Justice  /  Retrieval

How Black Feminists Defined Abortion Rights

As liberation movements bloomed, they offered a vision of reproductive justice that was about equality, not just “choice.”

The chasm between middle-class white women’s demands and aspirations and those of poor and working-class women of color began to be addressed by the emergence of Black feminists in the late sixties. These women, who included Toni Cade Bambara, Frances Beal, Alice Walker, and Barbara Smith, argued that real equality could be achieved only by expanding the parameters of what constituted “reproductive justice” to include the entire context within which decisions about having or not having children were made. Organizations like NOW mobilized predominately white women to fight for abortion rights, but they often ignored or minimized the glaring issue of coerced or forced sterilizations, which was critical to women of color. According to a national study conducted by Princeton University in 1970, twenty-one per cent of married Black women had been sterilized. As the legal scholar Dorothy Roberts has observed, “The dominant women’s movement has focussed myopically on abortion rights at the expense of other aspects of reproductive freedom, including the right to bear children, and has misunderstood criticism of coercive birth-control policies.”

For Black feminists, many of whom had become radicalized through their involvement in the civil-rights movement, the persistent racism and sexism that they experienced compelled them to question the totality of American society, not just their place in it. In 1969, Beal penned one of the pioneering documents of Black feminism, a pamphlet titled “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.” Beal wrote, “it is idle dreaming to think of black women simply caring for their homes and children like the middle-class white model. Most black women have to work to help house, feed, and clothe their families. Black women make up a substantial percentage of the black working force and this is true for the poorest black family as well as the so-called ‘middle-class’ family.” This double burden, Beal continued, was ignored by many Black men, who may have seen the “System for what it really is” when it came to their own subjugation but, when it came to women, seemed to be reading “from the pages of the Ladies Home Journal.” This inattention compelled Black women to organize their own groups, set their own agendas, and develop their own strategies—what the Combahee River Collective would later describe as “identity politics.”