People of color have often been the pioneers of social justice and the driving force of change. They have been at the forefront of the civil rights movement, women's rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and so much more. Black women have often set the example of how influential and essential grassroots community movements are in mobilizing society to achieve equity in the United States.
In 1994, twelve Black women developed the concept of Reproductive Justice. They defined it as a human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent their children in safe and sustainable communities. They developed the concept in response to a proposal from the Clinton administration for healthcare reform. The reform did not meet the needs of people of color with underserved communities regarding reproductive health.
In 1977, 16 organizations formed the Sister Song Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. Their purpose is to improve institutional policies and systems that impact marginalized communities’ reproductive lives (Native American, African American, Latina, and Asian American). They continue to build political power at the local, state, and federal levels. They know that society benefits when marginalized people have sexual and reproductive equality.
Black women are creating history as they rise beyond the days of enslavement and Jim Crow laws to walk the halls of power. Join us in honoring Black History Month, as we continue to celebrate and uplift Black voices and their contributions to reproductive justice – past, present and future.
4 Black American Women Leading Reproductive Justice
Byllye Avery the founder of the Black Women's Health Imperative, formerly the National Black Women's Health Project, and the Avery Institute for Social Change, has been a health care activist for over 30 years, focusing on the specific needs of women.
Avery began her fight for women’s health care rights in the early 1970s. She believed not only in educating women about their rights in reproductive and general health, but also educating men. In the mid-1970s, along with three other feminists, she co-founded both the Gainesville Women's Health Center and the Birthplace, midwifery service birthing center, in Gainesville, Florida, known today as the Birth Center.
In 1983, she founded The National Black Women's Health Project, dedicated to helping women who need information or help regarding domestic violence, contraception, safe and affordable abortions as well as birthing plans and options.
The Avery Institute for Social Change, organized in 2002, focuses its work on health care reform.
Byllye has combined activism and social responsibility to develop a national forum to explore health issues of Black women. She gathers, documents, and speaks on Black women's health experiences in America, rallying support for Black women to this day. Her work with Black women sparked a movement for women of color to definine and work on health issues important to their constituencies.
An American law professor and anthropologist, Khiara Bridges, specializes in race, reproductive justice, law, and how they intersect. She is currently a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law. Her writings have appeared in places such as Harvard Law Review, Stanford Law Review, the Columbia Law Review, the California Law Review, the NYU Law Review, the Virginia Law Review, and more. Bridges has become a prominent voice in the discussion of Texas' SB8.
As the first female chair and minister of the Black Panther Party from 1974 -1977, Elaine Brown brought reproductive rights to the party's platform. She was able to shift the power of the male-dominated collective to acknowledge the Black woman's unique struggles including the need to fight for reproductive rights. She continues to inspire through activism, writing, music, and public speaking.
“I would support every assertion of human rights by women—from the right to abortion to the right of equality with men as laborers and leaders.” – Elaine Brown
A leader in gender equality and reproductive rights activism, Faye Wattleton became Planned Parenthood Federation of America's (PPFA) first Black American President in 1978. She was the youngest person ever elected and only the second woman to hold the position. Wattleton was a pivotal leader who served as PPFA president from 1978 to 1992.
In 1964, Wattleton left Ohio State University with a Bachelor of Science in nursing and went on to earn a Master of Science in midwifery and maternal and infant health from Columbia University. She began her career as a nurse in 1967 at Miami-Dade Hospital in Ohio. Her work in health care shed light on the lack of access to reproductive care within her community, leading her to become a champion of reproductive rights. At the age of 27, Wattleton joined the Planned Parenthood organization as the Executive Director of Dayton-Miami Valley (which is now Planned Parenthood of Dayton, Ohio) in 1970.
Wattleton has a rich legacy of expanding patient access and establishing the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the political arm of PPFA, in 1989. She saw the need and importance of outreach and having a political voice and presence to advance access to sexual health care and defend reproductive rights. Under her leadership, Planned Parenthood expanded reproductive health services from 1.1 million patients in 1978 to about 5 million patients in 1990.
Drive the Reproductive Rights Movement
These individuals have laid the foundation and continue to drive the fight for reproductive justice and equity in the U.S. They have been pivotal in the progression and evolution of the reproductive rights movement. We must honor and thank all individuals who fought for a better society. They made their voices heard even when expected to stay silent, regardless of the consequences. Thank you for leading the way and igniting the passions of a community to continue to fight today.
Now there is the threat of the majority conservative Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. That action will deny all women of their right to abortion. However, Black, Indigenous, people of color, LGBTQ plus, and low-income women will suffer the most. For centuries now, Black women have fought for their sexual and reproductive rights. Their bravery and persistence are an inspiration to continue to fight for equity, accessible health care, and reproductive rights.