Women of Color and the Body: A Site of Violent Regulation and ControlPosted: November 13, 2010
Historically and into the present we as women have never had full autonomy over our bodies. The disgusting statistics that show that reported rape happens every minute in this country, and three women die every day due to domestic violence, further illustrates this point. The primitive accumulation of capital needed patriarchy and the oppression of women and our bodies in order to be successful. Silvia Federici’s book Caliban and The Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation is an excellent Marxist account of how the early capitalists took away all control and autonomy women had over their bodies by outlawing traditional medical practices and midwifery, and forced reproduction to make sure a labor force was continually being reproduced. This happened in England to English women, who needed to reproduce the proletariat, and to African women through the process of colonization and enslavement. Rape and violence against women, and forcing women into the home to do unpaid reproductive labor was a necessary prerequisite for the exploitative system of Capital to develop. As a working class, woman of color I come from a legacy of slavery and sterilization that is alive and well today with the sexualized violence we experience at the hands of the state, and men in our communities as well as the continual differential treatment we get from health clinics in our communities. Dorothy Roberts book Killing the Black Body provides a lot of good content and history of the reproductive rights movement looking at the history and experiences of Black women from the time of slavery to the present. She writes, “The brutal domination of slave women’s procreation laid the foundation for centuries of reproductive regulation that continues today”(23). Our bodies have always been a site of regulation and control by this system that has often been neglected, and ignored in our social movements. A recent trip to Planned Parenthood has reminded me of this legacy and the struggles we still need to wage for total freedom from capital, and the racist, sexist ways it continues to control our bodies.
Planned Parenthood has always brought up many troubled and contradictory feelings inside me. I haven’t had health insurance most of my life, and have been grateful for the free and low cost health services that Planned Parenthood provides. On the flip, as a working-class half-black woman I have been disgusted by the racist politics of Planned Parenthood stemming from the founder, Margaret Sanger’s eugenicist perspective on Black and Brown women, and the different services offered to Black and Brown women in working-class neighborhoods. When I arrived at the Oakland Planned Parenthood last week, which I must say was the most pleasant Planned Parenthood experience I have ever had and I have been to a few, I was struck by this old black and white photo that had been blown up as a huge poster on the wall. It looked like it was from the 1960′s and it depicted Black women (some old, some young) marching with signs demanding birth control from the county hospital. The signs read “don’t hush up birth control at the county hospital we want it”; “county board says no birth control at County Hospital”; “politicians say no birth control at County Hospital”. The photo warmed my heart to see Black women in the streets demanding control over their bodies and calling out the racist/sexist State (politicians and Hospital Board members) who refuse to give it to them. Once again, I was filled with contradictory feelings, because this photo also reminded me of how the violent exploitation of Black women’s bodies has been so integral in the development of capitalism in this country, and how that has been neglected by social movements and revolutionary struggles that seek to smash such structures and corresponding social relations.
Most historians and radicals understand that the US system of slavery was not solely a racist system, but a racist capitalist system, which was designed to exploit African slave labor for profit. Although slavery and the truths of this system aren’t talked about enough in our capitalist education there are still accounts of the violent horrors of slavery that do get discussed from time to time. What is less talked about and harder to find is the particular experience of the slave woman, who was vulnerable to rape by the slave master and bred like a mule. Harriet Jacob’s rare biography Incidents in the Life Of A Slave Girl offers a glimpse into the violent oppression of slave women. She claims “Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women.” She was harassed and raped by her slave master, although she does not go into too much detail of the experience. The regulation of slave women’s reproductive capacities were incredibly vital to the entire system of slavery, and the profit it extracted from the slaves. Roberts writes,
“Black procreation helped to sustain slavery, giving slave masters an economic incentive to govern Black women’s reproductive lives. Slave women’s childbearing replenished the enslaved labor force: Black women bore children who belonged to the slave owner from the movement of their conception. This feature of slavery made control of reproduction a central aspect of whites’ subjugation of African people in America. It marked Black women from the beginning as objects whose decisions about reproduction should be subject to social regulation rather than to their own will.” (23)
This control and regulation over our bodies did not go away with the abolition of slavery. The rise of racism and the eugenics movement in the beginning of the 20th century opened up new ways for the system to control and exploit our bodies. Now instead of forcing us to reproduce they implemented sterilization to limit our reproduction. Planned Parenthood and Margaret Sanger were advocates of such racist policies, which is why there is such differential treatment in Planned Parenthood’s today. In working-class neighborhoods, where there are a lot of women of color, more evasive and sterilizing birth control is offered in comparison to Planned Parenthood’s in more affluent or white neighborhoods. This reflects the racist legacy of Planned Parenthood, which viewed women of color as too ‘unfit’ for motherhood, and sought to limit their reproductive freedom instead of give them more options and control over their bodies in a patriarchal world that sought to limit that freedom. The struggle for Birth control was such a huge part of the mainstream middle-class contemporary feminist movement, and the largely white middle-class women, who were a part of the movement. This led to the development of the contemporary Black feminist movement. Roberts also touches upon these contemporary issues in her book. She writes,
“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 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 eugenicists bent on curtailing the birthrates of the ‘unfit,’ including Negroes. For several decades, peaking in the 1970’s, 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 childbearing.”
Not that it was solely the racism within the feminist movement that gave birth to black feminism and womanism; black feminists have existed since slavery when slave women were leading rebellions and Sojourner Truth was traveling the country speaking for the abolition of slavery and describing the particular experiences of slave women. However, by the 1960′s women of color grew tired of their experiences being neglected from revolutionary struggles whether it be caused from the patriarchy within the racial struggles at the time, such as the Black power or Chicano movements, or the racism and lack of a class perspective within the women’s movement. Women of color were, and have always had to wage a two or three front war against the system, and within the movements they were a part of. Women of color begin to organize their own groups and collectives that engaged in theoretical and cultural production about their experiences as Black or third world women. The Combahee River Collective is often sited as an example of this work, and who are personally important to me because they were queer, Black, socialist women. A group that is less talked about is the Third World Women’s Alliance (1968-1980), which put out a groundbreaking pamphlet called the Black Women’s Manifesto, which also reflected an anti-capitalist, racist, sexist analysis that was missing from the Black power movement and the women’s movement. It consists of an introduction and 4 writings. What I love about these early women of color feminist groups is that they saw the importance of art and cultural production in the development of their ideas and theories. A lot of women were writers and saw writing as being very important to the empowerment of women of color, and the usage of creative writing, such as poetry and plays was integrated in their political work. In the first piece in Black Women’s Manifesto Eleanor Holmes Norton uses a poem by Black woman poet Gwendolyn Brooks in her analysis. You can find the entire pamphlet online here: http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/wlm/blkmanif/ I would encourage everyone to check it out!
What I think is so powerful about the Third World Women’s Alliance is that they begin with Black women theorizing about their experiences, but they sought to bring together all third world and oppressed women of color, as a way to show real solidarity with the sisters here and also the sisters abroad, who were fighting against imperialism. The Third World Women’s Alliance reflected Black women, Chicana women, Puerto Rican women, Indigenous women, and Asian American Women, who were all involved in different struggles, but came together to form the Third World Women’s Alliance out of a shared commitment to fight against sexism and the oppression of women, which was being neglected in their struggles.
What is unfortunate is that none of these vibrant third world women feminist organizations exist today as revolutionary groups; it is also unfortunate that the brilliance of these women’s collectives never joined forces with the other revolutionary movements that were happening, due to the sexism within them. I believe that if those forces joined together they would have been much stronger in their struggles against the system. Today the left isn’t nearly as strong or active as it was in that time period, but it’s growing as the objective conditions of this economic crisis worsen. Not much has changed since then. People of color, particularly Black people, are still getting murdered by the police; anti-immigrant laws and sentiment are being pushed in our communities while Obama continues to deport more and more immigrants than any other US president; the budget cuts and their attack on education, healthcare and social programs show that they are more than just budget cuts but an attack on working-class people; and women of color’s bodies are still vulnerable to state violence and control. I hope that as we move forward in our struggles that we can learn from the mistakes of history and build a more holistic, revolutionary movement that is dedicated to the liberation of us all.