Activist Loretta Ross Talks Bluntly and With Humor at Women Winning Event

Photo Credit: The Laura Flanders Show, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been doing this work for over 50 years, and you have to have a sustainable plan, so that you aren’t just movement tourists: parachuting in and going back out. The people who are fighting us — the pimples on the ass of the time — … are fighting forces way beyond their power. They’re fighting the truth, they’re fighting evidence, they’re fighting history. But most of all, they’re fighting time. 

I want to talk a little bit about time today. I was part of the team at NOW [National Organization for Women] that organized the first abortion rights march in 1986. Y’all remember the name of it, but not why we did it. We did it because we were facing a country of politicians who are afraid to say the “A word” — abortion. What good is a politician that tells you they privately support you but they can’t publicly speak out? We put together 600,000 voters to let them know we had their backs. 

We also found out when we first organized that march on April 9, 1986 — I remember because it’s my son’s birthday — that we needed to switch our strategy. We started out believing that they didn’t know how the women would suffer [without the right to abortion]. What we’ve since found out is that they know, but they don’t care. That’s a different problem. We can’t do an empathy transplant like we can do a heart transplant.

Why should [we] be surprised? They’re willing to let their own children die of gun violence. What kind of people don’t care if their own children are getting shot at? An 18-year-old told me the other day, “We’re the child soldiers in the culture wars of the boomers.” Training our own children to be on the front line of the violence that these assholes have put us in.

One of the phrases I say often in Georgia — it’s “Jorja” when it comes to our legislature and governor; our Governor Brian Kemp refereed his own election, as you might recall — He “cheats because he can’t compete.” This is what the Republicans are doing. They’re changing the rules. If they can’t monopolize democracy, they’d rather destroy it. It’s very clear what we’re up against.

The current and some former elected Minnesota politicians at the 2023 Women Winning event.

I want to give a brief overview of reproductive justice. There may be some people that think it’s just a new word for pro-choice. Pro-choice is a great word — don’t stop using it — but that’s not reproductive justice.

Reproductive justice started out with 12 Black women, of which I was one. We decided that both the pro-choice and the sometimes-called pro-life movement kept starting with the pregnancy. That’s kind of starting downstream. Because if you really want to know what women need, you need to know what’s going on in their lives before they get pregnant. Do they have housing? Do they have job security? Can they go to college? Do they have a future? Do they live in neighborhoods that are contaminated with bad drinking water?

You’ve got to know those things. Because if a woman has bad answers to those questions, she might turn a planned pregnancy into an abortion. But if she has good answers to those questions, she may turn an unintended pregnancy into a baby. So when you start at the pregnancy you’re starting too damn late as far as we’re concerned.

We created the concept of reproductive justice by splicing together the concept of reproductive rights and social justice to talk about all those other issues going on in people’s lives before they even have a pregnancy. We were just trying to define what we 12 Black women needed; we weren’t trying to [create a] movement to change the world — although we did.

There’s a pro-life woman — a midwife — named Alice. She was one of the founding members of SisterSong, which was created by pro-choice and pro-life women. We’re one of the most successful coalitions bringing all those women together. People should follow our model.

Alice got me in the hall one day and said, “Loretta, what is this reproductive justice thing y’all keep talking about?” I looked at her and thought, ‘I’ve got to have a good answer for Alice, because if I have the wrong answer she’s going to lead the pro-life women out of the movement.’

I said, “Alice, you’re a midwife, right? And you believe that every woman has the right to have the children that she wants to have, right? But do you also believe that a woman should have the right not to have the children she don’t want to have?” She said, “Yeah.” I thought, “Okay, I gotcha now.”

I said, “Alice, do you believe that for the children that are here that a woman should be able to raise those children in a safe and healthy environment?” Alice said, “Oh hell, yeah.”

That became the definition of reproductive justice: the right to have a child, the right not to have a child, and the right to raise your children [in a healthy way]. It’s simple to say, but it’s hard as hell to achieve. 

That was us in 1994. A decade later, our LGBT folks within SisterSong started saying, “Wait a moment, y’all loving on the cooty too much. What about us? We want to expand reproductive justice to talk about the right to gender identity and bodily autonomy and — this is my favorite — the right to sexual pleasure.”

I think we made a terrible branding campaign when we called ourselves the “pro-choice movement” — I’ve always said this — we should have called ourselves the “pro-sex movement,” because the one thing our opponents hate is people having fun having sex. I think we could have peeled off all of the soft underbelly if we had called ourselves the “pro-sex movement” because they would have had to define themselves as the “anti-sex movement.” We would have captured all of their base. 

I don’t know where this country is going to go; I happen to still believe in it. If I didn’t believe in it, I like to say, I’d be on a beach playing with myself somewhere. Us human rights activists are optimists, and one of the things we struggle with, but with determination, is that we work to keep our joy.

You’re looking at the most horrible things that human beings can do to each other and if you don’t have that toggle switch — where you can turn your consciousness on when it’s time to pay attention to the suffering, and turn it off when you want to watch Twilight without a feminist critique — you won’t be here long. You’ll burn out in your first five years because you’ve lost the joy of life.

We’re in it for the long haul — that’s what I try to tell the young people that I am working with. You need that toggle switch. You need to be able to understand that you are not the entire chain of freedom; the whole struggle doesn’t rest on your shoulders, so stop trying to make everybody be politically correct like you are, because it doesn’t work.

The chain of freedom stretches back from our ancestors and forward towards our descendants. The only thing you need to worry about is that the chain of freedom doesn’t break at your link. That means you’ve got to do your work in a sustainable way: with joy, with integrity, with self-care, with tolerance, with self-forgiveness — so that you can forgive others. You have to call yourself in before you can call others out. There are many pathways up the mountain and you aren’t the magic one who’s figured out the right one.

These are the things we need to tell our young people. 

I’m going to close by saying I love Women Winning. I wish we had this all over the country. In Georgia, we’re spending so much time just protecting the simple right to vote. You can’t pass out water to people standing in lines when they shut down polling precincts. [They] don’t want us to vote on Saturdays. They don’t want us to help people get to the polls. We’re still in a neo-confederacy down south, so this feels like liberated land when I am in Minnesota to hear about what y’all are up to. I don’t care if you only did it by one vote, you did it. 

One reason that I know we’re going to win in the long haul is that these fools have pissed off their own damn children. In every election in America, the majority of the white demographic has voted for the candidate that best represents white supremacy — until 2020. In 2020, the 18- to 29-year-olds said hell-to-the-no.

I chuckled when I saw that statistic. I said, “We got them with our food, we got them with our music, and now we got your ass at the ballot box.” 

When women win, the world wins, and thank god for being who you are.

Processional of Minnesota’s elected officials, entering the Women Winning luncheon by political office

After Loretta Ross’s keynote, she had a conversation with writer Lori Sturdevant and reproductive justice humorist and activist Lizz Winstead