Sterilization is one topic that Shatema Threadcraft outlines to advance her argument about Black female body politics in her new book Intimate Justice: The Black Female Body and the Body Politic.
Threadcraft argues Black women have been subject to racial domination through violence and inequality that a theory of corrective justice can only address if it adequately accounts for Black women’s experiences within American history:
[This book] considers the ways in which the black female body -bodies like Riddick’s – as well as the capacities of the black body most closely associated with femininity and the material labors that typically fall to women have been constrained and diminished with the American body politic1
Threadcraft asks us to consider how Black women have a different history toward justice due to abuse and control:
Intimate Justice therefore charts the long and still incomplete struggle for freedom and equality. For the embodied black female subject, the struggle marked by infanticides widespread and systematic sexual violence as a weapon of racial terror, covered sterilizations and other racially targeted techniques of population control, as well as racially biased child removal policies.2
Ultimately Threadcraft seeks to answer the question: How does freedom and corrective justice serve the embodied black female subject?
Sterilizing the Black Female Body
Most people argue Roe v. Wade defined the primary advancement of women’s rights in the modern era. However, Threadcraft argues this monument adequately highlights white women’s relationship to the state, but not that of black women. Specifically, Black women pushed back against sterilization at a time White women advocated for abortion.
Elaine Riddick and Eugenics on the Black Female Body
On March 5, 1968 the North Carolina Eugenics Board (NCEB) sterilized then 14 year old Elaine Riddick after she delivered a baby conceived through sexual violence.3 Unbeknownst to Riddick, her grandmother gave consent to the operation because of threat of removal from state assistance programs. Over the course 55 years, the NCEB, created in 1933 by the North Carolina General Assembly, sterilized and asexualized thousands of mostly poor women of color. ‘
When the board was founded in the 1930s, 23% of the women sterilized identified as Black. However, by the 1950s, fears that White people would die out and anxiety over Black people having access to welfare saw an increase in the sterilization rate. By 1964 the percentage of women sterilized that were Black had increased to 64%. In 1968 when the board closed, that percentage had reached 68%.
Riddick took her case to the ACLU Women’s Rights Project in 1974 as part of a class-action lawsuit against the NCEB, which ultimately ruled in 1984 that no wrongdoing or unlawful deprivation had occurred. In 2011 Riddick gave her testimony to the NC Governor’s Eugenics Commission, which decided to award her $50,000.
Now Elaine Riddick serves as the Executive Director of the Rebecca Project for Justice, which advocates for Black women’s reproductive rights and security. In this role she has advocated against the use of Depo Provera for low-income women and women of color. Ultimately, the project aims to found a sister sanctuary to intervene in the sexual assault to prison pipeline.
Relf vs. Weinberger: Fighting Back Against Sterilization Abuse
The same year the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Roe v. Wade, a group of women filed an appeal in U.S. District Court 147. The Relf family learned their 12 year old and 14 year old daughters had been sterilized without their consent. A nurse in Montgomery asked the parents to place their daughters on Depo Provera even though the court had already use the drug shouldn’t be used.
What happened to the Relfs had happened to over 75,000 girls and women at maternity clinics located throughout the South, half of which received federal funding. Much like modern clinics with similar aims, the clinics posed as a resource for women but instead helped facilitate sterilization abuse against women of color. So rampant was this abuse that sterilizations came to be known as “Mississippi appendectomy.” Indeed when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized against it, they referred to advent as a “Genocide in Mississippi.”
Black feminists (the National Welfare Rights Organization) joined the legal fight along with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Ultimately, the 1977 Relf v. Weinberger decision symbolized the relationship between reproductive control and justice for Black women.
Black Feminist Organizing Against Sterilization – A Brief History
Black women relying on public assistance were the primary targets of this sterilization. However, indigenous and Latina women also got targeted too. As such, women across numerous groups organized around race and reproduction to call for an end to sterilization. Women of All Red Nations protested sterilization abuse. In the 70’s, Latina women filed lawsuits against county medical centers and formed the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse.
Frances Beal of SNCC founded the Black Women’s (later Third World Women’s) Alliance and helped make clear the parallels between sterilizations and genocides. She noted in her piece “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female,” that maternity clinics in Mississippi were unfairly targeted Black women. Black feminist activists noted the connection among sterilization abuse, coerced reproduction and enforced child neglect during the slavery era. As such, their efforts led to a fight for reproductive rights, not just abortion.