Affirming the Autonomy of Indigenous Women

November is National American Indian Heritage Month. As we celebrate the positive sides of Indigenous Nations’ histories, we must acknowledge that the U.S. government has both robbed Native Americans of their land and, through the policies of the Indian Health Service division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, made it difficult for Indigenous people to access quality health care.

Indian Health Service (IHS) was established in 1955 with the stated goal of improving the health care of Native Americans living on reservations. However, Indigenous women who came into IHS clinics for something as common as vaccinations were often sterilized without their consent. During the 1960s and 1970s, 25 to 50 percent of women who visited IHS clinics (approximately 3,406 women) were sterilized without their knowledge. Methods of sterilization included partial or full hysterectomies, and tubal ligations.


Bodily autonomy is about having the power to decide for oneself whether and when to bear children.


The IHS had a clear objective: population control (aka “genocide”). Census data collected during the 1970s showed that Native Americans had birthrates that were much higher than white communities. According to census data, the average American Indian woman had 3.79 children, while white women had 1.79 children. The 1980 census revealed that the average birthrate for white women was 2.14, while the birthrate for Indigenous women was 1.99. You don’t have to be a math whiz to see that this is a drastic contrast.

Myla Vicenti Carpio, a professor of American Indian studies at Arizona State University, explains: Continue reading

The Racial and Reproductive Justice of Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall, 1967. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration

On January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as America’s 45th president, almost half a million people descended on Washington, D.C., in what the Washington Post called “likely the largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history.” The Women’s March was held to protest the election of a highly unpopular president, who had been exposed in the months leading up to the election as someone who insulted the appearance and intelligence of women, boasted of his aggressive sexual advances toward others, and vowed to nominate a Supreme Court judge who would roll back women’s access to abortion. In D.C., and at solidarity marches around the nation and the world, people arrived for a massive show of support for women’s rights and reproductive justice.


Thurgood Marshall was a “great champion of intersecting struggles against racism and sexism.”


Actor Chadwick Boseman, who was on the set of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, a movie based on the first black superhero featured in mainstream comics, took a break from filming that morning to tweet, “Shooting Black Panther on a Saturday. But my heart is at the Women’s March.” It was a fitting sentiment for an actor who had also been cast to star in Marshall, the recently released biopic about the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

While Marshall was known foremost for his role in important civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education, as well as for becoming the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice some 50 years ago this month, he was also an influential figure in the history of reproductive justice. While the biopic focuses on his early career, when he handled a 1941 case involving a black defendant facing racially charged allegations and a prejudiced criminal justice system, it was not until more than three decades after that case — and more than five years after his swearing in to the Supreme Court — that Marshall became a fixture in the history of abortion rights in the U.S. Continue reading

After Charlottesville: The Role of Gender-Based Hatred in White Nationalism

Memorial at the site of Heather Heyer’s death. Photo courtesy of Tristan Williams Photography, Charlottesville.

Like many people, I spent the weekend of August 12 and 13 glued to the news coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists had descended with torches and swastikas for a Unite the Right rally, prompted by the community’s moves to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. At home I watched photos and articles fill my Facebook feed. At the recreation center where I work out, I watched network news on the wall-mounted TV.


The synergy between race- and gender-based hatred has deep roots in the United States.


Hostility toward racial diversity was the driving force behind the rally — and it showed in the racial makeup of the crowds of people chanting Nazi slogans like “Sieg heil” and “blood and soil” — but I also noticed a serious lack of gender diversity as photos and videos circulated. Women were few and far between. However much I kept seeing it, though, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I grew up half Asian in a very white community, so seeing the dynamics of race has always come easily to me — and they were taking obvious form in Charlottesville. Having grown up cis-male, though, I don’t always catch the dynamics of gender on the first pass.

Then Monday came, and I was reminded, once again, of how gender played out at the Unite the Right rally. I read news that a white nationalist website, the Daily Stormer, was losing its domain host due to comments it published about the violence in Charlottesville. Continue reading

Looking Back at Loving v. Virginia: The 50th Anniversary of a Landmark Case

Richard and Mildred Loving

Bettmann/Corbis via New York Times

When Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving started dating in the early 1950s, the idea that their relationship could change history could not have seemed more remote. When they decided to marry, Richard knew plenty of other people in Central Point, Virginia, had skirted the same legal barriers that stood in their way. Those Central Pointers had always been able to resume their lives afterward with no controversy or consequence. He and Mildred expected the same for themselves.


Loving v. Virginia upset one of the last strongholds of segregation.


Instead, Mildred and Richard would become the subject of numerous books and articles, a made-for-TV movie, a documentary, and a feature film, as well as the plaintiffs in a landmark Supreme Court case that turns 50 today. Their reluctance and modesty, even as their legal battle took on national significance, were captured in what Richard told LIFE Magazine in 1966: “[We] are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones. We are doing it for us.”

An Illegal Marriage

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter met in 1950, seven miles from Central Point, at a farmhouse where the seven-member Jeter Brothers were staging a bluegrass show. Richard loved listening to bluegrass. That night, however, it was not the performers, but their younger sister, Mildred, who captured his attention. Mildred was a few years his junior and known for being shy and soft-spoken. She thought Richard seemed arrogant at first, but her impression changed as she got to know the kindness he possessed. The two dated for several years, often spending time together at the racetrack, where Richard and two close friends won numerous trophies with a race car they maintained together.

What would have otherwise been a familiar story of romance in rural, 1950s America was complicated by race, at a time when segregation was deeply entrenched. Richard Loving was white, of Irish and English descent, and Mildred Jeter was black, as well as part Cherokee and Rappahannock. For Richard and Mildred, though, Central Point provided an unusually safe space, one that stalled the expectation that their relationship could invite legal troubles. Continue reading

The Roots of Resistance: The Social Justice Context of Sexual Harassment Law

wga_posterEarlier this year, Scandal star Kerry Washington brought sexual harassment into the spotlight with her portrayal of the embattled Anita Hill in HBO’s Confirmation. The movie dramatizes how Hill herself made sexual harassment a topic of high-profile, nationwide debate when she came forward to speak out against Clarence Thomas during his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Hill’s testimony gave resolve to others who had experienced similar treatment in the workplace, ushering in a 40-percent increase in the number of sexual harassment claims filed with state and federal agencies in 1991 and 1992. But as inspiring as her testimony was, Hill stood on the shoulders of brave women before her who confronted sexual harassment and helped advance a body of law that makes workplaces, schools, and other institutions safer spaces. That body of law now protects people against “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission summarizes.


The fight against sexual harassment is closely connected to the long struggle for freedom among African Americans.


The breakthrough cases in sexual harassment law provide a revealing look at the short and surprising history of the battles, both in and out of court, that brought the issue into public consciousness. It is a history that shatters popular perceptions of feminism’s second wave and brings to light an overlooked dimension of another fight for social justice: the Civil Rights Movement.

Two Landmark Legal Decisions

When Mechelle Vinson applied for a job at Capital City Federal Savings in 1974, she was only 19 years old, but she had already had part-time jobs at several businesses around Washington, D.C., including a shoe store and an exercise club. For Vinson, lessons in supporting herself had come early. A strained relationship with her father had led her to drop out of high school and make repeated attempts to run away from home. She got married at “14 or 15,” because, as she recounted later, “I thought if I get married, I don’t have to go through problems with my father.” Continue reading

The Family Revolution and the Egalitarian Tradition in Black History

Sadie T. Alexander

In the interview with Stephanie Coontz featured earlier this month, we discussed the many changes in American households that have occurred in the 50 years since Betty Friedan published her landmark book, The Feminine Mystique. Friedan’s book was a literary catalyst that helped usher in a family revolution, in which the norm of one-earner households was replaced by the norm of the two-earner households we know today; a change that gave many women more equality in their marriages.


A strong egalitarian tradition has long been a part of black history.


What might surprise some readers is that we could have also discussed the many changes that had occurred already, even as Friedan was still writing her manuscript. Among black Americans, much of what Friedan wrote was not prescient, but dated. As Coontz wrote in A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, “Long before Betty Friedan insisted that meaningful work would not only fulfill women as individuals but also strengthen their marriages, many African-American women shared the views of Sadie T. Alexander, an influential political leader in Philadelphia, who argued in 1930 that working for wages gave women the ‘peace and happiness’ essential to a good home life.”

While sorting out the book’s legacy, Coontz wanted to explain what The Feminine Mystique had gotten right and wrong about American families and women’s domestic roles in the 1960s. A particular problem Coontz addressed was how The Feminine Mystique ignored the experiences of black and other minority women — an omission cited by many critics since the book’s publication. A book Coontz found invaluable in addressing that omission was Bart Landry’s Black Working Wives: Pioneers of the American Family Revolution (University of California Press, 2002). Landry did not write his book as a critique of The Feminine Mystique. Rather, it was while looking at historical statistics on wives’ employment that he decided to write in greater detail about an intriguing difference he noticed between black and white wives: “the employment rates of black wives were about ten years ahead of those of white wives.” Continue reading

A Conversation With Faye Wattleton: Part 3, Family Planning and Race

Faye Wattleton (left) with Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson, 1992

Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. She was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ll be sharing her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. This third installment covers questions of racism, especially as aimed at Planned Parenthood and its founder, Margaret Sanger.

Faye Wattleton is clear that women’s autonomy is at the core of the reproductive rights debate. Her philosophy regarding the struggle for reproductive rights, as she said during our interview, “gradually evolved to the conclusion that this is still really about the fundamental right and values that women are held to. That our reproduction is still a proxy for the larger question of our full status as human beings and as citizens.” The question is whether the government will seize the power to make decisions about women’s bodies.


“Racism has a very deep vein in this country and our culture.”


Ms. Wattleton, as the first African American president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was often asked how she could work for an organization founded by Margaret Sanger, a woman who allegedly saw birth control as a tool to eradicate the Negro race, to use the language of Sanger’s time. For example, when Ms. Wattleton debated Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, on the Phil Donahue Show in 1991, he accused her of being a traitor to her race by working for Planned Parenthood: “Margaret Sanger … wanted to eliminate the black community,” Terry said to Ms. Wattleton. “You have been bought.”

Ms. Wattleton responded, “I do not need you to tell me what my choices are about my life and my body because I am a black person. I can make that choice for myself, just as every black woman can make that choice for herself.” Reflecting further on Margaret Sanger during our conversation, Ms. Wattleton added, “I could never understand why Margaret Sanger was hauled out. Maybe she was racist. George Washington had slaves. What am I supposed to do? Give up my American citizenship for that?” Continue reading