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Recent Opinion Pieces

Race, Class, and Women's Bodies: Historical Legacies

Originally published on 12/8/2014 on Telesur

The human body never stands free of social and historical power relations. Long after many assume that history is past, it lives on, and it leaves its marks on bodies.

Two young women, feeling pride in their university graduation and happiness with their babies. The woman on the left received so much condemnation for indecency, so much hate mail and even threats, that she removed the photo; the woman on the right was flooded with mail lauding her as a beauty, a Madonna. This classic U.S. racism continues to affect the struggle for reproductive justice today.

When effective contraception became available toward the beginning of the 20th century, a combination of legal and economic inequality created a class double standard in access. Modern contraceptives like pessaries and diaphragms were first available in European socialist and labor-union health clinics, and wealthy Americans traveling to Europe smuggled them in to the U.S., where birth control was illegal.

Soon private doctors found it profitable to outfit their prosperous patients with contraceptives and learned that they could violate the anti-birth-control statutes with impunity. Working-class and rural Americans had no such access. Socialist Party member Margaret Sanger, commonly considered the founder of the modern birth-control movement, came to the issue through her work around 1910 as a visiting nurse. She attended the immigrant poor in New York City, where mothers begged her for abortions and, occasionally, for the “preventives” that they had heard rumored. Soon Sanger and other Leftists, with their class analysis of inequality, sparked a birth-control movement that spread rapidly between 1914 and 1920. But the same problems that hamper progressive social change today held them back: religious zealotry, hostility to women’s rights from both Left and Right, lack of electoral democracy. (This movement was operating at a time when all women, 95% of African American men, and a high proportion of immigrant men were disfranchised.)

Sanger looked for support anywhere she could get it, and she saw two potential allies: physicians and eugenists. The physicians helped on condition that they retain control of birth control, which had not previously been considered a medical issue. Keep in mind that it does not require medical training to fit a woman with a vaginal diaphragm; anyone could learn to do this with a few hours of training, and no matter what you do wrong, a diaphragm can’t injure you. Besides, it is a mass-produced item, and could have been made available as a low-price over-the-counter item, like condoms, which were available, legal and cheap. Instead, the medicalization of contraception worked to prevent access to the poor, and that in turn further strengthened American inequality.

Equally damaging was the alliance with eugenics. This pseudo-science of human breeding represented consensus thinking in the early 20th century, even though it rested on what we now know to be faulty genetics. In the 1920s eugenics was a required course in many US universities. American intellectuals preached that people of color and Catholic and Jewish immigrants were genetically inferior; one of my favorite examples of this thinking was the common view at the time that the Chinese and Japanese were incapable of becoming educated. Eugenists saw in the birth-control movement an opportunity to reduce the numbers of these subordinated groups, while Sanger and her allies hoped that eugenists’ support would help the birth-control cause. In the end, that support did little to help her cause, especially since eugenics promoted extremely reactionary ideas about women’s autonomy.

But the birth control/eugenics alliance produced at least one extremely negative consequence: fear of birth control among people of color. At the time, this fear was understandable, although progressive African American leaders all supported birth control.

Because I was the historian who first discovered and wrote about this unholy alliance, in my history of birth-control politics, I have been personally hounded by this history. First, in the 1980s, Planned Parenthood advocates denounced me for exposing the birth control alliance with eugenists, because they were defensive of Margaret Sanger. (The longing for heroes who must be perfect is always a problem for historians like myself. Part of the historian’s task is to make it clear that even the greatest heroes have flaws, and cannot escape the limitations of their milieu.) Second, starting in the 1990s, the Christian Right cites my writings to prove that birth control is a “racist plot.” (This is of course hypocrisy, since racism is widespread on the American Right.) Today the Right injects this dishonest message into many poor neighborhoods through large—and expensive—billboards that show images of children with the accompanying text, “The most dangerous place for an African American baby is in the womb.” In Latino neighborhoods the signs read, “El lugar mas peligroso para un latino es el vientre de su madre.”

Eugenists preferred sterilization to contraception because it was permanent and deprived women of the ability to decide for themselves. Well before the Nazis came to power in Germany, American state and federal governments carried out large-scale coercive sterilization of people of color. In the 1920s, some 64,000 allegedly “genetically defective” people were forcibly sterilized. In Puerto Rico between the 1930s and 1970s, one-third of all women were sterilized. This was achieved with some sophistry on the part of the Catholic hierarchy there who continued to oppose contraception but approved of sterilization. Sterilization twisted the class double standard: middle-class white women who wanted sterilization could not get it until they had given birth to the “correct” number of children; while poor women, especially African Americans and American Indians, were being coercively sterilized, often asked to sign permissions while in labor, or as a condition of keeping their welfare payments or their jobs.

In the 1970s the women's liberation movement fought this class and race injustice. The socialist-feminist wing of that movement understood not only that the poor often had difficulty obtaining contraception, but also that the ability to give birth and raise children in health and security was itself a class privilege. A coalition of socialist feminists--including the National Black Feminist Organization, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, the Young Lords, and the National Women’s Health Network--formed the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse. It developed a program of reproductive justice that deserves our attention today. Its core principle was that “choice” must include the right to bear as well as not to bear children. More, that the right to have children safely and to be able to keep them in good health is as much a reproductive women right as the freedom to engage in sexual relations without bearing children. As Carol McDonald of Planned Parenthood recently pointed out, reproductive justice must include raising black sons without fearing that they will be shot down by police.

In this ethic we can see not only the influence of the birth-control movement, including the abortion rights movement, but also the influence of the National Welfare Rights Organization, an important 1960s women’s-movement group. Led primarily by black mothers, their campaigns rested on the assumption that child-raising is a human right and that the work of child-raising is socially necessary labor that should be honored and supported.

This is the ethic that we need if we are to mitigate the inequality imbedded in today’s reproductive health situation. If reproductive choice is to be a right rather than an elite privilege, it has to be seen as part of an overall program of undoing racism and mitigating inequality.