“Intersectionality” in Real Life

Against the Current, No. 133, March/April 2008

interview with Loretta Ross

Left: National Black Feminist Organization caucus meeting during NOW Conference, photo by Betty Layne. Credit: http://catchingthewave.library.harvard.edu/items/show/919 Right: Loretta Ross, pictured at the DC Rape Crisis Center in 1979. Credit: https://lorettajross.com/

LORETTA ROSS IS National Coordinator of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, a network of 80 organizations. Their website is http://www.sistersong.net. She was interviewed by phone by Dianne Feeley and David Finkel from the ATC editorial board.

Against the Current: Where were you during the events of 1968?

Loretta Ross: I was still in high school, in San Antonio. My mother had this passion for making sure all her children did volunteer work. I was a candy-striper at Brooke Army Hospital, where my assignment was simply delivering library books to the wounded soldiers, at least to those who could see.

I came from a military family, and Uncle Sam provided good benefits for us. That’s why we and a lot of Black people were pro-military. I have five brothers and three of them joined the military, which was a tradition in our family.

But when I saw all these boys, barely older than me, missing their limbs, it had a profound effect. My lifetime opposition to war began in those hospital wards, looking at the bodies of those boys. I was 15 going on 16, they were 18 going on the rest of their lives without the rest of their bodies.

A couple of years later people from my graduating class went off to Vietnam; many never came back.

In 1968 I’d decided to wear an Afro and dashiki to school one day, and the counselors told me I had to go home and change because my dress was “inappropriate.” My dashiki came down to my ankles while other girls were wearing miniskirts up to their crotch. For me this was just a cultural, more than a political, thing. But in south Texas it made me appear to be the emerging wave of the Black Panther Party.

Then we had the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations. But mainly there was the backlash by whites against what was expected to happen –- that the revolution would happen tomorrow –- and the authorities became incredibly repressive against anything they saw as radicalism.

The real radicalism, however, in San Antonio in 1968 was happening in the barrio, while the authorities were paying attention to us, basically assimilated Black people. San Antonio was 60% Mexican-American or Chicano, 20% Black and 20% white. The tendency was to use the Blacks as the buffer class —- I remember signs saying “No Mexicans Allowed,” rather than No Blacks…

But 1968 was pre-Roe v. Wade. I became pregnant (through incest). Back then it was very common for parents to put you in a home for unwed pregnant girls, give away your parental rights and afterwards you’d go back to school, pretending nothing happened. Girls who kept their babies were routinely expelled from school. That was also racially tinged because a lot fewer white girls would make that choice.

When I made the decision to keep my son, in 1969, my whole life changed. I had actually signed the paper to give the baby up for adoption, but when the nurses by mistake brought him to me for breastfeeding, I held him and saw “he has my face,” and I couldn’t give him up.

ATC (Dianne): My mother told me that had I become pregnant, she was planning on keeping the baby and raising him as my brother.

LR: Well, I had to fight the idea that my aunt would keep the baby. But when I brought him home, my parents made it look as if it was their idea —- they fawned over him and treated him as their own. There was less age difference between me and my son than between me and my older brother. They were totally supportive and began co-parenting. I was lucky in that I did have a strong and supportive family who weren’t punitive, as I saw with my classmates who were getting kicked out and having to struggle alone.

My parents’ focus was on finishing my education. We had to sue my high school for the right to return. The school let me back in when they saw the legal writing on the wall, but began a silent campaign against me. They stripped me of all my academic honors, all because I had my baby and went back to school, unlike the girls who gave up their babies. And I couldn’t help feeling separated from the normal concerns of high school. While the other girls were thinking about dates and dances I was worrying about diapers.

Although it was a unique time to be in that whole mix, I understood much more of it in hindsight than when I was 15 and 16, taking on my high school for readmission after my pregnancy. In retrospect I’d say I was already a feminist, but I wouldn’t have called myself any such thing at the time.

They never expelled the boys who made us pregnant, just the girls. And mainly the white girls went away for seven months “vacation” and then came back with no further consequences. So it was a racial policy even if not intended as such. Again, I only did that kind of assessment in hindsight.

I had received a scholarship to go to Radcliffe –- back in the 1960s, there was great competition for recruiting the cream of the crop of Black students. I was seriously recruited beginning in the ninth grade. What would have become of me if I’d gone to Radcliffe to study chemistry? But the high school counselor who had nominated me — she was a Radcliffe alum — wrote to them once I had my baby; Radcliffe said I could still attend, but withdrew the scholarship offer.

So I wound up at Howard University [a historically Black college in Washington, DC — ed.], which gave me a full scholarship and didn’t care if I had my baby. It was a much more radicalizing experience. The 1970 riot was on 14th Street and the dorm was on 16th Street — there was teargas in my dorm because we were on the roof throwing things at the cops. In my freshmen year I was given two books — The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Black Woman, edited by Toni Cade (later Bambara). Those were formative for me.

My child came to live with me after my sophomore year, so I got an apartment in the Adams Morgan area. That’s how I became involved in the struggle against gentrification. I got this notice that we had to move in 60 days; our apartments were being converted into condos. I knew I couldn’t afford to move.

We had a meeting in the basement; I volunteered to take minutes and next thing I knew I was president of the tenants association! Eventually I did have to move because there wasn’t enough room in my efficiency apartment, but ten years later those tenants bought that building. That struggle introduced me to the housing movement — 30 years later it’s just a tragedy to go to Washington D.C. and see what’s happened.

It was through housing activism — we had the Citywide Housing Coalition, which was also fighting for rent control — that I met people who introduced me to the feminist movement as well. A former Black Panther, Nkenge Toure, introduced me to the Rape Crisis Center where I wound up volunteering. I told her I wasn’t sure I wanted to work with these white women, but she told me she wouldn’t lead me wrong. A couple of years later I became the executive director, and I’ve been involved in the women’s movement since then.

It was the women’s movement that allowed me to analyze what had happened with rape and incest in my own life. But it was difficult because up to then I had been more involved in the Black Nationalist movement — The Autobiography of Malcolm X had convinced me that I didn’t even like white women, and there was everything that had happened to me in that predominantly white high school.

So I was skeptical whenever I worked with white women, where I encountered all kinds of problems and even racism. These women didn’t share my experiences. Meanwhile my colleagues in the Black Nationalist movement felt I had sold out the Black struggle by pointing out the level of violence against women happening in our community. So in the women’s movement we “weren’t feminist enough” and in the Black movement “not Black enough.”

In the 1970s and ‘80s there were solidarity actions against apartheid. Working with the Rape Crisis Center and bringing in these other issues, we were told we were “diluting the struggle” of the feminist movement. Then when I went to the National Black United Front and discussed gender issues in the so-called Black revolutionary movement, I was booed off the stage.

The theories we needed to unite us hadn’t been written yet. That began to change later in the 1970s, e.g. with the Combahee River Collective Statement (1977), and in 1981 bell hooks wrote Ain’t I A Woman which became like the Bible for Black feminists. We organized her trip to DC to talk about Black women and feminism. That was a wonderful tour –- the Center was housed in the famous All Souls Church, and the place was packed.

Barbara Smith wrote her book, All the Women Were White and All the Blacks Were Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. One special thing about Washington D.C. then was all the radical things happening —- the only Black feminist newspaper was published there, and there were enough of us that we could actually hold meetings and discuss Black feminist issues.

Some of my enduring friendships come from that era. We clung together. And there was no place else where we could recognize our reality: Where do you go to struggle against apartheid, violence against women, racism and gentrification all at the same time?

For about five years we brought all those issues to the table, before theories of “intersectionality” were developed by people like Audre Lorde. Later, the white women regained control and the Center reverted to a social service agency.
There was a short-lived formation called the National Black Feminist Organization. We’d call ourselves the Third World Caucus within formations like the National Women’s Studies Association, and the white women always thought we were trying to discuss them. In reality we were more thrilled simply to meet others like ourselves.

The term “women of color” was created in 1977 at the Houston Women’s Conference, but not popularized until a decade later… The United Nations declared 1975 to be International Women’s Year, and then, based on the requests of people like Bella Abzug and Eleanor Smeal, President Jimmy Carter made $5 million available for the conference in Houston.

The term “women of color” came about because the conference organizers’ “Plan of Action” for American women had just a few paragraphs on minority women, just to say they shouldn’t be discriminated against, so a group of Black women formed the Black Women’s Agenda and went to Houston determined to fight for a Black Women’s Agenda document. They were able to get their document included in the Plan of Action, but other “women of color” also wanted to be included so it was decided to re-name it the “Women of Color Agenda.”

ATC (Dianne): I wasn’t in Houston, but I did go to our state meeting, where we battled the right wing, which was attempting to capture delegates.

LR: Oh yes, that was the rise of the Eagle Forum of Phyllis Schlafly. Let’s connect this back to 1968 — which also presented us with the George Wallace campaign. The people embittered by his defeat went on to bring together elements of the hard right, which became the Moral Majority that helped put Reagan in office and the whole backlash against the social justice agenda.

So while we were organizing, that right wing was also in formation –- one set attacking affirmative action, another going after abortion rights, another on immigration, women’s rights and so on.

We felt that we had to be the movement to represent all the responses to the hard right. It was in the activism of women of color that all these issues were confronted. We didn’t have a critical mass of people organized to push back. Today I see an organized movement of women of color, who can oppose the war in Iraq and at the same time defend abortion rights.

That’s exactly what SisterSong is attempting to be — women of color working for environmental justice, and using the Human Rights framework and bringing into the U.S. context. Since we formed in 1997, we’ve been pushing the concept of “Bringing Human Rights Home” to bear not only on reproductive rights but on immigrant rights and Native American sovereignty rights. While defending abortion rights, we also confront the strategy of population control, so we also fight for the right to have our children, and to parent in decent conditions.

ATC: What lessons would you want to pass along to today’s new activist generation?

LR: There’s a chance to build a new Human Rights movement that hasn’t ever existed before. We’ve had all the identity-based movements, but not that umbrella movement that brings us all together.

It’s pretty exciting to stand at the beginning of a new social justice movement. That’s the opportunity I think young people will have. But they’ll have to do it differently.

We spent a lot of time convincing people to think like us, sectarian work that wasn’t necessarily productive. But when you bring together people who don’t think like you, there will have to be new strategies.

Diversity organizing isn’t something we’ve been very good at, but young people will be in a better position to do that — if they don’t think that their first job is to make everyone think just like them. We’ve left no blueprint for young people about how to do this — to build unity across diversity — yet I think they will be better prepared than we would have been, because they live in a more “intersectional” universe on the internet, with all these virtual communities, where we would just have been knocking on doors in our neighborhoods.

ATC 133, March-April 2008