The Jill Question: What is the Role of Privileged White Women in the Reproductive Justice Movement?

Several years ago, a colleague and I were invited to speak at a conference of progressive law students at Harvard.  We were there to share the results of our research project on young women of color, which made clear that the ways reproductive health and rights activists talked to young women did not resonate with them.  Our research also stressed that young women were interested in a more holistic health agenda that emphasized not just reproductive and sexual health, but also mental health.

After our presentations, my colleague and I sat at a table in one of the meeting areas.  We were interrupted by one of the law students who had heard our presentation.  Her name was Jill.  She had a question that she hadn’t gotten a chance to ask during the session.  “How can a privileged, white woman like me do this work?”  We were completely taken aback.  That question seems to lurk just below the surface of these conversations, but rarely does anyone strike up the courage to ask it.  My colleague and I looked at each other and decided to engage with Jill honestly.  We were eager for a meaningful conversation that would challenge the power structures in the reproductive health and rights movement as well as long-held and firmly entrenched ideas about what our priorities should be and who we were fighting for.

For almost two hours we talked about the how the movement’s laser-focus on abortion, and to a lesser extent, birth control, neglected many other issues, concerns that were more salient and critical to women and communities of color.  Issues like health care and economic security.  We talked about how the language used in our messaging and other communications alienated women by focusing on privacy and individualistic frames, and failing to incorporate ideas of family and community.  As time passed, more law students joined us.  They surrounded us; some sat down; none joined in the conversation; but they all listened.  This was clearly a question that many of them were struggling with.  As law students and future lawyers, they were in positions of power that most of us are not, nor ever will be.  How could they lend their skills to this movement in a different way?  How could they contribute to a broad, holistic agenda without reinforcing the inequities around race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, etc?

In the time since that conversation, reproductive justice has emerged as a powerful frame to address many of the issues that we talked about on that winter day.  Both my organization and I have undergone our own transformations, realizing that reproductive justice is inherently about power – shifting it, building it and leveraging it so that we can all lead healthy lives.  We use the language of reproductive justice to anchor the lived experiences of marginalized communities, especially women of color, at the core of this fight.  And we challenge the status quo by presenting a whole new vision for what the world could look like.

Yet the question remains.  What is the role of privileged white women in the reproductive justice movement?  The reason this question is so hard is because at its heart, this question is about power.  It’s easier to recognize how we are oppressed than it is to articulate the privilege we benefit from.  It’s not as if oppression and privilege cancel each other out.  This isn’t arithmetic.  And we have to figure out how we want to live our lives based on how both have shaped our world view. Ultimately, answering this question means we must acknowledge that the privilege white women benefit from continues to silence those most affected by reproductive oppression.

So back to the “Jill question”.  These are my thoughts based on conversations I have had over the years.  None of it is particularly innovative or earth-shattering but I want to put it out there as a way to continue what I think is an important conversation.  Reproductive justice cannot succeed if white women, privileged or otherwise are not part of the fight.

  • Start with yourself. Come to terms with your privilege. Then reconcile that with how you have been affected by systems of oppression.  A fuller, more honest understanding of how structures like racism and heterosexism dominate our society and undermine the health and well-being of our communities is critical to advancing reproductive justice for all people.
  • Do the work that needs to be done.  You know best what you can contribute to the movement.  Your skills, your resources, your very being are important to building a powerful, vibrant movement.  Can you volunteer to make phone calls to your state representatives?  Can you make a donation to an annual campaign? What about serving on the Board of Directors of a local organization?  These are all ways that you can move the work of reproductive justice forward.
  • Organize in your own communities. We all come from communities, ethnic, religious, political, and otherwise.  You can educate and organize others in your community, starting with friends, peers and family.  Explain to them the importance of reproductive justice, why you are committed to that vision and get them involved in the movement.
  • Build and share power.  That means working in solidarity with others to create a strong base of support and leadership to advance our agenda.  This may mean also that the people and organizations that we have traditionally looked to for leadership, take a different role, and that we make space for new voices and develop new leaders.

Confronting privilege, in all forms, is a critical exercise in achieving reproductive justice.  How do we support each other through that process, while we also hold each other accountable for the privilege we benefit from?

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23 comments for “The Jill Question: What is the Role of Privileged White Women in the Reproductive Justice Movement?

  1. September 13, 2009 at 9:20 am

    Would it be remiss of me to try to draw attention to the fact that lower class white communities deal with a lot of the same issues on reproductive health and access that communities of POC do? Certainly there are more similarities between lower SES white communities and POC communities than between lower and upper class white women.

    On a lot of things I’ll concede completely, and I assume that in your class most of your white students were not of lower socioeconomic status, but as important as it is to call out white privilege on this issue, class privilege plays an equally important role. Lower class white people are not concerned with abortion rights or FDA approval of drugs or OTC availability as much as they are concerned with access, both to abortion clinics and birth control as well as prenatal care and proper education for mothers and young women. Additionally, lower class women are more likely to have to rely on their partners for economic stability regardless of the state of the relationship and levels of abuse to themselves and their children.

    I think we do a disservice if we ignore the partnerships that could be attained here. Yes, there is still white privilege, but there is also the distinct alienation from the rest of the movement.

    I’m sure some of you will disagree, but I do think it needs to be mentioned.

  2. Azalea
    September 13, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Well see I disagree. A lower class white woman who gets an abortion wouldn’t be as villified AND encouraged as a lower class black woman who gets one. It’s a catch 22. Black women by virute of being black are encouraged NOT to reproduce, told it will absolutely RUIN her life. But if she dare gets pregnant she MUST have an abortion or be a horrible mother and once she gets one she’s viewed as this horrible person who just adds to the high number of black women getting abortions in America. BUT if she dares even atempt abstinence she’s villified for thinking she’s better than her peers and practicing a flawed form of birth control, even if she’s not having sex simply because she doesn’t fucking want to.

    Black women are OVERLY sexualized as a group without our consent, are highly likely to get abortions as a group and highly likey to bear chlildren and go straight into poverty as a group. So yes while there may be similarities along the lines of class, they end there and then the differences where race and privilege comes in continue to separate us and make our needs very different.

  3. shah8
    September 13, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Just a niggle on the last part…

    Power can’t be shared, by it’s very nature. This is not to say that building social infrastructure that more people can use in reaching for their desires is wrong, but to express the result of these actions in terms of “sharing” power perpetuates the maya involved in white privilege.

    I understand your earlier post better in light of this one. It was an interesting read.

  4. Asenath Waite
    September 13, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    @ Zippa: THANK YOU. So many “how can white women help” posts seem (to me anyway) to include the assumption that all white women are middle-to-upper class.

  5. SaltySue
    September 13, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    Asenath that is a good point. But this post baffles me a bit. The points Aimee listed don’t just apply to abortion they apply to every thing feminism embodies. Reproductive rights is just one of the many facets of feminism. Those are things white and black women should do not just for reproductive rights but for feminism as a whole.
    I thought this post was going to be on the different reasons (such as religion, the community values that family is more important that the individual, or even the self fulfilling prophecy) black women or lower/working class Hispanic women decide to have abortions or carry a pregnancy to term as it might not be the same for middle class white women. And how to get these women into the conversation.

  6. Cleveland Lass
    September 13, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    I think Jill’s question was one that really does matter to many young white feminists’ minds. Although my family is not one of wealth or privilage by name, growing up caucasian certainly provides its own set of privilages– any who deny this are kidding themselves. I think its very easy for many white individuals to forget the influance of race because their expereiences are “normal”. They are not commonly denyed anything based upon race, so its easy to brush off as “historical”, a beast of the past. I know I will never know the full extent of the racial issues of this nation from personal experence, but I try very hard to be aware. I want very badly to help in anyway I can– reproductive and health rights are so important.

    Mostly I just wanted to say thanks. I’m book marking this article right now. : )

  7. September 13, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    @azalea: lower class white women, truly lower class white women, face the catch 22 you describe as well. They are overly sexualized, they are almost always expected if not forced to get abortions when they become pregnant, and are then demonized for doing so. The situation you describe is one I have seen played out repeatedly in my community.

    I make no claims that the situations mirror each other, only that they are remarkably similar. I don’t want to devalue it, but THIS PARTICULAR story is not unique to WOC. It’s just not. Were whiteness the only factor, I would concede, but here, class plays an enormous role.

  8. Michael
    September 13, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    One of the most important ways privledged white women (and men also) can assist the reproductive justice movement (and other movements) is money. (From the article I am taking the term privledged to indicate higher income.) Many social justice organizations struggle to provide benefits, whether political or financial, to their supporters and those who look to these organizations for help.

  9. Felina
    September 14, 2009 at 2:58 am

    Azalea, Zippa… I can’t describe it exactly, but I’ve personally been on all sides of this issue. I come from a community that’s largely Hispanic, and of course lower-class Hispanic women face the same issues as lower-class Black women, and yes, it’s the same for lower-class White women. The inescapable nature of poverty causes people to give young women “advice” that they don’t need or want, “judgement” on top of it, and an attitude that talking about or standing up to abuse is somehow disrespectful — keeping the cycle of abuse and poverty going! Because of strife and dysfunction in my own family, I’ve crossed class boundaries more than once in my life too. For example, I had an abortion once as a lower-class woman (in an inner-city clinic that cattle-called about 100 abortions on one day per week, and treated us like animals — no painkillers, no anesthesia… people held me down, told me to shut up (in Spanish), and gave me a stick to bite. Apologies if that’s too graphic.), and once as a middle-class woman (in a clinic 30 miles from home with protesters outside, but otherwise a normal, relatively comfortable outpatient medical procedure). The difference in on-the-spot cost was minimal, about $50, but the real difference was access, availability, information, and obviously treatment. The “white privilege” in the scope of these issues is far overridden by class privilege, but if there is an inherent cultural difference, I think it would lie in the prudish nature of even many poor white communities, where talking about these kind of issues and problems is just completely taboo, probably purposely to cover up the similarities with groups of other ethnicities. Taboos, in my opinion, just add a different element to the difficulties for a woman in a tough situation since she can feel like she has nowhere to turn and no one she can trust. Women of class face the same taboos (worse, actually), but since they have access to medical help, they don’t really have to tell anyone who isn’t contractually bound to confidentiality, and also have the education and access to enforce such contracts (making them meaningful). I think that class privilege in these issues is also at the heart of the problem with the focus on abortions: women of class can/must seek professional medical/psychological/therapeutic help rather than relying on their families and communities, while lower-class women can/must rely on their families and communities for support through difficult times, with the abortion being the only common professionally-practiced procedure between the groups. In my opinion, community building, raising awareness, advancing open communication philosophies and compassionate humanistic principles would help all women facing reproductive justice issues, across the board. White women of a privileged class can probably help most by hosting fundraising luncheons in their own communities — where they talk directly about sexuality, abuse, judgement, abortions, oppression and privilege *in their own communities*, and break the culture of silence that separates us.

  10. mouthyb
    September 14, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    I am a very poor white woman who chose to have her kids, who is now marginally less poor as a student teacher at a college (at my estimate, I make about $6.50 for time worked versus stipend.) I agree that this is very much about class privilege.

    Speaking from my own experience, I have been sexualized without my consent, to the point that strangers felt as if they could grab my body and manipulate it in any way they chose, as well as assault me without compunction or fear of punishment. In my freshman year of high school alone, because this was a Baptist school in a small town in TX, I was grabbed and/or had someone assault or try to assault me 8 times. I grew up Southern Baptist, being told that my vagina belonged to Jesus and my father, to administer as he saw fit. My access to birth control has been very, very limited up until recently. I have had doctors make huge scars on my body as a sort of object lesson; my ceasarian scars are over a half inch wide. Or use minimal lubricant on me with a speculum, tearing and pinching me, tell me it doesn’t hurt and that I shouldn’t feel it, since I obviously had ‘dick in me before.’ I won’t bother with talking about my bosses, or boyfriends who were abusive, because I wasn’t worth anything, etc.

    The reason this happened to me, in my reading, falls along 2 axis: female and poor. Discrimination is so shitty because it tends to fall along many different axis at once, so that it attacks from several directions, all of which need to be examined. I can only hope my experiences make me a good ally to women of color, but I realize that it’s easy for me to be blinded by my skin color.

    As far as economically privileged white women go, it’d be nice for them to drop some of the slut shaming that tends to go along with economic privilege and go actually talk to people who are willing to deal with them (no one is obliged, but I try to knock some of the arrogance off people gently). Fund raising would be nice, some of them actually talking to one another and making community would be nice, too. But they need to get out among people different from them and try to see things from a different point of view. It helps break the things which keep us apart and keep us from being as effective when we mobilize for change.

  11. Lola
    September 15, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    This is ridic stupid. O hai, I am a helpless rich white lady. How can I help? Um, it seems pretty obvious to me. Fucking call NARAL or PP or wherever and start volunteering. Is she crippled by her lilywhite skin and deep pockets? Oh wait, she is a rich white lady. Obvi she is not included in any of these organizations. When I worked for a national repro rights organization, it was a given that our supporters were wealthy white ladies. All women need to start speaking out about repro rights issues and discussing the fact that they had abortions, whether they are black, white or purple.

  12. Aimee Thorne-Thomsen
    September 15, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Hey Lola, I don’t think I communicated clearly what this conversation was about. It’s a question that many young women (and some men, for that matter) struggle with. How do I acknowledge my race, educational, class, etc. privilege and STILL work toward reproductive justice. I think that’s a fair (and not whiny) question.

    I’m also fascinated by how many of the comments connect with the question of class privilege, but don’t seem to tackle race privilege head-on. While women of color, and low-income white women have many experiences in common, race does come into play and cannot be ignored.

  13. September 15, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Aimee, what I appreciated most about this post was that you acknolwedged that white women (privileged by whiteness in a racist world) have a role in the movement for reproductive justice. In a movement led by and for communities of color the role of white women is not always so obvious or clear, and I appreciate you laying out some strategies for how to get started. I think the comments have been really interesting and diverse and point to the real challenges we face when oppression is at work in all our lives. I do want to say that I think its a mistake see potential allies only through their pocketbook. Each one of us has something unique to contribute and movement-buildng cannot be successful unless we take the time to find out what that is for each and every person.

  14. Lu @ UO
    September 21, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    I am a white woman who benefits from race based privilege but who is also lower class economically.

    Here is how I see it – my lower class status means that, as I go through my second pregnancy, I have been treated by people as someone who should have an abortion, someone who is reproducing trash, and someone undeserving of the state paid health insurance that will let me deliver my child in a decent hospital. In many ways my experience is similar to women of color who are treated as whores or baby breeders for their choice to continue the pregnancy despite low income status.

    Here is where my race comes into play. The only people who treat me like this are people who know I am poor and on passport (gov healthcare). For the duration of my pregnancy I will be able to have strangers glow at me and smile when they see my swollen belly; I will have people assume because of my race that I am a good person and deserving of my child. It is only when I pull out my passport card or my food stamps that this attitude will change.

    That is how I see the dynamics of race and class playing out in this situation. Yes, I will experience some of the problems and stereotypes that other poor pregnant women of color experience. The difference is there are times my skin color will let me escape this, and if I did not have things that distinguish me as poor I would probably never experience this just because of my skin color (unlike a woman of color, who probably gets some of this stereotyping whether or not she is poor).

    Now, if only all these smiling people knew my baby would be mixed…LOL

  15. Lu @ UO
    September 21, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Sorry I should have said that my above response was more of a reply to the conversation in the comments (is it class or race) than the actual, wonderful, post.

  16. iam
    September 22, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I am so glad to see this piece. I wrote an article a few years ago called “My Divine Right to Choice,” trying to pull apart the issue of power, privilege and race in the reproductice rights movement. I appreciate the clear list of ways that womyn who have power in the movement (economic and racial) can act proactively to put inappropriate privilege in its place and work toward reproductive health and well-being for all womyn. I really appreciate the discussion of class here AND also feel that the discussion of race and white skin privilege cannot be displaced. When the right hammers away at who has abortions, the race implications often come first:

    I do think its interesting that the post seems focused on how to “help” (carrying its own loaded meanings) womyn of color. The responses seem focused on dissecting the different levels of privilege within the white community, and less on the very real impact of racism and white skin privilege, regardless of class, that often results in the demonization of Black and Latino womyn’s sexuality and reproduction. The “Jill question” is about a very particular kind of privileged white womyn who works in the non-profit field. So yes, it does in fact exclude class issues within the white community – and white poor and working-class womyn, AND it also captures a particular kind of question that reflects a culture within the non-profit field that largely revolves around culture and race and is often suppressed or sublimated into discussions of class alone.

  17. September 22, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    LUO, I think you give a really great example of how race acts as an independent factor. I had admittedly not made that connection regarding visibility. Partly, at least, because in my area class is very visually distinguishable (there’s a very wide gap between the wealthy and the working class with little in-between, and a very different style of dress and even a noticeably different accent).

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