‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and the Reproductive Rights Movement’s White Supremacy Problem
White feminists identify so strongly with The Handmaid’s Tale because it is a show about white women in slavery.
[CW/TW: This essay contains extensive discussion of reproductive violence and some mention of sexual violence.]
Reproductive rights is a subject that is central to the politics of white feminism because it is the second most prominent fight that it has historically engaged with, the first being voting rights for white women. It has always been understood as advocacy for the right to birth control and access to safe, legal abortion options as part of one’s ability to plan pregnancies and families on one’s own terms. In short, for able-bodied and able-minded white people, it has been primarily about the right to not be pregnant.
Considering the historical context of eugenics, scientific racism, and certain state-sanctioned violences, reproductive justice for non-whites would largely be quite the opposite. For many, it would instead be the ability to bear and nurture one’s own children without government interference or barriers created through white supremacy and systemic oppression.
In the dominant social conversation about reproductive rights, issues specific to people of color are often omitted or simply glanced over. This is why the term Reproductive justice was coined by a group of Black women in 1994, to specifically address the needs and concerns of people of color that are routinely left out of the conversation. The Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective known as SisterSong defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” Black women and other people of color creating our own terminology is so necessary because white feminism has a reputation for ignoring oppressions until cis white women become affected by them, and reproductive violences are no exception.
The popularity of and discourse surrounding The Handmaid’s Tale is indicative of this neglect. Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the series and its subject matter resonate with those who work to combat rape culture and support bodily, sexual, and reproductive autonomy. The systematic sexual and reproductive violences on the show terrify those who view the story as a future dystopian (im)possibility for whiteness, when it is in fact a historical ghost for Black people who were enslaved.
Distinguished by their red robes and white bonnets, Handmaids are forced into slavery, repeatedly violated, impregnated, and made to give birth to children that are immediately taken to serve the interests of others. Essentially, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts cis white women stripped of the ability to bear and nurture one’s own children without government interference or barriers created through white supremacy and systemic oppression. This is a position that they have never seen themselves depicted in, and it terrifies them.
Last year, the robes became another contemporary emblem for white feminism, alongside “Pink Pussy hats”, in The Handmaid’s Protests; using costuming from the show in order to perform demonstrations against politicians who seek to enact laws against reproductive rights, and these protests have continued into this year.
White feminists identify so strongly with The Handmaid’s Tale because it is a show about white women in slavery. They see clear connections between its horrors and the current state of U.S. politics. They see it as an omen. As a call to action. Therefore, they cosplay it in order to protest government involvement in reproductive rights and “women’s bodies.” Within the dominant pro-choice rhetoric of The Handmaid’s Protest and beyond, the language of keeping the government out of “women’s bodies” is not only cisnormative, but it also fails to acknowledge the fact that this same government has already been routinely intruding upon and committing reproductive violences against people of color, the poor, and the disabled for centuries, and has even done so in the very same vein of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Eugenics, white supremacist ideology, reproductive rights, and white feminism are all historically and intricately connected. When the Ku Klux Klan founded a chapter for women, it grew quickly and boasted nearly half a million members at its peak in the early 1900s. Women joined the white supremacist group in droves.
In Women of the Klan: Race and Gender in the 1920s, Kathleen M. Blee writes:
“For thousands of native-born white Protestant women… the Klan’s appeal [was] not based purely on racism and nativism… The political efforts of a women’s order, the Klan claimed, could safeguard women’s suffrage and expand women’s other legal rights while working to preserve white Protestant supremacy.”
Eugenics and the KKK had the same objective; to maintain the perceived supremacy of whiteness by suppressing the prosperity and growth of people of color, and their popularity grew alongside each other in the early 1900s.
To recruit members, the collective pulled from groups of white women who had been active in the suffrage movement, which is cited as the birth of white feminism. Suffragette and white feminist icons Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were both unrepentant white supremacists, as were many of their followers, as well as the majority of the other movement leaders.
Margaret Sanger, one of the founders of the mainstream reproductive rights movement and champion for Planned Parenthood, has long been accused of advocating for Black genocide. Several people have come to her defense, instead highlighting her ableist comments about the “over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” In 1921, she even penned an essay entitled “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda.” Her feminism went hand in hand with eugenics, and regardless of her alleged opposition to racial containment, eugenics is still a tool of white supremacy. Reproductive rights and the pro-choice movement have long had a white supremacy problem.
In the second chapter of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, Dorothy Roberts details the reproductive histories of Black people in the U.S. “The Dark Side of Birth Control” is an unflinching look at the ways in which birth control has been used as a way to prevent the births of Black children.
“… the movement to expand women’s reproductive options was marked by racism from its very inception in the early part of this century. The spread of contraceptives to American women hinged partly on its appeal to eugenics bent on curtailing the birthrates of the ‘unfit,’ including Negroes… While slave masters forced Black women to bear children for profit, more recent policies have sought to reduce Black women’s fertility. Both share a common theme — that Black women’s childbearing should be regulated to achieve social objectives.”
This reproductive regulation towards social objectives is exactly what is explored in The Handmaid’s Tale, but it does so by placing white women at the center and as victims of the violence at the hands of a government that has always been involved in the reproductive choices of people of color via forced sterilization, as well as sexual and reproductive abuses.
White feminism’s reproductive rights discourse has failed to address many issues that disproportionately impact people of color: The racial gap in infant mortality rates due to socioeconomic injustice. The poisoned water impacting the health of mostly poor Black children in Flint, MI and other cities affected by environmental racism, effectively killing them. People of color are more likely to die during childbirth or fail to carry pregnancies to full term due to substandard care from racially biased physicians. People of color have less access to sex education and contraceptives due to chronic poverty and the racial wealth gap, which is a direct result of U.S. chattel slavery. Police brutality and state violence are absolutely reproductive violence issues. Black parents should have the right and ability to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.
There are so many forms of reproductive violences which are constantly left out of mainstream discussions about reproductive rights because they do not fit the pro-choice or “women’s bodies” narratives. Pro-choice rhetoric is so loud that it nearly drowns out anything else, and the movement as a whole continues to ignore how the history of white feminism and reproductive rights is rooted in white supremacist interests.
The Handmaid’s Tale has created an opportune moment for pro-choice white feminists to convene around reproductive rights and state-sanctioned violences which they view as a dreadful possibility for their immediate future, rather than a past and present reality for people of color. They look at The Handmaid’s Tale and see it as the “instruction manual” from which the government can pull ideas about how to restrict and control the reproduction of white citizens. Others look at the same text and see an account of our past; reminders of the various ways in which this government has systematized the reproduction of people of color for generations.
White feminist response to The Handmaid’s Tale is a reminder of how the underpinnings of pro-choice centered discourse and demonstration is kindred to the motivations of the suffragettes and the Women’s KKK — a focus on whiteness, and specifically on the interests of cis white women, above all others.
This essay has been shortened from its original form, first published as “White Women In Robes” on the writer’s personal website.