National Opinions

OPINION: It was a wave election. The wave was women defending abortion rights.

november, election, vote, voting, polling, polls

In middle school, there were all these cheeky euphemisms for menstrual cycles. You might say that Aunt Flo was visiting, or that the crimson tide was coming in, or that you were riding the crimson wave. God forbid you called your period what it was, or said anything that could make boys aware that you had a body to tend.

I was thinking of this, these euphemisms and this body apologia, late into the night of the midterm elections Tuesday. TV pundits remarked with apparent shock that the anticipated “red wave” -- the Republican influx expected to overturn control of the House and the Senate -- didn’t seem to be happening. Yes, Democrats looked poised to lose the House, but the margins weren’t nearly as dire as prognosticators had warned. They appeared poised to hang on to the governorships in Michigan and Wisconsin and Kansas and Pennsylvania, and they’d picked up a crucial Senate seat in Pennsylvania. Why was this so? Weren’t voters angry about inflation? The economy? Where was the red wave?

Buddy, it was right in front of you. The red wave rolled in with Aunt Flo on a longboard.

We’re going to be dissecting the midterm results for the next several days, breaking down polling into demographic bites. But this is one way to read what happened: the midterms were about abortion, and about women tired of having to fight for their own bodies. They were about this resolutely and emphatically, gas prices be damned.

The midterm results were about women, and the people who care about them, turning up at the polls and saying: No. No, we do not believe that reproductive issues can wait until later. No, we are not willing to compromise our rights and our personhood. No, we will not vote for an antiabortion candidate just because he saying he can reduce the price of crudite at the grocery store. We are people. We demand to be treated as people. We demand that you acknowledge the bodies that we tend, the bodies that we use to birth the world.

Voters who spent the summer and autumn in a state of post-Roe terror -- watching state legislatures attempt to regulate female bodies they barely understood, watching Sen. Lindsey Graham propose a nationwide abortion ban -- decided to vote in their own self-interest.

On Tuesday, nearly 30% of voters nationwide reported in network exit polls that abortion was the most important issue in determining their vote; 60% said they were angry or dissatisfied with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The same number said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

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Voters in blue Vermont chose to amend their state’s constitution to protect “reproductive autonomy”; California voters approved a similar measure. Those were expected. But in purple Michigan, voters also chose to codify abortion rights in their constitution, and they reelected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who had run on a platform that stressed her commitment to abortion access. And in deep-red Kentucky, Sen. Rand Paul (R) was reelected but a ballot measure that would have amended the constitution to make abortion illegal was rejected.

Is any of this surprising? Not to me, it’s not. But then I have spent the past six months, since the premature release of the Dobbs decision, feeling rage emanate off women like heat from an halogen bulb.

Conservative women were shaken by the realization that many of their elected officials seemed happy to deny access not only to “frivolous” abortions but also to “necessary” ones, i.e. the ones in cases of rape or to preserve the health of the mother -- the ones these women might choose for themselves.

For liberal women the rage was twofold. There was the rage of the initial Dobbs decision, and then the rage of listening to pundits admonish that Democrats shouldn’t make the midterms all about abortion access. Democrats, this thinking went, needed to focus on kitchen-table issues, the ones that would affect voters’ daily lives.

Do you know what is also a kitchen table issue? Abortion, and not wanting to die on someone’s kitchen table because of an illegally performed procedure.

Do you know what else pundits and politicians actually need to do? Fully embrace that reproductive issues are meat-and-potato issues, not desserts that you’ll tack onto a plate if there’s room at the end of the meal.

No, it’s not surprising that voters in Kentucky wanted to keep access to abortion, in the same way that voters in Kansas elected to keep access to abortion when it went on their state ballot back in August. Abortion access, in some form, is a broadly popular political issue, especially once voters get away from a fire-and-brimstone campaign rally and into the sensible privacy of a polling booth.

The red wave arrived as anyone paying attention should have expected: carrying voters who bore tridents and butterfly ballots and who knew this election might be their only chance to save their own lives.

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section, who frequently writes about gender and its impact on society. She’s the author of several novels, most recently, “They Went Left.”

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Monica Hesse

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post's Style section and author of "American Fire."

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