In 2012, a higher percentage of Black women voted than any other group. We played a pivotal role in President Obama’s re-election, and we are responsible for the margin of victory for many successful candidates and in the defeat of anti-abortion initiatives.
Yet it took nearly seven years in office for President Obama to finally speak about the important role of Black women in the formation of America. His speech on September 20 before the Congressional Black Caucus acknowledged that although historically Black women “helped carry this country forward,” we “weren’t always given a voice,” much less celebrated.
Last month, more than 40 Black women reproductive justice leaders met in Washington, D.C., developing strategies to work against such a silencing of our voices. At the first annual summit of “In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda,” activists developed a plan to elevate Black women around the country to leadership roles in reproductive health-care policy debates. We are the experts in our own lives and will be the experts in these battles. Our mission is straightforward: to use our political clout to bring about national and state policy change. It is not enough to use our votes to elect people who promise to include our issues in their platforms. In the future, our voices will hold them accountable for their actions.
Low-income women, especially women of color, face major barriers to reproductive health care, including affordability, lack of health-care providers, and insurance coverage. Our work is to address those barriers as they relate to Black women, particularly where abortion rights and access, contraceptive equity, and quality sex education are concerned.
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In 2012, Black women RJ activists came together to commission a public opinion survey of Black women and men on reproductive health issues. The results: Black women and men overwhelmingly support keeping abortion safe and legal, ensuring access to affordable contraceptives, and teaching comprehensive sex education in our nation’s schools.
The research also showed that Black communities are supportive of Black women’s leadership on issues of bodily autonomy and empowerment. Indeed, 85 percent of Black women and men agreed to the statement, “When it comes to abortion, we should trust Black women to make the important personal decisions that are best for themselves and their families.” Armed with this information, In Our Own Voice formed last year as a national advocacy organization to educate and mobilize Black women across the country in support of reproductive rights.
Since then, In Our Own Voice has worked to educate policymakers, ally organizations, and the media about where Black communities stand on reproductive health issues. Earlier this year, we collaborated with All* Above All to push for proactive, pro-coverage policies, like the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act that will eliminate the onerous Hyde Amendment restrictions on abortion funding.
This year’s summit brought together the staff, board members and volunteers of our five strategic partners—Black Women for Wellness, Black Women’s Health Imperative, New Voices Pittsburgh, SisterLove, Inc., and SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW—to envision ways to increase our visibility and expand our reach.
Our strategies for doing so are threefold. We will identify Black women of all ages, income levels and professions who can tell their lived experiences, speak our truths to power, and join in a powerful sisterhood to radically change the reproductive health policies that impact our lives. We will train a massive cadre of Black women to educate policymakers on the important reproductive health issues that face our communities.
And we will create an army of Black women and girls across the country, in every region, in every state, intent on using policy change to continue holding our elected officials accountable to our needs. Many people talk about movement building as if it is a goal unto itself—it is not. In Our Own Voice sees movement building as a way to effect permanent policy change.
As acclaimed scholar on race, gender, and the law Dorothy Roberts stated in her opening remarks at the In Our Own Voice summit, “We are the ones everyone is waiting for.” As Black women, we understand our shared history of leadership and movement building even when others downplay or dismiss our role.
We know that our activism was the foundation of the civil rights movement in the ‘60s. We understand the pivotal role we are playing in propelling the labor movement forward, especially in the battle to increase the minimum wage. We know that the feminist movement formed on our backs and lived experiences. Recently, Gloria Steinem declared that Black women “invented the feminist movement” that white women lay claim to. The simple truth is that women of color move progressive politics forward at every level and Black women voters are, as a Center for American Progress piece put it, “especially engaged voters whose … voting levels have increased over time.”
Twenty years ago, 12 Black women sat in a room in Chicago and coined the framework of reproductive justice. That revolutionary act reverberated throughout the women’s movement, becoming so popular over the next two decades that mainstream organizations have tried to appropriate its creation. But we resisted.
Black women’s leadership is the legacy that gave rise to In Our Own Voice. Our past is sewn into the very fabric that made this country. Our blood and our tears are part of its present. But our focus is on our future and it is bold. We trust, we respect, we empower Black women. We claim our own lives, our own future, and our own voices. And to paraphrase Dorothy’s words, “We are the leaders we have been waiting for.”