This post provides information on Planned Parenthood South Atlantic’s Black Organizing Program, which works to highlight the sexual and reproductive health issues that are impacting the Black community and expand Planned Parenthood’s efforts to center the lived experiences of all people that we serve.
The use of the words “woman and women” throughout this piece is reflective of all woman-identifying people on the gender spectrum.
Happy Black History Month! To commemorate this important month, we would like to highlight Black women who have made a lasting impact on the movement for sexual health and reproductive rights. As Planned Parenthood continues to work to uplift reproductive freedom, we must acknowledge the role that Black women have had in paving the way to where the movement is today. They created terms that have led us to shift the narrative on how we address topics such as reproductive freedom, bodily autonomy, intersectionality, and reproductive justice. During Black History Month, we must thank these women for bringing us forward.
We know during Black History Month many acknowledge key figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. But while these leaders’ contributions were vital to bringing the Black community forward, there are many other names that should be uplifted in the movement for Black liberation. Here, I’d like to spotlight three Black women for the contributions that they made to the movement for reproductive freedom.
First, we must uplift Faye Wattleton, the first Black woman to serve as the President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. She was not only the first, and currently only, Black woman to lead our national organization, but she was also the youngest to serve in this role and the first woman to hold the position since Margaret Sanger. Prior to her taking office, the organization was run by men. One of her most important contributions to Planned Parenthood was the creation of Planned Parenthood Action Fund (PPAF), our national organization’s advocacy and political arm. This allowed the organization to expand into organizing work, with a separate entity that could dedicate itself to working within political spheres to protect reproductive health services and the sexual health education that we provide to the community.
The creation of PPAF was invaluable for us, as we have continued to fight political attacks that threaten the ability of our patients to access the reproductive health care services that they need. PPAF will be especially important for us in 2020 with key state and national elections taking place, as we can work to elect and re-elect champions for reproductive freedom. Moving into such a major election year -- where so much is at stake -- I’m so grateful for the tremendous leadership of Faye Wattleton during her time leading the national office of Planned Parenthood.
Next, we must thank and acknowledge Loretta Ross, the founder of SisterSong and a pioneer in the reproductive justice movement. SisterSong was established more than 20 years ago in 1997 to fill gaps within the white-led movement for reproductive health and rights at the time.
It was created by women of color from 16 different organizations who came together to create space to address the needs of women of color in the reproductive rights movement. Loretta Ross had been working in feminist spaces since the early 70’s and her own work and personal experiences informed the work that she would continue to do over the next 30 years. When SisterSong was established, they created a network for women of color to organize in reproductive rights spaces. The collective grew to leave a lasting legacy on those spaces that continues to evolve today.
One of the key impacts of SisterSong was the creation of the concept of “reproductive justice” as a human rights framework, which they established in 1994 at the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt.
SisterSong defines Reproductive Justice as the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.
Loretta continues to work within this movement with her latest book, released in 2017, entitled Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundation, Theory, Practice, Critique. It provides an in-depth anthology of the decades of work that went into the revolutionary reproductive framework, based on the leadership of Black and brown women. The leadership and courage that SisterSong displayed in their early days has brought Planned Parenthood to a place where we can organize more intentionally within Black communities and better uplift the people that we serve. We can now work to continue to address the growing demographic changes of our supporters and allow our work to be more reflective of the needs of all women, thanks to the work that women like Loretta Ross have been doing to center women and girls for decades.
Marsha P. Johnson
Last, but definitely not least, we cannot discuss cisgender Black women without acknowledging the tireless work and leadership of Black trans women, who must be included in any conversation about women’s issues. The erasure of trans women in social justice movements has been evident throughout history, but we must continually address issues that are affecting the trans community, especially Black trans women, if we want to work towards a better movement for reproductive freedom. Marsha P. Johnson is a leader whose impact is widely felt across many movement spaces, not only because of the role that she played in the Stonewall Riots, but her community organizing efforts. According to historian and journalist, Eric Marcus, Johnson fought against police brutality and police harassment following a police raid at a gay bar in Greenwich Village, leading to the Stonewall uprising in 1969. Following the riot, Johnson established a group called STAR, which helped trans homeless youth in New York City. She continued to fight for LGBTQ rights until 1992, when she died. The state of New York just announced this month that they will rename a state park in Brooklyn after Marsha, which will be the first state park in the U.S. to be named after a member of the queer community.
Her impact is so important, -- especially today when Black trans women are being murdered at astonishing rates yet their names remain unknown, as though their lives do not matter. Marsha was a pioneer in asserting that Black trans lives do matter, and that her experience as a Black woman was just as valuable as that of any cisgender woman. If our movement does not include trans women, then it is not a feminist movement. This month we take the time to say thank you, Marsha, for being so beyond your time, in addressing pertinent issues that Black trans women continue to face today.
At Planned Parenthood, we must acknowledge the amazing women that came before us, called us in, and brought us to where we are today. There is still so much work to do, but without them, we would not have been able to do the work that we have done for over 100 years. This Black History Month, I just want to say thank you to all of these powerful Black women for dedicating themselves to the movement for sexual health and reproductive rights.
While Faye Wattleton and Loretta Ross are both still living and continue to impact many through their presence, may Marsha P. Johnson rest in peace and power. We appreciate you all. As we move into 2020, I’d look forward to continuing to uplift the work of Black women that have contributed to our progress in the reproductive freedom movement.