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Motherhood and Reproductive Justice
An interview with Loretta Ross and Marlene Gerber Fried

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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.


Women of Color and Their Struggle for Reproductive Justice
An excerpt from the introduction to Undivided Rights from South End Press

For more information about Undivided Rights, contact www.southendpress.org or find it through your local or on-line bookseller.

For more information about “The Fight for Reproductive Freedom” conference, April 1-3, 2005 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, contact: clpp.hampshire.edu. Registration is free; you can register for the conference on-line by emailing clpp@hampshire.edu or call 413/559-5416.

The National Center for Human Rights Education: www.nchre.org

Also of interest:

Is motherhood a class privilege in America?
MMO interview with historian Rickie Solinger, author of Beggars and Choosers

Motherhood in Black
MMO interviews Cecelie Berry, editor of
Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood

Poverty and the politics of care
America abandoned the War on Poverty. Now we’re waging a War on Welfare, and on the mothers who depend on it to support their families. Reviews of Sharon Hays’ Flat Broke With Children and other recent works on women, work and welfare, plus commentary by MMO editor Judith Stadtman Tucker

From Women's eNews: (www.womensenews.org)

Native American Women Snap Up Health Book
16 Feb 04. Feature on the work of Charon Asetoyer, executive director of the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center.

Women of Color Pressing Reproductive Health Agenda
26 Jun 01. Report on the first public meeting of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Initiative.

Women of Color Take Lead in Pro-Choice Rally
22 Apr 04. A report on the DC March for Women's Lives. “The leadership role of the women of color has pushed the focus of the rally beyond a defense of a women's legal right to terminate a pregnancy and created a call for a broader range of goals, such as better and broader access to day care and child care.”

Interest in Campus Reproductive Rights Conference Soars
4 Jan 2003. Report on the 17th Hampshire College Conference on Reproductive Freedom.

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