Yesterday there were rallies to Unite against the war on women all across the U.S. to protest political attacks on women’s and reproductive rights. I attended and spoke at my local rally and gave some brief remarks on the importance of being intersectional in how we think about and take action to fight attacks on women and reproductive rights. Below is an edited version of the notes I spoke from. Other comments from the same rally: wandering in love and Spectra.
Thank you to the organizers for the opportunity to speak today. It’s great to be here in solidarity with so many inspiring women and allies.
I write about the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in conservative American Christianity, and today I specifically want to talk about how the language and narrative around womanhood on the religious right is racialized in ways that exclude women of color, especially black and brown women, from “real” or “true” womanhood, and how this language informs anti-woman political agendas. And echoing what others have said, I want to connect that to our work as a movement, or as a coalition of movements, in thinking about the stories we tell about women and about reproductive rights, about who those stories privilege or exclude, and what that means for what our activism looks like. What do we mean when we say “unite against the war on women?” What does it mean to unite? What makes up the war? Who do we welcome and stand in solidarity with as fellow women, or people in need of reproductive justice?
A lot of my writing on gender issues in evangelicalism is drawn from personal experience – I spent most of my childhood and young adult years in communities that are basically ground zero for the war on women. When my family moved to the U.S. and joined predominantly white, conservative, evangelical churches, I moved literally overnight from a context where everyone looked like me, to a context where I was conscious of my blackness in a way I never had been before, and increasingly conscious of the implications of my race and gender together, as a black girl, and then as a black woman, in racist and patriarchal white Christian communities.
I grew up hearing a lot about “God’s plan for women,” about what were framed as “traditional” gender roles, and about how our God-given “natural tendencies” towards “femininity” (as they defined it) were corrupted by sin and the influences of secular society. But the older I got, the more I noticed a pretty big discrepancy between everything I was taught about how a “true woman” behaves, what she’s like, who she is, and the assumptions and expectations of people in my churches about how black women behave, what we’re like, who we are.
True women were naturally chaste and confined their sexuality and reproduction within marriage to one man.
Black women were hypersexual, promiscuous, unmarried, and had too many kids by too many men.
True women invested all of their energies in their children, husbands, and homes.
Black women were lazy welfare queens, habitually neglectful or abusive of their children, who were just pawns conceived to milk more money out of the state.
True women desired and submitted to male authority, and particularly to the authority of one man.
Black women were loud, contentious, took the rightful place of men as leaders of households, and refused to be bound to any one man.
In short, black women were everything the romanticized, infantilized, non-threaning image of the “true woman” was not. Black women were not true women, or women at all.
The idea of womanhood I grew up with was one dictated by patriarchal, white, heteronormative, classist Western values. And it’s precisely this framing that informs the anti-woman and anti-reproductive rights political agenda we’re mobilizing against today. The systematic efforts to dismantle programs and attack organizations that working class women of color particularly depend on for reproductive and sexual health care are directly informed by framings of “true womanhood” that by their nature exclude poor women of color. It’s what informs attacks on black women, other women of color, and trans people of color with uteruses, with campaigns that paint Black and Latin@ wombs as “the most dangerous place to be” for Black and Latin@ children – effectively painting Black and Latina women as unnatural or failed women, i.e., not really women at all.
This rhetorical violence against our womanhood and our humanity fuels legislative attacks on us. This is not a coincidence. This is an attack on the womanhood and the humanity of poor women of color in particular. And as many of us know, this is just modern reworking of a very old narrative in which black women and other women of color have been inherently excluded from the privileges and protections of “femininity” – excluded from true womanhood.
So what does all of this mean for our activism? It means that while all women are oppressed by anti-woman political agendas, we are not all equally oppressed, or oppressed in the same way. Where middle class white women have chafed against the limitations of compulsory motherhood and domesticity, women of color, especially poor women of color – have had to fight to have the legitimacy of our motherhood and the sanctity and value of our bodies, homes, and families recognized.
So as we rally today to unite as women and allies against an anti-woman agenda, I want to urge all of us to think about what this means for us as activists and as a movement. Who counts more or less in our understandings of the “war on women?” Who do we privilege or exclude, deliberately or otherwise, by our framings of womanhood, or of reproductive justice? What does it mean for us to unite against a war on women? How we frame our agenda as feminists or women’s rights advocates, what we prioritize or center in our activism, makes a powerful statement about who we recognize as fully women, or fully deserving of reproductive rights and freedom.
“Unite women” has to mean that we are united in solidarity against all of the various attacks on women – not subsuming the entire struggle under the banner of a single cause, privileging certain women over others. “Reproductive justice” has to mean respect for the bodily autonomy, reproductive choice, and right to comprehensive care for all people who need it.
We must fight not only for affordable access to birth control and abortion services, but also against medical misogyny and racism that push more long term and dangerous forms of contraception and even involuntary sterilization on women of color.
We must fight not only for the right to not be pregnant, but also for the right to not be criminalized or suffer domestic or state violence because of pregnancy.
We must fight for birth justice and the right of all pregnant people to prenatal care.
We must fight against anti-worker, anti-family policies that force people to choose between having a wanted child and feeding themselves and the children they may already have.
We must recognize that the war on reproductive health services also harms not only non-trans women, but also transgender men and genderqueer people with uteruses.
We must fight against policies that force transgender people to choose between living and being recognized as the gender they are, and being able to have biological children.
We must fight alongside brown and black mothers and parents for the safety of our children in a violently racist society.
Our activism against the war on women must be intersectional. Our mobilization in defense of reproductive justice must be intersectional. They cannot be just otherwise.
There are many who think this kind of intersectional approach dilutes or confuses the message and makes the movement weaker. I say it makes us stronger when we are all truly in solidarity in face of the various struggles we face. When I know you have my back and you know I have yours, we are stronger.
Yes, there is a war on women. But it’s made of up lots of different and intersecting battles. And we need to take care that the rhetoric we use doesn’t inadvertently subsume all women’s struggle under the banner of one battle, rather than being a rallying cry against misogyny and gender injustice in their myriad forms.
As we rally today, CeCe McDonald, a young, black transgender woman in Minneapolis, is in jail awaiting trial for second degree murder charges. On June 5th of last year, CeCe and a group of her friends – all young black people, many of them queer – were attacked by a group of older white people, with racist, transphobic, and homophobic slurs. After confronting the group over their hate speech, CeCe was physically attacked with a glass, puncturing her cheek and her salivary gland. During the ensuing fight, one of her attackers was fatally stabbed. Despite the fact that she was defending herself and had serious injuries, she was charged with second degree murder, placed in solitary confinement, and denied adequate medical treatment for her injuries.
CeCe is a victim of the war on women, which is particularly brutal to trans women of color. For our activism to be truly just, it must not merely include but center and stand in concrete solidarity with the most vulnerable women, with women like CeCe.
In conclusion I want to leave you with a quote from Audre Lorde’s “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” in which she writes that we must embrace, not ignore, our differences in order for our activism to be effective and just:
As women we must root out internalized patterns of oppression within ourselves if we are to move beyond the most superficial aspects of social change. Now we must recognize differences among women who are our equals, neither inferior nor superior, and devise ways to use each other’s difference to enrich our visions and joint struggles.
I encourage all of us to embrace both the equality and the difference in the various struggles we face, and to be united in concrete solidarity against misogyny and reproductive injustice in whatever form they take.