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.