Skip to main content

At 3:40 p.m., on the day of her country's most divisive election, Carol Sanger, a professor at Columbia Law School, pressed "send" to e-mail her publisher the final version of her book about abortion.

She had been working on it for more than six years. It explores the emotional cost and social consequences of abortion in the United States, and the last chapter, called Normalizing Abortion, ends on an upbeat note – that just as attitudes shifted about cancer or sexual orientation, some day soon, terminating a pregnancy would not be something women kept shamefully to themselves.

"Two good things will happen today," she thought as she went off to vote. Her book was finally finished, and she was energized by the prospect of the first female president. At home, she held back on the celebratory champagne because it felt "premature." Then Donald Trump won – his boasts about groping women apparently excused, his bullying tolerated, and with the vehemently anti-abortion Mike Pence standing at his shoulder as his running mate. Her research suddenly seems more timely than ever.

Read more: The real reason Donald Trump got elected? We have a white extremism problem

Read more: Which countries stand to gain – and lose – from a Trump presidency

Read more: Democratic Party faces struggle to regroup after Trump win

"It feels likes a death," Prof. Sanger says of the election result. She quotes the observation of one of her students: "'We think we are just walking down the street, and everything is the way it was, but it's not.'"

For women, the results of the U.S. election are not only about what will happen next, but what will not happen now. Had Hillary Clinton won on Tuesday night, it would have been historic. But sitting in the Oval Office would also have been a highly skilled politician who was unequivocal about protecting women's right to choose and ensuring access to birth control. She had vowed to fight legislation that prevents federal funds from being used for abortion services. She would have safeguarded President Barack Obama's work to combat domestic violence, defend transgender rights, and make universities take sexual assault cases more seriously. She would have nominated a pro-choice Supreme Court justice, and stacked the White House and her cabinet with women. As one U.S. legal scholar put it to me this week, "We are so focused on what we are facing now, we can't even bear to think about what we have lost."

Instead, when it comes to women's issues, the man soon to be the country's chief executive is without modern precedent. Beyond his proud admissions of sexual assault and his habit of reducing half the population to a hotness score, Mr. Trump once said women who have abortions should face criminal charges. A president with no political experience who shows little appetite for studying up, he will be guided by a Republican Congress and Senate – and advised by men like Mr. Pence, now leading his transition team – whose own record on women's rights is disturbingly retrograde (while Indiana governor, he signed a law requiring women who have abortions to have a funeral for the fetus). This week, as pundits considered the potential members of Trump's cabinet, the sole female name put forward was Sarah Palin.

"It will be a very dark period," predicts Katherine Franke, the director of the Centre for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia.

Chief among the worries is a threat to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion legal, and one of two key judgments that has prevented states from passing laws that make access to abortion more difficult. Mr. Trump has vowed that he will quickly name an anti-choice judge to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last winter.

On its own, this appointment will not shift the court much – it's a one-for-one trade – and current justices have recently made a significant ruling protecting access to abortion. In June, in a 5-3 vote, the court struck down a Texas law that imposed medical requirements that would have closed virtually all but about 10 of the abortion clinics in the state.

"A lot would have to happen really fast for him to chip away at the standard" set by previous court decisions, says Amy Hagstrom Miller, the founder of Whole Woman's Health, and the lead plaintiff in the Texas case, trying to strike an optimistic note.

But three judges are in or approaching their 80s. One more Trump appointment would tip the balance for years to come. And a more conservative court might not only restrict abortion, it would likely expand religious-freedom exemptions, which could further limit access to contraception and allow discrimination against members of the LGBT community.

Women's access to low-cost contraception is, meanwhile, more immediately at risk. Under Mr. Obama's Affordable Care Act, group health care was required to cover no-cost contraception as a preventive health measure. Mr. Trump has said he will repeal Obamacare in his first 100 days, but even if he balks at tossing 20 million people off their health insurance without an option in place, experts believe he could change the contraception regulation with an executive order. This would allow employers to choose whether to cover birth control, and could mean many women, particularly poor ones, abruptly lose access to it.

Beyond judicial appointments and legislative measures, Mr. Trump has also vowed to defund Planned Parenthood, a national organization that provides abortions, reproductive health care and STD testing. The organization, which serves millions of women each year, gets $500-million annually from Washington, nearly 40 per cent of its budget. (The money is provided on the proviso it not be used for abortion services.)

"It will be devastating," says Prof. Franke. "Low-income women in particular will have nowhere else to go."

Even before he signs a single law, Mr. Trump has already influenced the level of sexist and racist discourse in the United States. His ascension, says Frances Raday, a law professor emerita at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, will speak volumes to other conservative regimes.

"The way in which he dismisses women feeds into misogyny in a way we have not seen since the 1960s," says Prof. Raday, who is also a member of the United Nations expert group on discrimination against women, and a co-author of a recent report that criticized the state of women's rights in the United States, making note of the aggressive rhetoric during the campaign. "The fact that this has appeared in the United States – a leader on the world stage – is threatening for the global women's movement."

On the ground in the United States, when it comes to racism targeting Muslims, women are the most vulnerable, because their head coverings make them visible. The current climate also will not embolden victims of sexual assault to come forward. And it is laughable to recall Melania Trump's earlier suggestion that one of issues as first lady would be to combat online incivility, of which women are principal targets. As Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami law professor who specializes in online aggression, points out: "Trump is the most high-profile example of what it means to troll women."

Perhaps, as many hope, Mr. Trump will be a different president than his campaign suggested. He did promise a day care tax deduction and a family-leave program – progressive policies the United States lacks. In a past version of himself, he was pro-choice. But the people at his side strongly suggest the next four years will be a harsh setback to women's rights, and an undoing of Mr. Obama's work. A lot of what comes next "is unpredictable," says Prof. Franks, "which is why it is so frightening."