Excerpted from Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology, “Hip-Hop Feminism at the Political Crossroads: Organizing for Reproductive Justice and Beyond”
During discussions with other women of color about reproductive rights, sometimes I am confronted by a sista who insists that women of color have not been actively involved in the contemporary women’s movement or the reproductive rights movement, much less have been leaders in these movements. That is simply not true. Although the media may have promoted a select group of prominent white women as the faces of American feminism and reproductive rights, African American, Latina, Asian American and Native American women have a long history of being tireless advocates for abortion and reproductive freedom. It is a little known and under-documented history.
In 1969, for instance, flamboyant lawyer and activist Florynce “Flo” Kennedy was part of a team of lawyers retained by the Women’s Health Collective and 350 female plaintiffs to repeal New York State’s abortion law. That court case was a precursor to the 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the United States. Many of the earlier black feminist organizations, such as the National Black Feminist Organization and the Third World Women’s Alliance, advocated for abortion and reproductive rights. The late Shirley Chisholm was a strong advocate for abortion rights and was an early president of NARAL (then called the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America.) She argued,
To label family planning and legal abortion programs as ‘genocide’ is male rhetoric for male ears. It falls flat to female listeners, and to thoughtful male ones. Women know, and do so many men, that two or three children who are wanted, prepared for, reared among love and stability, and educated to the limit of their ability will mean more for the future of the black and brown races from which they come than any number of neglected, hungry, ill-housed, and ill-clothed youngsters. Pride in one’s race, as well as simple humanity, supports this view. (Chisholm 1995, p.391)
From the 1980s to the present, women of color have continued this activist legacy in reproductive rights and justice. In the late 1980s, a group of thirty-five prominent African-American women, including political activists and members of Congress, issued the statement “We Remember.” The statement connected reproductive health with other issues such as economic and social justice issues:
We understand why African American women risked their lives then, and why they seek safe legal abortion now. It’s been a matter of survival. Hunger and homelessness. Inadequate housing and income to properly provide for themselves and their children. Family instability. Rape. Incest. Abuse. Too young, too old, too sick, too tired. Emotional, physical, mental, economic, social – the reason for not carrying a pregnancy to term are endless and varied, personal, urgent and private. And for all these pressing reasons, African American women once again will be among the first forced to risk their lives if abortion is made illegal (African American Women Are for Reproductive Freedom 1999, p. 39)
This re-articulation is in light of the U.S. government’s ugly history of determining who can and cannot be mothers, who has the right to bear and raise children, through coercive policies. In the past, the federal government had sterilization campaigns targeting African America, Puerto Rican, Mexican American and Native American women. Today it uses more insidious ways of accomplishing the same end, such as family cap policies in the “reformed” welfare system in which mothers may lose benefits if the number of children they bear exceeds the limit set by state governments. Thanks to the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which banned federal funding of abortions, most state Medicaid programs will not cover abortions, and women who serve in our nation’s armed forces cannot obtain abortions on military bases or through the military’s health plan. Women in federal prisons and most state prisons don’t have access to abortions as well.
The problem has been that the mainstream reproductive rights movement has not paid that much attention to these and other related issues. Out of their frustration with this, women of color activists are busy building our own movement. [...]
Drawing from human rights and social justice principles, women of color activists have re-defined “reproductive rights” into what they now call “reproductive justice.” Reproductive justice is not just about the individualistic right to have an abortion (i.e., the right not to have children) but to include the right to have children and to raise them in healthy and stable families. Accordingly, these activists have broadened reproductive rights and freedom beyond abortion rights, the rights to privacy and “choice” which are normally associated with the movement. In sum, reproductive justice encompasses many other issues such as economic justice, immigration rights, housing rights, and access to health care.
—Kimala Price, “Hip-Hop Feminism at the Political Crossroads: Organizing for Reproductive Justice and Beyond”, pp. 399 – 401
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