In late June of 2022, Illinois Republican representative Mary Miller called the fall of Roe v Wade in the United States, “a victory for white life.” Standing at a podium introducing former President Donald Trump, Ms. Miller said: “President Trump, on behalf of all the MAGA patriots in America, I want to thank you for the historic victory for white life and the Supreme Court yesterday.” She then starts off applause after a beat of awkward silence. The crowd erupts.
The campaign for Ms. Miller later stated that the Trump-endorsed Republican, “misspoke.” She had allegedly meant to say, “a victory for ‘right to life.'”
This got me thinking, though. What is a victory for, “white life?”
Unsurprisingly, the historic victories for “white life” were reserved for white Christian men. Before abortion was legal, children and women provided a lot of white Christian men, many of who were pastors, generations of victories in the form of land grants and war pensions, free labor, and an endless stream of enslaved peoples; and children who could legally inherit more slaves.
Who does this benefit today?
To find out, we have to understand some facts from U.S. history.
Coverture in the United States
“Coverture,” is an English, patriarchal, legal practice. The term defines a Christian legal practice where women have no legal status: but can still inherit property. The practice of coverture meant that white women and children could inherit wealth-but have no control over it. White women, like Indigenous and Black women, had no legal status: just enough humanity to write into law that they didn’t have any, in Colonial America.
Put another way, men “covered” the women: in the eyes of the law, that meant women had no rights once they were married to a man. Before married, they were considered “covered” by their fathers or closest living male relative.
Selling of property, including enslaved peoples, was only for male heirs. Coverture ensured that any inheritance to a woman or girl went automatically to the male head of the family. The first attempts at tangible change for white women to have property ownership rights wouldn’t gain traction until 1839: a whole 220 years after the first enslaved Africans were brought to English and Dutch colonies.
The Eve of the American Revolution
Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project taught us that the first Africans enslaved and brought to English colonies arrived 157 years before 1776.
The baseline of personhood was set. Being white, male, and Christian built an empire. The “melting pot” from Scandinavian, Nordic, and Western European nations all brought variations of Christianity and white wealth; in many cases, generational wealth, to the New World.
With them, the colonizers brought laws into fledgling white communities like coverture. Thanks to birthright citizenship, any white Christian man with a child could be granted land without effort. Once the Revolution was underway in earnest, both British and U.S. forces had an influx of foreigners from white nations fighting for either side in North America.
Hessian volunteers from Germany fought for the English in U.S. colonies. Once one could fight and live through the Revolution, the newly-formed federal United States government gave tracts of land to survivors and widows in acres. White Christian girls born in these white Christian colonies unknowingly became a desirable way to gather, protect, and pass on, land, people, and other legally-defined property across generations.
Mercy and Charity in New Jersey Colony
Mercy Cozad* was born May 7, 1756, in Mount Olive, New Jersey. At ten years old, Mercy gave birth to a baby girl and named her Charity. A child of Elizabeth Sutton and the Baptist minister Jacob Cozad*, Mercy’s mother died when she was around 2 years old.
Charity Coon was born in 1766 in either Harvard, MA or Mt. Olive, New Jersey. Charity later married Henry Hinseman* in 1794.
On March 3, 1855, Charity received a land bounty for Henry’s military service in the Revolutionary War. In October, 1859, Charity was awarded $23.33 per year with backpay to 1848 as a war widow. At the incredible and unlikely age of 105, an old family Bible was used as proof Charity was Henry’s widow.
Backpay was awarded Charity in 1848 that would equal over $20,000.
When Charity was awarded payments from the U.S. Treasury at age 105, those payments were made to her son-in-law, Thomas Starcher. Charity allegedly lived to be 114 years old. Ironically, 1848 is the first time white women were provided ownership status.
White liberals are quick to point out it was women in the north who first made this legislation. It didn’t help Charity. The Married Woman’s Property Law was incredibly narrow, racist, and discriminatory; and didn’t impact West Virginia, where Charity lived.
Enslaved Children and Families
The state of Maryland enacted a statute in 1664 ripping Black families apart. In doing so, it legalized and legitimized that Black people, even families with babies and children, had no personhood. The statute reads:
“That whatsoever free-born [English] woman shall intermarry with any slave. . . shall serve the master of such slave during the life of her husband; and that all the issue of such free-born women, so married shall be slaves as their fathers were.”
This is few words that say a whole lot. It writes into law that any woman with an enslaved man is a slave: and so is her whole family, including any children. In a time before birth control, without personhood, the statute legitimized the false, ridiculous, narrative that Black people, enslaved people, weren’t people at all, but property.
In 1682, the Virginia Colony added to this. Anyone who wasn’t white and who wasn’t from a Christian country were automatically deemed to be inhuman. This included Indigenous peoples born on the land occupied by the men who wrote this into law. The statute of 1682 reads, in part:
“who and whose parentage and native countries are not Christian at the time of their first purchase by some Christian. . . and all [racist slur], which shall be sold by our neighborign (sic)…, or any other trafficing (sic) with us for slaves, are hereby adjudged, deemed and taken to be slaves to all intents and purposes any law, usage, or custom to the contrary notwithstanding.”
The narrative of religious freedom fighters founding our country doesn’t hold up to historic fact. Misguided failures in waves of white feminism subsequently left out women of color, Black women, and queers. Perhaps that is why, in retrospect, 403 years after the first enslaved Africans arrived in white Christian colonies, a white legislator said that ending abortion is a victory for white life.
Historically speaking, from 1619:
- it took 229 years before New York State enacted the first Married Women’s Property Law
- 251 years before the 15th Amendment guaranteed Black men the right to vote
- 354 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an abortion is generally a constitutional right in Roe v. Wade
- 346 years before the Voting Rights Act provided Black women the right to vote
- 403 years before Roe v. Wade was overturned, after being Constitutional for 49 years.
Presidential candidate and future 45th President Donald J. Trump has made public statements that women having abortions should be “punished” legally. He then added to that, clarifying later that he meant a medical provider providing a medical service that is safe should be punished: if abortion is ever illegal. He went on to call the person having an abortion procedure a “victim.”
A mere six years later, former President-Trump was thanked for the fall of Roe v. Wade; just a year after the January 6, 2021 coup attempt by his supporters after Trump lost the election.
Despite abortion being legal in Ohio, a young Black woman is charged with abuse of a corpse for having a miscarriage. Just weeks before the landmark ballot initiative enshrined abortion, Brittany Watts was denied medical care repeatedly before being charged legally.
Legislative attacks on silencing factual history, and racist fact, isn’t shocking. If one sits with the truth for long enough, the lines of then and now become fuzzy and less well-defined.
There is no victory in white life, or the right to life, that isn’t all-inclusive to every single person. Maybe that is the real meaning, if there can be any meaning, gleaned from such a statement as Ms. Miller’s in 2022.