|MMO: How did this book come into existence?
Loretta Ross: I’d been writing about black women and abortion. Jael approached
me to write about women of color and reproductive rights organizing.
Her idea was to push the topic beyond abortion, which I thought
was a great idea.
Thing is, I barely write. I notice that my friends in academia
write. As an activist, I don’t get time to write. My writing
tends to be of funding proposals. Anyway, Jael and Marlene were
the engines in the process. They did the lion’s share of the
writing and they conducted the interviews for case studies. I did
some writing and we all worked on conceptualizing the work.
We all had relationships in the movement already so it was easy
to work together; we knew one another. The teamwork was effortless.
not every radical white woman who does abortion rights work is willing
to delve so deeply into the politics of racism. I’m curious
about how you moved beyond the politics of abortion to become an
advocate for a broader, more inclusive vision of reproductive justice.
Marlene Fried: While I could probably dig into my childhood memories from growing
up in Philadelphia, I can pinpoint my first political engagement
in the civil rights movement, which— like so many of my generation—
occurred after the murder of Martin Luther King. At that time, there
was a boycott of the public schools by Black families. I was recruited
to teach math to 7th graders in one of the alternative schools.
Obviously, that was a critical moment in history and in my personal
history. Moving to my more recent history in the reproductive rights
movement, I experienced a turning point when I attended a meeting
of the National Black Women's Health Project. They convened their
“Sisters and Allies” meeting in an effort to have women
come together and figure out how to work together across racism
and, in my case, paralyzing white guilt. Loretta was my small group
leader— this was really our first coming to know each other.
She was loving and firm: us white women had to get over ourselves
or get out.
As a long time activist in the reproductive rights movement, I
am all too aware of the costs of racism, and not just in the mainstream.
The Reproductive Rights National Network (R2N2) was bitterly divided
and ultimately destroyed, at least in part over racism. It’s
part of why I feel so strongly that this book contributes something
critical to the deepening people’s understanding.
you learn things through the research and writing of this book that
you hadn’t known before?
Loretta Ross: We learned a lot. Preconceptions were knocked out of the water.
For example, we assumed that organizations would spend time addressing
their relationships to the mainstream organizations. It turned out
that most women of color organizations didn’t care about this.
Some of the book’s authors were surprised about the role
of identity politics for women of color organizations, thinking
it a short-term strategy, a stopgap measure to get into the mainstream.
It’s not, though; it’s a long haul strategy.
We were also surprised about the lack of dealing with homophobia.
Not that the groups were hostile towards lesbians, yet there was
little information or orientation at all. I wasn’t surprised
about the lack of class-consciousness in these organizations. Other
than welfare rights’ groups, educated middle-class women run
Marlene Fried: This
was a tremendous learning experience. We knew very little about
Asian American women’s groups, Native American women’s
groups and Latina women’s groups. We knew the most about African
American women’s groups. I think that the breadth of learning
about these other groups revealed a lot about the nature of oppression,
especially as it relates to the lives of immigrants. It became clear
how reproductive issues keep women from power, from true agency
in their own lives and in their communities. Multi-issue organizing
is essential for women of color, because they are advocating for
so many things, all of which are critical. What I hadn’t understood
was quite how true this is. There’s no laundry list. The necessary
continuum extends to the rights of citizenry. The community women
of color came from and live in is so integrally part of their foundation
for organizing. They are trying to adapt rituals, to work within
the community organizations to get their messages across. They organize
in churches, for example.
Pro-choice and radical white women alike don’t generally
have that kind of connection to their community. They do not say,
as women of color do, “let’s take our lead from our
community.” Women of color activists will organize about issues
their communities care about.
For Native American women, the idea of sovereignty is at the core
of all their work. Again, this is so different from white women,
who do not put themselves into that context, do not share that understanding.
These radically different perspectives offer insight into why some
chasms between white women and women of color and why such chasms
are difficult to bridge; the contexts they organize within are entirely
was it like for four people to co-author a book?
Marlene Fried: We learned how to have four people co-author a book by the end of
the process. We all met a few times near the beginning of the project
and that was fruitful, inspiring. Ideally, we’d have met more
frequently. The continual issue that arose was that our rhythms
weren’t the same. When one person had time, another might
be swamped. It worked best when at least two of us were focused
on the project at the same time. For example, Loretta and I committed
some weekends to the project. She’d be at her house writing
and I’d be at my house writing. I’d write, then I’d
email her the draft. She’d revise the draft and email it back.
Along with the electronic exchanges, we’d talk on the phone
about the work. When we devoted that time in consort like that,
we accomplished a lot. Jael and I did the most extensive rewriting
and it took us a couple of years to really figure out how we best
Everyone brought something
different to the project. Three of us are academics who are also
activists. Loretta is an activist, but not an academic. She never
has time to write in the same way. Even when grant money came in—
we got an Open Society Institute Individual Project Fellowship—
Loretta couldn’t buy her way out of her work the way we could
get ourselves a semester off from teaching because she runs an organization.
As she once said, “It’s me and the three PhDs.”
She wrote less of the text, yet her conceptualizing was essential.
She kept us on track in terms of keeping the agency of women of
color at the forefront of this book. And now that we’re out
promoting the book, she’s the most high profile of us all.
She gets invited to speak at more events, so she brings the book
to more people than the three PhD’s can.
MMO: Do women of color organizations working on reproductive rights
issues work well together?
Loretta Ross: Women of color come together as the universal outsiders, which gives
a sense of unity. At the same time, tensions don’t just disappear.
As women of color we can practice oppression upon one another and
sometimes I think we make a hierarchy of oppressions, trying to
outdo each other to prove which group is the biggest victim.
I’m also struck how many of these organizations are run by
lesbians who remain closeted. These organizations aren’t dealing
with homophobia. It’s telling how hard they think the issue
would be to deal with, because powerful women put themselves on
the line for many issues but keep that one private. And class? No
one deals with class issues.
you speak to the differences between the mainstream reproductive
rights groups run by white women and the women of color groups?Loretta Ross: They aren’t all the same as one another. NOW is a more multi-issue
organization than NARAL is. After the march, all four of the mainstream
organizations— NOW, NARAL, Feminist Majority and Planned Parenthood—
are apparently considering a broadening of their frameworks from
abortion rights to reproductive justice. We’ll see what happens.MMO: The big march
experienced an in-house or in-the-movement struggle before the major
organizing got going. Could you describe what happened?Loretta Ross: Originally,
it was the big four organizations deciding to do a march and they
called it the “March for Freedom of Choice.” Within
these organizations, there were many people protesting the narrow
focus on choice. The four groups came to Sister Song’s conference
in November of 2003. Sister Song is the organization that’s
created a national coalition of women of color groups organizing
on reproductive rights issues. At the conference, Sister Song’s
coalition demanded that the march’s name be changed to demonstrate
a broader commitment to reproductive justice. I don’t want
to have Sister Song or women of color take all the credit because,
as I said, there were people within those organizations arguing
for this too. Two weeks later, the march’s name was changed
to “March for Women’s Lives.” The organizing took
off. Over a million people were there, I’m sure.
MMO: Do you think that
the march’s redefinition of itself from choice to reproductive
justice means that women of color organizations will redefine the
white women’s abortion rights-driven movement?
Marlene Fried: White women have for so long feared the dissolution of abortion
rights, even from within the movement because abortion rights have
become so profoundly compromised. Women of color have the belief
and confidence to create a more holistic picture of reproductive
justice. That’s inspiring. When the Planned Parenthood signs
at the march had the words “reproductive justice” that
was exciting. Those words represent motion. I’m not sure what
will happen, over time.
What’s clear is that many women of color groups are doing
grassroots, in-the-trenches social justice work, such as anti-poverty
work. There’s a tremendous amount to be learned from this
work, which isn’t theoretical. Grassroots organizing like
this is very tangible. We all have to do this work, which focuses
on access. It’s politically important work and it’s
necessary work. To reshape the reproductive rights movement means
that abortion rights activists will have to embrace a wider variety
of issues and to see how those connect to their own.
MMO: Can you speculate
about why feminism has become such a dirty word?
Loretta Ross: I always say, “Don’t flatten women out to their wombs.”
For one thing, this is exactly what the right does by seizing upon
fertile women and ignoring the rest. They make it all about fertility.
Feminism is so inclusive; it takes on all issues. For instance,
how can you talk about anything in America right now and not address
the war in Iraq?
Feminism is stigmatized.
I think that for white women the religious right makes a greater
impact than for women of color, who aren’t so influenced by
the religious right. The
Center for Advancement of Women did a study that showed more
women of color consider themselves feminists than used to while
at the same time white women are more reluctant to call themselves
feminists. When feminism was “The Feminine Mystique,”
it didn’t speak to women of color. Women of color have never
been housewives; women of color have always worked. To hear women
whining about having to work is a symptom of the owning class, nothing
to do with the reality of most women of color’s lives. One
of the major goals of the feminist movement is to make better conditions
for women to be mothers. I always saw it that way. The feminist
movement is talking about that more now, about women and work and
MMO: Can you envision ways a “Mothers’ Movement” might
help the reproductive rights agenda move forward?
Marlene Fried: The issue is that for women of color, their basic right to be mothers
is always undermined. You can point to any number of issues, from
poverty and welfare to sterilization and abortion; the issues aren’t
separable from one another.
Loretta Ross: Women
of color are not only undervalued as mothers, they are at times
ridiculed for being mothers, their motherhood seen as social detriment:
teenage mothers, African American mothers to African American sons.
Marlene Fried: To
create a strong mothers’ movement, you’d have to talk
about class and race, about access— focus on the right to be a mother— and of course, this builds the reproductive
rights agenda right into the organizing. Motherhood is not single
issue or monolithic. Without class and race consciousness, a movement
specifically about mothers can’t go far, I don’t think.
To build such bridges around race and class, the bottom line would
be about access. And there would have to be a strong awareness of
how with class, the experience of mothering changes. Imagine how
amazing those conversations could be, if women crossed those chasms?
I do think there is opportunity, since for years the feminist movement
feared the ways society trashed mothers and didn’t appreciate
the role of mothering enough.
MMO: Loretta, I imagine
that as an activist you get little time to reflect upon your work
or upon the movement, to step back. If writing the book gave you
that perspective, what did you see about the movement?
Loretta Ross: I feel much better about the movement itself, simply by seeing various
groups in the aggregate. It was interesting to look at the common
things that bring people together and the common tools that keep
organizations together. Three other times, women of color organizations
have attempted to form a national reproductive rights coalition.
Sister Song, which I helped to found, is the fourth attempt. So,
by going through the history of those other three coalitions, I
got to look at what went wrong. I hope to use what I learned to
help this one stay together. The experience deepened my commitment
to making Sister Song work.
MMO: How do you remain
hopeful during these times?
Loretta Ross: The
world is definitely terrible everywhere you look. Working in poor
communities keeps me hopeful, though, because poor communities are
always ready to keep trying. It’s like sticking your finger
into the electrical socket of energy. In D.C. where I worked for
twenty years, people are weighed down by cynicism and skepticism;
they act defeated before they even try. Maybe poor people don’t
know enough to be afraid. Maybe, in poor communities there is no
other choice than to keep trying. And in those communities, already
disenfranchised, the vote didn’t matter so much. They didn’t
feel either candidate would really help them.
Having said all of that, I was surprised that another election
was stolen after the 2000 one. I think the so-called opponents to
Bush, like Kerry, have a stake in maintaining the status quo, rather
than challenging the system. It was disheartening that only one
senator stood up and questioned the results.
Marlene Fried: Part of my day job— as director for the Civil Liberties and
Public Policy Program at Hampshire College, which is a program focused
upon reproductive rights education and organizing with students
nationwide— provides me with many reasons to feel hopeful.
First of all, young women and men are taking on active roles within
the reproductive rights movement on campuses where you’d expect
them to be and on campuses where you’d be quite surprised
to find any reproductive rights activism. Each year, we organize
a conference called, “The Fight for Reproductive Freedom.”
Our first year— 1987— about twenty people attended.
These days, over six hundred people participate in the conference—
students, activists, and community people— many traveling
great distances to attend. We bring in local, national and international
speakers. In essence, through speakers, performances, films, workshops
and speak-outs, the breadth of reproductive justice is encompassed.
Each year, we reaffirm how much work is happening not only how much
needs to happen. The other thing about the conference that fuels
my sense of hope is the fact that every year I witness someone being
profoundly moved through the experience of attending the conference,
so much so that that person inevitably becomes an activist, committed
to making reproductive justice life work.
MMO: What message do
you hope people take away from reading the book?
Loretta Ross: I hope this book finally puts to rest the question: where are the
women of color working on reproductive rights? They are not in NOW
or NARAL but they are doing important reproductive rights work.
To find women of color, you have to redefine reproductive rights
past a narrow definition that some Americans have, which is to equate
abortion to all of reproductive rights. Here are some examples of
what I mean. Native American women discovered toxins in breast milk
because their babies were getting sick. Theirs is a language of
sovereignty. The womb needs to be a baby’s first safe environment.
We don’t think of protecting women’s wombs in this country,
at least not that way.
Another Native American group spoke of how the controlling of women’s
fertility is tied to controlling the destiny of their community.
This is always true, but we don’t think about it that way,
necessarily, when speaking about abortion rights. We stop at individuals’
rights. When you talk about the destiny of the community, then you
have to open your eyes to the multi-faceted assault that is taking
place on women’s rights.
throughout history, and across cultures, and in situations of unbelievable
oppression and deprivation, have waged resistance and fought for
better lives for themselves, their families and their communities.
Learning part of that history was inspiring— I’m awed
by the courage, persistence, and vision that we have documented.
mmo : february 2005
Werthan Buttenwieser is a former reproductive rights organizer
turned writer, attempting to raise three fair-minded children in Northampton,