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On Dobbs: It’s Time for White Feminists to Show They Care About More Than Themselves

Image via Time

The future isn’t female anymore. Or so says the widely circulated New York Times article written by Michelle Goldberg in which she bemoans the lack of an “explosive feminist mobilization” after the draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked. In it, she pronounces that “earnest, identity-focused feminism” is dying. In advance of the midterms approaching in November, Goldberg is a part of a trend of white feminist authors using the Dobbs decision as evidence to advance an argument that feminism is doomed. Arielle Angel, another white author, is “nursing a fantasy” of a widespread feminist coalition that may be powerful enough to enact meaningful change, insinuating that large, coalesced movements are a relic of second-wave feminism. What these women don’t realize is that such a coalition is a fantasy for a reason, and it’s largely the fault of white feminists. When privileged white women woke up to the news that Roe had been overturned, many of them were enraged because nothing had infringed upon their freedoms so overtly in decades. Women of color have long faced a very different reality, one where the overturning of Roe is only another blow on a long list of legislative and financial harms brought upon them. 

Fundamentally, white feminists are upset because the women of color and queer activists they have relied on historically to do the brunt of grassroots activism, are refusing to organize around a white reproductive rights agenda. Many of these activists have critiqued Golderg’s article, explaining that feminism is not dying, it is simply evolving by rejecting performative white feminism in favor of grassroots, socialist, and intersectional organizing. And it’s no surprise why. One too many times, white women have betrayed the women of color who are often the backbone of feminist movements. 

It’s a trend that has deep historical roots. During Reconstruction, white women’s rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony based arguments for a woman’s right to vote on the idea that it was ludicrous that Black men would be granted this right before white women. At the turn of the twentieth century, white suffragists excluded Black women from key conferences, forced them to march at the back of suffrage parades, and were uninterested in fighting racial discrimination. During the 1960s and 1970s, despite women of color having theorized and developed plans of action that accounted for racism, classism, and sexism, many of the white women who were the public face of the movement centered their own problems. Issues that Black women emphasized in their activism like welfare rights and protections against  forced sterilization were discarded even as white women based their own protest tactics on the civil rights movement.

Today, many white feminists still fail to show up for women of color. As Marcela Howell expressed in a panel held at the Pembroke Center on Reproductive Rights, women of color and poor women’s access to abortion was stripped in 1976 with the passing of the Hyde Amendment, which banned Medicaid funding from going towards abortions. Howell explains that, “for Black women, Roe v. Wade has always been the floor, not the ceiling.” Additionally, restrictive state laws that gutted funds to abortion clinics had already significantly constrained access to reproductive care before Roe was overturned. For example in Texas, even before Dobbs, due to a combination of a lack of funding and legal restrictions targeted at shutting down clinics, 96 percent of counties had no abortion clinics. Rather than addressing this persistent lack of abortion access for poor women, white feminists have been wrapped up in ‘girlboss feminism,’ which emphasizes individual achievements and feel-good messaging over structural changes. Even the 2017 Women’s March on Washington was largely based in white women’s outrage over the Trump presidency as they could sense their impending marginalization. Meanwhile, women of color had been sounding the alarm bell for decades.

In response to the multiple threats they face, many women of color have been championing an agenda based on reproductive justice, not reproductive rights. The National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, developed by eight Black feminist organizations, defines reproductive justice as “the human right to control our sexuality, our gender, our work, and our reproduction.” As Howell, one of the leaders of this coalition, explained, reproductive justice for Black women merges issues including environmental justice, criminal justice, voting rights, and economic freedom with reproductive rights. Reproductive justice encapsulates not just the right to not have children, but the right to have children, and to raise them in safe, healthy, and supported communities. 

Black-led reproductive justice organizations are currently championing activism across multiple sectors and have been for years. SisterReach, an organization operating out of Tennessee, provides services to women of color in rural areas including safe sex kits, HIV testing, a food pantry, emergency funds, and educational opportunities. The Women With a Vision Foundation works in tandem with local shelters to support survivors of domestic violence and substance abuse financially, educationally, and emotionally. Black Women for Wellness advocates for political policies that support Black maternal health, environmental justice, and voting rights while providing direct services to Black women. This is just a glimpse of the broad spectrum of reproductive justice organizing, a network of support and advocacy that women of color have built for years. For these organizations, abortion access is one of many issues that needs to be addressed to adequately provide for all women. 

After Dobbs, white women were suddenly interested in forming coalitions with the women of color who have been championing this broadly based agenda. But it’s much too late. As Tressie McMillan Cottom explained on The Argument, many white women abandoned Black women the second they had access to abortions and contraception. Just because abortion access is now once again affecting white women does not mean women of color should—or will—abandon their platforms in favor of a narrow white feminist agenda. Does this mean white women should give up on a broad feminist coalition? No. But it does mean that white women face a critical choice. White women can continue to give lip service to intersectionality, or we can start showing up for Black women on all issues. Intersectional feminism does not mean including poor women, women of color, and queer people in organizations working towards a white feminist agenda. It means fundamentally changing the agenda to put their issues and leadership at the forefront. It requires white women to financially support, volunteer for, work at, and put their weight behind the issues that they have considered secondary to their feminist agenda.

As Cottom explains, true coalitional politics requires structuring advocacy in a way that ensures that the most vulnerable members win first and win big. This means not tolerating a codification of Roe that lacks a reversal of the Hyde Amendment. This means fighting for the deconstruction of the criminal legal system and the violence it perpetuates. This means advocating for government-funded child care, mandatory paid family leave, and the expansion of rights for care workers. This means white women forgoing their contributions to NARAL and funding Black and queer-led feminist organizations instead. Real solidarity is long overdue, and the time to start is now.

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