Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

How to be in alliance with each other

This week Butler asked one question that really resonated with me: what does it mean to ally with one another? Live with one another? This is a question that any movement has to wrestle with over and over again to evaluate if and how it’s serving the needs of the entire community.

As someone who’s active in the reproductive justice movement, I can’t help but make connections to intra-movement conversations taking place over the last two decades. There is a broad sense that the pro-choice movement, active since the 1960s and 1970s, has fought mostly for the rights of white, middle class, cis-gender women to have access to birth control and abortion. To put it in Butler’s terms, the pro-choice movement was not in alliance with the needs of all people, particularly communities of color, queer and gender non-conforming people, and poor people. The birth of the reproductive justice framework in the early 1990s, conceived by and for women of color, was a radical departure from the notion of “choice,” instead claiming that people (specifically, communities of color) must be empowered politically, socially, and economically in order to make decisions about when, if, and how to parent.

The reproductive justice framework changed the conversation, but it did not end the race and class tensions within the pro-choice and reproductive justice movements (and the feminist movement in general). One clear example is what happened when racist, anti-abortion billboards were erected in Georgia. Instead of all pro-choice and reproductive justice-related groups rising up to fight these billboards together, the burden was on women of color-led activists groups to fight to get these posters taken down. Very little support (that I know of) came from better funded, larger organizations, which could have helped exponentially. The absence of these more well-known groups in the fight specifically for Black women’s reproductive rights spoke volumes.

This is a lesson in how not to be in alliance with each other. Butler also noted that it is the duty of the franchised, more powerful group to refuse the terms of engagement if all groups are not granted human rights and social justice. If we are to truly be in alliance with each other, it may mean making bold and sometimes uncomfortable sacrifices of our own privilege in order to fight for a just society for all people.

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