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Resistance | riˈzistəns |
Noun the refusal to accept or comply with something; the attempt to prevent something by
action or argument
The fight for women’s reproductive rights has been a long, drawn out struggle for white
women, and even more so, for women of color. At first, the reproductive rights movement called
for the embracement of female sexuality and for the right to use birth control to prevent
pregnancy. However, birth control was only limited to white, middle to upper class women. One
of the main ideas of the reproductive rights movement is the idea of reproductive freedom.
Reproductive freedom is the belief that women should be able to control their bodies and
procreative capacities.
1
Since women are the ones whose lives are most affected by pregnancy
and childrearing, women should be the ones who should have the ultimate decision on matters of
their body, contraception, and abortion. However, this choice is severely limited and constrained
by the material conditions and social relations of our society. Birth control and abortions
provided women with more options to prevent pregnancy, however, while these options
benefitted white women, marginalized women were targeted, experimented on, and were
restricted access to their own bodily autonomy.
Ricki Solinger in her book Pregnancy and Power: History of Reproduction in America,
spoke of reproductive politics, a term that was defined by second wave feminist. Reproductive
politics was used to describe women’s struggle over contraception, abortion, sterilization, and
sexuality during the 20
th
century.
2
But it also describes how these struggles intersected with race
and class. Historically, women of color have been controlling their reproductive capacity despite
the oppressive systems that attempted to control their bodies. As Solinger says, no single history
or event of reproductive politics describes the experience of all women. These are the invaluable
stories of women of color who defied oppressive norms by reclaiming their reproductive agency.
Black women have endured generations of abuse, rape, and coercion. Their bodies were
either seen as profitable commodities or as the cause of society’s problems. During the slavery
era, Black women were considered property and their bodies, fertility, and their offspring were
controlled and regulated by the government.
3
Black women were continuously forced to
procreate in order to produce more slaves for the white man’s profit. Under the constraints of
slavery, Black women had no legal right to their body. Despite this, Black women were already
practicing folk methods of contraceptives before birth control even became an object of the
reproductive rights movement.
4
Black women would place Vaseline and quinine over the mouth
of their uterus in order to prevent conception. This folk method of preventing conception gave
Black women the power to refuse to birth children under an oppressive slavery system. Black
women “were so successful that entire plantations of slaves failed to have children.
5
1
Rosalind Petchesky, Reproductive Freedom: Beyond a Woman’s Right to Choose, (The
University of Chicago Press, 1980), 108.
2
Ricki Solinger, “Introduction: What is Reproductive Politics,” in Pregnancy and Power:
History of Reproduction in America, (NYU Press 2005) 3.
3
Ibid, 10.
4
Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body, (Pantheon Books 1997), 82.
5
Jael Silliman, et Al, Undivided Rights, (South End Press, 2004), 49.
This signifies how, even at a time in which Black women had no political or economic
power, they were able to resist against a system that legally defined them as property. Although
they may not have been able to unshackle the chains that enslaved them, they were able to
liberate their unborn children from living a life of enslavement. This form of resistance by Black
women during the slavery era is a powerful demonstration of how women of color reclaim their
reproductive agency in their own individual form.
Birth control is the act of preventing pregnancy. There are various methods that serve as
birth control such as the pill, intrauterine device (IUD), and sterilization (tubal ligation or
hysterectomy). The creation of certain birth control methods, like the pill, revolutionized the
lives of white women. White women were able to enjoy the benefits of birth control, both by
having access to clinics and by being able to make informed choices over their reproductive
health. However, this privilege was at the expense of Latinx women. During the early
developments of the pill, women in Puerto Rican were unfairly subjected into testing out new
methods of birth control, like the pill, and suffered from sterilization abuse. Sterilization abuse is
when a woman is sterilized without her knowledge or informed consent. Some Puerto Rican
women received unnecessary hysterectomies when they had actually chosen tubal ligation.
Women in Puerto Rico also received misinformation regarding birth control pills and “la
operacion,” the colloquial term for sterilization.
6
This misinformation led many Puerto Rico
women to elect sterilization as a form of birth control thinking that later in time, they would be
able to reverse it, which is not always the case. After their own experience with “la operacion,”
Puerto Rican women would share their experience and limited knowledge about this birth control
method to their female relatives and friends. As a result of this word of mouth advice, more
Puerto Rican women entrusted medical officials with their bodies and reproductive health. More
than one-third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized. However, many Puerto Rican women did
not know that they were targeted because the government saw population control as the solution
for Puerto Rico’s poverty and overcrowding.
Despite the coercive nature of how birth control and sterilization was used in Puerto
Rico, many Puerto Rican women did not see themselves as victims of abuse.
7
Puerto Rican
women in New York chose sterilization as a method for birth control like women from the
Island. Some Puerto Rican women choose sterilization after having several children for
socioeconomic reasons like wanting to get out of poverty, marital difficulties, and or simply
because other birth control options were not available. The experiences of Puerto Rican women
who sought birth control, either through the pill or through sterilization, vary at the individual
level. Although sterilization abuse did occur, many Puerto Rican women actively sought
sterilization to combat poverty, prevent pregnancy, and or to combat patriarchal norms within
their family structures. Puerto Rican women had the right to embrace their sexuality without the
fear of becoming pregnant, and sterilization was a method that allowed them to do so.
Their choice may have been made under duress conditions, but this does not negate the
fact that many Puerto Rican women were able to exercise some form of reproductive agency.
While some Puerto Rican women did not see themselves as victims or as agents with power,
their individual choice in electing sterilization is a form of resistance against cultural and societal
norms that inhibited them from having complete volition over their body, fertility, and sexuality.
6
La Operacion, directed by Ana Garcia (1982), documentary.
7
Iris Lopez, Matters of Choice, (Rutgers University Press, 2008), xii.
There are various degrees of agency, resistance, and reproductive freedom and these are
not mutually exclusive.
8
While the two above examples showcase Black and Puerto Rican
women individually resisting against the oppressive norms that controlled their reproductive
agency, there is a history of women of color creating a collective force to protest and fight for
their reproductive rights.
Native American women have suffered from a long history of conquest, genocide, and
forced sterilization. For Native women, having reproductive agency is crucial for the survival of
their culture and religious traditions. Not only did Native women had to fight for cultural
survival, but they also had to fight for their reproductive sovereignty. The American Indian
Movement (AIM), a militant Indian rights organization, wanted to unite Native people from
different tribes to fight for their rights to health, land, and legal rights to self-determination.
9
One
of the main objectives of the AIM movement was to fight against reproductive rights abuses.
Their goal was to preserve their cultural identity, which was compromised by religious boarding
schools that forced assimilation on Native children. As a result of the AIM organizing efforts,
Women of All Red Nations (WARN) was formed to serve as a space curated by and for Native
women. WARN didn’t only fight for their reproductive rights, but they fought against
sterilization abuse, the inadequate healthcare system, abuse of Native children in boarding
schools and in foster care, and for their Native lands that were constantly destructed and
damaged.
10
WARN made it explicitly known that Native women were oppressed as a result of
being colonized by the U.S. Their primary objective was to decolonize themselves and their
communities. The existence of WARN led to the emergence of other Native women
organizations like the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center and
Mother’s Milk. These organizations focused on activism and in restoring the health in their
communities through healing traditions and “reproductive health education, training, and
services.”
11
The resistance of Native women proved that reproductive agency isn’t only about
one’s body, but it is also about preserving one’s identity and culture that are constantly
threatened.
Resistance then, doesn’t necessarily just mean holding picket signs, marching, or
protesting it can be as quiet and as silent as making an individual choice over one’s bodies
regardless of the social and cultural conditions that confine us. But, resistance can also take
many forms. It can be an individual act. It can be a collective act. It can be both. There is no one-
way or right way to resist.
8
Iris Lopez, Matters of Choice, (Rutgers University Press, 2008).
9
Jael Silliman, et Al, Undivided Rights, (South End Press, 2004), 110.
10
Ibid, 110-111.
11
Ibid, 117.