“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”
The ROE in the headline could stand for “Return on Equity,” as well as for Roe vs. Wade; because there is a connection. According to the Harvard University Division of Continuing Education, “Companies with the greatest proportion of women on executive committees earned a 47% higher rate of return on equity than companies with no women executives.”
Roe has helped businesses achieve that higher rate of ROE.
We know that the development and legalization of “the pill” emancipated women to pursue college educations and careers because this birth control method helped them to gain control over their bodies. But the pill, as well as other birth control options, while useful, cannot always be depended upon in every situation. As well, pregnancies can go wrong and endanger the life of the mother, or the fetus might be severely compromised, or a pregnancy could be the result of the crime of rape or incest and the pregnant female could be a minor. Other times, a pregnancy could negatively impact the well-being and futures of individuals and families, or experience serious complications. Most pregnancies are straightforward, but nothing that concerns our bodies is perfect. These are all reasons why a woman, in consultation with her doctor or other qualified healthcare provider, must have final decision-making power regarding her own body and her own healthcare.
Roe v. Wade
It is not only an essential human right that women have complete and private control over their bodies, but it is also a necessary factor in the nation’s ability to survive and thrive. After years of subjecting women to gender subjugation and its wide range of suffering and loss, it took just one Supreme Court case to change everything.
In 1973, nearly a half century ago, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the case of Roe v. Wade and in a 7-2 ruling decided in favor of Roe, thus confirming the Constitutional right of a woman to choose to terminate her pregnancy. This decision was based on the Fourteen Amendment’s Due Process Clause, granting the right to privacy in making such a choice. Prior to the Roe ruling, several enlightened states legalized abortion — including Colorado, California, Oregon, North Carolina, Hawaii and New York.
But this year, after decades of efforts by opponents of Roe, Texas has enacted an anti-abortion law that violates the core of the federal law.
There is some irony to that. The Supreme Court decision came about because 48 years ago Texas had a strict anti-abortion law on the books, prompting a pregnant woman named Norma McCorvey to sue her local district attorney, Henry Wade. Ms. McCorvey would become known under the pseudonym “Jane Roe,” who won her case in U.S. District Court. The State of Texas appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade became history. But now Texas has once again passed another draconian law that, if it stands, could end Roe and send not only women’s advances but also those of business and industry back to the mid-20th century.
Or not. The vast majority of American women who are pursuing careers or holding down jobs to support themselves or help their families are not likely to stand by meekly and allow this reversal of their reproductive freedom. Nor are savvy business leaders about to lose talented staff due to restrictive laws.
To find out why not, let’s take a look at the workplace before and after Roe.
The Workplace Before Roe
According to a study conducted by Constance Sheehan, Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, University of Florida, and renowned scholar and expert on sociological study of families, here are some stats on women before Roe:
- Average age of first marriage was under 21
- Women with children under 6 years old generally were not employed
- 25% of high school grads 18-24 were enrolled in college
- 8% (approximately) were college undergrads
- 37% (about) were in the labor force
Before Roe and the aforementioned handful of states that had legalized abortion, illegal abortions were performed that are estimated to exceed one million per year, and many women died from the procedures. Of course, there was a great economic and racial disparity; wealthy women, usually white, had better access due to wealth and connections to safer illegal abortions. (Source: Guttmacher Institute).
The Workplace After Roe
Professor Sheehan’s study found that just 10 years after Roe:
- Average age of first marriage increased to 22
- 45% of women with young children were in the workforce
- 30% of high school grads 18-24 were enrolled in college
- 13.6% were college undergrads
- Roughly 50% of women were in the labor force (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
By 2020, the average age of marriage for women was 31. The percentage of women in the labor force was 57% (that number hit an all-time high of 61% in 2000.) After Roe, up until 1985, women’s share of professional jobs increased from 44% to 49% and their share of management positions nearly doubled, from 20% to 36%. By 2019, nearly 62% of women in the U.S. workforce held management or professional positions. (Sources: Catalyst and The Atlantic)
And although American women with college degrees was 38.3% in 2019, according to Catalyst, women have been outpacing men in higher education for years after Roe: “Women have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men since 1982, more master’s degrees than men since 1987, and more doctorate degrees than men since 2006.” Women with a minimum of an undergrad degree continue to outpace men in the workforce.
Other studies have shown that after Roe the number of annual abortions continued to rise until 1993 when they began to taper off under the Clinton Administration, which provided easier and more affordable access to contraception. The abortion rate has continued to drop since then, which can be attributed to better sex education and wider access to birth control. The negative aspect to decreasing legal abortions is the increasingly restricted access in some states. And, of course, we know that in the absence of laws that protect women’s reproductive freedom, illegal and dangerous abortions continue to be performed.
Awakening a Sleeping Giant
Recalling the battles in which I participated during the 1970s for women’s rights — which, of course, are human rights, as so eloquently clarified by former First Lady Hillary Clinton — I am reminded of the quote attributed to Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto of the Imperial Japanese Navy and delivered by the actor who played him at the end of the 1970 movie, Tora! Tora! Tora!, regarding Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
In the wake of the Texas decision and the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to take the case of those who oppose the impossibly restrictive and vigilante-based law, I believe another sleeping giant has been awakened, which comprises older women who are outraged that they have to go down this road again and younger women who might have taken reproductive freedom for granted. On the horizon is a ferocious renewed battle for women’s reproductive freedom. But this distraction does not mean that the battles for economic freedom and fairness and the shattering of glass ceilings will not continue in full force as well.
Whether or not abortions are legal, women will continue to get them; the difference is, under legal abortion laws, women’s lives, reproductive health and ability to have equal and fair opportunities in the workplace will be protected.
Former Planned Parenthood president and National Women’s Hall of Fame inductee Faye Wattleton, has said, “Reproductive freedom is critical to a whole range of issues. If we can’t take charge of this most personal aspect of our lives, we can’t take care of anything. It should not be seen as a privilege or as a benefit, but a fundamental human right.”
The opponents of equal rights and access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for women might believe — in light of the Texas law and the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the challenge to the law, putting Roe on the ropes — that the fight regarding women’s choice and reproductive freedom is finished. They would be wrong. It has just begun. And it will fill today’s women with an even more terrible resolve than it did a half-century ago.
Until next time,
For more of my posts on women in the workplace, please use the search bar, or refer to my previous post, which contains a listing: They Are Our Sisters