Are Women’s Rights the Canary in the Coal Mine of a Democracy in Decline?
This article was originally published by Jennifer Weiss-Wolf for Ms. Magazine
The United States was officially designated a backsliding democracy in late 2021—a full six months before the fall of Roe v. Wade. At the time, journalists warned that such a descent is precisely when “curbs on women’s rights tend to accelerate.” But can a country that has never truly addressed women’s equality ever be a thriving democracy? And are democracies that have abysmal records on gender equity destined to falter? Explore “Women’s Rights and Backsliding Democracies“—a multimedia project comprised of essays, video and podcast programming, presented by Ms., NYU Law’s Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network and Rewire News Group.
The United States was designated a backsliding democracy in late 2021, when it appeared on a prominent European think tank’s annual global ranking. Today, half of the world’s democratic governments are on the decline, according to The Global State of Democracy, a report released by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) this past November.
Six months before the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, with Texas S.B. 8 already in effect—the U.S. made its disconcerting debut on the list. Advocates raised real-time questions about the correlation between regression on abortion rights and degraded democracies. A New York Times article asserted that such a descent is precisely when “curbs on women’s rights tend to accelerate.”
We think that’s a proposition worth flipping on its head. What if, instead, we looked at the United States’ persistent abysmal track record on gender equity as the potential smoking gun for its downward spiral? While the timing of the United States’ inaugural inclusion on the IDEA list made it easy to point to the grift of Trump and the rise of Trump-ism as the culprit, the hard truth is that our democracy has been flailing—by failing women, particularly women of color—as it has designed to, since the nation’s founding.