Her Rights Matter Because Her Life Matters: A Radical Feminist Analysis of Reproductive Rights Rhetoric (Speech)

9th Annual Alabama Communication Association Conference
University of Montevallo
July 27, 2019


In Memory of Fannie Lou Hamer

My grandmother told me that woman’s history. Her mistress had that day seen her baby for the first time, and in the lineaments of its fair face she saw a likeness to her husband. She turned the bondwoman and her child out of doors, and forbade her ever to return. The slave went to her master, and told him what had happened. He promised to talk with her mistress, and make it all right. The next day she and her baby were sold to a Georgia trader.
Harriet Jacobs, (XXIII. Still in Prison) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

On the rather unpopular subject of abortion, we hear so many voices presenting us with theories of violated fetal personhood and fantasies of looming racial genocide. Tragically, however, the abstractness of these debates removes focus from the lived realities of the least privileged, most vulnerable women who do need accessible and available, safe, legal abortion.

Looking at American history and the intertwined horrors of racism and sexism experienced by Black slave women shows us gynocide that actually happened, already, in the United States of America. Subject to the force of her master, the Black slave woman held no civil and legal right to her own body, much less to her bodily autonomy, as the state forced her to reproduce against her will, whether the white man or the Black man impregnated her.

As revealed in the work of Andrea Dworkin and Dr. Angela Y. Davis, rape coincided with the emphasis upon the Black female slave’s sex [I]. An article of property by law, she, as a Black female, existed as a commodity, usable at the slaveholder’s convenience and disposable if he deemed necessary. Her reproductive capacity as somebody born into a female body in sexist society defined her gendered social role, fitting her to her condition as a breeder. White supremacist society and culture deprived the Black slave woman of being seen as a mother, in the socially accepted sense, while, at the same time, her children inherited their slave status as a function of her preexisting enslavement, despite the freedom or slavery of the father. Marked by her femaleness, never seen as fully human by the male supremacist standard, the female body mattered in the condition of the Black slave woman.

Picture the slaveholding South of the nineteenth century, with its public and private markets in the profitable business of racially marking bodies based upon “gradations of color” that denote “the greater or less predominance of negro blood” and selling the human flesh of man, woman, and child [II]. Now, picture, too, the Black slave woman, made subject to all those of the white race, whether male or female, and to all those of the male sex, whether white or Black. Let us begin with an examination of what it means, truly, for a woman to lack control over her own reproductive destiny, as made so painfully clear in the life of the Black slave woman subjected to racial and sexual violence of all kinds.

Black women resisted, as we know by available historical accounts. They did not wallow in victimhood; they lived strong, courageous, defiant lives, in spite of the horrors around them, and they fought back. These Black women drew their strength not from abstract ideas about female empowerment and motherhood worship, but rather from their concrete lived experiences under chattel slavery. As Davis wrote, “Some, like Margaret Garner, went so far as to kill their children than witness their growth to adulthood under the brutal circumstances of slavery” [III]. To spare her child the agony of living under the conditions of slavery, the Black slave mother would, in some cases, kill her own beloved child in mercy to reduce the suffering that would only multiply tenfold in such an existence defined by the poverty of equality, freedom, and justice under the American slaveocracy. In Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written under the pseudonym Linda Brent, she even thought to herself about how she would prefer her own daughter’s merciful death than to see her suffer. “When I lay down beside my child, I felt how much easier it would be to see her die than to see her master beat her about, as I daily saw him beat other little ones,” Jacobs wrote [IV]

Frederick Law Olmsted, a traveler to the American South, recorded the following Alabama execution in his 1856 book A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, with Remarks on Their Economy:

A negress was hung this year in Alabama, for the murder of her child. At her trial, she confessed her guilt. She said her owner was the father of the child, and that her mistress knew it, and treated it so cruelly in consequence, that she had killed it to save it from further suffering, and also to remove a provocation to her own ill-treatment. [V]

Mercifully, a Black slave woman killed her child, for this poor babe, innocent and unknowing, entered the world against the mother’s will after having been conceived in rape. Like so many of his kind, the white male slaveholder who fathered the child would not treat either the Black slave woman, legally his property, or the misfortunate offspring, also legally his property, with the love so cruelly denied to these human beings. 

Abuse met with only more abuse, as the white mistress, the slaveholder’s wife, blamed the Black slave woman for what the white male slaveholder did to her. Upon the back of the Black slave woman fell his rape of her and his forced impregnation of her followed by her child’s unwanted birth into the earthly damnation of the Southern slaveocracy. Because the white male slaveholder owned both her and her child as his legal property, the Black slave woman mercifully killing her child “to save it from further suffering,” and also to help improve her treatment by the white mistress, functioned as a crime against the slaveholder’s property. Her offense resulted in the death penalty by hanging.

In 1961, at the age of forty-four, the civil rights activist and women’s rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer underwent surgery in Mississippi to remove a tumor, what seemed as if it would be a simple surgical procedure. Without Hamer’s consent, the white doctor subjected her to a hysterectomy, a commonplace phenomenon across the South as part of the coerced sterilization of Black females to decrease the amount of impoverished Black people living in the state of Mississippi and elsewhere.

Following Hamer’s death, in a profile of her life as an activist, published in the now defunct American radical feminist periodical off our backs, Chris Lundberg referred to the surgical assault upon Black female bodies on the operating table as “white control of black reproduction” [VI]. While we should recognize Hamer as an agent of social change, daring and defying in her hatred of oppression, we must also remember the absence of choices made available to her as a working-class Black female.

When Hamer went to see for herself, in the archives of South Carolina, she discovered the history of Black women having been kept in a state of imposed ignorance, prevented from reading and writing, while also being reduced to their sex. She said in 1971:

When I think about the crime that’s been committed against us, as human beings and as people, I can forgive easy for a lot of things, but when white America taken my name, that was a crime. I went sometime ago to Charleston, South Carolina, and I looked at the documents there and some of the documents there would say—would call the name of the person and said, “She doesn’t have any education, but she’s a good breeder: twenty-five dollars.” I saw where my people had been sold as things and not human beings. [VII]

She doesn’t have any education, but she’s a good breeder: twenty-five dollars, the record tells us, as Hamer, a Black woman, saw it before her own eyes printed upon the page. With this investigation, she found the Black woman seen as “a good breeder,” not as a human being of value beyond her use in producing more slaves to work for slaveholders. To force any woman to give birth, to treat her as a breeder lacking the same value as a male, negates that woman’s humanity.

In 1980, Gloria Steinem provided an effective rebuttal to the argument put forth, predominately by right-wing groups, that access to safe, legal abortion could be compared to population control, even to racial genocide, characteristic of eugenics programs: 

As it turned out, most of the black community rejected this genocide argument based on its source if nothing else: overwhelmingly white, rightwing groups that also opposed most integration and civil rights efforts. If some black women were having a disproportionate number of abortions, as the anti-abortion groups often cited as proof of “genocide,” it was because they had less access to contraception. In fact, the white birthrate declined proportionately as much as the black birthrate after contraception and abortion became legal, and it remains lower than that for black Americans. More important, a very disproportionate number of the women whose health and lives are saved by safe, legal abortion are black. [VIII] 

Recall the aforementioned case of the Black slave woman sentenced to death in Alabama for mercifully killing her new-born babe, as recounted by Olmsted in 1856. Marked as Black, she represented the woman reduced to her sex, although deemed racially inferior, still valuable in reproducing more usable slaves for the aims of the American slaveocracy. Of a parallel case in Nazi Germany, Gloria Steinem told us: “Under Hitler, choosing abortion became sabotage—a crime punishable by imprisonment and hard labor for the woman and a possible death penalty for the abortionist. It was an act of the individual against the state […] [IX].” This woman marked as Aryan, also, represents the woman reduced to her sex, although deemed racially superior, still valuable in reproducing more usable bodies, specifically male ones, for the aims of the Nazi German state. In both cases, neither woman owned her own body; the patriarchal state, whether American slaveocracy or Nazi Germany, possessed not only her body but also anything—and anyone—her body produced. Whether seen as racially superior or racially inferior, the person born female found herself imprisoned in her sexed condition.

Dr. Idrissa N. Snider, a Black scholar and mother from Alabama, wrote a recent piece titled “The Meaning of Pro-Life” in which she defined her own position as a pro-life woman while, at the same time, posing disagreement with state sanctions used to force women into reproducing against their wills:

I am pro-life, yet I still find it problematic to legally force my personal views upon others, particularly when I know economic disenfranchisement and systemic racism await too many black children once they are born. These issues plague the quality of life for black children every day in our state. If our political leaders are concerned with morality and ethics, they should be advocating as strongly for the children who are here now—yet fighting to be heard and valued. [X]

With critical thinking and compassion, Snider demonstrates for us that one can be personally pro-life while politically pro-choice, recognizing the complexity of women’s collective lived experiences, including the sexual and economic circumstances under which the poorest, most vulnerable women become pregnant. As the Black feminist bell hooks wrote:

Losing ground on the issue of legal, safe, inexpensive abortion means that women lose ground on all reproductive issues. The anti-choice movement is fundamentally anti-feminist. While it is possible for women to individually choose never to have an abortion, allegiance to feminist politics means that they still are pro-choice, that they support the right of females who need abortions to choose whether or not to have them. [XI]

To understand the variation of circumstances across the female demographic resulting in the need for abortion is not to say that all women should undergo abortions or that motherhood is wrong; it means a basic understanding that safe, legal, inexpensive abortion should be made accessible and available, not hindered by the intervention of the patriarchal state. Black and brown women of all ages disproportionately suffer, too, from the lack of attention our state legislators give to maternal and infant care, as seen in the rejected legislation in Alabama that would, more than just emphasize birth, ensure a better start to life for the born child.

All women need access to safe, legal abortion, but Black women tend to need these services in particular, given that they find themselves denied necessary access to affordable and available contraception. No woman, including a Black woman in desperate economic circumstances, should be forced into pregnancy and then forced to bear a child simply because the particular social conditions around her impacted her ability as an individual to pay for birth control.

To impose compulsory pregnancy and forced motherhood upon the Black woman is to uphold the legacy of the white male slaveholder who, as we saw in the nineteenth century, coerced the Black woman into producing offspring against her will. A value for human life, truly, would mean a value for the life of the female most vulnerable sexually and economically. It would mean seeing that the patriarchal state should not seize control over a woman’s means of reproduction, as it has done for thousands of years. One, then, would see that her rights matter because her life matters.


[I.] See Andrea Dworkin, “Our Blood: The Slavery of Women in Amerika,” Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics (1976) (New York: Perigee Books, 1981). See also Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race, and Class (1981) (New York: Vintage Books, 1983).

[II.] Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, with remarks on their Economy (New York: Dix & Edwards, 1856) p. 583.

[III.] Davis, Women, Race, and Class, p. 29.

[IV.] Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), ed. Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), p. 71.

[V.] Olmsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, with remarks on their Economy, pp. 601-602.

[VI.] Chris Lundberg, “Fannie Lou Hamer,” off our backs, Vol. VII, No. 3 (April 1977), p. 6.

[VII.] Fannie Lou Hamer, “Until I Am Free, You Are Not Free Either,” Speech Delivered at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, January 1971, in The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2011), p. 124.

[VIII.] Gloria Steinem, “If Hitler Were Alive, Whose Side Would He Be On?,” Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (New York: Picador, 1995), p. 334.

[IX.] Ibid., p. 338.

[X.] Idrissa N. Snider, “The Meaning of Pro-Life,” AL.com (May 17, 2019).

[XI.] bell hooks, Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000), p. 29.

Categories Women’s Studies and Feminist Theory
%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close