Embracing the Discomfort of "Roe" -- Part Two

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A few blogs ago I addressed the challenge of discussing Roe v. Wade in the classroom when students have radically different and often deeply personal opinions on the topic of abortion. I suggested focusing on the factual aspects of the history of birth control in the United States and the legal case itself – in other words, separating our personal views as human beings from the teachers/educators who seek to show no bias in their approach.


Admittedly, I'm stopped in my tracks this week by the 6-3 decision of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, which – among other thoughts – has me questioning how this moment will impact the way I teach US women’s history. Previously my students have studied what came before Roe – Comstock Laws, Margaret Sanger, the horrors of illegal abortion, the growing acceptance of the use of birth control during the Great Depression, and then the legalization of abortion in 1973. 


I think as a social historian I like to present forward progress as I teach – my generally optimistic outlook on the world is at least partly to blame. As social historians, for example, we discuss with our students time periods in which members of our society faced a major challenge, we analyze who/which social groups responded to the challenge, we address the political aspects, and we consider how the “problem” was resolved. Case in point: Reconstruction ended chattel slavery but gave rise to Jim Crow laws, which in turn spurred a national movement for civil rights that continues to this day, albeit with changing dimensions and characteristics. We study tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to identify ways in which government action was needed to protect our citizens while they worked.  


The SCOTUS decision to end federally protected abortion rights will no doubt create a new marker in how we teach women’s history. Instead of the pre-Roe/post-Roe narrative that once formed so many class discussions, we must now present a narrative that includes the reversal and its consequences. For many historians of US women’s history this new narrative will be difficult to teach as it requires a reckoning with the many factors that have brought us to this place, including (but not limited to) the rise of the New Right, the growing power of Christian conservatives and the severe backlash against feminism that followed the Second Wave. Some women’s historians will no doubt choose to grapple with conservative critiques of feminists who supported President Clinton despite his personal history of sexual misconduct. The Trump administration – also plagued by accusations of inappropriate behavior towards women – may find its most lasting legacy to be a SCOTUS more socially conservative than the president himself.


How will the reversal of Roe v. Wade change the way you teach women’s history? Please share.

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.