Lady Science: Searching For Racial And Sexual Justice In Reproductive Rights

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This essay is the third in a special 5-part weekly series for Women’s History Month that Women You Should Know is proudly running in partnership with Anna Reser and Leila A. McNeill, the editors of Lady Science, a multifaceted collaborative writing project focused on women in science, technology, and medicine. Their purpose is to highlight women’s lives and contributions to scientific fields, to critique representations of women in history and popular culture, and to provide an accessible and inclusive platform for writing about women on the web.

By Leila A. McNeill – When thinking about the fledgling beginnings of the birth control pill, one probably conjures images of the Women’s Liberation Movement, middle-class housewives of the Betty Friedan variety, and no-nonsense young, single career women. One of the things that these cultural representations probably have in common is their whiteness. Black women did not experience the Pill or reproductive rights in the same way that white women did. Of course they didn’t. Black women were often silenced and shoved to the back of the rally by white women’s libbers. And though black women were certainly housewives too, many black women had out of necessity already been working outside of the home, making significant economic contributions to their families. The jobs that black women did occupy were not typically that of the glamorous and newly sexually-liberated young career woman. Racist hiring practices curtailed black women’s mobility within well-paying careers, and the jobs they took were often low-paying service oriented or labor-intensive. No, these cultural representations do not speak for black women.

In June of 1960, the Pill, Enovid, was officially approved by the FDA and released to the public for contraceptive purposes, whereas previously the Pill could only be legally prescribed for menstrual disorders. That same year the Civil Rights Movement gathered steam with the Greensboro sit-ins in February and the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in April. These two momentous events of 1960, the early rumbling of Women’s Liberation and the Civil Rights Movements, collided in a significant way, and black women fought to be seen and heard in both of these revolutionary social movements. Despite a constant barrage of racism from white feminists and misogyny from the men of the Black liberation movement who tried to control the national dialogue about the Pill, black women show us a more nuanced and complicated relationship with the Pill that reflected their own needs and desires for reproductive control.

Much of the conversation about the Pill and reproductive freedom in the Women’s Liberation Movement centered the concerns of white and mostly middle to upper class women, thus pushing large numbers of American women to the margins of the movement. The reproductive rights mantra said that women should be able to voluntarily decide for themselves when or if they want to have children. But as Jennifer Nelson points out in Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement, there was a big difference between the ideal and the reality of this mantra– middle class white women had the ability to choose when bearing children was most convenient for them, whereas poor black women must ultimately weigh the outcomes of bringing a child into a world where money and resources for black people were scarce. Obtaining legal access to family planning services and abortions was not enough for black women to achieve true reproductive freedom when the pull of poverty that was rooted in institutionalized racism prevented them from making reproductive choices without external pressures. What is reproductive freedom really without access to stable, well-paying jobs, postnatal health care for mother and child, and reliable housing?

Obtaining legal access to family planning services and abortions was not enough for black women to achieve true reproductive freedom when the pull of poverty that was rooted in institutionalized racism prevented them from making reproductive choices without external pressures.

In the fight for racial justice, black women again found themselves marginalized, for many of the men of the Black liberation movement called on black women to reject the Pill and abortion as black genocide. Both black men and women had just cause to be suspicious of any fertility control promoted by white people. Eugenic language utilized by white racists in the medical establishment had long equated social problems with reproduction in socially disadvantaged groups– in this case, black communities. Moreover, eugenic-like practices were being implemented throughout the South in the 60s, 70s, and 80s by government funded doctors through involuntary (coerced and forced) sterilization on hundreds of thousands of black women. These justifiable fears in part informed black men’s insistence that women refrain from the Pill.

To push back against the alleged attempt at black genocide, male leaders in the Black liberation movement insisted that women not only refuse the Pill but encouraged them to reproduce to breed more black bodies for the movement. In other words, they wanted more black men to do the fighting and more women to continue making more men. This idea positioned black women as second class citizens within their own movement and placed them in conflict with their own identities as women and as black Americans.

However, black women wanted to take full part in the fight for racial justice as advocates and activists, not as backseat babymakers. As early as the 1940s, the women of the National Council of Negro Women pushed back against the claims that contraception was black genocide and challenged the inherent misogyny of using women’s reproductive bodies as mere vessels to expand the cause for racial justice. Later in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement, Frances Beal and other prominent black women leaders founded the Black Women’s Liberation Committee in 1968 to address the same issues as the NCNW. The BWLC, later renamed the Third World Women’s Alliance, became an influential voice for the rights of black women.

The contributions of groups like the Third World Women’s Alliance significantly shaped and permanently changed the conversation about the Pill in particular and reproductive freedom in general. The Women’s Liberation Movement often ignored issues of race and class, and Black liberation exploited women’s sex and gender. Denied full participation in both of these movements, the women of the BWLC in response created their own platform that addressed specifically the oppressions of black women: race, gender, and class. Today, we call this intersectionality, and though the term was not coined until 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, the theory of intersectionality had long been a cornerstone of black women’s liberation and had emerged out of a national conversation about reproductive freedom.

In current conversations about family planning and abortion, right wing politicians have resurrected the argument that such services are black genocide, Ben Carson being the worst offender. Claiming that clinics like Planned Parenthood that offer abortions are the number one killer of black people, as Carson has recently done, is not only a complete falsehood but it does damage on multiple fronts. It shifts blame from the systemic racism of culpable American institutions to black women by implying that they are committing genocide against their own race just by controlling their own fertility. This attempt to control the reproductive body thinly veiled as racial justice assumes that black women have no agency over their lives, that they can’t make informed decisions about their own fertility. This is perhaps the greater falsehood, for black women have always taken the lead in advocating for more inclusive reproductive rights and will continue to shape the way we think and talk about the intersection of race, gender, and reproductive justice in this country.

Further Reading:

Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Vintage, 1997).

Frances M. Beal, “Black Women’s Manifesto; Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female”

Imani Gandy, “How False Narratives of Margaret Sanger Are Being Used to Shame Black Women,” RH Reality Check: Reproductive & Sexual Health and Justice, August 2015.


About The Author

Leila A. McNeill is an independent researcher with a focus on women and gender in the history of science. Her previous research has been based on popular medical texts for women, midwifery, and women’s ways of knowing in Imperial Germany. Currently, she is working on literature and science in the 19th century and the gendered separation between public and elite science. She holds an MA in Literary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas and an MA in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine from the University of Oklahoma. Additionally, Leila also develops and implements curriculum for racial and gender based violence prevention for youth.

Original illustrations (lead and close) by Anna Reser

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