Edna Bonhomme on the origins of the reproductive justice movement and its fight for bodily autonomy.
The term “welfare queen” emerged in 1974 with a white woman. Based in Chicago, Mrs Linda Taylor was accused by the Department of Public Aid of allegedly syphoning $154,000 from public funds. Although it began with a white woman, it took on a new life two years later, when Ronald Reagan began his presidential campaign. Vehement against the poor, Reagan told the New York Times that “If you are a slum dweller, you can get an apartment with 11 foot ceilings, with a 20 foot balcony, a swimming pool and gymnasium, laundry room and playroom, and the rent begins at $113.20, and that includes utilities.” Far from the lived experience of most single parents that relied on government assistance to survive, Reagan’s comments were not only out of touch, but scornful. Throughout the 1980s, the “welfare queen” transfigured into an attack on working-class Black mothers. For those unaware of the racial politics of the US, the term might seem neutral or perhaps a mystifying manoeuvre at alleged corruption. But anyone who knows how far right and Christian conservatives operated at this time is well aware not only that the discourse pathologised Black families, but also became a way to divest them from reproductive care.
It is hardly surprising that Black women took matters into their own hands and harnessed their political language to curtail the attack. The imperative was to find the language for their liberation. They found that women disproportionately bore the burden of pregnancy and childcare—and yet society did very little to provide recompense for the labour that they did. Long after Reagan left office and well into the mid-1990s, Black feminists coined the term “reproductive justice,” a term that helped to encapsulate the world they were fighting for: the right to reproduce, or not to reproduce, on their terms. There have been many essays about reproductive justice—what it is and who coined it—and many more people are writing and thinking about the power and significance of the term. The big question for reproductive justice advocates is: how do we achieve bodily autonomy? They sought to answer that question when they raised funds to provide working-class women with access to abortions. They hoped to address this when they advocated for free childcare. Still, they were also profoundly aware of how quality reproductive health care more broadly was denied to cash-poor women, single people, queer people, and Black women. For them, the term became the medium to challenge the vilification they endured from the conservative forces of US society.
Many people have been outraged by the conservative attack on abortion in recent years, and reproductive justice resurfaced in the political zeitgeist, especially as people developed a heightened awareness of how reproduction was not merely a question of abortion access but something more— of how we have sex and the kinship structures that form around us. But the term's origin and how it came about speak more broadly to the gaps and erasures in feminism. After the women’s liberation movement, mainstream feminism—primarily white—failed to articulate an expansive feminism, which would include women of colour and the working class, partly because of the myopic narrative of feminist politics. In her formative text, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedman notes:
“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, and lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question-- 'Is this all?”
When it was published in 1963, due to racial housing segregation and wage discrimination, many Black women were not living in the suburbs, nor did the particularities of this reflection apply to many working-class women, especially those who worked outside the home. While the core of Friedman’s work was significant, to question the assumptions that women would somehow find fulfilment through marriage, more could have been done to not only describe the pervasive dissatisfaction women are expected to have.
HHR, ““Stop Forced Sterilization,” c. Rachael Romero, San Francisco Poster Brigade, 1977,” Georgia State University Library Exhibits, accessed September 20, 2022
This is why class matters and why feminists need to articulate social reproduction's psychological and material aspects. Black feminists sought a term—and subsequently a movement—to make up for second-wave feminism’s failures. They wanted equity on all fronts—subsidised childcare, abortion, contraceptives, and much more. Well before she was part of Sister Song, Loretta Ross—one of the originators of the “reproductive justice” movement, was part of the National anti-Klan Network, which sought to challenge the wholesale violence of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Here, she was able to channel her social justice not just around the people who are targeted by anti-Black racism, but to advocate for emancipatory politics, that is, “We don't just have to write ourselves as victims of this narrative when, in fact, we have a considerable power.”
They were radicals who saw the limits of reformism. Still, they valued that reforms were essential to strengthening their collective position and, ultimately, their ability to craft their narrative in an anti-Black and anti-woman world. To varying degrees, access to an abortion is not just a matter of measure of the number of clinics that are available in one’s community; it is also the recognition that no matter where we live in the world we live in, we should not be burdened by the economic calculations of birthing, or the entangled effects of childrearing. Perhaps the best account of reproductive justice is that its advocates are evolving and expanding their praxis to include transgender, non-binary, and disabled people in the conversation. But embodying reproductive justice is not just about rights withering away; it’s expanding the possibilities of desire and sex and acknowledging that sexuality is more than reproduction.
“There is no such thing as a single issue”, Audre Lorde once remarked, “because we do not live single-issue lives.” It will take time to fully grasp the multi-faceted lives we’re living at this moment, far beyond one identity or even one movement. As we analyse what we’re being denied and how we’re amid a rightward shift in politics, it would help to re-imagine an expansive reproductive justice, one that provides complete and unrestricted access to the technological resources that provide us with full bodily autonomy. In the meantime, I turn to Dorothy Roberts, who argued that whether or not someone decides to have a child, they should have “dignity in safe, healthy, and supportive environments.”But more than acknowledging the positive aspects of reproductive rights, it would help to implement – on a global scale – universal access to healthcare and paid parental leave. This would best be rendered through a politics of solidarity that assumes the full distribution of resources, not the alleged corruption or demonisation of parents. More than anything, this would be a brave new world that the founders of reproductive justice wanted, or as Jennifer Nash evinced in the Boston Review, “Black mothers do not only come into view as political parables of pathology or resilience. I want space for the Black ordinary.”