Fifteen Minutes of Feminism

Fifteen Minutes of Feminism: Majority Rule #2, Our Bodies Are Respected (with Loretta Ross)


March 23, 2023

With Guests:

  • Loretta Ross. Loretta Ross is an activist, educator, author and co-founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, as well as the co-creator of the theory of reproductive justice. Ross has traveled the world at the invitation of leaders and activists to speak about reproductive justice, and in 2022 she was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant.” She is currently an Associate Professor for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College.

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In this Episode:

This Women’s History Month, we’re wondering: What will it take to achieve a society that prioritizes—and achieves—true equality? Our answers to those questions are the Majority Rules: a series of rules, created by Supermajority, intended to guide us to our ultimate goal of gender equality.

Today, we’re diving into Rule #2, “Our bodies are respected.” In the wake of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, it seems like our rights to our very own bodies are increasingly under attack. In South Carolina, lawmakers are calling for the execution of women who would have abortions. In Texas, five women are suing the state, individuals who wanted to carry pregnancies to term but their lives became at risk and their doctors were unable to help them fearing criminal punishments and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. In one of their cases, the woman was not helped in managing her miscarriage until she was septic and near death.

Given these various challenges and attacks on reproductive freedom, are our bodies respected? And how can we fight to obtain that respect, in this uniquely dangerous moment?

Background reading:


00:00:10 Michele Goodwin: 

Welcome to Fifteen Minutes of Feminism, part of our On the Issues with Michele Goodwin at Ms. Magazine platform. As you know on this show, we’re talking about Fifteen Minutes of Feminism, we count it in our own feminist terms, and we are engaged in a project with Supermajority as they have rolled out the Majority Rules, and for this episode, we delve into rule two, our bodies are respected.

Now in the wake of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, there is chaos all across the United States. In South Carolina there are lawmakers calling for the execution of women who would have abortions. In Texas there are five women who are suing the state, individuals who wanted to carry pregnancies to term but their lives became at risk and their doctors were unable to help them fearing 99-year criminal punishment, 100,000 dollars in fines. In one case a woman was not helped in managing her miscarriage until she was septic and near death.

The cases across the country are alarming and you’ve heard about them on our show before, women bleeding nearly to death in the state of Wisconsin before doctors could intervene, a 10-year-old girl fleeing Ohio to get to Indiana after serial sexual assaults and rapes resulting in her pregnancy. This just scratches the surface of what is happening in the United States even as a federal court judge deliberates about whether to withdraw mifepristone from the market as he’s been petitioned requesting that by a group of anti-abortion petitioners.

Molly Crabapple

And so, given these various challenges and attacks on reproductive freedom, are our bodies respected? Are our bodies safe? Joining me in this episode is the indefatigable, wonderful, amazing Loretta Ross. She’s an activist, educator, author and co-founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, and the co-creator of the theory of reproductive justice.

Loretta Ross has traveled the world at the invitation of leaders and activists to speak about reproductive justice, and in 2022 she received the MacArthur Genius Fellowship grant. She is currently an Associate Professor for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. I couldn’t be more pleased than to have her join us for this episode. 

Loretta, it is always a pleasure for me to have you on the show and to be in conversation with you, and by the way, congratulations on the MacArthur Fellowship. 

00:03:10 Loretta Ross: 

Thank you very much. 

00:03:12 Michele Goodwin: 

It’s wonderful. You know, there are so many of us around the country and around the globe that were just cheering that because it’s saluting you and it’s also saluting the important body of work that you’ve done which has been shape shifting not just for our country but even for the world in terms of how we understand the dignity of women and people with the capacity for pregnancy. 

00:03:39 Loretta Ross: 

Thank you again. It was an honor and totally unexpected, but I’m gratified and grateful. 

00:03:45 Michele Goodwin: 

Thank you. Thank you so much. So we’re discussing today important issues that are part of a project that we are doing at Ms. Magazine and Ms. Studios with Supermajority where we’re really unpacking what it means for women and democracy. So often the concerns of women are held in silos and not seen as matters that are fundamental to the politics of our country, fundamental to democracy, and so I want to start off with asking you about the Dobbs decision because so many people saw it as just a pathway about abortion, that it’s abortion that was being overturned with Roe v. Wade being overturned and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. How did you read the Supreme Court on June 24th, 2022 in the Dobbs decision?

Protests break out across the U.S. after Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade in June 2022. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

00:04:42 Loretta Ross: 

I was disappointed in the Dobbs decision predictably, but I was not surprised. I’ve studied the white supremacist movement for the last 30 years and one of the things they are absolutely obsessed about is controlling the wombs of white women, because nobody who pays attention to racial politics in this country think that the white supremacists who have now taken over the Republican Party believe that they care about birthing more brown or black babies. It’s all about compelling white women, coercing white women through assaults on abortion, sex education, and birth control to have more babies.

So my best advice to those who are angry about the Dobbs decision is to have an intersectional analysis, because it’s not just about gender, it’s about race as well, and until you intersect race and gender you won’t understand the many-headed Hydra that we’re fighting that’s moving us towards authoritarianism and that requires the subordination of women. 

00:05:57 Michele Goodwin: 

Well, in fact, that would seem to connect so directly with the framework of reproductive justice itself. Can you tell listeners a bit about what that means? Because it’s a term that now has been spread like butter in so many spaces and ways, but how should people understand what reproductive justice actually means? 

00:06:23 Loretta Ross: 

Well, reproductive justice is the result of splicing together reproductive rights and social justice, and the twelve black women who created it in 1994, of which I was one, felt that abortion was always isolated from the social justice issues in which people make their reproductive decisions. If they have good healthcare or job security or housing security or education security, that’s going to probably turn an unplanned pregnancy into a wanted pregnancy. But if they have bad answers to those social justice questions, they may even turn a planned pregnancy into an abortion, and so we offered a critique as black women that one has to go far upstream to understand people’s reproductive decision making and not just focus on the pregnancy, because you have to pay attention to what was going on in the person’s life before the pregnancy. 

And so reproductive justice was created in response to this dilemma to talk about the right not to have a child, joining us with the pro-choice movement in supporting abortion and birth control and abstinence, but because we were black women who created this framework and had to always respond to strategies of population control and the criminalization of our pregnancies and our wombs, that we had to fight equally hard for the right to have the children that we want to have and to control the conditions under which we have these children, which of course has spawned another movement called birth justice, the right to use midwives and doulas or refuse an unnecessary C-section or something like that. 

And neither the pro-choice nor the pro-life movement pays sufficient attention to what happens to the children once they’re born, and so that’s the third tenet of reproductive justice, the right to raise our children in safe and healthy environments, and this brings us into conversation with both biological and non-biological issues like tax policies or gun violence or environmental problems like climate change or whether or not children have healthcare, those kinds of things. 

And then ten years after we created the first framework in 1994, the LGBTQ movement within my organization SisterSong at that time started adding a fourth tenant, which is the right to bodily autonomy, gender identity, sexual pleasure, which is a more inclusive way of talking to and including people who are not planning to reproduce but should have the same human rights to control their bodies. 

00:09:24 Michele Goodwin: 

So what you’re talking about too are fundamental tenets of human rights too, and it seems to me also the challenges that go back long before 1994, long before Roe v. Wade, to the very foundations of colonialism and slavery in the United States. 

00:09:46 Loretta Ross: 

I’ve always believed that reproductive justice was built on the shoulders of the women who came before us. I mean, from the minute Sojourner Truth said, “Ain’t I a woman,” in both the concept of intersectionality of gender and race. You know, we had Fran Beal talking about double jeopardy and Kimberlé Crenshaw talking about intersectionality and the Combahee River Collective talking about neoliberalism and white supremacy. I mean, we build upon the legacy of our foremothers and try to channel the wisdom of our ancestors. 

So reproductive justice wasn’t so much a new concept but it was a new way of framing preexisting concepts the same way I like to claim that, you know, Newton didn’t invent gravity but the world changed when he named it, and that’s _____ 00:10:39 with reproductive justice. We certainly did not invent reproductive oppression or solely define reproductive resistance, but at the same time it did change the discourse of productive politics moving from the margins to the center. 

00:11:01 Michele Goodwin: 

Well, on that note, it brings to mind comments that you made after Dobbs in the Washington Post including that as a black woman you never put a lot of faith in the Supreme Court being the site of your liberation, and in that same piece you mentioned that, quote, “I think that after the decision there was a lot of hand wringing about what the women’s movement should have done better. They didn’t overturn Dobbs because of what we did. They overturned Dobbs because of who they are.” And you said, “So let’s be clear that this is not the time to cannibalize each other but to remain focused on both providing access to services for the people who most need it and electing politicians who are going to stand up for our rights.”

Tell me about that framing, because do you still think that that is the case, that it’s not helpful to just do what you call the cannibalization post-Dobbs, that the real effort should be the eyes on the prize which is the political landscape? 

00:12:14 Loretta Ross: 

I do not believe in victim blaming. I was the director of a rape crisis center in the 1970s, and I learned the power of victim blaming which lets to actual perpetrators off the hook. And so I’ve always paid close attention to who does what and why, and one of the consequences is to try to devictimize the victims, to either claim they weren’t harmed or claim that the outrage or the human rights violations didn’t even take place, which is what we see happening now. 

Certainly, I do believe that the women’s movement could always do better. We are definitely into perfecting the process of getting more people to understand gender oppression. I think if we had done a lot more work on class we would have had fewer poor white women joining our opposition. I mean, there’s things we could have done better, but at the same time the people who fight to decriminalize abortion aren’t necessarily doing so, particularly the elected officials, because they truly care about the quality of life for children. They’re doing it because it serves to build a political power base. I mean, most of the Republican Party was pro-choice before the Nixon election. 

00:13:39 Michele Goodwin: 

That’s absolutely right. Yeah. I mean, Justice Blackmun on the Supreme Court who wrote the decision in Roe was put on the court by Richard Nixon, and Prescott Bush, the father of George HW Bush, was the treasurer for Planned Parenthood. 

00:13:54 Loretta Ross: 

Planned Parenthood. Exactly. It’s interesting when you look at abortion politics through a racial lens because when abortion and family planning was pitched as a way to control black and brown communities experiencing civil unrest, you had Republicans all supporting it. Yet when it was pitched as a women’s empowerment process of which white women were availing themselves of the services, that’s where they started fomenting opposition to it. Kind of like Martha Ward in her book, Poor Women, Powerful Men, documented how white opposition of family planning became racialized with the beginning of family planning programs across the country. They were okay as long as black and brown women went to them, and really were fiercely dismayed by white women going to them. 

00:14:45 Michele Goodwin: 

You know, it’s so interesting. Yeah. It’s so interesting the way in which you frame that with of course so much accuracy, but I think about that within the context of Dobbs itself, the work that race does in the decision where the Supreme Court compares Plessy v. Ferguson, which introduced separate but equal simply establishing or profoundly establishing a second class citizenship of black people, but the court compares that case to Roe v. Wade, that Roe is a Plessy, right, and such that if you really don’t understand and think this through, right, then you could think about Roe as somehow setting then back black people, but that’s not it, right? I mean, it’s the court contorting itself to tell a kind of racialized narrative that’s inaccurate but that can be incredibly seductive. 

00:15:44 Loretta Ross: 

Well, it’s not only seductive but it can be persuasive by someone who doesn’t actually think this through. I mean, no black woman has ever had an abortion because she’s surprised that her baby’s going to be black. I mean, that just does not happen, and so…

00:16:01 Michele Goodwin: 

Loretta. Loretta. 

00:16:03 Loretta Ross: 

I mean, think about it. Oh, I don’t want to have this black baby even though I’m black. I mean this of course never happened, so you have to use this tortured circular logic that claims that there’s a conspiracy against black people by abortion providers in order to eliminate a race of people. Of course, that denies that black women are intelligent enough to think for ourselves so it’s sexist to have that kind of thinking. 

It seeks to drive a racial wedge into the pro-choice movement, claiming that the only reason that we support women’s human rights is to eliminate black people, which is absolutely crazy. And there’s always more than a tinge of anti-Semitism in there because they want to compare it to the Holocaust and claim that Jewish people run the abortion industry that’s trying to eliminate black people, but they use that same kind of anti-Semitic theory to claim that the civil rights movement would not have been so successful if it hadn’t been for the manipulation of Jewish people. 

And so, when you put it all together in a coherent analysis, you see how they’re grasping at straws to try to make a lucid case for denying women the right to bodily autonomy and self-determination, and they’re trying to use the racial justice claims as a way to bolster what is really a stupid analysis. As I said, no black woman is surprised she’s going to have a black baby. 

00:17:45 Michele Goodwin: 

Sure, and you know, to your point, it’s actually something that Justice Thomas has been pushing and we’ve seen this at the state level too, but you know, this claim that abortion is about black genocide and eugenics, and you know, part of the strangeness of that and the deceptive quality of it and the cynicism of it is that in 1927 when the United States Supreme Court takes up this question of eugenics, it involves a young white girl, Carrie Buck, 16 years old, who’s been raped and has a child out of wedlock, and it’s no mystery in terms of who she is, because the Supreme Court articulates who she is. They say Carrie Buck is a poor, young white girl, right? And so that too, you know, to your point that unless you read and read with some clarity, it’s possible to be hoodwinked behind the way in which these arguments are made that are meant to foment fear and that also do this work of anti-Semitism and do the work of racism as well. 

00:18:56 Loretta Ross: 

Well, Carrie Buck was targeted by a doctor who actually just wanted to get a contract to sterilize women in institution. She was targeted, though, not because she was white, but because she was off white, because eugenics is the obsession with perfecting white people, which is kind of, you know, this racial fiction of racialized people, but part of that fiction is the belief that we can breed better white people and eliminate racial competition from all others, but even then, it has to be the right kind of white, and because Carrie Buck was poor, a rape survivor, had no one to defend her, she was preyed upon by a doctor who simply was seeking contracts to sterilize women in institutions, and he actually victim shopped in order to find and locate Carrie Buck. But the Buck v. Bell decision has not been yet overturned. 

00:20:08 Michele Goodwin: 

No. It hasn’t. You know, that was 1927 and it is yet to be overturned, and of course that case opened the door to eugenics spreading throughout the United States and becoming lawful in nearly three quarters of US states where there were fitter family contests and you could get pinned with the highest award if your family looked the whitest and could prove its purity, and that law, that legal framework led to the course of sterilization of at least 60,000 people in the United States. In movie theaters, the coming attractions were often how many people were sterilized in a given state. That’s just how much the kind of fervor for eugenics spread.

But to the point that you were making, it was about perfecting whiteness, and today what’s interesting is the Supreme Court parading that in abortion discourse as having targeted black people in its early iterations, when in fact it was something very different. It was really about perfecting whiteness amongst white people.

00:21:21 Loretta Ross: 

What we also need to talk about is ableist dimension as well, because the wrong kind of white person is also disabled, and so they also target people with disabilities for that reason. 

But the people who oppose abortion needed a veneer of racial sympathy, I think that’s the word I want to use right now, because they’re so implacably hostile to all racial justice measures, as hostile as they are to feeding children once they’re born or providing them with health care, and so they tend to want to co-op civil rights imagery and language as a way to serve as their racial fig leaf, that we care more about black babies than the mothers of those babies ever will. 

00:22:16 Michele Goodwin: 

That’s a tiny fig leaf, too. 

00:22:18 Loretta Ross: 

It is a tiny one. Well, it needs to be tiny because it has tiny parts, but anyway, I think that we need to make sure that when they put up those billboards claiming that the most dangerous place for a black child is in the womb, we need to make sure that the communities that are being targeted are inoculated against such racist, sexist language, but they also put up a lot of those billboards in the white community where there aren’t any African Americans in any sizable number, and that is to make white communities feel guilty and feel like they’re being called racist if they support reproductive justice, or abortions more specifically, and so we do need to strengthen our movements to inoculate it against this. 

But I want to just take a different tact if you don’t mind me indulging myself. I think that one thing that we have not said enough is opposition to abortion and birth control and evidence-based sex education is actually opposition to women’s sexuality. And I’ve always said that if we took a pro-sex position and went beyond pro-choice to pro-sex, that we probably could broaden our base because more people want to have sex than don’t want to have it, even the ones not having it are thinking about it, you know? And so I’ve always thought that we should broaden our frame and be more directed and specific about what the morality police are actually targeting, which is women’s sexuality. It is not just about fetuses and compelling women to get pregnant, but it’s about not admitting that women have a human right to sex and sexual pleasure. And I think, I’ve always felt that we should be more sex positive. 

00:24:32 Michele Goodwin: 

I think that you’re right. I mean, pro-choice is a very limited framework and the sex positivity that you’re talking about has direct relevance in law, society and culture. You know, when you have a society that is built upon laws that say it’s permissible to rape your wife, laws that make it such that fathers may be waived out of punishment if they rape their daughters, laws that make it such that so long as you beat your wife with something that is no thicker than the width of your thumb, that it’s okay, that all of these things embedded in society and explicitly in laws themselves take away from the dimension of women being able to have any control to govern their sexuality, to be able to govern their bodies, and choice really doesn’t capture that at all. 

But you are absolutely right. This is about, both substantively and then also thinking symbolically about it, the ability to be able to have pleasure, desire, control when and how you want to have sex. 

00:25:43 Loretta Ross: 

And you see so many strictures limiting the sexuality of women under the rubric that men cannot control themselves around women. So it’s about what we wear, how we walk, how we talk, you know, and I’m like, wait a moment, why are we focusing on controlling the victims of the male gaze instead of restricting the male gaze? And so I’ve always thought that we should be the pro-sex movement. 

00:26:17 Michele Goodwin: 

Wow. Well, here it is. You know, I’m so glad that you said that and I’m glad it as part of this episode. But before I let you go, I have one question for you and then the standard question that comes as part of our platform where we’re always asking about a silver lining, but before we get to the silver lining, Supermajority Super Rule asserts that the people most impacted must be at the forefront of the solutions, and when it comes to issues of reproductive justice and autonomy, I’m wondering what you see that as looking like and who should be leading that kind of conversation. 

00:27:00 Loretta Ross: 

I use a much more I guess divergent analysis, because I think it takes every generation, every identity, every way of thinking almost to lead a struggle for power and justice. I mean, when I was at the rape crisis center, yes, the women who had been raped had a voice in what needed to be done to address rape survivors. At the same time, our model for how we want to raise our daughters should be built on people who had never been raped, you know, so that we can envision the world that we wanted, not just the world we had endured, you know, and so I think that…

00:27:47 Michele Goodwin: 

Wisdom and pearls.

00:27:49 Loretta Ross: 

I think that that’s really important. So I don’t necessarily say that the people who’ve been most been harmed are the ones who should have ultimate decision making, or you know, singular decision making. I think it takes all of us, because as a rape survivor myself, I don’t know what it’s like to have a childhood free of childhood sexual abuse. I need people to model for me what that looks like because that’s the world I want to build.

00:28:21 Michele Goodwin: 

Wow. I just want for our listeners to sit with that for a moment because I think that’s taken for granted, right, what it means, like, what’s the aspiration and people who know what it’s like to live in a space where they’ve not encountered horror, terror, and kind of tragedy in their lives, and how we sow and stitch together in common community what can be a future. 

Well, with that, and turn to my last question, but the reality is I could spend a whole lot of time with you, Loretta, a whole, whole lot of time. A whole, whole, whole lot of time. So I ask our guests about a silver lining because so much can be dark, and when we think about the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs, and I appreciate how you mentioned other concerns such as gun violence, climate, so many other issues that were also part of that Supreme Court term, it wasn’t just Dobbs. The day before Dobbs the Supreme Court issuing a decision in the Bruin case striking down a New York law that was about gun control essentially. So in light of all that can be dark, what do you see as a light, as a silver lining going forward? 

00:29:45 Loretta Ross: 

I actually think that the human rights movement has the winning hand. I think that our opponents think that they’re fighting us but I think they’re actually fighting forces way beyond their control because they’re fighting truth, they’re fighting evidence, they’re fighting history, and most of all, they’re fighting time, and I do not believe that these bozos in these suits that are trying to roll us back to the 19th century are strong enough to defeat truth, evidence, history and time, and so we hold the winning hand, though it doesn’t feel like it right now, and my biggest fear is that we’ll snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by turning on each other instead of turning to each other. 

00:30:39 Michele Goodwin: 

Loretta Ross, it has been my pleasure to spend this time with you. Thank you for joining us at Ms. Magazine and Ms. Studios. 

00:30:48 Loretta Ross: 

Thanks for having me.

Michele Goodwin: 

Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of On the Issues with Michele Goodwin at Ms. Magazine. I want to thank each of you for tuning in for the full story and engaging with us. We hope you’ll join us again for our next episode where you know will be reporting, rebelling, and telling it just like it is. 

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This has been your host, Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling, and telling it just like it is. On the Issues with Michele Goodwin is a Ms. Magazine joint production. Michele Goodwin and Kathy Spiller are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal, Oliver Haug, and also Allison Whelan. Our social media content producer is Sophia Panigrahi. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandy Phipps, editing by Wil Alvarez and Natalie Holland, and music by Chris J Lee.