Ask Justice Alito: How much sway do female lawmakers really have in the abortion fight?

By: - May 16, 2022 7:00 am

Advocates for reproductive rights and some Florida lawmakers gather at the Old Capitol building steps to rally against limitations on abortion access. Sept. 21, 2021. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

It’s been two weeks since a 98-page leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion spelled near-certain death for federal protections of abortion access across the nation. But Associate Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the draft opinion, seemed to want to put women at ease if states become the decision makers on the abortion front.

On page 61, Alito offered simple suggestions to empower women:  Just run for state office. Lobby legislators. Vote. Influence public opinion.

“Women are not without electoral or political power,” Alito wrote.

But for many women who have tried to get into political office, the idiom applies: Alito’s suggestions are easier said than done, in part because males often outnumber females in the political sphere.

In Florida, for example, the Legislature is a male bastion. Only 33 percent of the Florida House of Representatives are women, according to a Florida Phoenix analysis. In the Senate, only 40 percent are women.

The U.S. Census Bureau shows that “female persons” represent 51.1 percent of all Floridians.

We’re outnumbered

Soon, the U.S. Supreme Court will publish a final ruling on the Mississippi abortion case that could lead to overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion some 50 years ago. If that happens, state legislatures would be in charge of shaping abortion laws.

FL Rep. Dianne Hart. Credit: FL House of Representatives.

Rep. Dianne Hart, of Hillsborough County, highlighted the realities of trying to support abortion access in the Florida Legislature should Roe v. Wade be overturned.

“We’re outnumbered… We don’t stand a snowball’s chance in –,” (she self-censored to imply the word, hell) in being able to stop legislation from passing,” Hart said.

“So when you talk about ‘we have the ability to advocate,’ I have watched — I sit on several committees — and I have watched how hundreds of people have harangued before us and they’re outraged to something we’re about to pass, and when they leave, it’s a straight party-line vote,” Hart said.

When it comes to the underrepresentation of women in the Florida House, Hart noted that it’s hard for some women, particularly younger women, to consider running due to familial obligations.

“You know, I’m 66. So, I’m not looking to have more babies. I have nothing but time on my hands. I can contribute a lot more time than a younger mother, or a younger woman who might want to start a family, could afford to,” Hart said.

She explained that the current salary of Florida’s part-time lawmakers, about $30,000 a year, “doesn’t cut it.”

“So, you’re working, you want to be able to represent the people, but you have bills to pay,” Hart said. “And if you have children, now you have to have somebody who is going to be able to take care of your children while you’re away.”

Barriers and challenges

Lucy Sedgwick is the president of Ruth’s List Florida, an organization that aims to support Democratic candidates who support abortion access. She said communities that already have difficulty accessing reproductive health care may also have barriers for advocacy.

Sedgwick told the Phoenix:

“In particular, Black, indigenous, people of color, people who are underpaid for their work…people in rural areas, young people, immigrants, trans, nonbinary, gender-expansive people…these people all have a difficult time accessing reproductive health care. Period.

“And those same sets of people have more difficulty, for example, lobbying, or going to vote. When it comes to voting rights, those communities have more barriers put in place that make it more difficult for them to vote, and certainly more difficult to get up to Tallahassee and lobby.”

Sedgwick said part of the reason why women are underrepresented in the Florida House and Senate is because women are less likely to run in the first place.

“It’s not that they can’t win. It’s that there are deep societal pressures that make it more difficult for women to run,” Sedgwick said.

“Women are less likely to become political candidates for a whole host of reasons, including disproportionate family caretaking obligations, like we have more we need to do at home. And when women do run for office, women’s campaigns are more likely to be derailed by negative attacks and rhetoric aiming to disqualify them in voters’ minds. So frankly, it’s just, it’s a tough sell.”

A personal story

During the interview with the Phoenix, Rep. Hart explained that access to abortion and health costs associated with reproductive health care are worse for Black and Brown people. She shared a personal story:

“And I had a girlfriend in high school who actually died trying to have an abortion, using some Quinine.”

Quinine is a medication typically used to treat malaria, according to the National Library of Medicine.

“That takes me way back, to think about what will this look like for Black and Brown women who don’t have the resources to be able to travel to another state, or the resources to be able to have a legal abortion,” Hart told the Phoenix. “But go back to some of these antiquated ideas that people used to have where they told you ‘you can do X,Y, and Z to be able to abort that baby.'”

“Add to the fact there’s inequity in jobs, there’s inequity in housing, and all of that needs to be taken – needs to be looked at holistically. That Black and Brown women just don’t have what they need to be able to have a legal abortion going some place else,” Hart said.

To be perfectly frank

Here’s Justice Alito’s paragraph on women’s empowerment, in full:

“Our decision returns the issue of abortion to those legislative bodies, and it allows women on both sides of the abortion issue to seek to affect the legislative process by influencing public opinion, lobbying legislators, voting, and running for office. Women are not without electoral or political power. It is noteworthy that the percentage of women who register to vote and cast ballots is consistently higher than the percentage of men who do so. In the last election in November 2020, women, who make up around 51.5 percent of the population of Mississippi, constituted 55.5 percent of the voters who cast ballots.”

Republican State Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, representing Monroe County and part of Miami-Dade. Credit: State Senate.

Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, a Republican who represents Monroe County and part of Miami-Dade, agrees with the justice.

“The reality is as the draft opinion says it is,” she said in a written statement to the Phoenix. “Women have access to politics and certainly can make their voice heard.  I am proof of that. I’ve been elected to the city council, the state House, and now the state Senate. I’m not held back because I am a woman.”

But Sen. Tina Polsky, a Democrat who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, responded to Alito’s paragraph this way: “To be perfectly frank, I think it’s bullshit,” because female lawmakers can’t stop abortion-restricting legislation from being passed at the state level.

“They (the Republican majority) do everything they can to quell popular opinion and generally what’s going on,” Polsky said. “And so I don’t think this legislature will care about women lobbying, women coming to testify.”

She told the Phoenix in a phone interview that the Republican-majority “don’t seem to be swayed” by public opinion.

State Sen. Tina Polsky, a Democrat representing parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties. Credit: FL Senate.

A CNN poll, conducted by research group SSRS, released on May 6, showed that at least 66 percent of Americans did not want Roe v. Wade overturned, which is lower than its January poll on the matter, which showed 69 percent of Americans did not want the landmark Supreme Court case overturned.

And in Florida, a February poll conducted by University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab found that out of 685 Florida voters, 57 percent opposed a 15-week abortion ban being considered by the Florida Legislature at that time.

Polsky said of Alito’s rationale that women can advocate for their position through political engagement:

“I don’t think that’s the answer, I just think that’s just word-salad-pudding to an opinion to make it, try to be more palatable.”

During session, most Democrats voted against the 15-week abortion ban, known as HB 5, and all Republicans voted in favor. The bill ultimately passed and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law, taking effect on July 1.

“There are plenty of Republican women, and they all voted in lock-step for the bill,” Polsky said, adding that “it’s the party that matters.”

A hypothetical

The Phoenix looked at the voting records of women lawmakers for HB 5 through a hypothetical lens — where the votes of cisgender men didn’t count for the bill related to abortion access. HB 5 would not have passed.

There were 23 votes against HB 5 among women in the House of Representatives compared to the 17 in favor of the legislation, meaning the bill would not have passed if just women’s votes counted.

Likewise, in the Senate, there were eight votes against HB 5 among women senators, compared to seven who voted in favor of the bill, meaning it would not have passed in the Senate.

But both of Florida’s legislative bodies are dominated by men, and their votes do count in state legislation on abortion access.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orange County, said to the Phoenix that running for office as a woman is “ridiculously challenging, not only do you have to navigate double standards but it can be harder to raise money too.”

“The elected officials do not represent the diversity of the state, it’s that simple,” Eskamani wrote.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.