Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Reproductive freedom and abortion rights were NOT won in the courts, they were won in the streets.  They weren't won by using nice sounding moderate language, they were won by shouting the truth, clearly, plainly, in a way that could not be misunderstood.  I know this.  I was around.  I supported and was taught more  than a few lessons by the women's liberation movement of the 60s and 70s.  It was a time of radicalism and revolution and the movement for women's liberation was a true part of all that.  The courts showed up because they had no choice but to do so.  Women weren't on the defense, they were the offense.  Somewhere along the line too many grew too content, too many forgot or never knew a time before 1971, too many take too much for granted.  I am not lecturing women.  I am lecturing all of us.  Let the moderate women's rights proponents go about their business in the legislatures, in congress, and in the courts.  Fine, no problem.  However, we must get back to where WE came from.  The battle for reproductive rights, for the true liberation of women will be won or lost in the streets...not in a courtroom, not on Facebook, not with a bunch of tweets.  It is time, as Stop Patriarchy writes, "... to wage fierce cultural and political resistance to wake others up, and to celebrate, fight for, and win the full equality and liberation of women."

The current right wing, reactionary onslaught on women in general and abortion and reproductive rights in particular must be met, turned back, and crushed.  Again from Stop Patriarchy:

Fetuses are not babies. Women are not incubators. Abortion is not murder. 

Women are not objects. Women are not things to be used for the sexual pleasure of men NOR are they breeders of children. WOMEN ARE HUMAN BEINGS CAPABLE OF FULL EQUALITY IN EVERY REALM!

Socialist World Net. reminded us ten years ago (and I will quote at some length),

Women made the right to abortion a central demand of their movement because they understood that women could never be equal with men without control over their reproductive lives.

... Nothing inspired the birth of the women’s movement more than the anti-Vietnam War movement and especially the civil rights movement. African Americans’ determination to achieve equality through actions such as the famous sit-in at a Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter had a contagious effect. Women became radicalized as they participated in mass protests...

Young radical women formed women’s liberation groups in 1967, which spread to over 40 cities by 1969, organizing one of the most liberating activities of the new movement, consciousness-raising. The terms “liberation” and “consciousness-raising” were inspired by the black and colonial liberation movements as well as socialist ideas.

Consciousness-raising groups came together to question unequal gender roles and to talk frankly about sexual issues which had long been hidden causes for shame and embarrassment, turning depression into anger and building self-confidence and strength together. They also debated issues and strategies to focus their movement around and how to eradicate sexism and overthrow capitalism.

These younger radicals considered NOW’s emphasis on courtroom tactics too stodgy and conservative. Instead, they organized large demonstrations in the streets and took direct action to confront instances of sexism, making far-reaching demands for changing society with the intention of raising other women’s consciousness, confidence, and expectations. Anything that degraded women became a target for protest.

The victories of the women’s movement, such as Roe v. Wade, were not handed down by enlightened judges or politicians from either party, but were won in spite of them. Women had to fight hard for these gains by building their own independent mass movement and large-scale protests.

Women also multiplied the power of their movement by linking their struggles together with other social movements. The women’s movement would never have won the right to abortion if it had not been for the millions of others who protested against racism, the Vietnam War, and low wages and benefits...

The victories of the women’s movement prove that radical social change is completely possible. In spite of the politicians, courts, corporations, media, educational system, and FBI all being stacked against the women’s movement, a small minority of determined women were able to build a mass movement that won to their side the majority of ordinary Americans – the same working-class people who are so often dismissed as hopelessly conservative and consumeristic.

The explosive growth of the women’s liberation movement disproves the idea put forward by many liberals – then and now – that change only happens gradually, step-by-step...

 The liberal strategy of lobbying politicians for only gradual changes and the partial reform of abortion laws dominated the early years of the women’s movement. But as the movement grew and learned through experience, the radical and socialist wings of the movement rapidly gained support. The “realistic, practical” liberal strategy was quickly discarded as it became apparent that it was anything but practical, and the “extreme” socialist strategy of mass struggle and demanding the full legalization of abortion was adopted. 

We can learn from the younger, militant women’s insistence on calling for radical changes, such as free abortion on demand, free childcare and equal pay for equal work, as opposed to the pragmatic outlook of today’s women’s leaders who continually preach “moderation” and “realism.” The radicals’ bold, unapologetic case for abortion rights raised the confidence of millions of women and changed the terms of public debate. This stands in stark contract to the increasingly apologetic, timid defense of abortion by today’s leaders of NOW and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Although the movement did not succeed in achieving free abortion on demand, subsequent events have confirmed how correct the socialist feminists were to argue for it. The experience of the past 30 years since Roe has demonstrated beyond a doubt that the legal right to an abortion is not enough if abortion services are not also accessible and affordable.

The religious right has seized on this by focusing its strategy on rolling back access to abortion services in order to make them more and more difficult to obtain. The lesson is clear – as we re-build the women’s movement, we need to defend the right to an abortion but also explain that real choice means free and accessible abortion.

The experience of the past 30 years shows that reforms won under capitalism will always be temporary and partial. The ruling class can be forced to make certain concessions (such as legalizing abortion) under the pressure of mass movements, but as soon as these movements subside, the capitalists will move to claw back the reforms.

We must fight for every reform possible, but clearly reforms are not enough. To secure real reproductive freedom and put an end to sexism, we must overthrow the capitalist system itself.

But there is more to it than even this. As is too often the case, the above analysis and history pretty much leaves out the role of women of color.  We can't do that.

 Michelle Moravec writes in a review that  in her book "Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement,

(Jennifer) Nelson sets out to place women of color in the center of the movement to secure reproductive rights for women in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Nelson's thesis is that women of color were responsible for moving a discourse centered on access to legal abortion to one that more broadly defined reproductive rights to include an end to forced sterilization and the right for all women to bear as many children as they chose. She does a fine job of illustrating how Puerto Rican and African-American women advocating for reproductive rights addressed the controversial issues of population control and racial genocide within their own communities.

Nelson contends, I believe correctly,  the reproductive rights movement was made more inclusive through the efforts of women of color to push white feminists further in their analysis.  Moravec adds:

Nelson begins her study with an overview of The Redstockings, a New-York based radical feminist group formed in 1969, which she uses to represent "white" feminism. Because the Redstockings's analysis of patriarchy led them to conclude that the root of women's oppression lay in lack of control of their bodies, much of their early agenda focused on legalizing abortion. Freedom from unwanted pregnancies, the Redstockings reasoned, would free women from sexist roles and allow women to participate more fully in the sexual revolution. This exclusive focus on abortion would have profound implications for both the emerging reproductive rights movement and the increasingly popular women's liberation movement, as Nelson makes clear in subsequent chapters.

 Nelson's second and third chapters explore the controversial charge that birth control and abortion were tools of genocide against the black community. She argues that these debates must be understood within the larger discussion that occurred about the black family in the 1960s and 1970s. Nelson shows how African-American women attempted, with varying degrees of success, to push nationalist groups, such as the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam, towards a more feminist reproductive rights agenda. She details their critique of a black masculinity dependent on controlling women's fertility and limiting women's economic and political role. This analysis draws on both organized black feminists--the Black Women's Group of Mount Vernon, the Black Women's Liberation Committee of SNCC which became the more inclusive Third World Women's Alliance, the National Black Feminist Organization, and the Combahee River Collective--and prominent black feminist theorists such as Cellestine Ware and Toni Cade Bambara, and women within black nationalist groups, including Angela Davis.

In 1970, the Third World Women's Alliance wrote:

It is women who must decide whether they wish to have children or not. Women must have the right to control their own bodies. And this means that we must also speak out against forced sterilization and against compelling welfare mothers to accept contraceptive methods against their will. There is now a women's liberation movement growing in the United States. By and large, Black women have not played a prominent role in this movement. This is due to the fact that many Black women have not yet developed a feminist consciousness. Black women see their problem mainly as one of national oppression. The middle class mentality of some white women's liberation seem to be irrelevant to Black women's needs. For instance, at the November 1969 Congress to Unite Women in New York, some of the participants did not want to take a stand against the school tracking system fearing that "good" students thrown in with "bad" ones would cause the "brilliant" students to leave school, thus lowering the standards. One white woman had the gall to mention to me that she felt women living in Scarsdale were more oppressed then Third World women trapped in the ghetto! There was also little attempt to deal with the problems of poor women, for example the fact that women in Scarsdale exploit Black women as domestics.

The movement must take a clearer stand against the horrendous conditions in which poor women are forced to work. Some women in the movement are in favor of eliminating the state protective laws for women. However, poor women who are forced to work in sweatshops, factories and laundries need those laws on the books. Not only must the State protective laws for women remain on the books, but we must see that they are enforced and made even stronger.

Women in the women's liberation movement assert that they are tired of being slaves to their husbands. confined to the household performing menial tasks. While the Black woman can sympathize with this view, she does not feel that breaking her ass every day from nine to five is any form of liberation. She has always had to work. Before the Emancipation Proclamation she worked in the fields of the plantation, as Malcolm X would say, "from can't see in the morning until can't see at night."

And what is liberation under this system? Never owning what you produce, you are forced to become a mere commodity on the labor market. Workers are never secure, and their length of employment is subject to the ups and downs in the economy. Women's liberation must relate to these problems. What is hampering it now is not the fact that it is still composed of mainly white middle class women, Rather it is the failure to engage in enough of the type of actions that would draw in and link up with the masses of women not yet in the movement., including working and Third World women. Issues such as daycare, support for the striking telephone workers, support for the laws which improve working conditions for women, and the campaign to free Joan Bird are a step in the right direction. I don't feel, however, that white women sitting around a room, browbeating one another for their "racism," saying, "I'm a racist, I'm a racist," as some women have done, is doing a damn thing for the Black woman. What is needed is action.

Women's Liberation must not isolate itself from the masses of women or the Third World community. At the same time, white women cannot speak for Black women. Black women must speak for themselves. The Black Women's Alliance has been formed in New York to begin to do this. We felt there was a need for a revolutionary Black women's movement that spoke to the oppression of Black women as Blacks, as workers, as women. We are involved in reading, discussion, consciousness raising and taking action. We feel that Black women will have a difficult time relating to the more bitter anti male sentiment in the women's liberation movement, fearing that it will be a device to keep Black men and women fighting among themselves and diverting their energies from the real enemy.

Many Black women realize it will take both men and women to wage an effective struggle. However, this does not negate the necessity of women building our own movement because we must build our struggle now and continue it after the revolution if we are to achieve real emancipation.

When the Third World woman begins to recognize the depth of her oppression, she will move to form alliances with all revolutionary forces available and settle for nothing less than complete destruction of this racist, capitalist, male-dominated system.

 As Redstockings, the  radical feminist group mentioned above, said in its 1969 Manifesto, “Men have controlled all political, economic and cultural institutions. They have used their power to keep women in an inferior position. All men receive economic, sexual, and psychological benefits from male supremacy. All men have oppressed women."

Well, many battles have been fought.  Many battles have been won.  However, all of the above are still true and that means many more battles must be waged.  Moreover, more than the above is true. It is not just patriarchy that needs to be abolished.  It is global capital as well.  What we are really fighting is a form of global patriarchal capitalism and white supremacy.

It isn't 1970 anymore.  What was was, what will be is up to us.  

Okay, when I started this rant, I intended it to be an introduction to something about the anniversary of Roe V. Wade.  That isn't going to happen it seems.  The hodge podge I have thrown together will have to suffice.  I have no article that really fits with it.

All I really wanted to say to begin with  I said in the first paragraph, long ago, and I will repeat here so it isn't totally lost:

"The battle for reproductive rights, for the true liberation of women will be won or lost in the streets...not in a courtroom, not on Facebook, not with a bunch of tweets."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a great article/rant/blog or whatever. The quotes are terrific. So much of the thinking of Fran Beal and the Third World Women's Alliance has been "lost" in that it is not well known. I do think that Redstockings gets a bad rap, however, since one of their principles (in the Redstockings Manifesto" speaks to the fact that no woman can be free until the most downtrodden woman is free. Hardly the sentiment of a group that only identifies with the 'white middle class'. Also, they were socialists themselves. But I fault the author of the book for this, not the BlogSpot ranter. Couldn't agree more that the battle for abortion rights will be won or lost in the streets!