Although a dedicated pro-choice activist, I have often felt disappointed by the pro-choice movement for its inability to own up to its problematic past, in particular to the politics of Margaret Sanger. Although Sanger and other first-wave feminists made many important contributions to securing women’s rights — fighting for the right to vote, increasing access to birth control and information about it — many people don’t realize that these gains were rarely extended to less privileged women. In fact, many advances related to birth control came at the expense of people of color and people with disabilities, eugenics being a prime example. While it may be convenient to brush this history under the rug, I believe the movement needs to use Sanger’s unforgivable missteps as a learning opportunity. If we don’t own our problematic past, anti-choice groups will.
Unfortunately, the root of this problem — the inability to include any but the most privileged voices in feminist discourse — still exists in feminist circles today. First wave feminists, and arguably most feminists today, often possess the most privileged identities: white, middle-class, native-born, able bodied. You can’t have a radical movement — one that gets at the roots of oppression — if marginalized identities aren’t equally, if not more than equally, represented. The negligence of oppressed identities other than “woman” renders feminism, even today, as a tool to reinforce racism, ableism and all other forms of oppression.
In the reproductive rights movement, and even within the University’s chapter of Students for Choice to some extent, there is still so much emphasis on the ability to prevent reproduction, which centers the concerns of privileged women rather than the concerns of women of color whose reproduction has historically been denigrated, abused and manipulated. In other words, the reproductive rights movement, with its unyielding focus on birth control and abortion rights, only serves to further amplify privileged voices that have long been heard loud and clear. Instead, feminist activists need to emphasize more and more the vast spectrum of choices — reproductive and otherwise — that people are denied as a result of their oppressed status. We can start by recognizing that parenting is also a powerful choice, one that has consistently been given to the most privileged women while denied to women unable to uphold the hegemony through their genetic code or social status.
Students for Choice is trying to do this, but such fundamental change cannot happen overnight. We are endlessly grateful for the campus climate that welcomes pro-choice activism, as well as the deep support of departments like Women’s Studies, American Culture, and the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies. We are honored to have received the Women’s Studies Department Feminist Practice Award, but I cannot deny that we received it to a great degree because of how welcoming our campus is to our beliefs. By virtue of being on a campus where pro-choice beliefs are the norm, we spend much less time talking over people, trying to convince them that, contrary to conservative beliefs, women should also have a right to bodily autonomy. Instead, we have the opportunity to move forward, to build a better, more inclusive movement, to be self-reflective, to grow. Because of the fairly supportive climate at the University, we can go beyond condoms and birth control and work towards destabilizing the racism both in the choice movement as well as in our society as a whole. Our activism is about moving forward, not about winning a debate.
What I’m not going to do, though, is end this piece in a passionate call for all women to band together despite our differences as an attempt to atone for the choice movement’s problematic past. As Inderpal Grewal and a myriad of other feminist scholars have convincingly argued, there is no such thing as an international sisterhood, a universal or essential feminine nature that connects all women. None of us are just women — we are both oppressors and oppressed by members of this group. Calling for this sisterhood erases the very real differences among women generated by our interlocking and diverse social identities, and it does not acknowledge the difficulty, and often impossibility, of working with your oppressor, especially one that is blind to checking their privilege.
While a universal sisterhood is an impossibility, reflection is not. By this I mean reflecting about your movement, your beliefs, your life. You must understand where political activism comes from and where it will go in the future. Reflect in order to pause, to create the mental energy to make your activism more intentional. And reflect on your own life. In the end, having special or unique experiences is not what causes personal or political growth. It’s reflecting on the simplest encounters, on something as daily as a birth control pill, that does.
Sophia Kotov is an LSA senior.