Women’s Racialized Reproductive Rights and “Americanness”

When European settlers colonized North America, they had no clue that they would impact the role of women and reproduction pertaining to race. They could not have foreseen that contemporary understandings of what it means to be American would be shaped by their racialized reproductive nation building, all under the auspices of Christianity. White America was deemed the new “chosen people” replacing the Jews as America was deemed the new “chosen land” when white settlers “founded” America and committed acts of genocide both knowingly (commitment to war and the second thanksgiving) and unknowingly (when settlers thought themselves biologically superior than the Native Americans when the Native Americans died in thousands of the diseases that the settlers brought to America).

Law, in general, as three main functions: “to resolve disputes, to guide behavior, and to redistribute resources”. These functions easily transfer to specific legal and political practices regarding families. In the United States, where Judaeo-Christian values permeate our legal system, assumptions of family and roles come from traditional Christian values (like marriage between one man and one woman; discouraging homosexual practices; discouraging sexual, economic and political liberation of women; and the concept of a public sphere where men dominate and a private sphere where women dominate).

The classification of “family” is not a straight forward as one would assume. In the globalized setting, compared to the American, “family” can mean many things and shows that assumed qualities of “family” are wrong or misleading. Three universal characteristics of families include: economic cooperation, sexual reproduction, and common residence. In the United States, where tenets of Christianity determined norms for the society, “family” is a hetero-normative nuclear model. Other societies may see extensive kinship networks where extended family members play a role in the day-to-day upbringing of children. Sexual orientation and gender identity may be more fluid. When people in these societies immigrate to the United States (or in the case of Native populations, try to exist in the United States), they’re family structure may not be welcomed. This is enforced by social norms prescribed by Christian values and subsequent legal doctrine.

In the 1800’s, Indian women were seen by white society as “’degraded’ because they were not politically powerless and economically dependent like proper white women”. Christian missionaries specifically targeted the role of women in Native societies because it was anathema to Christian values and thus the hierarchy of power in the Untied States. To these missionaries and American society, God created women to be the weaker sex in need of protection, so to have a society where women had equality was both sinful and a perversion of God’s creation. This thinking made it easy to both ostracize and eliminate native populations.

In the 1900’s, there were two popular policies that aimed at restricting reproduction to the “correct” types of people: anti-miscegination and anti-immigration laws and the eugenics movement and forced or coerced sterilization laws. Wives of immigrants were were not allowed to come to America and anti-miscegination laws existed so that immigrants were not allowed to have sex and have children. These poor immigrants were good enough to work in America but were not good enough to establish families and change the face of America. With the advent of eugenics, for almost a century through the 1970’s, American Indian women, as well as Latina women, were forcibly or coercively sterilized, perpetuating racialized nation building by restricting the reproductive rights of nonwhites, alienating and othering them. These women were not seen as good enough material to be mothers and were ripped of their chance to do so.

White mothers were deemed appropriate to reproduce because they were considered the epitome of “moral motherhood” where because of their race and class, they were able to build the future of the United States by raising their children the right way. The “right way” is identified as Christian values because it was both “god’s work” and “woman’s duty” to nurture and protect. The eugenics movement in the United States passed “compulsory sterilization laws” that required “unfit” persons to be sterilized. The promotion of birth control targeted the poor and Black classes because they were seen as unpopular and problematic populations.

Promotion of Eugenics

Social conditions for women of different racial and ethnic identities create different reasonings for choices made concerning reproductive health. “When Black and Latina women resort to abortion in such large numbers, the stories they tell are not so much about their desire to be free of their pregnancy, but rather about the miserable social conditions which dissuade them from bringing new lives into the world.” White women were more concerned with the right to abortion than Black women because Black women were more concerned with the right to carry a pregnancy. This stems from different histories regarding reproductive choice. Historically, white women were encouraged to have children while minority women were encouraged to become sterilized or to get on birth control.

Being a woman in America does not make one “American”. To be considered and American women, one must give up control over their own reproduction in the name of the society they want to join. This is shaped by traditional Christian values as understood in an American context of “righteousness”.



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Darby Matt

Darby Matt

Drake University International Relations (MENA focused), Socio-Legal studies, religious studies and Arabic graduate. This is a blog-like post to learn and share