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Coretta Scott King: Feminist Human Rights Advocate, April 27 1927 - January 30 2006 Print E-mail


Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Mother of a movement carried a legacy

King, who led rights struggle after a tragedy, dies at 78

By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff

PHOTO: Tom Herde/ Globe Staff/ File 2004: Coretta Scott King was the commencement speaker at her alma mater, the New England Conservatory of Music, in 2004. She graduated in 1954.

Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., who after her husband's murder became one of America's best-known civil rights leaders in her own right and an international symbol of the struggle for social justice, died in her sleep late Monday night. She was 78.

Mrs. King's sister, Edythe Scott Bagley, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that her sister died at Hospital Santa Monica, a holistic health center, in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, near San Diego. Mrs. King had suffered a major stroke and heart attack in August. Doctors said she died of ovarian cancer.

In a statement, President Bush hailed Mrs. King as ''a remarkable and courageous woman, and a great civil rights leader." He lauded Mrs. King's ''lasting contributions to freedom and equality [which] have made America a better and more compassionate nation."

Poet Maya Angelou, speaking on ABC's ''Good Morning America," said of Mrs. King's death, ''It's a bleak morning for me and for many people, and yet it's a great morning because we have a chance to look at her and see what she did and who she was."

After the assassination of her husband, Mrs. King's chief focus was the preservation of his legacy. ''I am more determined than ever that my husband's dream will become a reality," she said then.

She helped raise $15 million for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and served as its president from 1968 to 1995.

Dexter Scott King, the King Center's chairman and Mrs. King's younger son, has expressed interest in selling the center to the National Park Service. Both his older brother, Martin Luther King III, and Bernice King have publicly declared their opposition to the sale.

Mrs. King was instrumental in Congress's designation of her husband's birthday as a national holiday. ''It's a powerful thing to meet Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr.," Jack Kemp, the 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee, once said. ''It's like sitting down with Mother Teresa."

A meeting with Mrs. King helped persuade Kemp, then a congressman, to back the legislation creating the King holiday.

The most famous image of Mrs. King is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken at her husband's funeral. She is dressed in black, a transparent veil and coronet-like hat. Sorrowful yet composed, she stares straight ahead as she holds Bernice, her youngest child, in her lap. In many ways, the photograph might be seen as a template for her public image through the remainder of her life, as an admired but distant icon.

A 1986 Washington Post article described Mrs. King as ''The Widow: eyebrows arched, her mouth in perpetual droop, her face alternately pained, aloof, beatific." As those capital letters suggest, it was as if she held a sort of nonelective public office. Her regal beauty and the slightly old-fashioned formality of her name underscored that sense. ''Coretta Scott King" seemed almost like a title

David J. Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ''Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference," told the Journal-Constitution in 1993 that ''Coretta has been in a fundamentally static role for years -- widow as an institution. She's created a role for herself which she believes defines her daily existence. . . . She is largely a historical figure."

Mrs. King disagreed. ''There are a lot of people who would love to relegate me to a symbolic figure and that's it," she told the Journal-Constitution in the same article. ''I have never been just a symbol of anything. I am a thinker. I have strong beliefs, and I try to be an example of what I believe in." Two years earlier, she had asked a reporter not to use ''the widow" on first reference to her in articles.

Mrs. King's concern for social justice extended beyond the civil rights movement. She served as a member of the US delegation to the United Nations in 1977. She helped found and was cochairwoman of the National Full Employment Action Council.

''She was always very progressive," said Andrew Young, US ambassador to the United Nations in the late 1970s and a close associate of Mrs. King's husband. ''She took a stand on gay rights and AIDS and educated the community that it [AIDS] was not a moral punishment but a disease that needs to be addressed and cured."

Certainly, Mrs. King was neither naive nor unaware of her stature. A chance encounter with Henry Ford II led to her enlisting him as chief fund-raiser for the King Center. ''You know I want to help, Mrs. King," he told her. ''I'm trying to think of a way."

''I know how," she replied. ''Ask your friends to help."

A few years later, Mrs. King was one of a group of African-American leaders at a White House briefing. She was talking when President Jimmy Carter unexpectedly entered the room. As everyone rose, Mrs. King addressed the president. ''If you don't mind, I was speaking when you came in, and I would like to finish my point."

Such a marked degree of self-possession earned Mrs. King detractors. By the mid-'90s, some members of the African-American elite in Atlanta were said to refer to her as ''My Husband," mocking what they saw as a penchant for exploiting her widowhood.

Mrs. King's global celebrity was vast. The recipient of some 60 honorary degrees, Mrs. King was the first woman to preach from the pulpit at London's St. Paul's Cathedral. Young enlisted her in Atlanta's successful bid to host the 1996 Olympics, bringing members of the International Olympic Committee to see Mrs. King when they were visiting the city.

Yet her many distinctions emphasized the somewhat paradoxical nature of Mrs. King's public persona. She had been in many ways a woman ahead of her time. A trained musician who did her graduate work at the New England Conservatory of Music, she had looked forward to a career as a performer and teacher. Instead, Mrs. King found herself in the role of wife, mother, and, ultimately, widow. Indeed, widowhood came to seem a kind of calling.

''I kept struggling with my own ambitions for a long time," Mrs. King said in a 2003 interview with The Boston Globe. ''I knew that getting married would lead me away from performing and the direction I'd hoped to go. But when I finally opened myself to the relationship, I knew this was my direction."

As if in compensation, Mrs. King always conducted herself in public with a surpassing seriousness and dignity. This made the contrast especially jarring whenever she or her family was involved in controversy, as when Mrs. King filed suit against Boston University for the return of some 83,000 personal papers her husband had donated to the school in 1964. (A Suffolk Superior Court jury ruled in BU's favor in 1993.)

Mrs. King was born on April 27, 1927, in Heiberger, Ala. Her father, Obadiah Scott, operated a general store and sawmill. Her mother, Bernice (McMurray) Scott, was a homemaker. Although they lived in a two-room house and Mrs. King picked cotton to help support the family, the Scotts were relatively prosperous. Scott was the only African-American in the area to own a truck. They suffered for that prosperity, though, as both their house and sawmill were burned down. Arson was strongly suspected in both cases.

Excelling at school, Mrs. King was valedictorian of her 17-person high school class. She followed her older sister to Antioch College in Ohio, where she was one of six African-American students. Majoring in music and education, she studied voice, violin, and piano. Student teaching was part of the course of instruction. In her senior year, she was prevented from fulfilling her assignment at an all-white school. ''This incident enhanced my determination to challenge racism," Mrs. King wrote in a 1995 Ebony article, ''and I became active in the campus NAACP chapter and committees dealing with race relations and civil liberties."

After earning her bachelor's degree, in 1951, Mrs. King moved to Boston to attend New England Conservatory. A doctoral student at Boston University telephoned her the following January seeking a date. A mutual friend had spoken highly of her. The student's name was Martin Luther King Jr.

In her autobiography, ''My Life with Martin Luther King Jr." (1969), Mrs. King described her initial response to her future husband. ''How short he seems" (King was 5 feet 6 1/2 inches tall). ''How unimpressive he looks."

Clearly, he felt otherwise. ''You have everything I want in a wife," he told her on the way home.

''I have to confess, I wasn't much interested in dating a preacher," Mrs. King wrote in a 1999 Essence magazine article. ''But this guy had a sensitivity, intelligence, and seriousness of purpose that you didn't find in other young men of his age." They married a year and a half later.

The Kings moved to Montgomery, Ala., where he became pastor of a Baptist church. Three weeks after their first child was born, Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her bus seat to a white man. King was drafted to head what would become the Montgomery bus boycott, giving birth to the modern civil rights movement.

Two months into the boycott, a bomb was thrown onto the Kings' front porch. Mrs. King was inside the house with their infant daughter, Yolanda. Neither was harmed. It was not the only time the effect of her husband's work would be felt at home. Mrs. King took a dose of castor oil to induce the birth of her fourth child, Bernice, to ensure it would happen before the 1963 march on Birmingham.

More generally, there was the stress of having to raise four children all but single-handed. ''Because Martin was traveling so much after the Movement started," Mrs. King wrote in Essence, ''most of the daily parenting was left to me."

The only time Mrs. King was seen to lose her composure in public came in 1960 when her husband was sentenced on a trumped-up traffic charge to hard labor in a Georgia penitentiary. Fearful for his safety in prison, and pregnant with their third child, she broke down in tears in the courtroom.

On April 4, 1968, the telephone rang in the Kings' Atlanta home. King was in Memphis, supporting striking sanitation workers. The call was from Jesse Jackson, a King aide. ''Coretta, Doc just got shot. I would advise you to take the next thing smoking."

Mrs. King immediately flew to Memphis. Four days after her husband's death, she took what would have been his place at the head of a protest march by the striking workers. The next day, at his funeral, she wept only when a tape of one of her husband's sermons was played.

In addition to her sister and her four children, Mrs. King leaves a brother, Obie.

Her body is being flown to Atlanta, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Funeral plans have not been completed.

Material from wire services contributed to this report. 

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

February 3, 2006

Working with Coretta Scott King


This week we lost Coretta Scott King. Yet, we have witnessed that her life's work will be on-going through what has already been generated from her efforts. Mrs. King taught about her husband and his career, but she ventured far beyond that. She provided us with the provocative tools of non-violent social change. She knew how important this education was if we are to continue demanding social change and justice in the world. She took to heart Dr. King's often quoted statement that the "Arc of the moral universe is long and it bends toward justice." This is a message of hope and she wisely provided us with the tools to go forward, while seeking justice and attempting to bend the arc. She was defiant about this.

My first interaction with Coretta Scott King, albeit at a distance, began in April of 1968. Her husband, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., had just been assassinated on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. I was in Atlanta at the time and working for the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to escort people who were coming into the city for Dr. King's funeral.

I was asked to drive civil rights activist and attorney Allard Lowenstein from the airport to visit Mrs. King so he could pay his respects, and then to the home of Reverend Ralph David Abernathy who was King's second in command. I stood outside Mrs. King's home while waiting for him. Among others, Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr. walked out of the house. Because so many people wanted to see Mrs. King, they were asked to enter the back of the house and come out the front to maintain a consistent flow.

She was serving fried chicken and as there were so many visitors and so much chicken, the empty boxes were being burned in her back yard to make room for more. To this day, I remember the smell of those burning boxes.

Throngs of people surrounded Mrs. King's home. I was the only white person around, except for Lowenstein who was in the house. This was on April 7 - but four days since Dr. King had been killed. Riots were taking place throughout the country. Atlanta was spared the huge riots like those in Watts, Memphis and elsewhere, but there was understandable tension in the air. Nevertheless, I would say that most of us who stood there that evening were in a state of shock.

While taking Lowenstein to Reverend Abernathy's house my car stalled on Hunter Street (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive). Three Black youth rushed the car and started shaking it. Lowenstein said, "Heather, you need to start this car." "I'm trying," I responded. Miraculously the car launched forward and we were off.

The April 1968 occasion was my first introduction the King home, which, some 15 years later, I would visit frequently while working for Mrs. King.

My next chapter with Mrs. King was in the 1970's. After being out of the United States for a number of years, I came back to Atlanta and visited Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue ­ the historic home church of the King family. Dr. King's "birth home" is also on Auburn Avenue as was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). (Dr. King, and others, established SCLC as the organization to implement the civil rights agenda).

The first time I saw Mrs. King at Ebenezer in the 1970's I didn't quite know how to respond. There seemed to be a certain aura that surrounded her. I sensed immediately that she was uncomfortable with my reaction, which I am sure she'd witnessed frequently. I stood there staring and rather in awe of the woman.

After the assassination of her husband, Mrs. King was determined not to let his death end the non-violent movement and the momentum that had been years in the making. With other civil rights leaders she planned and established the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change. Located next to Ebenezer Baptist Church, the King Center transformed Atlanta. It included an adjoining reflecting pool with the renowned and identifiable tomb of Dr. King where Mrs. King greeted countless visitors who came to honor the great leader. Annually, thousands of people throughout the world visit the King tomb and tour the legendary sites on Auburn Avenue.

In the1980's I was fortunate to work for Mrs. King at the Center. At first I worked on a grant to research and develop a curriculum on non-violent social change and then to briefly direct the non-violent program. How to describe this experience?

Mrs. King told me that the plan was for the King Center to train activists in non-violent methods and for SCLC to serve as the activist arm of the movement.

With that as her goal, Mrs. King established a unique institution. The center was a mecca for civil rights leaders and grassroot activists from all over the world. Youth around the country came to the Center to be trained in non-violent methods for social change and to meet and be mentored by civil rights giants like John Lewis, Bernard LaFayette, Reverend C. T. Vivian, Rosa Parks, James Orange, Reverend Joseph Lowery, Ann Bradenon and on.

There were forums on every conceivable issue of relevance at the Center ­ if it concerned a struggle for justice, Mrs. King was receptive. Of course, her primary interest was to address the triple evils of racism, militarism and imperialism and she did exactly that!

Mrs. King institutionalized in Atlanta an appreciation for and acknowledgement of Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violence. She did this through literature, forums and annual events honoring Gandhi.

She honored Rosa Parks and established a special room at the Center we always knew affectionately and respectfully as the Rosa Parks Room. I remember when Mrs. Parks came to the center for the inaugural ceremony of this room. Mrs. Parks was known as the mother of the civil rights movement. By refusing to walk to the back of the bus in Montgomery in 1955, she launched the modern civil rights era. From her action, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was initiated which Dr. King was asked to lead. This was the beginning of his remarkable civil rights career.

While many of the King papers are in institutions around the country, today the Center also holds archival materials and literature on civil rights history and non-violent philosophy. Mrs. King was adamant that they were available for those who wanted to learn. In addition, she made available to us all, Dr. King's writings, and the history of the movement in film and numerous recordings of speeches by King and others. She was vigilant in her quest to provide virtually every conceivable opportunity for people to learn about the modern civil rights movement and the methods for change.

I was working at the King Center when the National Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday was initiated in 1986. I was amazed at the huge number of women from the U.S. and the world who came to rally around Coretta King and support her during this remarkable celebration. Eleanor Holmes Norton was the dean of them all. The mood was absolutely euphoric.

At Mrs. King's request I organized the first International Anti-Apartheid Conference at the Center as one of the ceremonial and educational forums in the launching of the King holiday. The Conference took place in Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was filled to capacity.

For this full day event, we had anti-apartheid activists participating such as Johnny Makathini of the African National Congress Observer Mission to the United Nations; producer Danny Schechter with singer Steven Van Zandt who had recently produced the album "Ain't Gonna Play Sun City" to discourage artists from performing in and supporting the apartheid South African government; representatives of the Washington Office on Africa; Jennifer Davis of the American Committee on Africa in New York; and Tandi Gcabashe of the American Friends Service Committee's Southern Africa Peace Education Project in Atlanta (Gcabashe was the exiled daughter of Chief Albert Luthuli who was the first African Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1961 and formerly the President of the African National Congress.)

This event was typical of Mrs. King's work. She was successful in drawing people together and providing an atmosphere and opportunity for learning, sharing and planning. All of this is necessary for the building of grasssroot movements as she was well aware.

In addition to all this, Mrs. King was constantly in demand to speak at events and to endorse every imaginable issue. She did this while seeking financial resources to maintain the King Center and raising her four children. It was never easy. And while conflicts and disputes occasionally arose at the Center, which is to be expected in most growing institutions, Mrs. King far exceeded her mission of educating people in the tactics of non-violent social change.

Upon reflection, Coretta Scott King, more than any other, has taught us about Martin Luther King and the methods of non-violent social change. It is likely that the modern civil rights movement in America and its methods would be a footnote were it not for her. She provided opportunities for young aspiring activists to learn about and adapt the non-violent tools. Her work spawned similar non-violent centers throughout the world. She kept the flame burning and it is not about to be extinguished. Hers was a job well done! Her legacy will be profound.

Heather Gray produces "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. In the 1980's she worked form Coretta Scott King. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at

Wednesday February 1 200


A symbol of civil rights, the guardian of a dream

The widow of Martin Luther King Jr. dies in her sleep at age 78

Coretta Scott King built a legacy from pain and progress, first as the wife who stood tall next to a man bent on changing the ways of this land, then as a widow veiled in delicate black lace, and finally as the curator of Martin Luther King's dream.

The woman who transformed the somber moment of her husband's assassination into a four-decade salute to his legacy of a just social order died in her sleep early Tuesday at Santa Monica Hospital, a holistic health center in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, 16 miles south of San Diego. She was 78. Daughters Bernice and Yolanda were with her.

Doctors at the clinic said King, who suffered a debilitating stroke and heart attack in August, was battling advanced ovarian cancer when she arrived there Thursday. The doctors said the cause of death was respiratory failure.

On Tuesday, President Bush remembered King as a great civil rights leader who will be remembered for her lasting contributions to freedom and equality.

"Today our nation lost a beloved, graceful, courageous woman who called America to its founding ideals and carried on a noble dream," Bush said at the beginning of his State of the Union address. "Tonight we are comforted by the hope of a glad reunion with the husband who was taken from her so long ago, and we are grateful for the good life of Coretta Scott King."

From poverty to fame
King rose from rural poverty in Heiberger, Ala., and became an international symbol of the civil rights movement.

In 1952, she was studying music at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston when she met a young graduate student in philosophy, who, on their first date, told her: "The four things that I look for in a wife are character, personality, intelligence and beauty. And you have them all." A year later she and King, then a young minister from a prominent Atlanta family, were married, beginning a partnership that ended with King's assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Coretta Scott King did not hesitate to pick up his mantle. Even before her husband was buried, she marched at the head of the striking garbage workers he had gone to Tennessee to champion. She later led the effort for a national holiday in his honor and founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta.

In addition to dealing with her husband's death, which left her with four young children, King faced other controversies. She was at times viewed as chilly and aloof by others in the civil rights movement. The King Center was criticized as competing for money and siphoning energy from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Martin Luther King Jr. had helped found. In recent years, the center had been widely viewed as adrift, characterized by squabbling within the family and a focus more on King's legacy than on continuing his work.

More often, however, Coretta Scott King has been seen as an inspirational figure, a woman of enormous spiritual depth who came to personify the ideals her husband fought for.

Inauspicious beginning
Her first encounter with the man who would become her husband did not begin auspiciously, as recounted in Parting the Waters, by Taylor Branch. King, in the market for a wife, called her after getting her name from a friend and announced: "You know every Napoleon has his Waterloo. I'm like Napoleon. I'm at my Waterloo, and I'm on my knees."

Coretta Scott, two years his elder, replied: "That's absurd. You don't even know me."

Still, she agreed to meet for lunch the next day, only to be put off initially that he was not taller. But she was impressed by his erudition and confidence.

When he proposed, she deliberated for six months before saying yes, and they were married in the garden of her parents' house June 18, 1953, in Alabama.

Even before the wedding she made it clear she intended to retain independence. She stunned King's father, who presided over the wedding, by demanding that the promise to obey her husband be removed from the wedding vows. Reluctantly, he went along. After the wedding, the bridegroom fell asleep in the car while the new Mrs. King drove back to Atlanta.

Her husband became minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery in 1954, but about a year later, the Montgomery bus boycott brought King to national attention. Then the minister and his young wife found themselves in the middle of a movement that would transform the South and ripple through the nation.

In 1960, the family moved back to Atlanta, where King shared the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father.

With four young children to raise - Yolanda, born in 1955; Martin III, in 1957; Dexter, in 1961, and Bernice, in 1963 - and a movement dominated by men, Coretta Scott King mostly remained away from the front lines of the movement.

What role she would play was a source of some tension. Wanting to be there for their children, she also wanted to be active in the movement. King, she has said, balked at the notion she should be more conspicuous. In stepping in for her husband after his death, King at first used his words as much as possible, as if her goal were simply to maintain his presence. But soon she developed her voice and her own language and her own causes.

The Miami Herald, New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press contributed. Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle


Wednesday February 1 2006


Houstonians remember the renowned civil rights leader for her grace and strength

Mourning an icon


Local students, civil rights leaders and politicians mourned Coretta Scott King Tuesday, calling her a woman of grace and dignity who worked nearly four decades to carry on her husband's legacy.

King was remembered with a moment of silence at MacGregor Elementary School.

At Texas Southern University, Carroll Robinson, associate dean of external affairs in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs, used her death to talk about the contributions of women in the civil rights movement.

"She was the bridge that helped us carry on," said Robinson, a former Houston city councilman who met King in Washington in 1983. "She stood up with such strength and grace and kept the movement in the forefront of America's mind. She institutionalized the efforts and philosophies of Dr. King."

In a statement released by former President George H.W. Bush, he called King "a great and loyal combatant in the struggle for equality and civil rights."

King also was recalled for her tender touch as a mother left with the responsibility of holding her family together after the assassination of her husband, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Fond memory
Bill and Audrey Lawson said King once came to town to surprise her oldest daughter, Yolanda, on the opening night of a show she was performing in at the Ensemble Theatre. She presented her daughter with flowers and left the next morning.

"We have lost a giant of a woman. She literally spent the rest of her life trying to fulfill and support Martin's dream," said the Rev. Bill Lawson, former pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. "She was representative of American womanhood at its finest."

Howard Jefferson, former president of the Houston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said King's death marked the end of the civil rights era.

A number of female civil rights pioneers have died in recent years.

Last year marked the deaths of Constance Baker Motley, a prominent civil rights lawyer; Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on a city bus sparked the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott; and Vivian Malone Jones, who was one of the black students Gov. George Wallace tried to block from entering the University of Alabama in 1963.

'Mother of civil rights'
"It marks the end of the iconic mother figures. They (Parks and King) were the mothers of the civil rights movement," Jefferson said.

U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said she worked with King on a number of issues related to women's rights, voter rights and affirmative action.

King was not shy about complimenting and criticizing those in power, she said.

"She was the kind of person who welcomed everyone. People wanted to be around her," Jackson Lee said.

"People really began to see her for her own style, her own courage and her own leadership. We lost a woman who never stepped away from injustice."
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle


Thursday February 2 2006

Coretta Scott King


After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Coretta Scott King was sometimes compared to Jacqueline Kennedy. The two bereft widows were living symbols of the great loss to America of inspiring, beloved leaders. But such comparisons were unfair to both women, who made different choices on dealing with their unwelcome status as widows of much mourned icons.

Ms. Kennedy withdrew from public life, while Ms. King, who died Monday at age 78, continued to champion civil rights and nonviolent social change. Not long after Dr. King's death on April 4,1968, Ms. King expanded on his mission. In a speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the Poor People's Campaign in June of that year, she spoke of her husband's vision of equality and then of hers, which included ''women's power'' to fight ``racism, poverty and war.''

Ms. King was a civil-rights activist before she married Dr. King. She grew up in rural Alabama and knew racism at its most virulent. When the young couple with one child was thrown into the center of the maelstrom of the bus boycott in Montgomery, where Dr. King served as a minister, her personal convictions and love for her husband compelled her to join the struggle.

Ms. King achieved much. She reared her children alone. She persuaded Congress to designate a national holiday in Dr. King's honor. And she raised millions of dollars to build the center in Atlanta that memorializes Dr. King and promotes his principles and practices. Ms. King was a loyal wife, a good mother and something more -- she was a good citizen who worked hard for peace and equal rights for all. We need more such good and brave citizens.
DifferenTakes #38: The Politics of Abortion and Reproductive Justice: Stronger Movement Strategies Print E-mail

DifferenTakes is an investigative series of issue papers, published by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, providing alternative information and analysis on a wide range of reproductive rights, population, environment and social justice issues.  We are launching a special series of DifferenTakes focusing on 'Reviving Reproductive Safety' in movements for women's health and reproductive justice. 

We are pleased to send you the eighth issue in the series, "The Politics of Abortion and Reproductive Justice: Strategies for a Stronger Movement" by Marlene Gerber Fried.  This issue addresses the current politics of the abortion debate, a critique of the "choice" framework traditionally used by reproductive rights advocates, and a call for a movement more broadly defined by reproductive and social justice.

- Betsy Hartmann and Amy Oliver
Co-editors, DifferenTakes

Also in pdf format

The Politics of Abortion and Reproductive Justice: Strategies for a Stronger Movement

by Marlene Gerber Fried
A Publication of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College - No. 38 - Fall 2005

The current battle over the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court illustrates the continued centrality of the abortion issue in U.S. politics. On one side is the anti-abortion movement, dedicated to making abortion illegal and relying on George Bush to appoint Supreme Court justices dedicated to this goal. On the other side advocates for reproductive rights continue to fight to preserve legal abortion as a fundamental right necessary for women's equality and health. 

Worldwide, unsafe and illegal abortion remains a major public health problem as well as a fundamental woman?s human rights issue. There are an estimated 46 million abortions each year.[1] Induced abortion is one of the most commonly performed medical interventions.[2]  When legal and performed by trained providers, it is also one of the safest medical procedures. Despite this, the mortality and complication rates from unsafe abortion remain high because of restrictive laws and regulations and inadequate, inaccessible services. 

While making abortion legal is necessary to its safety, liberalizing laws is not in itself sufficient to guarantee that all women have access to safe and legal abortion.  For example, in India where abortion has been legal since 1971, many women still undergo illegal abortions because of inadequate or unaffordable services and a lack of knowledge about legal abortion.[3] Access is a problem in Western countries too. In the United States, abortion was legalized in 1973, but many women lack access because of restrictive legislation which especially burdens poor and young women, an inability to pay, the uneven geographic concentration of services, and the shortage of providers.[4] Throughout the world, the most vulnerable women in a society are the ones who are the most harmed by the lack of access to safe, legal abortion.

In addition to changing laws, ensuring abortion access for all women requires closing the gap between legality and access, a goal that requires widespread societal and institutional change. The way abortion is viewed in society at large must also be addressed. Anti-abortion forces are well aware of this. Their actions are aimed both at preventing women from having abortions and at molding public opinion, stigmatizing abortion and women who have them.

In the U.S., the effort to defend and expand abortion and reproductive rights has been impeded not only by the successes of the opposition, but also by divisions among advocates of abortion rights. In this paper I will explore these issues and suggest that the movement adopt a reproductive justice approach.

Restricting Reproductive and Sexual Rights: The Bush Agenda

Although abortion was rarely mentioned by any of the candidates during the 2004 presidential election in the U.S., it has been in the forefront of Bush?s agenda since he took office in 2000. His appointments to high level cabinet and agency positions and nominations for federal judgeships include people who oppose abortion and contraception. In addition to doing what he can through appointees, budget appropriations, and executive orders, Bush has assured opponents of abortion that he will continue to sign all of the restrictive laws that Congress passes. His track record speaks for itself. He signed legislation banning so-called partial birth abortion,[5] which President Clinton had vetoed and which had already been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The fact that it has now been enjoined by three federal courts does not seem to be a deterrent to Bush. What is most important is that he show himself to be faithful to an anti-abortion agenda and to the Christian fundamentalists that were so crucial to his re-election.o. 38 ?

Opponents of abortion are hopeful that if Bush is able to make enough new appointments to the Supreme Court, the federal constitutional right to abortion secured by the Roe v Wade decision could be rescinded.[6] The resignation of Sandra Day O'Connor, who was part of a narrow majority in favor of abortion rights, has provided Bush with his first opportunity to change the court. If Roe were overturned, abortion would be treated as it was before 1973, with each state making its own laws. The Center for Reproductive Rights estimates that 30 states would criminalize abortion and 20 would legalize, although the restrictions would vary.[7] Access to abortion would be further curtailed and as with all the other erosions in abortion rights, the most vulnerable women would be the most harmed. While there is considerable disagreement about whether this will be a Bush strategy, this frightening possibility is a cause for alarm. Many abortion rights advocates are thinking about how to ensure that women will get their needs met should this come about.

As a result of anti-abortion efforts, abortion and other reproductive rights have been seriously compromised, especially for the most vulnerable women in the U.S. and throughout the world ? those who are poor and young, with women of color everywhere bearing a disproportionate burden.  Internationally, the global gag rule remains in place, undermining services and the health of millions of people worldwide. The gag rule prohibits foreign NGOs that receive funding from US Agency for International Development and/or the Department of State[8] related to family planning from addressing abortion, either through advocacy, referrals or provision of services. NGOs that refuse to comply have lost funds needed to run health clinics and provide other sexual and reproductive health services such as contraception and education about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.

The Bush administration pushes its anti-abortion agenda at every international meeting on women's rights and health. At the recent session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March 2005, a meeting to review the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, the U.S. delegation tried to amend the Beijing Platform to exclude abortion and "clarify" that the document does not create any new international human rights. After the amendment was opposed by more than 150 NGOs, the U.S. withdrew it, claiming that it was not backing down, only that the amendment was unnecessary.

While there is unanimity among feminists about the need to oppose the Bush agenda, there are also deep divisions about the overall political framework within which abortion rights are to be supported. While the ever-present threats from anti-abortion forces make it difficult even to discuss these issues, failure to address them ultimately weakens our movement and undermines the possibility of effective resistance.

Critique of Choice

The movement that fought for the legalization of abortion in the U.S. de-mobilized after it was achieved.  Later in the same decade, the movement that emerged in response to the newly formed anti-abortion movement was a defensive one. The momentum seemed to have shifted to the opposition as the religious Right gained more power. Abortion rights supporters decided to use the language of choice and privacy as their framework. They thought this would have wider appeal and that it would broaden their base of support, encompassing even those who were conservative on issues of social and economic welfare.[9]  This approach was temporarily successful, insofar as it split those on the Right. However, it undercut demands for public funding of abortion and other aspects of access that had characterized the earlier struggle for abortion rights.[10]

Framing abortion rights in terms of a woman's right to choose is problematic on other counts as well. Because "choice" appeals to those who have options, but is relatively meaningless to those who do not, it is politically divisive. In a capitalist context, the idea of choice invokes the marketplace ? things that are for sale can be chosen. This neo-liberal notion locates rights within an individual and obscures the social context and conditions needed in order for someone to have and exercise rights.[11] The fact that race and class inevitably circumscribe one?s choices is ignored.

Together with a failure to oppose population control, making abortion a matter of choice reinforced the disparity between the predominantly white and middle class women who were seen as the champions of abortion rights, and the low income women and women of color worldwide who bear the brunt of restrictions.

Not only is "choice" inadequate to express the full range of needs and conditions which must be met if women are to be able to make their own reproductive decisions, it is also a weak ethical framework, especially when counter-posed to "life". The attempt to cast supporters of reproductive choice as anti-life should be resisted by raising the life issue on the abortion rights side. This means bringing the full reality of women's lives to the discussion.

Choice has also been used to silence concerns about women's health and potential coercion in the area of new reproductive technologies, including contraception. For example, Norplant was the first new contraceptive to be introduced in the U.S. in 25 years. It was met with relatively uncritical approval by mainstream women?s groups who saw it as expanding women?s contraceptive options. Depo- Provera too has been seen as providing women with greater choice. The mainstream feared that criticisms of these contraceptive methods raised by women?s health advocates in other countries and women of color in the U.S. would play into the hands of opponents of abortion and contraception, thus undermining women?s right to choose. As a result, contraceptive safety concerns were too readily dismissed and even discouraged.

Currently, stem cell research is in the same position.  The Right and the anti-abortion movement are ideologically opposed to it. In 2001, President Bush outlawed federal funding for all but a very limited category of such research. However, many Republicans, even some who oppose abortion, do not agree with Bush?s position on stem cell research.  Democrats successfully use this as a ?wedge? of their own to divide the Republicans. Proponents of stem cell research have portrayed the opponents as religious ideologues who would prevent science from finding cures for diseases.

In this highly politicized context, the positions are too narrowly drawn. One can either side with science by supporting stem cell research, or be anti-science by opposing it. There is no room for concerns about the potential risks to women?s health. One women?s health group, the Pro-Choice Alliance, is arguing for another approach. While they support most stem cell research, they are also raising important objections to embryo cloning. Specifically, they are worried about the risk to women?s health from the multiple egg extraction that embryo cloning necessitates. They argue that because of incomplete knowledge about the risks to women?s health, women cannot give informed consent. They advocate a series of measures designed to protect women?s health. These include requirements that researchers adopt the safest and most ethical approaches to collecting eggs; a neutral party whose sole purpose is to protect the safety and rights of women review existing data before undertaking multiple egg extraction; and every woman who provides eggs for research have her own physician, independent of the researchers.[12] The Pro-Choice Alliance wants to create a more balanced public discussion, one in which women?s health does not have to take a back seat for fear that opponents of abortion will win the day. Thus far they have not been successful in securing their policy objectives. They are, however, raising awareness and opening the space to be both supportive of abortion rights and critical of technologies that pose potential health threats.

Organizing for Reproductive Justice

Historically, women of color have organized for reproductive and sexual rights outside of the choice framework. They have created their own organizations and coalitions, and have redefined reproductive rights in ways that emphasize the needs of their communities.  Overarching socio-economic inequalities and racism shape these communities and the lives of women in them. They have disproportionate rates of poverty, lack of access to health care services and information, high incidences of violence, and poorer health outcomes in all areas. Examples include the fact that a majority of new HIV cases in the U.S. are among African American and Latina women; Native women experience very high rates of reproductive tract infections; Latinas have proportionately higher rates of cervical cancer; and Asian American women are the only group to experience a rise in overall cancer mortality. Consequently, their definitions of reproductive justice focus on achieving the broad set of conditions necessary for reproductive and sexual freedom. Human rights and economic justice become part of this analysis, not separable from reproductive rights. Their definitions provide an expansive understanding of reproductive freedom, which integrates the race, class, gender and cultural aspects of their lives. Because of the histories of population control, the right to have children and families is core to their activism.

The reproductive justice approach is in sharp contrast to the narrowness of mainstream pro-choice politics. It is a holistic formulation, which links communities and issues and therefore has a greater potential to draw new constituencies to the reproductive freedom struggle. This is especially important now in the aftermath of the Bush victory. As in the past, when the Right has gained power, the mainstream reaction from the Democrats is to become more conservative. Several leaders of the Democratic Party have called for making the party more hospitable to opponents of abortion. Senator Hilary Clinton?s version of this approach is to describe abortion as ?tragic.?[13] We should know better. Abortion rights are important both symbolically and practically since the availability of safe abortion has a direct impact on women?s lives everywhere. A woman?s bodily autonomy and integrity are at the core of self-determination and liberty.

Removing women?s rights and sexuality from the abortion struggle and pursuing a narrow agenda have not been winning strategies in the long run. They have perpetuated racial and class divisions in the movement, weakening the ability to resist threats from the antiabortion movement and to move forward to secure rights never achieved. I therefore hope that reproductive justice will become the central frame for reproductive rights, not only because this is the right thing to do, but also because it is the only way to win.

Marlene Gerber Fried is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College. She is a long-time reproductive rights activist both nationally and internationally, and serves on the boards of the National Network of Abortion Funds, the Abortion Access Project, and the Women?s Global Network for Reproductive Rights. She is co-author with Jael Silliman, Loretta Ross and Elena Gutié²²ez of is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College. She is a long-time reproductive rights activist both nationally and internationally, and serves on the boards of the National Network of Abortion Funds, the Abortion Access Project, and the Women?s Global Network for Reproductive Rights. She is co-author with Jael Silliman, Loretta Ross and Elena Gutié²²ez of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice, South End Press, November, 2004.


[1] ?Safe Abortion: Technical and Policy Guidance for Health Systems,? World Health Organization, 2003, p.10.

[2] ?Abortion Facts,?, last visited: June 28, 2004.

[3] ?Abortion in Context: United States and Worldwide,? Issues in Brief, 1999 Series. No.1, p.32, Alan Guttmacher Institute.

[4] For more information see: ?Justice Demands Abortion Funding,? National Network of Abortion Funds,, April 2004; ?Revisiting Public Funding of Abortion for Poor Women,? The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy, April 2000.

[5] The term ?partial birth abortion? is purely political. It does not refer to any one procedure or gestational period, and it is not recognized by any medical authority. If found constitutional, the ban would compromise women?s access to the safest abortion

procedures. Our Bodies, Ourselves, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2005, pp 410-411.

[6] Abortion was legalized in the U.S. in 1973 with Roe v. Wade, a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[7] ?What if Roe Fell? The State by State Consequences of Overturning Roe v. Wade,? Center for Reproductive Rights, September 2004.

[8] The State Department was added in 2003.

[9] Silliman et al, Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice, South End Press, Boston, 2004, p30.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Silliman, Jael and Anannya Bhatcharjee, Policing the National Body: Race, Gender and Criminalization, South End Press, Boston, 2002.

[12] ?Unregulated Stem Cell Research May Put Women?s Health At Risk,? Center for Genetics and Society,
[13] Saletan, William, ?Safe, Legal, and Never,?, last visited 1/26/05.

DifferenTakes #37: Ten Reasons Why Prisons are Bad for Reproductive Freedom Print E-mail

DifferenTakes is an investigative series of issue papers, published by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, providing alternative information and analysis on a wide range of reproductive rights, population, environment and social justice issues.  We are launching a special series of DifferenTakes focusing on 'Reviving Reproductive Safety' in movements for women's health and reproductive justice. 

We are pleased to send you the seventh in the series, "Ten Reasons Why Prisons are Bad for Reproductive Freedom" by Eesha Pandit.  This issue explores how prisons and the criminal justice system in the U.S. have specific consequences for women's reproductive freedom.  We are also planning to develop a poster version of this article and will be in touch when it is complete.

- Betsy Hartmann and Amy Oliver
Co-editors, DifferenTakes
Available in
[pdf version] | Poster (Legal-size and ready to download)

NO. 37 ~ Fall 2005

Ten Reasons Why Prisons are Bad for Reproductive Freedom

By Eesha Pandit

The nightly news is ridden with gruesome tales of increasing crime in our communities. Daily, battles are fought and lost in the ?war on crime? and the ?war on drugs,? both of which are pseudonyms for the criminalization of poverty. Are our communities stronger and healthier as we become increasingly dependent on systems of incarceration to solve social problems? The answer is an emphatic no. Further, prisons and the criminal justice system at large have specific consequences for women?s reproductive freedom. Here are 10 reasons why women?s health and reproductive rights advocates should think critically about prisons, their impact on women and their role in our society.

1.      Prisons devastate families and communities.

The U.S. has the largest number of people in prison in the world, and women are the fastest growing prison population.  Since 1980, the number of women incarcerated has risen by almost 500%.[1] Family ties and relationships are inordinately strained when a mother is incarcerated. About 78% of women in prison have children, but they are often incarcerated in federal prisons out of state or in state prisons in remote towns.[2] Less than half of these women are able to see their children and families. Furthermore, incarcerated women are at a high risk of losing their children. According to the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, a woman loses her parental rights to a child who has been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months. Thus, a great majority of women who must place their children in foster care during their incarceration will lose them.[3]

Such facts raise larger questions about what effects prisons have on the social fabric of our communities. Prisons impact children, partners, wives, mothers and community members. Women often bear the burden of supporting households in which a partner is incarcerated.  Children of inmates are at risk of educational failure, joblessness, addiction and delinquency.  Much of this devastation is caused by the so-called ?war on drugs? and mandatory minimum sentencing. The drug war does not promote and protect family values, as many would have us believe.[4]  Between 1986 and 1996, the number of women in prison for drug law violations increased by 421 percent.[5] The vast majority[6] of women are incarcerated for relatively minor, non-violent crimes.  Instead of incarceration, these women need access to drug treatment, education and decent jobs.

2.      Prisons pose a particular threat to women of color and poor women.

Women of color are the fastest growing prison population in the country today[7] and most come from underprivileged and under-resourced environments.  Almost half of all women in prison report that they have been sexually assaulted during their lifetime.[8] Victims of sexual assault are more likely to be forced into homelessness and poverty, which often precede drug use, prostitution and committing economic crimes.  Women of color and poor women are least likely to have access to the necessary treatment and counseling for sexual abuse. Instead of receiving such care, they are incarcerated and treated as criminals and not victims of a system that has failed to protect their rights.[9]

Once these women serve their sentences they are further denied access to the public services and support that they need to prevent themselves from winding up in prison yet again. Anyone who has been convicted of a drug-related felony is prohibited from receiving cash or food stamps and living in public housing.[10] Thus, many women ex-prisoners are unable to provide for themselves and their children, continuing the cycle of punishing women not for crimes they commit, but for their poverty.

3.      Prisons perpetuate the criminalization of sexuality.

Discrimination and oppression in society at large make certain communities more vulnerable to state violence.  LGBTQ people often face increased violence from law enforcement officials, which jeopardizes their reproductive and sexual health. Until very recently, it was criminal for LGBTQ people to engage in sexual activity. Such legislation stems from the state?s desire to control sexual activity in certain communities. Sex itself is not criminal ? unless you are poor, LGBTQ, and/or a person of color. Likewise, sexual abuse by prison guards is often attributed to the hypersexuality of female prisoners, particularly women of color. The demonization of (female and queer) sexual deviance is commonplace in our culture, and because of our reliance on prisons, this translates into increasing numbers of women and LGBTQ people in prison.[11]

4.      Prisons are detrimental to women?s overall health.

Women in prison are subject to some of the worst health services known to exist. The recent exposé ©n the New York Times regarding the now infamous Prison Health Services Company only scratches at the service of human rights abuses perpetuated against prisoners in the United States.[12] This violence affects the lives of women in very specific ways that often fly below the radar of mainstream prison reform activists.

Women are often denied very basic health care rights while in prison. Women in the California prison system are denied access to necessary medical diets, basic hygiene products like soap, shampoo and toothpaste, as well as essential medication.[13] Women suffering from treatable diseases and mental illnesses are often denied medical treatment and access to health care and gynecological and reproductive services.[14] Often such negligence causes exacerbation of their illnesses and leads to unnecessary, expensive and dangerous medical procedures that could have been avoided with proper and preventative care. In extreme, but not entirely uncommon cases, this form of medical neglect results in death.

5.      Prisons restrict reproductive choice.

Prisons function in several ways to prevent women from exercising control over their reproduction. The extreme medical neglect in the criminal justice system jeopardizes women?s right to make their own reproductive choices by endangering their health and fertility. Often, the failure to screen for and treat sexually transmitted infections and cervical cancer leads to infertility and preventable hysterectomies.[15]

Further, detention centers, jails and prisons often interfere with a woman?s right to an abortion. They require women to bear the cost of the abortion as well as security and transportation to a clinic. Often, a court order is required before women are taken to a clinic, causing such a long delay that the abortion is no longer possible when the necessary permissions are granted.[16]

Women who are pregnant at the time of their detention face a lack of adequate and available prenatal care. They report difficulty in accessing health care services and obstetricians. They are denied prenatal vitamins and the appropriate diet and work assignments. If they suffer from a drug addiction, they are denied the requisite medication to prevent unnecessary miscarriages and stillbirths.[17]

6.      Women in prison face sexual abuse.

Women in prison face the threat of sexual violence on a daily basis. Seventy percent of guards who are responsible for monitoring women prisoners are men. These guards are responsible for supervising women prisoners throughout the day, including in the showers and bathrooms. A very high degree of rape, sexual assault, groping during body searches, and extortion occurs. To prevent women from reporting their abusers and to punish those who may have spoken out, guards use threats of physical assault and sentence extension and deny women visitation by their children and family members.[18]

7.      Prisons negatively affect pregnancy and motherhood.

Law enforcement officials, judges and elected officials nationwide have sought to punish women for their actions during pregnancy, which may affect the fetus they are carrying.  Women can be charged with child abuse, fetal homicide or drug trafficking if they test positive for drugs during pregnancy. Often women are tested for drugs without their knowledge. While in prison, the active endangerment or neglect of a pregnant woman can result in the termination of her pregnancy. Often the women themselves are held accountable and further punished for these outcomes.[19]  Women and children?s advocates agree that women should engage in healthy behaviors that promote the birth of healthy children, yet they realize that a woman?s substance abuse problem involves complex factors that must be resolved with treatment and social services, not incarceration. Thus, prisons violate a woman?s privacy rights, criminalize a medical and social problem and offer nothing to help women have healthy babies.[20]

Furthermore, irrational security measures dehumanize and endanger women during childbirth. In most states, it is standard practice to shackle all prisoners during transportation to medical facilities and during the medical visit. Pregnant women are routinely shackled during active labor and after they give birth; they are often restrained while they are giving birth as well. Illinois is the only state whose legislature has banned this practice.[21]

8.      Prisons foster and perpetuate the injustices inherent in the criminal justice system.

With more that two million people behind bars, the U.S. has become the world leader in incarceration. Although women are currently less than 10% of the prison population, since 1995 women have been entering prison at a faster rate than men. Given such an alarming trend, it is crucial to understand the changing role of prisons in the larger criminal justice system to understand the challenges a system of mass incarceration poses to reproductive freedom.

Prisons and jails render women?s reproductive rights expendable, even though the courts define these rights as essential. Women of color and poor women are increasingly vulnerable to such violation of their rights because access to resources and freedom from discrimination are key factors in obtaining reproductive autonomy.  The criminal justice system?s reliance on incarceration points to a broader contention between women and the state. State authority takes diverse and shifting forms that pose very difficult challenges to women trying to exercise control over their reproduction.[22]

9.      Prisons do not make us safer.

Currently, activists that address the issue of state violence work in isolation from those that address domestic and sexual violence. Women of color and poor women who suffer disproportionately from both state and interpersonal violence are marginalized as a result.[23] The mainstream anti-violence movement has sought to protect women from domestic violence and battering by advocating for more involvement of police agencies. For communities of color and immigrant communities, this strategy is at times wholly ineffective because these communities face disproportionately a threat of violence in the home from the very same law enforcement authorities that are charged with their protection.  In situations like these, home raids can take place at any time on tenuous legal grounds and women are left no recourse in the face of violence from both batterers and law enforcement officials.[24] Clearly, we need to re-evaluate the role of prisons and mass incarceration in our society. If prisons are not serving the purpose of protecting the members of our society from violence and instead are jeopardizing women?s rights and health, then the burden falls on each of us to challenge the injustices perpetuated by this system. 

10. There are alternatives to prisons.

Many believe that we need new approaches and strategies to deal with violence in our communities. In order to come up with workable solutions, the first step is to let go of our desire to discover one single alternative system of punishment that would play the same role as the current prison and jail system. The prison system is deeply entrenched in the social, cultural, and economic practices of the United States. We need to explore community based responses to violence that don?t rely on the criminal justice system. Many ask: what about violent offenders? We need to call into question our analysis of violence as individual acts perpetrated solely by individual people, to the exclusion of examining it as a phenomenon symptomatic of larger structures of power and oppression. These are starting points. From here we can move forward to create structures that not only end violence, but advance freedom and human rights.


Amnesty International Women?s Human Rights Program

Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex

Drug Policy Alliance

Incite! Women of Color Against Violence

Human Rights Watch Prison Project

Justice NOW

The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives

Prison Activist Resource Center

Prison Legal News

Prison Moratorium Project

The Sentencing Project

Eesha Pandit is Associate Director of Programs at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College.

is Associate Director of Programs at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College.References

[1] Bureau of Justice Statistics as of June 30, 2003.

[2] Not Part of My Sentence: Violation of the Human Rights in Custody: Impact on Children of Women in Prison, Amnesty International Report, 1999. 

[3] Nkechi Taifa, ?Roadblocked Re-Entry: The Prison After Imprisonment,?, last visited November 13, 2002.

[4] Gardiner, Gareth S. and Richard N. McKinney, ?The Great American War on Drugs: Another Failure of Tough Guy Management,? Journal of Drug Issues No. 21(3), 1991, pp 605-616.

[5] ?What?s Wrong with the Drug War?: Mandatory Minimum Sentencing,? Drug Policy Alliance,, last visited August 19, 2005.

[6] Seventy percent of women are incarcerated for relatively minor, non-violent crimes.  See endnote 4.

[7] See endnote 1.

[8] ?Factsheet: Women in Prison,? The Sentencing Project,, last visited March 8, 2005.

[9] Gilfus, Mary, ?Women's Experiences of Abuse as a Risk Factor for Incarceration,?, last visited June 30, 2004.

[10] Allard, Patricia, ?Life Sentences: Denying Welfare Benefits To Women Convicted Of Drug Offenses,? The Sentencing Project, February 2002.

[11] Davis, Angela, Are Prisons Obsolete? Seven Stories Press, NY, 2003, pp 60-83.

[12] Zielbauer, Paul von, ?As Health Care in Jails Goes Private, 10 Days Can Be a Death Sentence,? New York Times, February 27, 2005.

[13] Chandler, Cynthia, ?Death and Dying in America: The Prison Industrial Complex?s Impact on Women?s Health,? Berkeley Women?s Law Journal, Vol.40, 2003.

[14] See endnote 2. 

[15] Barry, Ellen, ?Women Prisoners and Health Care: Locked Up and Locked Out,? in Kary Moss, ed., Man-Made Health Care, Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

[16] Roth, Rachel, ?Do Prisoners Have Abortion Rights?? Feminist Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2004.

[17] See endnote 13.

[18] See endnote 2. 

[19] Chandler, Cynthia and Carol Kingery, ?Speaking Out Against State Violence: Activist HIV-Positive Women Prisoners Redefine Social Justice,? in Silliman, Jael and Anannya Bhattacharjee, eds., Policing the National Body, South End Press, Boston, MA, 2002, p19.

[20] Paltrow, Lynn M., ?Punishing Women for their Actions During Pregnancy: An Approach That Undermines the Health of Women and Children,? Center for Reproductive Law & Policy, 1996,, June 24, 2003, last visited August 26, 2005.

[21] See endnote 2.

[22] Roth, Rachael, ?Searching for the State: Who Governs Prisoners? Reproductive Rights?? Social Politics, Vol. 11, No. 3, 2004.

[23] ?Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex,? Joint Critical Resistance ? Incite Statement,, last visited August 26, 2005.

[24] Bhattacharjee, Anannya, Whose Safety? Women of Color and the Violence of Law Enforcement, Justice Visions Working Paper, American Friends Service Committee and the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment, Philadelphia, 2001,, last visited August 29, 2005.

DifferenTakes #36: Beyond the Hype: What You Should Know About the Seasonale Birth Control Pill Print E-mail
DifferenTakes is an investigative series of issue papers, published by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, providing alternative information and analysis on a wide range of reproductive rights, population, environment and social justice issues.  This summer we are launching a special series of DifferenTakes focusing on 'Reviving Reproductive Safety' in movements for women's health and reproductive justice. 

We are pleased to send you the sixth in the series, "Beyond the Hype: What You Should Know About the Seasonale Birth Control Pill" by Amelia Bucek.  This issue explores the "designer contraceptive" Seasonale, its aggressive promotion as the pill that limits menstrual bleeding to four times a year, its marketers' problematic depiction of menstruation and women's liberation, and its potential health risks.

- Betsy Hartmann and Amy Oliver
Co-editors, DifferenTakes

Beyond the Hype: What You Should Know About the Seasonale Birth Control Pill

By Amelia Bucek
A Publication of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College * No. 36 * Summer 2005

Since the first birth control pill was released to the American public in 1960, oral contraception has evolved considerably. Within today's burgeoning and increasingly specialized pharmaceutical industry there are dozens of varieties of birth control pills available. Many of these are advertised as offering more than just fertility control.[1] Dubbed "designer contraceptives," these pills cater to specific issues completely detached from contraception. Whether the allure is convenience, acne treatment, or a reduction in water retention, focus on the gimmick attached to the pill overshadows all other concerns associated with the contraceptive. The niche marketing of these pills translates to an expanded customer base and increased profits for contraceptive manufacturers. The deregulation of prescription advertisements in 1997, which allows pharmaceutical companies to advertise alternative uses for the pill directly to consumers, hastened this practice. Media attention to designer contraceptives has also facilitated this growing market. One of the most celebrated and criticized pharmaceuticals in this field is Seasonale. 

What is Seasonale?

Seasonale is an extended cycle oral contraceptive pill, which differs from the standard pill in its method of prescription. Oral contraceptives are customarily dispensed in 28-day packs containing 21 active pills with hormones and 7 placebo sugar pills. The break in hormone intake for one week every month causes the body to think ovulation has occurred, resulting in the shedding of the uterine lining. This outcome is technically called a withdrawal bleed, but is also known as a period since it mimics the monthly occurrence of menstruation. Seasonale promises to limit this bleeding to just four times a year. Women prescribed Seasonale take active pills for 84 consecutive days, followed by 7 days of placebo. Periods are thereby reduced from an average of 13 a year to 4, creating the specialized purpose of Seasonale: menstrual suppression.

Selling Doctors on Seasonale

After testing Seasonale on 1400 women in 47 cites nationwide, the FDA approved the pill in September 2003.[2] In its initial marketing of the product, Barr Pharmaceuticals aggressively targeted physicians. Questionable mingling of reproductive health education and manufacturer profits was evident in audio conferences sold for $99 a piece to educate healthcare providers on extended use contraception. These corporate-sponsored listening sessions could also be used as credit toward professional nursing requirements.[3] In early 2004, Barr unleashed a 250-person sales team that sought out 28,000 physicians (20 times the number of women they tested for the safety of their product) throughout the U.S. in order to spread the word on Seasonale.[4] This profit-driven approach proved to be quite successful. In February 2004, 5000 prescriptions for Seasonale were written each week and by March sales totaled $17.7 million. Seasonale had become the fourth top selling oral contraceptive.[5] Only eight months after its release, over 120,000 prescriptions had been written, with 7,000 being added weekly.[6] After significant buzz had been created throughout the medical community and spread to the patient population, Barr launched a $50 million ad campaign in June 2004.[7]

Advertising Seasonale to Consumers: PMS, Liberation, and Health

The Seasonale campaign included television spots, two-page ads in magazines as diverse as Vogue and US News and World Report, as well as a trendy website all promoting the Seasonale mantra, "Fewer Periods. More Possibilities." [8] The overall theme of the ads is that it is fun and attractive to get fewer periods a year and the decision to suppress menses is easy and obvious. One television commercial pictures a woman in a bright white space, wearing a red polka dot dress, responding happily to a voice-over informing her that it is now possible to limit her monthly periods to just four a year. She then proceeds to spin around as all but four of the polka dots (representing menstruation) fly off her dress. Thus, menstruation is deemed as frivolous as a fashion decision. Some versions of this ad feature multiple women, all dressed in white, who pick up the red dots and throw them around like Frisbees. The ads try to equate Seasonale with a crisp and clean sense of carefree fun.

The marketing and media coverage of Seasonale paints a very negative picture of menstruation, which serves to further imply that the pill is a constructive addition to a woman?s life. In research sponsored by Barr on women's attitudes toward their periods, the company claimed that more than half of the women surveyed felt "messy, fat and unattractive" during their periods. However, as the National Women's Health Network (NWHN) points out, this data was misconstrued. In actuality, only one third of the women reported menstruation made them feel unattractive and Barr neglected to disclose the 68% of respondents who experience a positive sense of health during menses.[9]

Such faulty reporting on the negative effects of menstruation is eerily similar to the wave of media attention given to premenstrual syndrome in the 1980s. In fact, PMS is widely cited as a reason to take Seasonale, and as was the case in the late 20th century, the alleged problems caused by menstruation are often overblown and quite dubious. For example, one Boston Globe piece on extended cycle pills was titled, "No Chocolate Cravings\ No PMS or Bloating\ No Fatigue or Moodiness\ What if Having Your Period Was a Choice?" [10] Readers are led to presume that all menstruating women experience these symptoms and that even chocolate cravings necessitate pharmaceutical treatment. Journalists writing about Seasonale also claim that the menstrual cycle causes women to miss professional, social, or family-oriented events,[11] keeps them from participating in summer activities,[12] and makes them ineffective leaders.[13]

Even more troubling is the way these damaging, broadly applied stereotypes are used to depict menstrual suppression as the road to feminist liberation. Candace Bushnell, creator of the HBO series Sex and the City and Seasonale's celebrity spokeswoman, summed up this idea by saying, "When you think about what women can accomplish with 13 periods a year, think about what we can accomplish with only four. We have come a long way, but we've only just begun." [14] By alluding to the feminist movement in her speech, Bushnell places menstruation as an obstacle on par with institutional forms of sexism that hinder women?s possible achievements. Instead of offering a critique of the social structures that impede women's progress, the blame is turned inward and placed on the menstruating body. She implies that if only women could stop menstruating, they could achieve so much more. Barr Laboratories also hired a doctor to attend a media briefing on Seasonale to make similar claims, asserting that the drug could improve high school girls'  test scores.[15] Although there is no proof of the accuracy of this statement, the message is clear: if women want to excel in school, employment, and life in general, they should limit their periods.

An interesting component of the "feminist" argument for Seasonale is the hypothesized role of menstrual suppression in maintaining women's health. There is a school of thought, led by Dr. Elsimar Coutinho and Dr. Sheldon Segal, authors of Is Menstruation Obsolete? (1999), that firmly believes women are becoming ill due to regular menstruation.[16] Simply put, the rationale is that historically, Western women's main function in society was to procreate. Consequently, they were pregnant or breast-feeding, in other words not menstruating, for the majority of their reproductive lives. The conclusion is then drawn that the woman who experiences infrequent menstrual cycles is more natural and healthy than the woman whose menstrual cycle occurs monthly. Regular menstruation is deemed unnatural and a threat to women?s wellbeing.

Menstrual suppression is offered as a compromise to fix this biologically unnatural turn of events. It is hailed as a "radical rescuing [of] the ovaries and endometrium from modernity." [17] This approach simultaneously argues that women's bodies were designed for a life of serial pregnancy, and not much else, as it also alleges that if women try to exceed these roles, their reproductive health will falter. Thus, the only way to be a successful modern woman and retain your health is to suppress your menstrual cycle. In a New Yorker article, Malcolm Pike of the University of Southern California illustrates this rationale by claiming that:

The modern way of living represents extraordinary change in female biology. Women are going out and becoming lawyers, doctors, presidents of countries - the world is not the world it was. And some of the risks that go with the benefits of a woman getting educated and not getting pregnant all the time are breast cancer and ovarian cancer, and we need to deal with it.[18]

Although women's health advocates firmly deny any reduction in cancer risk due to menstrual suppression,[19] Seasonale is offered as a means of returning women to a more biologically natural state of infrequent menses that will allow them to lead healthier, more enriching lives. However, such assumptions about women's nature are far from empowering. They frame the female body that does not participate in compulsive procreation as pathological, and rely on the notion that women's bodies are most healthy when symbolizing a social function focused on reproduction. Therefore, even though Seasonale is marketed as an aid to women's empowerment, it also frames women's liberation as biologically unnatural and unhealthy.

10 Health Concerns You Should Be Aware of Before Taking Seasonale

While proponents of menstrual suppression advocate on behalf of Seasonale for its health benefits, there are several health issues related to the pill that paint a far less optimistic picture of extended cycle contraception.
      1.    Seasonale does not protect against STDs. The focus on the designer purpose of menstrual suppression relegates Seasonale's role in fertility control to the back burner, rendering promotion of safe sex while taking Seasonale all but forgotten.
  1. The extended cycle regimen of Seasonale exposes women to a 23% increase in annual hormone intake. This may translate to an increased risk of side effects already attributed to the birth control pill, such as stroke and heart attack.[20]
  2.  There has been no long-term research undertaken to study the effects of extended cycle oral contraception. Physicians and journalists attempt to downplay this fact by referencing women who have skipped the placebo pills to manipulate their periods for years.[21] However, personal experimentation is no substitute for scientific study and has no effect on the safety of this practice.
  3. The research conducted to test Seasonale was only conducted on women over the age of 18. Even though 1.2 million girls aged 15-19 currently use oral contraceptives, the effects of an extended cycle pill are unknown for this age group.[22]
  4. Seasonale was only tested on women who had previously been using 28- day oral contraceptives. No research on the effects of Seasonale has been performed on women who have never used birth control pills before.[23]
  5. Significant breakthrough bleeding can occur between scheduled periods while taking Seasonale. In December of 2004, the FDA took action and officially admonished Barr for excluding information about the possibility of substantial breakthrough bleeding in their advertisements in order to make Seasonale appear safer.[24]
  6. Abnormal changes in menstrual flow are often early warning signs of other physiological problems. Suppression of this function can mask symptoms and delay attention to a variety of disorders.
  7. The expected loss of monthly menstruation would also remove a common marker of pregnancy. Women who become pregnant while taking Seasonale may not become aware of their condition until much later than the average woman, thereby reducing their options for abortion.
  8. Promotion of menstrual suppression may cause or promote a negative view of the menstruating body. The National Women's Health Network warns that if menstrual suppression is aggressively advertised as the preferred and natural way for the female body to function, young girls especially will acquire a negative body image.[25]
  9. Positive physical effects linked to monthly menstruation such as lowered risk of heart disease, bone health, sexual desire, increased immunity, and a cyclic reduction in blood pressure, would be lessened with the use of an extended cycle pill. [26]


Despite the health concerns and the media manipulations associated with menstrual suppression, an extended cycle oral contraceptive may be the right choice for some women. Those who experience extremely painful periods or women who have conditions exacerbated by the onset of monthly menstruation might find Seasonale to be the relief they have been looking for. Others may simply prefer to bleed less frequently for their own personal reasons. Regardless of the impetus to use Seasonale, it is pertinent that both physicians and manufacturers ensure that women have access to all of the health information necessary to make an informed decision. Women also deserve new contraceptive methods that are developed in an environment that places their needs and safety above the profit margins of pharmaceutical giants.

Amelia Bucek recently graduated from Hampshire College. Her senior thesis evaluated the media reaction to Seasonale as the latest installment in a long history of defining, and redefining, women's nature through menstruation.


[1] Stephens, Anastasia. "How to Never Have a Spot, Period, or Baby Again," The Independent, 20 January 2002.

[2] "Shares rose 8.35?" Drug Store News, 10 September 2003.

[3] Kemper, Carol A. "Seasonale: A Revolutionary contraceptive," Infectious Disease Alert, October 2003.

[4] Fried, Jennifer. "Ending Your Monthly Cycle. Period" Chicago Sun Times 2 December 2003; ?Event Brief of Barr Conference Call,? Disclosure Wire, 8 September 2003.

[5] Hardy, Katrice. "Sales are Booming for Virginia-Developed OC," Knight Rider, 15 May 2004.

[6] Gettelman, Elizabeth. "Seasonale may make monthly periods obsolete. But at What Psychological Price?" The Washington Post, 8 June 2004; Hardy, Katrice, "Sales are Booming for Virginia-Based OC."

[7] Gettelman, Elizabeth. "Seasonale May Make Monthly Periods Obsolete."

[8] However, as of this writing, the website,, has been reduced to just a couple of pages, perhaps for renovation.

[9] National Women's Health Network, "Fact Sheet on Menstrual Suppression,", April 2004.

[10] Scott, Megan. "No Chocolate Cravings\ No PMS or Bloating\ No Fatigue or Moodiness\ What if Having Your Period Was a Choice? It's Up To You," Boston Globe, 22 August 2000.

[11] Brunk, Doug. "Extended-use OCs Pose Educational Challenge," Internal Medicine News 36, no.21, (1 November 2003): 1.

[12] Nissman, Cara. "A Better Pill to Swallow? New Contraceptive Reduces Periods, Raises Questions," Boston Herald, 3 August 2003.

[13] Van Buskirk, Audrey. "No Flow: A new form of birth control raises questions about how to be a natural woman," Santa Fe Reporter, 21 October 2003

[14] Gettelman, Elizabeth. "Seasonale May Make Monthly Periods Obsolete."

[15] National Women's Health Network, "Fact Sheet on Menstrual Suppression."

[16] Coutinho, Elsimar. Segal, Sheldon. "Is Menstruation Obsolete" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[17] Gladwell, Malcom. "John Rock's Error," The New Yorker, 13 March 2000.

[18] Ibid.                                                                                   

[19] National Women's Health Network, "New Version of Oral Contraceptive Pill", 5 September 2003.

[20] Gettelman, Elizabeth. "Skipping Periods: The Pros, The Cons, The Science," The Washington Post, 8 June 2004.

[21] Stein, Rob. "Experimental Pill Puts Menstruation on Hold," The Washington Post, 3 March 2003.

[22] Gettelman, Elizabeth. "Skipping Periods: The Pros, The Cons, The Science."

[23] Karen Hoffman. "Foes Raise Red Flag Against Suppression of Menstruation," Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 24 June 2003.

[24] "FDA Warns Barr Over Commercial," Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, 31 December 2004.

[25] National Women's Health Network, "New Version of Oral Contraceptive Pill."

[26] Rako, Susan. No More Periods? The risks of menstrual suppression and other cutting edge issues about hormones and women's health (New York: Harmony Books, 2003), 14, 45, 124.
Amelia Rokotuivuna: Fijian feminist for peace, justice & equality, August 7 1941 - June 2 2005 Print E-mail
Women's GlobalNet #276:
Activities and Initiatives of Women Worldwide June 26, 2005


Amelia Rokotuivuna August 7, 1941 -June 2, 2005

On June 2, 2005, a woman of extraordinary energy, passion and ability who dedicated her life to promoting peace, democracy and social justice,died in Suva, Fiji, at the age of 63.

Amelia Rokotuivuna was a community leader far ahead of her time, who grew up in the Fiji mining town of Vatukoula and went on to become head girl of Adi Cakobau School, Fiji's most prestigious college for girls.
She was a founder of the Fiji YWCA, joining Australians Ruth Lechte and Anne S. Walker in 1962 to begin the programmes of an activist organization that worked for peace and democracy in a multi-cultural Fiji.  In 1967, she attained a diploma in social administration and development from the University of Swansea in Wales, returning to become
General Secretary of the Fiji YWCA in 1973.

For the next two decades in this position, Amelia led the fight on issues such as equal rights for women, a nuclear-free Pacific, political reform and multi-culturalism. She advocated for those without a voice,reminding the great and powerful of their obligations to the poor and disadvantaged.  Referring to her charismatic leadership of the Y during
those years, Dr. Wadan Narsey, formerly an economics lecturer at the University of the South Pacific (USP) and regular columnist with the Fiji Times, wrote: "As an Indo-Fijian non-Christian male, I found myself on YWCA committees on issues such as economic justice, constitutional reform, the anti-nuclear movement and numerous other important issues of
the time."

In furtherance of her anti-nuclear beliefs, Amelia took centre stage at the non-governmental meeting held parallel to the first United Nations world conference on women in Mexico City, 1975, speaking out against nuclear testing and raising the awareness of the world regarding the continuing abuse of the Pacific and its peoples by nuclear powers.

The Fiji coups in May 1987 demonstrated the real character of Amelia.
Never was her fearlessness and true grit more splendidly displayed.  She defied many of her own people to commit to a multicultural, tolerant and caring vision of Fiji.  Amelia, among others, was imprisoned briefly for her beliefs.

From 1992 to 1995, Amelia worked as Programme Secretary for Advocacy for the World YWCA in Geneva. At the time of her death she was President of the Fiji YWCA Board of Directors and a lecturer at USP.

Amelia leaves behind a son, Peceli, who continues her work as a community activist, brothers Apisalome (Mudu) and Sevuloni, sister Veniana and their families, and the family of sister Manaini (dec.). She will be sorely missed by family and friends alike, but her life spent in the search for peace, equality and justice in Fiji and the South Pacific
will be forever cherished and celebrated.

Written by Anne S. Walker, AM, with excerpts from eulogies by Fiji Senator 'Atu Emberson Bain and Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, Vice President of Fiji.

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