Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice, re-issued this year by Haymarket Books, documents the contributions of women of color activists to the struggle for reproductive justice over the last four decades. At a time when activists fear more repression and retrenchment on women’s issues, learning about the work that has been accomplished in earlier difficult times is invaluable.
The book begins by explaining the concept of reproductive justice, distinguishing it from past liberal frameworks that focused on abortion rights alone and failed to address other issues that affect women of color, such as sterilization abuse.
From there, the contributions in this book extend to many different arenas in the struggles for comprehensive women’s health care and access to safe environments — struggles where women of color have been key and often overlooked theorists and organizers.
The creative and diverse political work documented in this book occurred during a period characterized by widespread defeat and a liberal feminist movement often complacent and sometimes outright hostile to issues related to the lives of poor women and women of color.
One of the volume’s editors and a founder of the women of color reproductive justice organization Sister Song, Loretta Ross, notes that for most women, the legal right to abortion is far from enough to ensure reproductive freedom or basic choice: “Our ability to control what happens to our bodies is constantly challenged by poverty, racism, environmental degradation, sexism, homophobia and injustice in the United States.”
In the absence of a mass feminist movement that drew the connections between a system of racial inequality, and in the context of a mounting series of impossible choices surrounding the decision to have or not have children, the women of color organizations described in this book have agitated for change in their own culturally and community-specific ways.
The eight main organizations the volume profiles came from Asian and Pacific Islander women, Native women, Black women and Latinas, and their work ranges from procuring social services and health care the welfare state has failed to offer women to public policy advocacy for particular community initiatives around comprehensive health and safety, cultural competency, and against sterilization abuse and other population control programs.
The Mother’s Milk Project (MMP), for instance, is a Native women’s organization founded by Mohawk health activist Katsi Cook in the 1980s to assess “how toxic contaminants have moved through the local food chain, including mother’s milk.”
After research revealed an enormous impact of toxins on the St. Lawrence River, MMP focused on educating Native women about the dangers of the water and eating fish from that water on their nursing babies, but also fought for environmental protections against polluting corporations as a reproductive right.
The links that activists drew between the two struggles exemplifies the structural thinking of the reproductive justice framework and for MMP was captured by the notion that “The womb is the first environment.” The MMP is a clear ideological predecessor to the powerful Sioux Standing Rock slogan, “Water is life,” or “Mni wiconi.”
As activists organize in anticipation of the presidency of the racist, misogynist, billionaire Donald Trump, the fight to defend women’s rights, including the right to abortion and birth control, has returned to the mainstream circles after decades of limited movements and defeats.
Trump has promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who oppose Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion legal. During the campaign, Trump also argued that women who have abortions should receive “some form of punishment.”
In reality, from mandatory waiting periods for abortions, to mandatory “heart beat” laws that require women to listen to a fetus’ heartbeat before an abortion, to the outrageous recent Texas law that would require women who have miscarriages or abortions to have funerals for the fetuses, those seeking abortions in this country are already routinely punished.
How is it that nearly 50 years after the Roe v. Wade decision, actual safe, affordable access to abortion has been destroyed for almost all women in the U.S.?
As the editors argue in Undivided Rights’ introduction, there has been a direct link between the failure to include activists of diverse backgrounds and the shortsightedness of political agendas, demonstrated most clearly by the absence of a clear anti-sterilization program from most early reproductive rights organizations, which were dominated by white, middle-class women.
The militant organizing of women across race changed public opinion about abortion and won the Roe decision. But in the wake of this victory, the movement was demobilized, as women with middle- and upper-class lives felt their rights had been secured and the activist movement that had won Roe dissipated.
Many activists not only failed to anticipate the coming backlash that would eat away at those rights led by the racist New Right, which attacked reproductive rights alongside the welfare state, but also the myriad of other issues affecting women’s and men’s reproductive freedoms, from sterilization to environmental degradation that was leading to high rates of infant mortality.
Into this void stepped women of color who had cut their organizing teeth in many different places, including the antiwar and Black Liberation movements, mainstream and radical groups in the women’s liberation movement, and they founded the organizations described in this book to address the immediate needs of women in their communities that weren’t being met elsewhere.
Since the attacks on women’s health, abortion rights, and even access to contraception have continued at a steady pace over recent decades and seem likely to escalate now, the new edition of Undivided Rights comes as an important reminder of the breadth and depth of reproductive justice organizing that has taken place despite difficult political conditions.
The volume details the decades of struggle for a race and class-conscious reproductive justice framework often neglected in a political context in which the question of individual choice alone has dominated. The book inserts the voices and campaigns of women of color into a mainstream debate that would be pushed to the left by acknowledging their work and their vision.
In the book’s new 2016 preface, the editors document several victories for reproductive justice that have occurred since the first issuing of the book in 2004, victories which have been possible because of the women of color organizations, independent of the mainstream liberal feminist organizations.
They list as recent victories not only a number of state-level defeats of anti-abortion legislation, but also the prominence of women of color leaders in broader movements like Black Lives Matter and the inclusion of reproductive justice demands within these broader social justice movements.
In the book’s conclusion, the editors argue that these kinds of organizations, born from the specific needs of particular racial groups and working on particular demands from those specific experiences, must continue to exist and shouldn’t necessarily be replaced by a mass movement that can connect them all.
Undoubtedly, the records of these organizations in bringing visibility and resources to reforms that simply were not being addressed elsewhere gives credence to this claim. But it would not denigrate this massive contribution in any way to caution against making a virtue of necessity or to insist on the urgent necessity of a mass movement going forward.
A mass movement that truly represents reproductive justice and draws from rather than replaces these smaller, identity-based campaigns is absolutely necessary if we ever hope to stop simply playing defense, actually win new rights and ultimately win a new kind of society.
The book’s emphasis on the need to build and sustain organizations and not rely on spontaneous resistance to carry on the struggle over the years is welcome. Yet the editors grapple less with the real shortcomings of the organizations and style of activism, which isn’t their size or their relationship to particular identities, but their non-profit, rather than grassroots orientations.
The editors argue:
A shift from grassroots political work toward more emphasis on policy level and professional organizational style could reflect a political shift away from an oppositional and radical politics. However, we contend that the lines between what constitutes a radical or a mainstream group are blurred or less meaningful among women of color reproductive rights groups. No matter what the organization’s offices, staff hierarchies, or budget size, advocacy on behalf of the rights of women of color, especially low-income women, constitutes a radical agenda.
The 2009 anthology The Revolution will Not be Funded by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, details many of the flaws with this assumption. There are myriad problems with the model of change built on funding and professional organization, and the assumption that any organization, regardless of its structure, focusing on the needs of women of color, will represent a radical politics, seems to seriously underestimate the power of corporate influence in limiting political demands and forms of organizing.
Indeed, racist attacks on welfare and the environment weren’t simply a weapon of the New Right, but became part and parcel of an increasingly pro-capitalist and neoliberal political establishment. Any group struggling for reproductive justice in any form must confront this reality.
The editors do note the material difficulties of fighting for funding and the competition between these organizations to find it. Unless there’s a mass movement that can challenge the foundations of neoliberal capitalism itself, this situation will only grow direr.
No matter how oppressed the population any non-profit advocacy or policy organization serves, so long as these organizations are reliant on funding from corporate donors and even government agencies, they have a direct interest in collaborating with, rather than fighting, these underlying structures.
Beyond capitalism’s effects on particular organizations, however, we must recognize and challenge its unchanging effects on all people’s reproductive lives. So long as we live in a society in which a tiny minority own and control the world’s resources, and the vast majority of people must sell their labor power for ever-tightening wages in order to survive, reproductive justice will remain a slogan, rather than a reality.
Though the threats we face from a Trump presidency are monumental, we have also seen a resurgence of mass direct action since the Great Recession that has changed the political terrain that gave rise to the important organizations described in Undivided Rights.
We should take their comprehensive, anti-racist, and class-conscious vision with us as we attempt to build from this new momentum the organizations that can not only speak to the diverse needs and oppressions of our society, but also unite us in a struggle against the system that has produced this oppression.