I grew up admiring Olympia Snowe, Maine’s senior senator. She was like a mythological hero to me — the only politician whose mere mention in my bipartisan household could dissolve a burgeoning argument and soothe my grandmother’s fear of controversy. That says a lot. Family lore includes an infamous story of a political throw-down between my hippie mother and my republican grandfather during the Vietnam War. The details are hazy, but the story ends with both of them storming away from the dinner table and my grandmother in tears. As far as my grandmother — a democrat — was concerned, a woman could do few things more impolite than to argue politics, unless that woman was Olympia Snowe. If I, not being Snowe, brought up politics around my grandfather, a proud conservative voter, my grandmother would furrow her brow and shoo me away.
“Don’t start,” she would say, glancing at my grandfather. “Let’s not have an argument here.”
But a woman speaking her mind was nothing to be embarrassed by when it came to Olympia Snowe. “That Olympia,” she’d say to me, pointing to the senator on TV. “She’s one tough cookie, I’ll give her that. She won’t be pushed around.”
Both my grandmother and my mother told me about Snowe’s hard-luck life (she was orphaned in 1956 at age nine, lost her first husband in a car crash at age 26, and watched her stepson die of heart failure in 1991). They talked about her characteristic independence, her penchant for “telling it like it is.” She was a Republican who hadn’t forgotten about the little guy. For me, the cartoonish figure of Snowe, her jet-black hair eternally pulled back into the same low ponytail, her accent stretching vowels like bubble gum, was more recognizable than any of the president’s men.
Olympia Snowe would protect me, I thought. I continued to believe that right up until January 31, when she voted to support George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. Snowe, who throughout her political career had fought for reproductive choice and access to contraception, voted in favor of a man who was vehemently opposed by countless women’s-rights groups across the country and in Maine. Here was a man who, if the thousands who have dedicated their lives to preserving abortion rights are correct, will swing the court and cripple Roe v. Wade.
Snowe and Maine’s other US senator, Susan Collins, were the only pro-choice women in the Senate to vote for Alito.
So much for girl power.
I’ve spent the past couple of weeks wondering what went through Snowe’s mind during those hours before the vote. Collins, whose support for abortion rights has been more inconsistent than Snowe’s, had already announced her intention days earlier; Alito’s confirmation was a near certainty. Snowe knew her vote against Alito wouldn’t reverse the tide. She knew the time for real opposition was weeks before, when Dems were casting around for Republican support for a filibuster. She also knew dissent from the party line would be politically dangerous.
Still, what was Snowe thinkingwhen she, one of the most powerful women in the country, brushed off this world-altering controversy? Perhaps she was thinking about the ebb and flow of power in a world where jeopardizing women’s rights is just another chess move.
Good behavior 101
Pro-life responses to the confirmation of Alito and fellow conservative John Roberts to the US Supreme Court have been swift.
According to the New York Times, some abortion opponents see the induction of Alito and Roberts as the first opportunity since 1992 to launch a series of state challenges to Roe that will land at the feet of the Supreme Court. In keeping with this plan, South Dakota lawmakers passed a direct attack on Roe v. Wade on February 22. If enacted by the state’s anti-abortion governor, the law will ban all abortions except to save a woman’s life. Abortions will be prohibited even in cases of rape and incest, or when the woman’s health will suffer.
Abortion bans as extreme as South Dakota’s, which was endorsed by legislators three weeks after the Senate confirmed Alito, are being considered in five other states. Abortion opponents have long planned to attack Roe state-by-state with laws that, by their very extremity, will guarantee consideration before the Supreme Court (and, therefore, a re-evaluation of abortion rights nationwide). With the Supreme Court shifting right, some pro-lifers believe the time is now.