Reflections on the 2023 Women’s March, from the front line
Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 17, 2020 – Participants in the Power Together Women’s March in Nashville.(Photo: Alex Kent)
If you’re a progressive woman in Tennessee, maybe you participated in your local women’s march on January 19. Or maybe you sat home again this year, watching those big marches in New York or Washington, DC—oceans of women! famous women!—thinking, “That’s where I need to be. That’s where the action is!”
No, that’s where the cameras are.
Tennessee is where the action is.
Tennessee, with its Republican supermajority and the most extreme abortion ban in the country, is the front line in the fight for women’s rights, for human rights, for American democracy.
Consider this: Last November 700 Tennessee physicians signed an open letter to our state legislature, saying: You know that abortion ban with no exceptions for rape, incest or life of the mother? Women are going to get hurt. You’ve got to change it.
The letter notes the danger of denying abortion to women experiencing miscarriages or tubal pregnancies, or to pregnant women needing cancer treatment. It alludes to the cruelty of forcing women to bear their rapists’ babies, or to deliver babies doomed to die in their arms.
But our Republican lawmakers are under pressure from lobbyists not to give an inch, and most of them didn’t. Gov. Bill Lee, who had fibbed repeatedly that the ban had an exception for the life of the mother, now repeated that the law was “fine.” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally offered reassurances that he was “comfortable as it stands,” later suggesting that “we should see how it works out.” Sen. Todd Gardenhire—from Chattanooga, my home—agreed. “Let’s not rush,” he said.
This is what it means to be a woman in Tennessee, whose lawmakers care more about power than people. They don’t listen to experts. They aren’t moved by compassion. They respond to what keeps them in office—big donors and a reliable, radicalized voting base. That’s why they passed a law allowing permitless gun carry despite vocal opposition from law enforcement. That’s why they passed a total abortion ban that polls say most Tennesseans don’t want. They know most Tennesseans don’t vote.
So like time-lapse photography, abortion rights in Tennessee shrank from 20 weeks to six weeks to zero. Every abortion is now a felony, no exceptions. That’s radical.
Where’s the bottom for the Tennessee GOP? Wherever the extremists say it is. On to the next target: birth control.
Canaries in the coal mine
Women are the canaries in the coal mine of democracy. When a government stops recognizing women as fully human, with an inherent right to dignity and dominion over our own bodies, you can bet other groups are being dehumanized too.
Think about this: Nearly 30 years ago, a movie about three drag queens on a road trip hit number one at the box office. It was goofy and sweet and people loved it. Two years ago, Chattanooga’s historic Tivoli theater, which hosts screenings of old movies, could have shown that one and nobody would have cared. Today it might attract protestors, or worse.
We all know why this is happening. In today’s right-wing ecosystem, outraged Fox News viewers equal engaged voters, and the Tennessee GOP is all in. Want to energize the base? Put a target on the backs of a visible, politically powerless minority: Drag queens. Queer kids. Black and brown kids. Asylum seekers.
Shut down discussions that humanize them. Ban books about them. Erase their history. Deny their identity. If librarians and teachers object, call them groomers.
See how that works? If you think it’s radical to ban abortion from conception, to force children to bear children, to endanger lives in the name of saving them—well then. You’re a baby killer.
The stress test
This flag-waving, hypermasculine, give-no-quarter Tennessee GOP would bristle at the suggestion that they’re not fearless guardians of the Constitution. I’m suggesting they wouldn’t pass the stress test.
These are folks who’ve spent more breath and energy on the hypothetical trans kids playing school sports and the imaginary kids using litter boxes in classrooms than the real kids sleeping on the floor of the Department of Children’s Services. Would they suddenly get real if democracy were on the line?
So far they haven’t been tested. They sit in safely drawn districts, while much of Tennessee’s potential electorate is disenfranchised or disengaged. The “My vote won’t count” crowd sent Bill Lee sailing to a second term.
But gerrymandering has its limits, and a new cohort of potential voters—more progressive, more media savvy, more aware—graduates each year.
What would happen in a close election with this GOP in control?
It’s a fair question to ask about politicians who are too afraid of their base—or who’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole with them—to say big truths out loud: Trump lost. Vaccines work. Being pushed and pulled by extremists, would they be like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who sticks to legal means of disenfranchisement, or would they be Kari Lake, the losing Arizona gubernatorial candidate who refuses to concede?
Building a Base
Here’s my takeaway, and it’s bad news: If our elected leaders are willing to risk our lives to preserve their political power, there is no bottom and no one’s coming to save us.
If you’re a progressive woman in Tennessee, you’re exactly where you need to be, doing exactly what you need to be doing: paying attention. A whole lot of Tennesseans, including a whole lot of women, aren’t. We’ve got 21 months to change that.
Because you know what’s bigger than a voting base of radical right-wingers? A voting base of progressive women. And black and brown people. And immigrants. And young people. And queer people. And librarians and teachers. And drag queens.
You have 21 months. Prepare yourself.
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