On the morning of January 22nd, the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court of the United State’s decision in Roe v. Wade, Madison, Wisconsin was blanketed with a fresh layer of snow. But by 11 a.m., it was clear that the weather had not deterred people from throughout the Midwest from gathering at the center of campus at the University of Wisconsin in downtown Madison. The number of attendees waiting in the cold built slowly at first, but by 11:45, the crowd had grown to several thousand people. Organizers circulated, handing out chant sheets and organizing information. A few activists stood in the bed of a rented pickup truck at the front, leading chants. The Bigger Than Roe March and Rally were underway.
While the entire event appeared to have the support of the national Women’s March organization, that organization declined to sponsor the march when organizers in Madison Abortion and Reproductive Rights Coalition for Healthcare (MARRCH) elected not to apply for a permit. In fact, while Women’s March continued to cite the day of action in its fundraising emails, it was MARRCH, a scrappy new group that formed over the last six months and already has multiple campus-based chapters in the city, that was the primary organizing force behind it. With help from Chicago-based groups like Chicago for Abortion Rights, Gay Liberation Network, and the Red Rabbits, and the endorsement of dozens of other groups, including a number of labor unions and socialist organizations, they led the way from campus through downtown Madison into the Wisconsin State Capitol, where protesters filled every floor of the building’s rotunda.
Ahead of the march, speeches and chants from the front tied Wisconsin’s struggle for abortion access to international fights for abortion rights, trans rights, and the Black Lives Matter movement. At one point, organizers led the group in chanting, “Burn the churches, burn the courts, burn the precincts!”
Christine Powell, a Madison resident and member of AFSCME Local 6000 marched with a Madison labor contingent revolving around the South Central Federation of Labor. She wrote the following account of the day:
I went solo to the Women’s March, I’ve not been to a march or a protest in…. so long. I noticed how many family groups I saw. Directly in front of me was a teenage boy and his mom. Many older ladies, some of whom had to have seen this issue move from freedom and growth of women’s rights over their bodies, to having those rights taken away.
We were slowly moving toward the Capitol building, and the organizers were as a whole energetic, young, and LOUD! I was trying to keep up with the call/response chants, but I’m not really a loud person, and it feels weird if you’re not used to ever shouting.
The crowd was being worked by political groups, with fliers, pamphlets, clipboards making the rounds. I got a pass I was holding a stonking big Labor banner, but it made me think when I saw people the next day online putting out opinions like “Marching doesn’t change anything!” It’s a March, and it’s a rolling education event. It’s a March, and WOW was there a lot of networking. It doesn’t matter that it’s not a day where they’re in session. WE were in session.
When we got to the Capitol building, we were not sure if we could bring the thick pole with the banner in, but we were, and made it up to the third floor. Some ladies who had gotten a good perch were kind enough to let us hang the banner in front of them. Chatting with them, I discovered that they’d driven up from Illinois to support the women of Wisconsin, which I found pretty awesome.
Abortion in Wisconsin
When the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned Roe v. Wade, Wisconsinites found themselves living in a state where abortion is outlawed by an 1849 ban that includes exceptions only for the life of the mother. Proximity to states where abortion is still legal, like Illinois and Minnesota, is only reassuring to those who live close enough and have the resources to make a trip.
Writing for Wisconsin Examiner, Ruth Coniff reported on the harsh circumstances pregnant people in Wisconsin are facing, including being denied abortion care to resolve miscarriages until they’re on the brink of death. This is an absolute nightmare, and a constant source of anxiety for many people who can become pregnant.
But it’s important to note that abortion access has been dwindling in Wisconsin for years. Prior to Dobbs, there were only three surgical abortion clinics left in the entire state, one in Madison and two in Milwaukee, with an additional clinic in Sheboygan providing medication abortion only. All of these clinics are located in the Southern half of the state, leaving people living up North—especially in the northeastern quadrant of the state—in an especially difficult spot. Access was further complicated by the state’s requirement that anyone seeking an abortion must first have a consultative appointment at the abortion clinic at least twenty-four hours before receiving the abortion, and a state ban on all abortions past twenty weeks. Wisconsin’s Medicaid program did not cover abortion care, except in cases of rape which the victim was required to report to law enforcement. For many in Wisconsin, it didn’t take a Supreme Court decision to put abortion firmly out of reach.
While past Women’s March events have been national days of action, with rallies and marches taking place all over the country, Madison was the focal point for the organization’s Roe v. Wade anniversary event this year. There are a few ways to understand the national Women’s March organization’s decision to single out Wisconsin.
For starters, in just a few months Wisconsin voters will take to the polls to elect a new State Supreme Court justice, the significance of which was outlined in a recent New York Times article titled “2023’s Biggest, Most Unusual Race Centers on Abortion and Democracy.” While Wisconsin’s Supreme Court is nominally non-partisan, conservative justices have held a majority on the court for the last decade, reliably acting in lock-step with the Republican-controlled state legislature, including upholding:
Maps that make Wisconsin one of the most badly gerrymandered states in the entire country, where Republicans can maintain control of the state Senate and Assembly while receiving a smaller share of the overall votes.
Attacks on voting rights, like the state’s voter ID requirement and a ban on absentee ballot drop-offs outside of election offices, which were popular in liberal Madison throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republican-led legislative attacks on the powers of the executive branch which began as soon as Democratic Governor Tony Evers was elected in 2018 and persisted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, making it impossible to implement state-wide safety regulations.
In the aforementioned New York Times article, Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman Ben Wikler ties the outcome of the state election to national concerns by by pointing out that in 2020, the Wisconsin Supreme Court made a 4-3 decision to reject a Trump campaign effort to throw out 200,000 votes in liberal Milwaukee County and Dane County (where Madison is located). With Wisconsin serving as an important swing-state in the last two presidential elections, the implication is clear: Wisconsin’s Supreme Court could make or break the next national election.
The article also makes clear that Democratic Party leaders view abortion as a key issue to leverage in the election, which reflects a major shift in the Party’s thinking. For years, the “common sense” passed from Democrats to liberal reproductive rights groups in Wisconsin was that abortion was too controversial to mention outside of the deepest blue districts in the state. While Republicans waged war against abortion access over the last decade, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin came up with tortured responses that danced around addressing abortion directly.
For example, in 2013 when Republicans were advancing a raft of restrictions on abortion through the state legislature, PPAWI accused the Republicans of “playing games with women’s health” and held an action at the state capitol where supporters delivered pink ping-pong balls to members of the legislature. To see Democrats in Wisconsin openly using the word “abortion” in campaign ads and on mailers in 2022 seemed stunning by comparison.
No doubt much of the change is recent, a result of the outcry against the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling and the bump that outrage gave Democrats in the 2022 election. But widespread support for abortion rights was visible in Wisconsin before last year. In fact, in 2017 just after Trump was elected president, per-capita turnout for the first Women’s March in Madison, WI was higher than anywhere else in the country outside of Washington D.C. Democratic Party operatives are finally taking notice and taking advantage of the fact that abortion is a mobilizing issue. For Women’s March, a Democratic Party ally organization, to zero in on Madison, Wisconsin before a momentous election makes sense in this context.
But there’s a lesson in this for activists, too. While reproductive rights organizations and activists in Wisconsin have been steadfast in their support for the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party did not always support abortion rights as openly or reliably. And following their lead and playing coy about abortion likely limited the ability of groups like Planned Parenthood to fight back. However, regular mass mobilization since 2017, including after the Dobbs decision was announced, has made a difference, pushing abortion rights to the top of the agenda. To ensure that restoring abortion access in Wisconsin continues to be a priority, activists must resist pressure to subvert their goals to the goals of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
Political activity in Wisconsin has been characterized by a certain sense of hopelessness for over a decade now, since the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising in response to Governor Scott Walker’s attack on public sector unions was redirected into an unsuccessful recall campaign. Walker’s reign, which led to gerrymandered maps and a gutting of local control, made things worse. Since Governor Tony Evers was elected in 2018, there’s been a prevailing perception among liberals that the best we can hope for electorally is to keep a Democratic governor in place to veto the ugliest efforts of the Republican-controlled state legislature until this latest Supreme Court election.
In many respects, this has lessened the draw of electoralism, which has had some positives for the Left in Madison, and potentially elsewhere in Wisconsin, too. It created space for activist groups like MARRCH, Madison-area DSA affiliated Socialist Feminist Collective, Socialist Alternative, and earlier efforts backed by SA and a branch of the International Socialist Organization to advance more radical ideas about how to win abortion rights, and to play a bigger role in local abortion rights activism. Instead of being relegated to the side of big rallies and marches, as left-wing and revolutionary groups are in many places, these groups have all been at the front of large mobilizations over the last five years, making the case for mass movement over subservience to the Democratic Party.
This fact, combined with strong support for abortion access in Wisconsin, proximity to activists in Chicago, and the Democratic Party’s renewed interest in abortion as a mobilizing issue, all make Wisconsin an important site for abortion rights organizing and a state to watch in the years ahead.
Featured Image credit: artwork by Nevena Pilipović-Wengler.
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Tessa E. is an organizer based in Madison, Wisconsin.
Dayna Long is a member of Madison Area Democratic Socialists of America.