by Brianna Rae
This past weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault (WCASA), an agency that works tirelessly with organizations around the state to offer support, advocacy, and information to victims of sexual violence and their families.
Celebrated at Olbrich Gardens, the event was a chance for WCASA to unveil their new website, new logo, and new mission to honor and champion the leadership of women of color in movements against violence against women. Loretta Ross, distinguished writer, human rights advocate and feminist theorist, graced the stage as the night’s keynote speaker.
WCASA and the Effort to Diversify
WCASA is now proudly partnering with the national Women of Color Network in order to advance their initiative to both honor and integrate the work and voices of women of color in addressing sexual violence and oppression.
While WCASA’s board of directors has been successfully diversified, the small staff of ten remains nearly all white. Pennie Meyers, executive director of WCASA, is working hard to change that.
“We’re trying to be intentional about diversifying our staff and hiring women of color,” said Meyers.
This is a strong step in the right direction for an organization working within a larger movement of Reproductive Justice, which was theorized and created by women of color like Loretta Ross.
Violence Against Women: Then and Now
“I had the joy of being the 3rd executive director for the first Rape Crisis Center in the country, which was formed in 1972,” said Ms. Ross. “We somehow thought that these 40-something years later we’d be out of business… that violence against women would be over.”
“So, what have we done?” she asked. “We haven’t stopped violence against women, but we certainly made it clear that it’s wrong,” she said.
Ross, who has dedicated the last 40 years of her life to anti-racist, feminist, and human rights movements and whose experience, accolades and positions are too numerous to name, isn’t a member of these movements from a professional or theoretical point of view, but a deeply personal one.
Ross is a survivor of rape, was forced to bear and raise a child through incest, and survived sterilization abuse. “I didn’t think I’d grow up to be a professional feminist. I went to school for chemistry and physics,” she said. “But all my plans for my life got overwhelmed by my biology. Everything I wanted to do with my life got trumped by what the world wanted to do to me.”
She grew up in a time before feminist movements secured legal rights and access to bodily autonomy for women, especially women of color. For example, “We had to write the first protocols for how rape victims should be treated in the hospital,” Ross recalled. “They didn’t have a sexual assault examination room or a rape evidence kits — we pioneered that.”
It was also a time before specific terms and words were created that articulated and named the unique oppression that women of color experience. The coining of the term ‘intersectionality’ in 1989, which spoke specifically to the experience of overlapping oppressions for women of color, is a prominent example. “Naming is a very powerful act of resistance and identification,” said Ross. “My favorite quip is, ‘Newton didn’t invent gravity, but damn if he didn’t name it!” she said with a hearty laugh.
Reflecting on her and countless women’s decades of activism, she’s proud of what they’ve achieved. “I believe that the movement against violence against women is the most successful globalized movement… there is not a country in the world that you can go to that you won’t find people working to end violence against women,” she said. “We have changed the world, we have changed many women’s lives, and I know we have saved mine.”
For the future of the movement, she sees it as necessary to embrace the human rights framework. “Women’s rights are human rights. We can’t do our work in racist ways, or homophobic ways, we have to continue to fight against the myriad of violences that all women face,” said Ross.
She is also disappointed with the way ‘calling out’ culture – a tendency among those engaged in social justice work to ‘call out’ or publicly shame oppressive statements or behavior – has hurt the movement. “In my early twenties, there were so few Black women doing feminist work that we were much more united because we had to be,” she said. “Today it’s much more into ‘calling out’ culture, much less united, and that’s sad because we’re supposed to be building a movement where more people are included, and instead we’re using identity politics to micro-divide, we’re using the consciousness we have in a very weaponized way. We can’t build a movement of only people just like us,” she warns.
What Exactly is Reproductive Justice?
Reproductive Justice is a concept that has long been in the minds and lives of women of color, but that gained momentum after the intense organizing and social justice work of Black women in the 1980s and 90s.
The feminist movement of the 1970s and 80s did a poor job of integrating the voices and needs of women of color. Reproductive Rights, a movement that largely served only white women, offered a narrow, privileged, and individualized concept of what reproductive freedom and equality meant, focusing mostly on the legal access and right to receive an abortion.
In contrast, Reproductive Justice (RJ), a term coined at the 1994 Black Women’s Caucus by Loretta Ross and the women she worked with, merged concepts of reproductive rights and social justice, highlighting the lived experience of reproductive oppression in communities of color. RJ offered a broader analysis of racial, economic, social, and structural constraints on the power of women to have control over their bodies. To advance this concept, the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective was formed in 1997 and co-founded by Ross.
For more information, visit http://www.sistersong.net/, or check out books such as Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice written by Loretta Ross, Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried, and Elena Gutierrez, or the anthology Incite! Women of Color Against Violence.
For more information on WCASA and employment or volunteer opportunities, visit their new website www.wcasa.org.