How Black Leaders Formed the Reproductive Justice Movement

Black leaders were critical to the formation of the modern reproductive rights movement. Black History Month provides an opportunity to pause and remember some oft-forgotten leaders who shaped the movement in the years before Roe v. Wade

Florynce ‘Flo’ Kennedy: Abortion as a Civil Right

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy was a lawyer, civil rights and women’s rights advocate. (Bettye Lane / Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute)

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy remains one of the most unfairly forgotten contributors to reproductive politics since the 1960s. Kennedy was an early member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the women’s civil rights organization founded in part to pursue the agenda Black and white feminist lawyers Pauli Murray and Mary Eastwood outlined in their essay, “Jane Crow and the Law” (1965).

Kennedy graduated from Columbia Law School in 1951, disillusioned with a legal mainstream that in her view demanded “an almost mathematical mind, the kind of person who can walk past a pool of blood and think, ‘What a beautiful shade of red.’” 

In 1967, Kennedy attended the first meeting of NOW’s first local chapter New York. She had already, in 1964, published an article calling for the liberalization of state abortion laws. At the same time that she joined NOW, she was helping to organize the first national Black Power Conference. Kennedy proposed that this new women’s rights group ally with Black Power to become a more encompassing movement against oppression. The idea died on the floor of the meeting, as did a proposal to restrict women’s support for the war in Vietnam (which, in Kennedy’s words, made NOW founder Betty Friedan and her close ally Muriel Fox “bonkers”).

When the group discussed abortion, Friedan argued it was better not to take a position, and to let NOW’s national board sort out its approach first. Kennedy joined the overwhelming vote to instead “recommend that the national Board open discussion of abortion as a civil right of women”—from the bottom-up instead of top-down. 

Florynce Kennedy used law as a tool for social change. She was the only Black lawyer on a five-feminist legal team that brought the first-ever federal abortion litigation from the movement for women’s liberation. The case was Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, instigated by white activist and lawyer Nancy Stearns, was the first brought in the name of hundreds of plaintiffs who had been or could become pregnant.

Years before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would become famous for doing the same thing, Kennedy turned NOW’s argument about abortion as a civil right into a formal legal argument, claiming that discrimination on the basis of sex violated the “equal protection” clause of the Constitution. The case was made moot when New York state dramatically liberalized its abortion laws, but the arguments generated for it influenced legal cases across the country including, ultimately, Roe v. Wade out of Texas.  

Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz also became the basis for the first book about abortion from the women’s liberation movement, Abortion Rap, co-authored by Kennedy and another member of the legal team, Diane Schulder. In addition to telling the story of the case, Kennedy and Schulder chronicled the final push for the change in New York’s law, a campaign they supported and that operated in parallel to their efforts in court.

In March 1970, Kennedy and Schulder wrote, New York City for “the first time in many decades” saw “masses of women in the streets on women’s issues,” rallying uptown and downtown in Manhattan, and marching throughout midtown, chanting, “Out of the house! Out of the stores! Up from under, women unite!” 

Just days later, New York legislators repealed their early 19th-century abortion statute and created the most liberal abortion regime in the country, perhaps in the world.  

Dollie Lowther Robinson: Advocating for Anti-Sex Discrimination Laws

Dollie Lowther Robinson, a key NOW ally and supporter of abortion as a civil rights issue, was a labor leader and public administrator. She came to the attention of trade union officials when she led a strike in 1937 of 300 women who made six dollars a day sweating through a 72-hour work week working with her at the Colonial Laundry. She co-founded, with novelist Ann Petry, a group called Negro Women Incorporated. During World War II, she was an advisor to the NAACP and to the renowned Black labor leader A. Philip Randolph.  

In 1967, Lowther was one of the few women, and even fewer Black women, delegates to attend a constitutional convention that met to rewrite New York state’s basic law. She introduced a resolution that would make sex discrimination an explicit part of the state constitution.

As part of that commitment to sex-based civil rights, Robinson added language announcing that “the right to terminate a pregnancy under medical supervision” would henceforth be a “civil right of every female person.” 

The abortion provision did not make it past debate on the floor of the convention; neither did proposed language from the Catholic hierarchy for fetal constitutional rights. But thanks to Robinson and the lobbying of NOW members at a grassroots level, a proscription against sex discrimination, along with discrimination on the basis of “race, color, creed, religion, national origin, age … or physical or mental handicap,” was part of the proposed state constitution submitted for voters’ approval or disapproval in Nov. 1967. They disapproved.  

Percy Sutton: Liberalizing Abortion Laws

Percy Sutton, then-Manhattan Borough president, announces he is running for mayor of New York in January 1977. (Bettmann Archives / Getty Images)

Not all of the Black advocates for abortion rights in the years before Roe v. Wade were women. Among the most important leaders on this issue in the middle 1960s was Percy Sutton, a local and state politician, attorney, and businessman. In a brief career in the New York State Assembly, Sutton introduced that body’s first abortion-law liberalization bill in over a hundred years, in 1965. 

To support his legislative effort, Sutton published a remarkable series of articles in the Harlem newspaper. With national Black readership, Amsterdam News concluded that “[h]umiliation, agony and the risk of death, do not deter New York women from abortions”—and that almost no one he interviewed who had had an abortion regretted their choice.  

Sutton’s bill made him a leader in the national movement to reform the laws. Although the draft law failed in New York, versions of it passed two years later in Colorado and California, providing an opening wedge for finally changing 19th century laws that had previously seemed intractable.

When Sutton left the legislature to succeed Constance Baker Motley, who had just been named the first Black female federal judge, as Manhattan Borough president, his white allies in the reformist wing of the Democratic Party picked up the baton and introduced their own series of bills to reform the state abortion laws.  

Remembering Black Contributions to the Reproductive Rights Movement

We may never know the full extent of Black participation in the pre-Roe movement for reproductive rights. One of the most intriguing moments in Kennedy and Schulder’s account of the Abramowicz case comes in their telling of the story of how people were chosen to give depositions for the judges’ consideration. Those who were willing to go on the record about their abortions “would come to Flo Kennedy’s place” for interviews, and among those who came was Kennedy’s friend Florence Rice, leader of the Harlem Consumer Education Council. Rice had had two illegal abortions, one of which had led to an infection and hospitalization.

Kennedy and Schulder decided not to take a formal deposition from Rice because they worried that a public admission of her abortion would lead to Rice losing the job at which she made her living, as a cleaner for wealthy white people. Rice herself, however, was comfortable enough with these risks to speak at the largest of the Manhattan rallies for abortion rights in March 1970. 

In 2023, the reproductive rights movement has an opportunity to two critical forms of repair work at the same time. We must account for our predecessors’ lapses of judgment, empathy and political imagination that let them leave people out and say and do racist things—and we must account for racism when it comes up in the movement today. At the same time, let’s honor the memories of the Black leaders on whose shoulders the movement continues to stand.

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Dr. Felicia Kornbluh is a professor of history and of gender, sexuality and women's studies at the University of Vermont Burlington and the author of several books, including A WOMAN'S LIFE IS A HUMAN LIFE: My Mother, Her Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice, now available in paperback. (Grove Atlantic, January 2024), available for purchase now; Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective, with G. Mink (2018); and The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America (2007). Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @VTFeminist.