Since the achievements of the 1960s’ radical movements, the capitalist ruling class in the United States — as expressed by the two capitalist parties — has steadily rolled back those gains.
Now the Republican Party’s sharp right turn, begun under Donald Trump’s presidency, has made it the spearhead of this reactionary drive.
Foremost has been the drive to limit and suppress the right to abortion, which was codified into law by the Supreme Court in 1973, in a ruling known as Roe vs Wade.
Won in struggle
Today, that decision is portrayed as something handed down from above by the Supreme Court. However, the nine robed reactionaries on the Supreme Court (all men) didn’t suddenly see the light. They were forced to legalise abortion by a mass women’s liberation movement that called for “Free abortion on demand” as well as other rights.
In the 1960s, a new phase in the fight for women’s rights was signaled by Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, which challenged the prevailing role of women as confined to the domestic domain and child rearing. Women were denied equal pay and equal education opportunities, and were steered into classes at school to prepare them for lives as mothers and housewives.
From the mass response by women (at first mainly white women) to the book, a new organisation led by Friedan emerged in 1966 — The National Organization for Women (NOW) — which still exists today.
The fight for women’s rights joined the two forces behind the 1960s radicalisation in the US: the new Black liberation struggle and the mass youth radicalisation.
The mass youth radicalisation in the US was unique in that it began with and led opposition to the US war in Vietnam but was also tied into the new civil rights movement that began in 1956.
Black youth in the “Jim Crow” Southern states were prominent in the mass demonstrations, beginning in 1956 with the Montgomery, Alabama boycott against segregated seating on buses.
This struggle led to the Supreme Court overturning local regulations allowing bus seating segregation.
The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed out of this struggle in 1960 and became the cutting edge of the movement. It developed into a leading part of the Black Power Movement in 1966, and was greatly influenced by Malcolm X.
From the beginning, white youth in the North and South became active in this struggle. The social weight of the Black struggle was always part of the youth radicalisation and the antiwar movement.
A new women’s liberation movement, to the left of NOW, emerged out of the student-based youth radicalisation in the late 1960s.
Young women radicals were motivated in part to revolt against male domination in some of the radical youth organisations, including Students for a Democratic Society. As a result there were positive changes in youth organisations, including socialist groups.
The new influx of radical youth also helped radicalise the broader women’s movement, including NOW.
Roe vs Wade undermined
The fight for abortion rights became a central part of the mass women’s movement and demonstrations.
In 1971, this led to the repeal of the law against abortion in New York (all states had such laws). New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller signed the repeal, saying it was because of the pressure of the women’s movement.
Threatened by the mass movement for abortion rights, and in the context of the mass antiwar movement, the Black uprisings in the North and South and the emergence of new organisations of people of colour against racism, the Supreme Court ruled in Roe vs Wade that state laws against abortion were unconstitutional.
The Court’s decision was not based on women’s right to control their own bodies, but on the “right to privacy” — which was shaky reasoning.
The right of women to control their own bodies was the movement’s basic position (popularised in the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s, Our Bodies Our Selves) and included the right of women to control their own sexuality in a patriarchal society that sought to control them at every level.
In recent decades, more states have passed laws — with the support of members of the Republican and the Democratic Parties — imposing restrictions on abortion rights. When challenged, the courts have mostly upheld them, claiming they don’t infringe on Roe vs Wade. But these restrictions have made abortion increasingly difficult to obtain in many states.
During Democratic president Jimmy Carter’s administration, congress passed a law with bipartisan support, known as the Hyde Amendment, which banned the use of federal funds for abortion. It went into effect in 1980 and still stands. It denies Medicaid funding for abortion for low-income women, and denies women in the military funding for abortion. As a senator, Joe Biden supported Hyde whenever it came up for reconsideration. As president, Biden has told some constituents he thinks Roe went too far. One can only wonder how strongly his attorney general will defend Roe before the court.
The attacks on abortion rights have hit poorer women hard, including Black and other women of colour. In some states, teenage women have to get their parents’ permission to have an abortion.
Such restrictions have been more severe in states with Republican-controlled legislatures. Since Trump’s election in 2016, Republicans control 26 states.
Trump appointed three new Supreme Court justices who were confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate. Six reactionary justices out of nine are pledged to overturn the right to abortion.
Biden and the establishment Democrats still claim that the court has “integrity” and is not a partisan body, when this is simply not true.
Republican voters (who comprised nearly half of voters in the 2020 elections) know the court is “in their pocket”. Most Democratic voters know this, too. The Republican Party — now taken over by Trump — knows it has a reliable ally in the court.
New attacks on abortion rights
Republican-controlled legislatures are now in the vanguard of passing laws against the right to abortion.
Texas passed a law in May last year prohibiting abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, in clear violation of Roe.
The reactionary controlled present Court upheld the Texas law in a secret session, without hearing arguments. (That the Court can do this is another example of its undemocratic character.)
A peculiar aspect of the Texas law is that it does not leave it up to the Texas state to enforce it, but instead empowers any citizen of any state to sue a doctor and anyone else who “aids and abets” an abortion — including a taxi driver — for US$10,000. This lack of state jurisdiction gave the six reactionary Supreme Court justices their reasoning for upholding the law.
The result has been to effectively overturn Roe in Texas, and allow any Republican-controlled state to do the same on this or another pretext.
Mississippi prohibits abortion after 15 weeks, also in open violation of Roe, but without the peculiarity of the Texas law. Legal challenges to Mississippi’s law have put the constitutionality of Roe directly before the court, which will rule on it in April or May.
In preparation for a possible overturning of Roe, the 26 Republican-controlled states have prepared laws outlawing abortion.
Even if the court dodges the constitutionality of Roe — to pretend it has “integrity” — the rulings it has already made mean that those 26 states have been given the green light to outlaw abortion.
Laws like the Texas ban could even prevent someone who is pregnant from traveling to another state that allows abortion without suffering severe consequences.
LGBTI rights under attack
Republicans are also broadening their attacks on LGBTI rights.
In part inspired by the women’s liberation movement, a new movement for the rights of gays and lesbians emerged in 1969.
The spark was a police raid on the Stonewall bar — a gathering place for gay men and lesbians in New York City’s Greenwich Village. With homosexuality against the law, cops would routinely raid gay and lesbian gathering spots and beat people with impunity.
But this time those in the bar fought back against the cops — to their surprise — and beat them back. This victory rapidly mushroomed into a nationwide gay and lesbian rights movement. Over time it grew to include gender nonbinary people. That led to broader recognition that the Stonewall fight against the cops included trans people — which was known by those who fought back at the time.
The new Republican attack is centered on a campaign to remove books on sexuality and even the existence of LGBTI people from libraries. This is in concert with a Republican push to remove books about the fight for Black liberation, including the systematic institutional racism that Black Lives Matter revealed.
In Texas, the Austin Independent School District is accused of breaking a new Republican state law for celebrating LGBTI pride week, on the basis that annual pride events are considered sex education and require parental consent. The Granbury Independent School District Superintendent demanded that librarians remove books on sexuality and gender identity from school libraries in January, saying: “We’re not going to have 14-year-old girls pick up a book in our high school about sex.”
According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a swath of legislation curbing transgender rights will be voted on by state legislatures this year. According to the HRC, more than 250 anti-LGBTI bills were proposed last year, with more than 100 of them targeting transgender people. South Dakota passed a law banning transgender girls and women from female sporting teams in February.
Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice Amy Barrett has even said she would be open to states challenging laws permitting contraception, and some Republicans in state legislatures are considering it. This would challenge rights won by struggles dating back to the 1920s.
The only way forward against the Republican assault today is through mass action. With no radicalisation like that in the 1960s and a retreat of most struggles since 2020, this is an uphill battle.
This retreat has been marked by reliance on the Democratic Party, whose establishment has marginalised its “progressive” wing, and is moving rapidly to the right.
But this is a necessary battle, even if from a minority position.