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Toward reproductive freedom: if women of color can frame reproductive rights as both health and social justice issues, that would be one of the most significant outcomes of the historic March for Women's Lives.

To hear some women tell it, the March for Women's Lives was the largest, most diverse reproductive rights gathering in history. More than a million women and their supporters turned out April 25, 2004 in Washington, D.C., including a strong contingent of the young and a respectable number of women of color. For an event taking place just five months after President Bush signed the ban on so-called "partial birth" abortions, it represented an extraordinary grassroots groundswell in opposition to years of steady attacks on women's reproductive freedoms.

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But beneath the surface of solidarity were long-simmering tensions within the women's movement--tensions between women of color who often feel marginalized and the major pro-choice organizations that have historically viewed reproductive rights through a white, middle-class lens. The story behind the march reveals conflicts that have divided women of diverse backgrounds for as long as women have struggled for their autonomy and freedom. As successful as the mobilization was in bringing women's groups together under one broad theme, those conflicts are far from resolved. However, women of color leaders point to some shifts in reproductive rights politics--shifts that strengthen their campaign for reproductive justice as well as the larger women's movement.

Calling All Women

When Loretta Ross first heard about the march--originally dubbed the "March for Freedom of Choice"--she had no intention of going. As an organizer of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective annual conference and a longtime women's health advocate, she says, "I didn't want our discussion derailed talking about white women again." But there was a buzz about the march, and SisterSong members wanted to consider it. After deliberations at their 2003 conference, the members of SisterSong decided to participate but only if certain conditions were met. "If the focus of the march went beyond abortion, if they included women of color on the steering committee and if they gave money to women of color to organize, then we'd be willing to participate," Ross explains. Representatives from the mainstream pro-choice organizations that initiated the march--the National Organization for Women, NARAL ProChoice America, Planned Parenthood and the Feminist Majority--agreed, and the newly named "March for Women's Lives" was underway.

The name change was critical. "'Choice' is a problematic term in communities of color," says Ross. Faced with a lack of health insurance and health care access; immigration restrictions; and population control policies such as welfare reform "family caps" and sterilization abuse, many women of color health advocates don't see their communities as having choices. "To frame it as a liberal, individualistic choice message doesn't speak to the [lack of] control in communities of color," she notes. Historically, Ross adds, the word "choice" was associated with opposition to federal intrusion on states' rights--a term that harkens back to segregation and a politics of racial division that oppressed people of color.

Also key was the inclusion of two major women of color health organizations on the march steering committee: the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the Black Women's Health Imperative. Before the Latina Institute joined the steering committee, the organization had already strategized how to draw young women as well as women of color to the event, says Executive Director Silvia Henriquez. "Our goal was to bring a more diverse youth presence to the march. Two, was to change the message of the march and be more inclusive." For Latina marchers, the key reproductive health and rights issues include the lack of access to health care, comprehensive services and Spanish-speaking providers. Many Latinas support abortion rights--if not for themselves as individuals, then at least for other women who might want the option. But for them, access to abortion is inseparable from access to prenatal care and contraception, basic rights that are denied to many Latinas who are disproportionately uninsured.

Much the same can be said for African-American women. When asked about the principal reproductive health concerns for black females, Lorraine Cole, president and CEO of the Black Women's Health Imperative, offers a litany. In addition to insurance and access barriers, African-American women are plagued with a surprisingly high rate of infant mortality--one that is comparable to rates in developing countries--as well as high rates of HIV infection and AIDS. Those issues are just as urgent as abortion. And they are connected, Cole explains: "One out of three black women don't have health insurance and that is part of the reason for the high rate of unintended pregnancies and the subsequent need for abortion."

This more holistic view of reproductive rights is what women of color representatives brought to the table as co-leaders and organizers. "For many Latinas, women are very much the center of families and communities, so if they're not healthy, their families suffer and their communities suffer," Henriquez explains. "We make broader connections to social justice movements and connect that with reproductive health care."

Marching to a Different Drum

Once women of color were on board as leaders and participants in the march, its chances for success grew several-fold. Not only did Latinas and Asian, black and indigenous women turn out in the thousands, organizers garnered numerous key endorsements. "We had over 140 women or people of color organizations that endorsed the march," says Ross. That's up from 20 such endorsements prior to the inclusion of women of color in the coalition. (The march was endorsed by some 1,400 groups overall.) Among those supporting organizations was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a group not previously known for championing women's rights. "Getting [NAACP President] Julian Bond on stage ... was historic," Ross says.

Kiran Ahuja, director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAW), agrees that the visibility of women of color was high. Though no Asian/Pacific Islander organization was on the steering committee--a glaring omission considering the high growth rate of the Asian American community in recent years--NAPAW did play a role in getting more than 200 Asian women to Washington. "There was a strong contingent of Asian Pacific women who are pro-choice," says Ahuja. "It was great to see women of color officially represented, the power of women of color." In addition to the women on the ground, NAPAW was instrumental in getting nationally recognized activist Peggy Saika, who co-founded one of the first Asian Pacific American reproductive rights organizations, on stage as a speaker.

But despite the greater presence than in prior marches, women of color describe a number of disappointments. "[There] could've been a much stronger turnout if there had been more support to bring women of color from the beginning," Ahuja explains. Though funding--including more than a quarter million from the mainstream prochoice organizations--was provided to get marchers on buses to Washington, D.C., in the end there were not enough resources to go around. Many Asian women, who are concentrated on the West Coast, could not afford the trip and stayed home. "Not bringing out our California membership was a huge loss," Ahuja says.

The voices of the women of color who did get to the march were also obscured. Though Evelyn Becker, deputy communications director of NARAL, says that the "messages all came together in one big, loud voice," Ross disagrees. Most of the march speakers focused their comments on abortion rights, she says, marginalizing the broader message organizers had fought so hard to bring about. With few exceptions (such as Lynn Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, who railed against prosecutions of drug-addicted pregnant women), "the message was only a mile wide and an inch deep," notes Ross. To add insult to injury, observers felt that women of color speakers were pushed back on the lineup to accommodate the schedule of a celebrity or other VIP. Though the women of color steering committee members were involved in the selection of speakers, Zenaida Mendez, NOW's director of racial diversity programs, admits there were "glitches" along the way. "We felt we did everything possible to make sure that women of color had a voice," Mendez adds. "But when you work in coalition, there's a lot of compromise."

But some compromises, such as settling for only 5,000 "women of color for reproductive justice" signs, left organizers of color cold. Those few signs were drowned out by a sea of signs with the words "choice" and "abortion" on them--many of which ended up being discarded. More importantly, it's not clear whether, beyond the march, white organizers have embraced the notion of reproductive justice. When asked about the issue of language, choice versus justice, Planned Parenthood's President Gloria Feldt says, "that's a piece we're continuing to work on."

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The overall lack of balance in resources, numbers and message was reflected in media coverage of the march. While the New York Times ran a rare story from the perspective of Latina march participants ("Against Abortion but in Favor of Choice," Andrea Elliot, April 26, 2004), most mainstream media stories focused on abortion and the usual spokespeople for the cause. "The media highlighted Planned Parenthood and NARAL a lot more than other organizers," notes Henriquez. So even though women of color leaders were able to win a place at the table and make decisions regarding this historic march, it's clear that they still have to struggle for the power to frame the issues from the perspective of the women who are most threatened by policies that are not only sexist, but classist and racist as well.

Marching Forward

So what do women of color health and reproductive rights organizers want now that the march is behind them? The answer is twofold: they want to pressure the mainstream organizations to expand their agendas and reach; but more importantly, they want to build on the momentum generated by the march for their own broad campaigns. "The march was just the beginning," says Lorraine Cole. "The purpose was to mobilize and energize women to address these issues." To capitalize on the excitement around the march, the BWHI has continued to educate women about reproductive rights issues, and launched a voter awareness and empowerment campaign, "Take Somebody to the Poll Day" (see blackwomenshealth.org). That work is in addition to their on-the-ground campaigns such as the SisterCircle Academy which trains facilitators to run HIV/AIDS prevention programs targeting black women and builds capacity among affiliate groups nationwide.

At a recent Sistersong membership meeting, members once again debated the risks and benefits of working with mainstream organizations. "We basically said we are going to continue to push our reproductive justice analysis through our conference and newsletter, Collective Voices, and attempt to influence the mainstream," says Ross, "but not at the expense of working in our communities."

Silvia Henriquez concurs. "As things progress, do we continue partnerships with white women's organizations? Do we just make strategic choices? I don't think the success of the reproductive rights movement depends on us working together, but there's going to be work in our communities," she concludes. The Latina Institute is focusing future organizing on civic participation, particularly among Latinos who can't vote because of their immigration status and other barriers. In that effort, Henriquez says the Institute plans to partner with a mainstream prochoice group, Choice USA, which has a strong training model. "The goal is to change leadership of their communities," Henriquez explains. At the time of this writing, the Latina Institute was also preparing to host its first Latinas Organizing for Leadership and Advocacy Training Institute. As part of a series, this Institute will train advocates to understand reproductive rights as part of the larger struggle for health care access. One innovative aspect of the trainings, which will take place nationwide, is that advocates will learn to examine local health services for their effectiveness in delivering services that are comprehensive as well as culturally and linguistically appropriate.

Mainstream groups are also making efforts to build on the success and lessons of the march. NOW met with women of color organizers in September to discuss continued collaboration and plan for a women of color summit to take place next April. In addition to holding once-a-month meetings with march co-sponsors, NARAL is conducting focus groups and polling of women of color in order to refine their message and outreach. They also recently held a caucus with women of color organizations, pro-choice advocates and legislators in California to discuss reproductive rights in that state. Evelyn Becker of NARAL admits that although the organization does not have a history of such collaborations, they are beginning to flower. "We recognize the need and are committed to doing everything we can," she says.

Beyond the debate about when and how white women and women of color can work together on reproductive rights and other campaigns, Kiran Ahuja of NAPAW sees the possibility of more profound change afoot. "There's been a lot of conversation at the national level about a new woman's movement and what that should look like," she says. "There's something changing in the movement. There are a number of women of color on the scene ... and women of color organizations are trying to have more of a national presence."

If women of color can indeed make inroads and transform the women's movement, shaping it around the needs of all women, and framing reproductive rights as both health and human rights issues, that would be one of the most significant outcomes of the march. With a newly energized base and broad agenda, women of color can help expand the fight and create a sense of urgency not just about abortion, but about women's whole lives.

Ziba Kashef writes frequently about women's health and women of color.
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Author:Kashef, Ziba
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1U5DC
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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