaning female audiences, but it's also becoming integrated into Gen Z internet culture, taking on timely cultural trends, political views, and concepts of gender," Cooksey argued.

Explaining the reasons behind the rise of tradwives, Cooksay wrote that many women have been failed by the compromises of modern feminism and late-stage capitalism, unable to find a solution for the quandary of work-life balance.

Even in marriages where a woman is a primary breadwinner, or both partners earn equal pay, wives still do about 2.5 hours more on housework a week than their husbands, according to 2023 data.

Now, the daughters who witnessed their mothers' struggles and who are increasingly exposed to far-right rhetoric online may be tempted to try finding peace in the traditional wife lifestyle.

The suffrage movement started over 170 years ago, but the fight for women's rights has never ended, with new challenges on the horizon.

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