Soon after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, Attorney General Lynn Fitch took a meeting with her communications team. As Mississippi’s top lawyer, she would be the face of the law that could bring down Roe v. Wade, responsible for crafting and publicizing arguments on behalf of the state. That day in July, they’d gathered to discuss their promotion strategy.
Presented with several slogans designed to capture their approach to the case, the attorney general immediately selected a winner.
“Empower Women. Promote Life.”
The motto got right to the crux of Fitch’s argument, while alluding to a belief that has shaped her 12-year political career: Empower women, and they will help themselves.
In the opening brief she submitted in July, Fitch asked the Supreme Court to use Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to overturn Roe v. Wade. She argued that abortion prevents women from reaching their full potential. When Roe was decided in 1973, she wrote, the justices maintained that an unwanted pregnancy would doom women to “a distressful life and future.” But nearly 50 years later, Fitch claims “sweeping policy advances” now allow women to fully pursue motherhood and a career, stamping out the need for abortion.
To come up with this argument, which underpins the most important abortion case in decades, Fitch said she drew inspiration from her own life. After she and her husband divorced in 2004, she raised three kids as a single mother while ascending to the highest ranks of state government, becoming the state’s first female attorney general and the first Republican attorney general since 1878. The juggling act wasn’t easy, Fitch said — but with hard work and a color-coded calendar, she pulled it off. Now, she said, abortion bans like the one in Mississippi can help other women “have it all.”
Critics immediately descended on Fitch. Abortion activists called her a hypocrite, highlighting her privilege, while a consortium of 154 economists scrutinized her argument in their own amicus brief to the Supreme Court. They pointed out that the United States is one of the only countries without a national paid family leave policy and the average price of child care, adjusted for inflation, has increased by almost 50% in the past three decades.
Fitch stands by her argument. With this Supreme Court case, Fitch said in a television interview, God has presented women with an opportunity. “You have the option in life to really achieve your dreams and goals,” she said, addressing the women of America. “And you can have those beautiful children as well.”
In the eyes of the attorney general, a pregnant woman’s decision is simple, said longtime friend and colleague Laura Jackson.
“The choice in her eyes is always going to be life because she’s proven it can be done.”
In the small town of Holly Springs, Miss., everyone knew the Fitch family. Fitch’s father, Bill, made his money in consumer finance in Memphis, before returning to Mississippi to start a small consumer lending business and revive the family farm, an 8,000-acre property on the outskirts of town. Fitch and her sister spent childhood weekends there, riding horses and hunting quail.
Fitch followed the traditional Mississippi path into politics, said Hayes Dent, who ran Fitch’s first campaign for state treasurer in 2011. She went to the University of Mississippi and joined a sorority, he said, then used that network to launch her career as a lawyer and politician. When Fitch decided to make her first run for office in 2011, Dent drove out to Holly Springs, of his own accord, to ask Bill to fund the campaign.
By that point, Bill had turned the farm — known as the Galena Plantation — into one of the country’s premier quail hunting destinations, a favorite retreat of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Visitors had the option to stay in the original home of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, which Bill transported 40 miles and, according to the Fitch Farms website, restored “to its former glory.”
In Fitch’s first campaign, Dent said, her father was her largest donor.
Fitch has always relied on her community for help, she said, especially after her divorce. When her kids were young, she benefited from a tightknit network of six other moms, who would swoop in for school drop-offs and football practice pickups when she couldn’t leave her desk. Fitch believes those are the kinds of support every mother needs.
“I always tell people as young people you should make as many friends along the way because you reap the greatest rewards when you do that,” Fitch said.
She said she also paid for day care and a nanny.
One of the economists who countered Fitch’s argument in the amicus brief points out that most U.S. mothers don’t have access to that kind of child care. “People from privilege experience a social safety net they imagine everyone else experiences,” said Kelly Jones, a professor of economics at American University who focuses on gender equality and welfare. When high-income people get pregnant unexpectedly, they can turn to family members or other members of their community, she said — or they can fly out of state to get an abortion. But many pregnant people have no one to fall back on and no money to pay for child care.
“Having a child or adding an additional child may push low-earning women out of the labor force and into poverty, whereas high-earning women can have it all,” Jones said.
Even with a small army of people helping her with child care throughout her career, Fitch was still targeted by male colleagues who would comment on her occasional absence from the office, said Jackson, Fitch’s friend. Sometimes she’d duck out for school plays and football games, and she cared for her father as he aged. Fitch was no dummy, Jackson said: She knew what people were saying about her. And although the criticism may have “hurt her heart,” Jackson said, “I never saw her let that get in the way.”
For as long as she’s been in politics, Fitch has expressed a commitment to women’s “empowerment” — the idea that, with hard work and the right tools, anyone can succeed. In her campaigns for treasurer and attorney general, she’d often press for equal pay legislation in Mississippi, the state where women are mostly likely to live in poverty, and the only state that does not ensure equal pay for equal work. She also speaks often about financial literacy, pushing for high schools and colleges to teach students, especially women, how to better manage their money.
“We’ve got to help them change their culture and [show them] how they can be empowered by money instead of being afraid of it,” Fitch said.
She appreciates someone who can “get things done,” which is probably why she was such a big fan of former President Donald Trump, said Michelle Williams, Fitch’s chief of staff. A self-proclaimed “original Trump supporter,” Fitch led the Mississippi Women for Trump coalition in 2016. When he came to Mississippi, she stood in the row directly behind him, clapping and nodding on screen for everyone to see.
Williams was not surprised when Fitch first raised the empowerment concept for the Dobbs brief. While a different attorney general who didn’t raise three kids as a single mom probably would have taken another approach, Williams said, the argument that abortion disempowers women made perfect sense, coming from Fitch.
“I don’t think you would have gotten that part of the argument if she wasn’t the face of this case,” said Williams.
Fitch’s argument in Dobbs echoes an approach to anti-abortion legislation that has been around for decades. In the mid-1990s, the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life began pioneering abortion restrictions they claimed would protect women’s health. These restrictions, largely deemed unnecessary by medical experts, forced abortion clinics to make design or staffing changes that led many to close. In a similar vein, Fitch has structured her argument around helping women, focusing on how abortion restrictions can safeguard their economic well-being and professional ambitions.
To Jennifer Riley Collins, the Democrat who ran against Fitch in the 2019 attorney general race, Fitch’s argument is “absurd.”
“You want to empower women?” Collins said. “Put in place systems that support women. You don’t take away from women that which is their freedom.”
Fitch made related arguments on the campaign trail, Collins said, when she would talk about the importance of teaching financial literacy in public schools. Fitch would say “children need to know how to count money,” Collins recalled. But, Collins added, “it’s difficult to count money you don’t have.” Unless people have the essential resources they need, Collins said, “empowerment” can only take you so far.
Low-income women, and especially women of color, are faced with a series of structural hurdles that privileged women like Fitch can “jump over,” Jones said. Born into poverty, many struggle to get a good education, which makes it more difficult to get a high-paying job.
“If you add to that the responsibility of feeding, protecting and raising another human being,” Jones added, “you have exponentially increased how difficult life will be.” Fitch’s argument also disregards all the pregnant people who choose not to have children for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to pay for them, said Jones.
Fitch does not support government-mandated paid family leave or subsidized child care. She believes the approach should be more “holistic.” Friends, family and employers need to do all they can to help new mothers, she said. Charities can be excellent resources too, she added.
“We are a faith-based driven state and country,” she said. “Our faith-based organizations, our churches — they’re willing, they’re charitable.”
If Roe falls, she said, they will have the chance to step up.
Fitch never expected to be the face of the Dobbs case. The 15-week ban passed in 2018, before Fitch had even announced her campaign for attorney general. She rarely spoke about abortion on the campaign trail. There was never much to talk about, Williams said: In Mississippi, almost all politicians, even Democrats, are opposed to abortion.
Now it may be the issue she’s remembered for.
The Supreme Court took months to decide whether to hear arguments on Dobbs. When they finally announced they would consider the case, Fitch was walking through an airport. Suddenly, her face was on every television screen. When Williams heard from Fitch on the phone that day, she remembers Fitch saying, “I guess this is real.”
Fitch believes Mississippi will win this case. “The makeup of the court and the timing is right,” she said on an anti-abortion television show in September. When the decision comes down in June, she said, she’ll be thinking about all the babies who will be saved — and all the mothers who will find new fulfillment.
Finally, she said, they’ll have a chance to “redirect their lives.”