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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

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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.

How a march for “choice” became the “March for Women's Lives”

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