Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement. By Jennifer Nelson. (New York: New York University Press, 2003. xii, 225 pp. Cloth, $55.00, ISBN 0-8147-5821-5. Paper, $20.00, ISBN 0-8147-5827-4.)
Reviewed by Michelle Moravec
In 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 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.
While debates within the black community consume two chapters, Nelson's discussion of the contributions of Latinas to the reproductive rights movement is more limited. She, in effect, offers a case study of Puerto Rican women within the Young Lords Party in New York. Nelson illustrates the impact of a few powerful women within the Young Lords Party on the organization's "pro-fertility" position. According to Nelson, these women prove that it is possible to successfully combine a feminist politics with a nationalist stance. While this chapter stands quite well on its own, (and was, in fact, published separately as an article in the Journal of Women's History), it lacks the depth of the previous discussion of the black community.
Nelson's final chapter uses the Committee for Abortion Rights and Sterilization Abuse (CARASA) to explore a more inclusive feminist agenda for reproductive rights. Nelson attempts in this chapter to prove her thesis that the reproductive rights movement was made more inclusive through the efforts of women of color to push white feminists further in their analysis. To demonstrate the inclusiveness of CARASA's political agenda, Nelson explores the organization's efforts to reform sterilization guidelines, secure federal funding for abortion, ensure that all women have the economic means to support their children, campaign against sterilization abuse, particularly as it relates to women working in certain occupations, improve access to quality child care, build coalitions among all women, and expand lesbian rights. This discussion certainly attests to the breadth of CARASA's reach. However, the more difficult argument, that this expanded agenda equals a more inclusive reproductive rights movement in general, is less persuasively made. While the coalition building approach favored by CARASA may have brought together various groups of women, it is not clear from Nelson's discussion that the leadership of CARASA itself was comprised of a more diverse constituency than previous advocates for reproductive rights. Thus, while the goals of the reproductive rights movement became more inclusive, the movement itself may have remained dominated by European-American feminists.
For historians, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement will prove to be a valuable resource. The strongest chapters are those analyzing the efforts by women of color. Like so many historical analyses of the women's movement, Women of Color focuses exclusively on the efforts of East Coast women. While this strategy is certainly understandable, it does lead to a less comprehensive work than one might wish and leads Nelson to overstate the importance of one segment of the Latina population, Puerto Ricans. And although Nelson relies on oral histories with movement participants, she does not discuss these sources or her methodology.
Scholars of social movements will find some puzzling omissions in Nelson's study as well. Because Nelson provides little by way of analysis of the reproductive rights movement as a social movement, basic information, such demographic profiles of members, organizational structure, and ties between the various groups she discusses, is missing. This leads to a rather disjointed narrative with each chapter standing well on its own, but offering little by way of the "big picture."
In Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement, Jennifer Nelson has made a fine contribution to the study of second-wave feminism by documenting the broader struggle for women's reproductive rights that occurred in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Her attempt to put women of color at the center of this discussion is laudable and for the most part successful. Her work will make an excellent text for both undergraduate students and scholars seeking more specific information about the role of women of color in the reproductive rights movement.
Michelle Moravec is an assistant professor of history at Rosemont College. She most recently edited the women's movement section of the Encyclopedia of American Social Movements.
| All Reviews | Contents | In This Issue | About the Journal |
| Documents Projects and Archives | Teacher's Corner | Scholar's Edition | Full-Text Sources | About Us | Contact Us |