This essay contains extensive discussion of reproductive violence and some mention of sexual violence.
North Carolina has more living victims of forced or coerced sterilization than any other state in the U.S. There are around 7,600 known cases that were performed through a government-run eugenics program that culminated in 1974. A task force convened in 2011 to determine how the thousands of people who were forcibly sterilized by the state would be granted monetary reparations. Their preliminary report to the Governor includes testimony from victims given at the hearing, some of whom were teens or preteens at the time of their sterilization.
“Now I don’t know if North Carolina wants to hear this or not but this is North Carolina’s holocaust. We need a wall. We need a library,” said Australia Clay. Her testimony was one of the many transcribed in the report. She spoke up for her mother, who was forced into a mental institution by her husband after a nervous breakdown due to domestic abuse and postpartum depression. He received fifty dollars for committing her. It was in this institution where she was sterilized against her will and held for twelve years.
The eugenics movement was mass-scale reproductive violence, built upon white supremacy, racism, classism, xenophobia, and ableism. Nationwide, an estimated 60,000 men, women, and children were sterilized; determined to be “unfit” due to their race, ability, and/or low socioeconomic standing. Latinx, Native American, and Black people were among those most heavily targeted by this horrific movement and the practice has continued into this century. There are likely many, many more cases that were never properly recorded.
Eugenics brought about a long history of forcibly sterilizing marginalized populations in the U.S., an epidemic which has been largely ignored and, in some instances, even been encouraged by white feminism. Even now, the rhetoric surrounding reproductive rights is far too often remiss in addressing what amends for people of color, the poor, and the disabled might look like. Instead, the language of “pro-choice vs. pro-life/pro-birth” continues to be at the center, often failing to contextualize race and other factors. The movement often even neglects to address the many other uses for birth control besides contraception, such as treatment for reproductive disorders and other health concerns. Pro-choice rhetoric is so loud that it nearly drowns out anything else, and the movement as a whole continues to ignore how the history of white feminism and reproductive rights is rooted in white supremacist interests.
Reproductive rights is a subject that is central to the politics of white feminism because it is the second most prominent fight that it has historically engaged with, the first being voting rights for white women. It has always been understood as advocacy for the right to birth control and access to safe, legal abortion options as part of one’s ability to plan pregnancies and families on one’s own terms. In short, for able-bodied and able-minded white people, it has been primarily about the right to not be pregnant.
Considering the historical context of eugenics, scientific racism, and certain state-sanctioned violences, reproductive justice for non-whites would largely be quite the opposite. For many, it would instead be the ability to bear and nurture one’s own children without government interference or barriers created through white supremacy and systemic oppression.
In the dominant social conversation about reproductive rights, issues specific to people of color are often omitted or simply glanced over. This is why the term Reproductive justice was coined by a group of Black women in 1994, to specifically address the needs and concerns of people of color that are routinely left out of the conversation. The Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective known as SisterSong defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” Black women and other people of color creating our own terminology is so necessary because white feminism has a reputation for ignoring oppressions until cis white women become affected by them, and reproductive violences are no exception.
The popularity of and discourse surrounding The Handmaid’s Tale is indicative of this neglect. Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the Hulu television series and its subject matter resonate with those who work to combat rape culture and support bodily, sexual, and reproductive autonomy. The systematic sexual and reproductive violences on the show terrify those who view the story as a future dystopian (im)possibility for whiteness, when it is in fact a historical ghost for Black people who were enslaved.
Distinguished by their red robes and white bonnets, Handmaids are forced into slavery, repeatedly violated, impregnated, and made to give birth to children that are immediately taken to serve the interests of others. Essentially, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts cis white women stripped of the ability to bear and nurture one’s own children without government interference or barriers created through white supremacy and systemic oppression. This is a position that they have never seen themselves depicted in and it terrifies them.
As the current emblem for white feminism, these robes have become the new “Pink Pussy hats” in The Handmaid’s Protests; using costuming from the show in order to perform demonstrations against politicians who seek to enact laws against reproductive rights by allowing employers to fire anyone who uses birth control and lobbying to defund Planned Parenthood while also wanting to prevent the use of federal tax credits to buy insurance plans that would cover abortion services.
The costumed protesters gather and walk solemnly towards their destination, often in total silence. Other demonstrators shout loudly and use bullhorns, holding up signs with variations of “The Handmaid’s Tale is not and instruction manual.” True. It’s not. It’s a mirror. And what people see when they look at it is more revealing of their politics than they realize.
White feminists identify so strongly with The Handmaid’s Tale because it is a show about white women in slavery. They see clear connections between its horrors and the current state of U.S. politics. They see it as an omen. As a call to action. And now they cosplay it in order to protest government involvement in reproductive rights and “women’s bodies.” Within the dominant pro-choice rhetoric of The Handmaid’s Protest and beyond, the language of keeping the government out of “women’s bodies” is not only cisnormative, but it also fails to acknowledge the fact that this same government has already been routinely intruding upon and committing reproductive violences against people of color, the poor, and the disabled for centuries, and has even done so in the very same vein of The Handmaid’s Tale.
People of color have been disregarded in the deployment of the The Handmaid’s Tale, just as we have been in its celebration, and even in its critique. But this is nothing new. White feminism seems to always be at the expense of people of color. Indeed, the obsession with the show and the insensitivity of The Handmaid’s Protest reflects the shallowness of the reproductive rights movement as a whole.
Eugenics, white supremacist ideology, reproductive rights, and white feminism are all historically and intricately connected. When the Ku Klux Klan founded a chapter for women, it grew quickly and boasted nearly half a million members at its peak in the early 1900s. Women joined the white supremacist group in droves. Their passions lay in preserving the “eternal supremacy” of the white race through anti-immigration, anti-miscegenation, and racial segregation laws in order to ward off the “rising tide of color,” which they viewed as detrimental to the welfare of the nation and “the American way.”
In Women of the Klan: Race and Gender in the 1920s, Kathleen M. Blee writes:
“For thousands of native-born white Protestant women… the Klan’s appeal [was] not based purely on racism and nativism… The political efforts of a women’s order, the Klan claimed, could safeguard women’s suffrage and expand women’s other legal rights while working to preserve white Protestant supremacy.”
Eugenics and the KKK had the same objective, to maintain the perceived supremacy of whiteness by suppressing the prosperity and growth of people of color, and their popularity grew alongside each other in the early 1900s. Both involved heinous violences, and the Women’s KKK committed some of the most unspeakable acts for the organization in the name of white supremacy.
To recruit members, the collective pulled from groups of white women who had been active in the suffrage movement, which is cited as the birth of white feminism. Suffragette and white feminist icons Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were both unrepentant white supremacists, as were many of their followers, as well as the majority of the other movement leaders.
Margaret Sanger, one of the founders of the mainstream reproductive rights movement and champion for Planned Parenthood, has long been accused of advocating for Black genocide. Several people have come to her defense, instead highlighting her ableist comments about the “over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” In 1921, she even penned an essay entitled “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda.” Her feminism went hand in hand with eugenics, and regardless of her alleged opposition to racial containment, eugenics is still a tool of white supremacy. Reproductive rights and the pro-choice movement have long had a white supremacy problem.
In the second chapter of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, Dorothy Roberts details the reproductive histories of Black people in the U.S. “The Dark Side of Birth Control” is an unflinching look at the ways in which birth control has been used as a way to prevent the births of Black children.
“For privileged white women in America, birth control has been an emblem of reproductive liberty. Organizations such as Planned Parenthood have long championed birth control as the key to women’s liberation from compulsory motherhood and gender stereotypes. But the movement to expand women’s reproductive options was marked by racism from its very inception in the early part of this century. The spread of contraceptives to American women hinged partly on its appeal to eugenics bent on curtailing the birthrates of the ‘unfit,’ including Negroes. For several decades, peaking in the 1970s, government-sponsored family planning programs not only encouraged Black women to use birth control but also coerced them into being sterilized. While slave masters forced Black women to bear children for profit, more recent policies have sought to reduce Black women’s fertility. Both share a common theme — that Black women’s childbearing should be regulated to achieve social objectives.”
This reproductive regulation towards social objectives is exactly what is explored in The Handmaid’s Tale, but it does so by placing white women at the center and as victims of the violence. This is why white feminism is so taken with the show and has created such a spectacle to protest the government and its proposed reproductive regulations — a government that has always been involved in the reproductive choices of people of color via forced sterilization, as well as sexual and reproductive abuses.
White feminism’s reproductive rights discourse has failed to address many issues that disproportionately impact people of color: The racial gap in infant mortality rates due to socioeconomic injustice. The poisoned water impacting the health of mostly poor Black children in Flint, MI and other cities affected by environmental racism, effectively killing them. People of color are more likely to die during childbirth or fail to carry pregnancies to full term due to substandard care from racially biased physicians. People of color have less access to sex education and contraceptives due to chronic poverty and the racial wealth gap, which is a direct result of U.S. chattel slavery. Police brutality and state violence are absolutely a reproductive violence issues, addressed by Black Lives Matter. Black parents should have the right and ability to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.
There are so many forms of reproductive violences which are constantly left out of mainstream discussions about reproductive rights because they do not fit the pro-choice or “women’s bodies” narratives. White feminists marched proudly in “Pink Pussy hats” this year without hesitation to protest Trump, his perpetuation of rape culture, and his intentions to restrict birth control and abortion access because it fit the dominant narrative so well. Make no mistake, the focus on vaginas and uteruses in these marches yet again centers “choice.”
White feminism has tunnel vision, especially when it comes to reproductive rights. One demonstration of this narcissism came when Tomi Lahren revealed herself to be pro-choice earlier this year, and was subsequently suspended (and later fired) from her platform on The Blaze network. White feminists and white liberals alike were eager to show solidarity with a white supremacist simply because she expressed support for pro-choice.
“Your statement was so strong, confident, and spunky,” writes Morgan Mickavickz in her apology to Tomi. “I have realized that I should have immense respect for you, despite our differing opinions. Women need to stick together, especially in politics and other male-dominated situations.”
Tomi Lahren is absolutely abhorrent. But at least she is pro-choice.
Reproductive rights is a major point of solidarity among patrons of white feminism because of its distinct place as a part of its history. So much so that it is of no consequence that Tomi Lahren has been and will continue to be anti-Black, Islamophobic, xenophobic, nationalist, imperialist, and misogynistic. It does not seem to matter that she demonstrates all of these and a host of other forms of oppressive behavior and has even helped to incite violence against people of color. As long as she is pro-choice, she is apparently worthy of “respect.”
Tomi Lahren has never expressed any concern about the fact that police brutality is a reproductive violence issue, especially for parents of Black children. Or that withholding of medications, denial of parental rights, impregnation from sexual abuse, and lack of reproductive control regularly occur as part of the Prison Industrial Complex, which disproportionately affects people of color. Or that denying sanctuary for refugees is reproductive violence, as thousands are in immediate need of reproductive health care. Or that sexual and reproductive abuses happen regularly in immigrant detention centers.
But at least she is pro-choice.
The Handmaid’s Tale has created an opportune moment for pro-choice white feminists to convene around reproductive rights and state-sanctioned violences which they view as a dreadful possibility for their immediate future, rather than a past and present reality for people of color. They look at The Handmaid’s Tale and see it as the “instruction manual” from which the government can pull ideas about how to restrict and control the reproduction of white citizens. Others look at the same text and see an account of our past; reminders of the various ways in which this government has systematized the reproduction of people of color for generations.
Watching them descend upon government buildings in their red robes and white hats is a visual reminder of how the underpinnings of pro-choice centered discourse and demonstration is kindred to the motivations of the suffragettes and the Women’s KKK — a focus on whiteness, and specifically on the interests of white women, above all others.
White women in robes are marching in the streets again, and they are still leaving people of color behind. White feminists, regardless of political affiliation, tend to share a similar disposition. Whether on the left or right, that common ground resides within the same house: white supremacy.