Monica Edwards (she/her/hers) works as the federal policy manager at URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity. She is a proud Southerner and queer intersectional Black feminist.
My grandmother, Lizzie Mae Kelly, fought for her rights. In 1965, she marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the late, great Rep. John Lewis from Selma to Montgomery, but not before she was beaten on Bloody Sunday. Through it all, she, like so many other Black women, persisted, even joining organizers in strategy planning at our home church of Zion United Methodist Church in Marion, Alabama. Thanks to her and the other brave activists with whom she worked, my mom, myself, and generations of other women — despite the lingering threat of racist violence and suppression — would later be able to exercise the right to vote and have a say in the laws that govern our communities and our own bodies.
The right to vote is inherently tied up with the right to bodily autonomy and reproductive justice. Existing as a Black or nonwhite woman, nonbinary, or trans person of color opens one up to multiple, overlapping forms of oppression and discrimination under the law and in society, a concept which scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw defined as “intersectionality” in the late 1980s. Black and Indigenous women, trans folks, and other people of color have endured unimaginable constraints on their bodies, families, and futures in large part because they lacked the political power bestowed by simply being able to vote.
I still wonder how things might have been different if young Black women like me had a fair say in how these systems were set up from the start.
Growing up in Alabama’s rural Black Belt in the early 2000s, the lack of reproductive justice in my own community shaped my understanding of what it really means to have the vote. As a working undergraduate student without health insurance, I struggled to access affordable reproductive care starting in 2010. My university had a student health center, but students without insurance like me were given two abysmal options to get the care we needed: either pay out of pocket or add the costs to your student bill, which could prevent you from registering for classes and continuing your education if you failed to pay on time. Only with luck and my own work did I eventually secure birth control, annual screenings, and testing through my local health department. But finding that resource on my own and navigating the system as a full-time, low-income law student at a predominantly white institution, the University of Alabama School of Law, was harrowing and alienating. I was attempting to access my human right to care as a young person, as a Black woman in America where I am pre-judged because of my race, and doing it while navigating a toxic relationship. It was a daily trauma to exist in an anti-Black world and struggle to simply get basic health care. Long after my own experience, I still wonder how things might have been different if young Black women like me had a fair say in how these systems were set up from the start.
Even though the 19th Amendment was ratified 100 years ago this month, ostensibly granting women in America the right to vote and have a say in their own destinies, more than four decades later, my grandmother still had to fight to claim the rights she was owed. As with many rights and “freedoms” granted under the U.S. Constitution, Black women and other women of color were intentionally omitted, and the legal right to vote proved not enough. In fact, many women’s suffrage leaders who had once claimed to be champions for Black equality disregarded Black women in order to appease the white supremacist power structure and successfully pass the 19th Amendment. Their fragility positioned them to prioritize their personal interests over being true allies to Black people. Their concern for Black women was trumped by their white womanhood. It's no wonder Sojourner Truth asked, “Ain’t I a woman?”
Although voting has been a theoretical legal right for every American since the passage of the 15th and 19th Amendments, exercising that right remains a hurdle 100 years on. In the South and Midwest especially, Black people have faced immense obstacles and violence for voting, the repercussions of which have echoed throughout my own family for generations.
Those of us working from an intersectional perspective know that ending voter suppression is a reproductive justice issue. Conceived by 12 Black women in 1994, the Reproductive Justice framework dictates that true liberation cannot be achieved until we are able to have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities. We cannot do that until we are fully enfranchised as voters and citizens.
People in positions of power shape the policies that lie at the heart of reproductive justice and full liberation for women and trans folks of color.
For many Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, voter disenfranchisement is just one of many obstacles to accessing reproductive health care — including abortion — but it is one of the most critical. The struggle for workers to get time off to go and vote, the decreasing number of polling sites, and voter ID laws are just some obstacles that make it burdensome to vote, especially for young people of color. Systemic oppression and white supremacy put these obstacles in place, and the men and women in power, who are majority white, heterosexual, and cisgender, kept them there. The same systems that suppress the vote of women like me uphold restrictions on abortion and prevent us from having full bodily autonomy. This is why activists must continue to mobilize young people of color and embolden them to exercise their political power.
People in positions of power shape the policies that lie at the heart of reproductive justice and full liberation for women and trans folks of color. The right for women like me to access abortion, contraception, comprehensive maternal care, and address intimate partner violence hinges directly on who we, as a society, vote into office.
While Roe v. Wade gave people the legal right to abortion, activists know from a full century of experience that a Supreme Court decision or a constitutional amendment is far from enough. Reproductive justice cannot be achieved until we live in communities in which we can thrive and exercise our full range of rights, and those communities can’t exist until we can fully mobilize for policies that directly impact our communities.
We as a society can never rest content with rights as they are written on paper. Just because something is legal does not mean it’s accessible or even enough. We must demand our rights be recognized with our voices and actions. We must take up space with our bodies. And we must move as a community toward that truly just and liberated future my grandmother envisioned, in which Black women have the power to determine our lives and futures free from the oppressive bonds of white supremacy.