The Movement for Reproductive Justice: Empowering Women of Color through Social Activism. Patricia Zavella, New York: NYU Press, 2020, 298 pp.
CUNY Graduate Center
The activism landscape in 21st-century United States has most certainly expanded and includes all kinds of people and entities. Activist practices and campaigns that center on social justice have been duplicated by corporate, conservative, and White supremacist activists, among others. Increasingly, activism for social justice can be dangerous when it is taken into the streets. Confrontations abound, and this is true especially for those engaged in reproductive justice activism.
Barriers to reproductive autonomy that seek to deplete, dilute, or disappear hard-won access to reproductive care, rights, and health have intensified since the 1960s. Across the country, a number of bills have been enacted reducing access to abortion, birthing options, funding for access to organizations providing Pap tests, and limit sex education. All of these challenges and others have been engorged by the persistence of racism in various domains of reproductive encounters. The challenges are appalling: the high costs of medical services, the ways caring is counter-intuitive to the demands of what we might call reproductive capitalism, not knowing ones’ rights, and having to learn you have them at all. Reproductive justice activists take up these challenges with compassion, purpose, and pride.
Yet, history has shown how divisive rhetoric leads people to falsely believe their interests must be divested from the interests of others. Sifting through the noise of regressive public policy and public disdain for reproductive justice, we have Patricia Zavella’s The Movement for Reproductive Justice: Empowering Women of Color through Social Activism, whichoffers a capacious discussion chronicling the reproductive movement in the United States and the overlapping processes that position activism as a tool of empowerment for women of color.
Through a deep analysis of the campaigns specific organizations produce, Zavella captures how racially/ethnically specific organizations deploy a reproductive justice framework. Importantly, she begins with a cogent definition of reproductive justice offering one of the few accurate attributes of its origins. What sets Zavella’s book apart from others on the subject is that she brings into bas relief how women and youth involved in reproductive justice organizations frame their identities as they are influenced by the work. The book’s main argument is that this movement is effective as a collaborative connector and as a model for other social movements because of its attention to the layered ways the politics of reproduction affect people differentially.
Reproductive Justice centers the analytics of power and intersectionality and in so doing, Zavella rightly returns to us to an earlier anthropological focus on empowerment through activism, recalling the kind of meticulous work Ann Bookman and Sandra Morgen provided in their important volume, Women and the Politics of Empowerment (1988). Zavella unpacks empowerment in such a manner that we see the processes by which political subjectivity develops through the macro and micro analysis of organizations’ reproductive justice campaigns.
This book stands out among others that focus on reproductive justice and reproductive movements in anthropology because there are so few, if any, centering women of color although women of color have been organizing around women’s health since the 1970s. One might historicize the various forms of activism among communities of color prior to the 1960s and ’70s, as a form of proto-reproductive and women’s health organizing and resistances emerged in the 1900s. For instance, in the Black community, Jim Crow segregation led members of the Black community, including the Black Women’s Club Movement, to organize health care services including reproductive care. Also, Native American women engaged in micro-resistances to medical imperialism. But these studies are not plentiful, and Zavella rightfully and accurately notes that much of the literature on reproduction has focused on various forms of oppression while she offers a stunning counter narrative to oppression—a narrative that is the foundation for a movement centered in the goals of justice.
Zavella organizes Reproductive Justice around four concepts, culture shift, collaboration, storytelling, and self-care. Chapter 1, Culture Shift Work, focuses on how organizations turn “deficit thinking that blames subjects for their experiences of marginalization in relation to health and takes a strengths-based approach” (p. 65). To do so, groups conduct their own activist research that offer interpretive frameworks representing people’s lives with a coherence of their own making.
Chapter 2 lifts up collaboration as the operative framing for groups that struggle, negotiate borderlands, and engage in a politics of translation. Through this chapter, we see how collaboration instantiates an “us” vision of justice in a world of rampant individualism. Collaboration means we can hold ourselves and our partners accountable as we work to shift the power that governs us. Collaboration is one way to upend antagonistic policies, practices, and neoliberal impulses that privatize knowledge production, pushing aside social justice (see Davis 2016).
In Chapter 3, Youth Mobilization, Zavella explores how youth engaged in reproductive justice work land in a kind of safe home where they both experience and embrace a politics of belonging built on affirmative justice. This chapter draws out the power of storytelling as a political strategy to transform policies that govern and harm such as the absence of sex education and parental notification of abortion legislation. Storytelling, though, is also a mechanism generating co-creative intergenerational engagement—a reproductive justice that really fosters solidarity—and we see how storytelling is raised to the level of political engagement.
The fourth chapter delivers a cogent discussion of self-care and healing justice. Self-care is deployed by justice workers who are engaged in deliberative and sometimes debilitating demands that come with being part of movement building. Zavella details the spiritual practices of self-care drawn from a number of traditions. The practices are linked to the critical work of healing, as one engages in and has multiple commitments including movement building and familial care taking. Indeed, for activists to bring their full selves into the movement work they do, they must craft spiritual tools designed and led by women of color because as Zavella says, quoting Norma Wong Roshi, “Self-care is foundation to our power, our resilience, our creativity, our health and our collective impact” (p. 180).
We in anthropology are well versed in the various modes of political participation generated beyond electoral politics, but we do not necessarily typify activism in terms with liberation as its goal. Zavella’s ability to focus on the importance of activism linked to identity depends on mutuality and is in the interest of liberation is an important intervention. By examining campaigns of various reproductive groups led by women of color, we see how reproductive justice centers abolition and liberation. But most importantly, the struggle against reproductive governance requires mutuality and care. As Zavella notes, the movement for reproductive justices mobilizes different types of power.
Through crafting progressive legislation and informing broad minded social policies, critiquing derogatory representations of women and people of color, and offering a discourse honoring the historical strength and resiliency of people of color through organizing activities that raise women’s consciousness and offer educational resources to low-income communities, the movement for reproductive justice takes a multifaceted approach to social transformation. (p. 201)
This is a must-read book for those wanting to understand not only the oppressions reproductive justice organizes against, but the powerful ways reproductive justice motivates people to become activists for social transformation.
Bookman, A., and S. Morgen. 1988. Women and the Politics of Empowerment. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Davis, D.-A. 2016. Collaboration: Provocation. Correspondences, Fieldsights, September 26. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/collaboration-provocation (accessed April 1, 2021).