Cold War Women’s (Reproductive) Rights

My reasoning is by analogy and somewhat backwards. If Mary Dudziak is right about Cold War civil rights (and I believe she is), then what one would expect to happen after the end of the Cold War would be a lessening of the federal government’s pressure on states to behave well. The Voting Rights Act (of 1965) would, as a result, be weakened at the state level because the federal government had taken its foot off the gas. That seems to be exactly what has happened in those states that are basically racist.

So then look at women’s reproductive rights in the United States, the culmination of which was arguably Roe v. Wade in 1973, just eight years after the Voting Rights Act was passed. In much the same way that the USSR rubbed civil rights in the face of the US government, it also touted its record in terms of women—“highest percentage of women in the work force worldwide,” extensive maternity leave, free healthcare, and so on. These were all part of the propaganda campaign — I am not endorsing the claims, just pointing out that they were analogous to those being used in the (US) civil rights versus (USSR) human rights information battle of the Cold War. “Who would you rather deal with, developing world,” so this Soviet line went, “a two-faced country with Jim Crow and backwards women’s health care, or a forward looking progressive country like ours?”

In the absence of a global competitor, another power against whom the US needed to put on a good face, what would one expect to happen in the US? Isn’t that what just happened last week? The federal government, which before had taken a strong stand, punted to the states. And just as with the racist states reverting to old voting rights practices, the misogynistic states now control reproductive rights again.

This idea does not make me happy. It suggests that the changes in US practices were cosmetic and top-down, forced upon many who didn’t really believe in them, and who were just waiting for them to go away so that they could go back to what they really believe in. It makes me wonder about other ideas we have tended to accept, including the supposed basic value that US Americans place in democracy.

In any case, I don’t believe anybody has done the research on Cold War women’s rights in the same thorough way that Dudziak did for civil rights. But it feels correct, a hypothesis ready for a dissertation. Or a book.

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