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Motherhood and the Quest for Reproductive Justice

An interview with Loretta Ross and Marlene Gerber Fried,
co-authors of "Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice"

Interview by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

February 2005

The stated goal of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice (South End Press, 2004) is to make voices seldom heard louder. Although “accounts of the reproductive rights struggle in the US have typically focused on efforts to attain and defend the legal right to abortion, efforts led predominantly by white women,” the co-authors’ contend that many women of color are already organizing for their rights, but their work is virtually unknown. They argue that these stories, which receive scant attention from the media or mainstream feminist organizations, need to be better known because they offer both inspiration and insight into the potential transformation of the reproductive rights’ movement. Not dispassionate observers, co-authors Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried, Loretta Ross and Elena Gutierrez teamed up as activists who share relationships and history as organizers. They assert that advocates for reproductive justice have pushed far beyond less comprehensive visions of reproductive rights or reproductive health. The reproductive justice movement arises from a long history of oppression and resistance beginning before legal battles for contraception and abortion took place. The underlying tenet of reproductive justice relies upon an appreciation that women of color negotiate their reproductive lives within a system that perpetuates interlocking oppressions, rendering a narrow concept like “choice” pathetically inadequate. The definitions included in a full vision of reproductive justice described in this book aren’t the authors’ creations: they looked to a wide range of women of color reproductive rights’ organizations. At the core of reproductive justice lies an understanding that, in a society where so many oppressions fall upon women of color, the ability to become mothers is not granted equally to all women, and is not a given for all women.

A quick glance at the authors’ bios exemplifies the breadth of their organizing experiences: international reproductive rights and women’s health, civil rights, women’s liberation, anti-war, abortion, black Nationalism, black women’s health, HIV/AIDS, and access to women’s health care, among other issues. MMO spoke with Loretta Ross, who is currently founder and executive director of the National Center for Human Rights Education as well as being co-founder of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, and also serves on the board of SisterLove, a women’s HIV/AIDS organization. She was co-director of the April 2004 Washington DC March for Women’s Lives. Marlene Gerber Fried works with student activists as director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College, where she is also a professor of philosophy. In addition, she is founding president of the National Network of Abortion Funds, a co-founder and board member of the Abortion Access Project, and serves on the international board of the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights.

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.

MMO: Marlene, 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.

MMO: Did 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 activist organizations.

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 different.

MMO: What 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 worked together.

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.

MMO: Can 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 family.

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.

Marlene Fried: Women 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

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a former reproductive rights organizer turned writer, attempting to raise three fair-minded children in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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