White Feminism in the Age of Roe vs Wade

I’ve been watching the fallout from the overturn of Roe vs Wade with I guess what could be described as a slightly jaded interest. Not because I don’t care about bodily autonomy, of course I do, but because whenever “women’s rights” issues boil to the surface in the United States, it inevitably exposes itself as actually being about “white women’s rights” even though it impacts Indigenous, Brown, Black, and Migrant communities first and worst. It’s a sad fact that for the most part, we have to wait for a matter to impact upon white women’s rights before they will take a stand.

In considering the recent overturn of Roe vs Wade, and what that means for us in Aotearoa, and what it will take to keep us safe from these forces, we have to be very clear about what those forces are: Right-wing, Euro-Christian fundamentalism. It is inherently racist, misogynist, and patriarchal. It is the scaffolding for colonialism, and it holds strong, nationalistic political influence both in United States and here in Aotearoa-New Zealand. This same imperialist patriarchy, however, is also the context within which European women have forged their own success and this struggle can be characterised as one where they have rallied against patriarchal oppression of their own rights, whilst simultaneously leveraging off the racist oppression of non-white communities.

There has been some rather weak suggestions (unsurprisingly from white men) that we have nothing to worry about here in Aotearoa, that the infringement of women’s rights like what we are now seeing in the USA could never happen here.

I can tell you here and now, that women’s rights in Aotearoa are absolutely at risk, from exactly the same forces that have resulted in the overturn of Roe vs Wade.

And if you don’t like hearing that then you really won’t like what’s coming next:

It’s likely to get much, much worse, both over there and here.

You may have seen this clip before, it’s an important and powerful one, and it would help to watch again, in this context.

It’s full of king-hit truths, but the most important words for me, in this clip are the following from Jocelyn Wabana Lahtail:

“You haven’t even started your healing journey yet”

Jocelyn Wabana-lahtail

Healing journeys start with truth, and the primary truth that must be faced here is that coloniellism (ie white feminism) CANNOT ultimately oppose patriarchy, because it is a subset of patriarchy.  This primary truth is expanded upon by the following three themes, which can function as stepping stones in our healing journey for what a truly feminist position should be, for Aotearoa and elsewhere.

1. Women’s healthcare has grown out of a racist, misogynist, BIGOTED history

J. Marion Sims, lauded as the “father of modern gynaecology” carried out his surgical experiments on the bodies of enslaved black women, with no anaesthesia. Of course being enslaved, they had no bodily autonomy but this did not matter to white women of the time, many of whom had their own slaves, many of whom offered up these women to be butchered in the first place, and when movement for women’s political rights, which would of course be the precursor to their bodily rights, swept through the United States it was to the exclusion of Black, Brown and Native sisters. This was no different in Aotearoa – just as black suffragettes were refused membership by their white counterparts in the US South, so too were wahine mau moko kauwae refused membership of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, headed by suffragette Kate Sheppard here in Aotearoa.

If you look at the states where Roe vs Wade’s overturn will have the greatest immediate impact, unsurprisingly its the states that are also the most violent towards Black, Indigenous and other non-white people AND towards trans and nonbinary folk as well.

Map showing states that will restrict or ban abortion now that Roe Vs Wade is overturned, highlighting midwest and southern states, and West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania
Source: https://www.nbcnews.com/data-graphics/map-23-states-ban-abortion-post-roe-america-rcna27081

Map that correlates Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in the United States with fracking sites in the United States, showing concentrations of MMIW in the Mid-West and Southern States, with further concentrations around Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio.
Source: Joseph, A. S. (2021). A Modern Trail of Tears: The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) Crisis in the US. Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, 79, 102136. doi:10.1016/j.jflm.2021.102136
Map detailing the least safe states for Gender Identity Policy, highlighting the midwest and southern states, along with West Virginia and Ohio.
Source: https://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps

That’s not a coincidence. Bodily autonomy and safety has been denied for centuries in these spaces, from the same forces which we are encountering now in the overturn of Roe vs Wade. The only difference is that now, it’s happening to CIS white women, as well.

In the 1970s the birthrate of native children in the United States was more than halved through the practice of forced sterilization at the hands of the state. At its worst point, over 25% of native women in the United States between the ages of 15 and 44 had been forcefully sterilized. These procedures were not always carried out properly, resulting in complications like ectopic pregnancies, requiring further procedures – however those subsequent procedures were not funded by the government, resulting in pain, injury and death for many native women. This may be the first time you are hearing about this: that is likely because it did not happen to white women, it happened to native women.

Likewise here in Aotearoa, Maori were forcefully sterilized through the 1920s as a part of legislation aimed at removing the physically, mentally and intellectually unfit members of NZ society. While the policies were not explicitly aimed at Maori, the colonial determinants of who was deemed “unfit” meant that Maori were disproportionately featured in those groups – in much the same way as how discriminatory policies against gangs and beneficiaries become code for anti-Maori policy.

If you think this is relegated to history and no longer a matter of concern, consider that:

  • In 2019 a for-profit ICE detention centre forced sterilization procedures on immigrant women.
  • In 2012 the then Minister for Social Development Paula Bennett publicly endorsed the court-ordering of beneficiaries to not have children, and the enforcement of “compulsory lifelong contraception”.

Medical schools in the USA have a brutal, violent and racist history that includes, of course, racist colonial assumptions about our bodies, minds and rights, but extends through to the theft of Black and Native corpses for experimentation and teaching. Biased medical education and policy is not constrained by borders. The racist assumptions of medical education in the UK and USA was taught directly to those who developed medical education here in Aotearoa and also developed health policies here in Aotearoa, and unsurprisingly this resulted in racial disparity in our own health system.

For all of these reasons, it’s been disheartening, to say the least, to watch Wahine Maori MPs be targeted for their votes in relation to abortion legislation. I have not spoken with them, I can’t expand upon their media statements nor am I saying I agreed with their votes, but the recent attacks upon them have come across as tone-deaf and distinctly colonielle, with little to no acknowledgement of the racialised dimensions of this issue. It’s certainly perverse that this matter should result in Wahine Maori again being targeted.

The racist history of women’s healthcare still persists today in the following ways:

Racial disproportion in maternal suicide
The Perinatal and Maternal Mortality Review Committee (PMMRC) is an independent committee that reviews the deaths of babies and mothers in New Zealand. They have put out 14 annual reports, on the causes of death and near death events for babies and mothers. Every year, the greatest cause of death for pregnant mothers is suicide, and every year, Maori are disproportionately represented in this tragic statistic, representing 57% of suicides in New Zealand during pregnancy or within six weeks of birth as well as being over-represented in the other causes of maternal morbidity such as severe blood loss during birth, and are less likely to receive life saving treatment from clinicians in such a scenario.

Excerpt from the Perinatal Maternal Mortality Review Committee showing highest cause of maternal death as suicide. Source: https://www.hqsc.govt.nz/resources/resource-library/fourteenth-annual-report-of-the-perinatal-and-maternal-mortality-review-committee-te-purongo-a-tau-tekau-ma-wha-o-te-komiti-arotake-mate-pepi-mate-whaea-hoki/

Racial disproportion in treatment of breast cancer
Wahine Maori are less likely to access screening services, less likely to be referred on for chemotherapy, less likely to have satisfactory care, and are significantly less likely than non-Maori women to receive their cancer treatment within international guidelines

The very beautiful and greatly missed Wiki Mulholland, incredible wahine Maori advocate for access to life saving breast cancer treatment. Source: https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/the-house/audio/2018686554/petitioning-parliament-for-breast-cancer-treatments

Racial disproportion in resuscitation of Maori babies
Again, looking at the PMMRC reports you will see that year after year Maori babies that are born prematurely or suffer birth complications and require resuscitation are less likely to be resuscitated than pakeha babies.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/14/us/abortion-rights-march.html

2. Lack of access to abortions is a distinct issue for Indigenous, Black, Brown, and Migrant Women

There is no doubt at all that the overturn of Roe vs Wade will impact upon Indigenous, Brown, Black and Migrant communities first and worst. Racist misogyny within police and justice sectors means these groups are less likely to have sexual assaults against them fully investigated, which makes them more attractive targets and they are consequently much more likely to be sexually assaulted. We are less likely to have access to appropriate sexual and reproductive education resources, which leads to less empowered and supported decision making around when, and with whom and how we share our bodies, and all of this leads to a higher likelihood of unintended pregnancies (Maori are, again, disproportionately represented in abortion services). In the USA, Black women are five times more likely to utilise abortion services. Our First Nations sisters are the most likely to be sexually assaulted yet, for decades before Roe vs Wade was overturned, federal law has forbidden Health Service Clinics on reservations from carrying out abortions. There have been no marches, no global campaigns, no international solidarity for the limitations upon Native women’s health rights.

Abortion services, like much of the maternal health care system in Aotearoa, are structured around sets of assumptions about women’s minds and bodies and those assumptions are, unsurprisingly, white and middle class. I have, first hand, witnessed young, scared Maori women being shepherded towards abortion services not because the people around them wanted the Mama to make the best health decision for her, but because they held deeply racist ideas about that woman’s ability to parent, or even right to parent. Yes we should have access to these services, but that access should be safe from racist influences.

Ok so we’ve established that the current issue of women’s health rights sorely needs decolonizing in order to succeed  because of 1. The history of women’s healthcare is rooted in racist misogyny and 2. Lack of access to abortion services is a distinct and disproportionately greater issue for non-white women and so here’s the third reason:

3. Colonielles have RIDDEN colonialism throughout history and is a subset of colonial patriarchy.

Coloniellism (or white feminism) has consistently chosen colonial power over solidarity with BBI women and non-men for a long time, this is evidenced by both the lack of vocal solidarity with Native Women as successive governments failed to halt their continued abduction and murders, as well as the lack of accountability for the way in which colonielles weaponise their colonial privilege against BBI women and non-men and their families (eg false accusations, racist harassment, and false victimhood).

Colonielles have not only ridden colonialism throughout history, throwing their Black, Brown, Indigenous and Migrant sisters into the furnace of their colonial steam engines, but they have then gone on to claim credit for the progress of women’s rights around the world. So let me be clear on this:

Coloniellism (white feminism) has NEVER recouped what has been taken from Indigenous, Black, Brown and Migrant sisters through the process of colonisation.

Before colonialism/coloniellism came along, my tipuna wahine were political powerhouses and substantial landowners. While women were banned from education in Europe, Wahine Maori ran their own sacred schools of learning that held equal footing with all others. Well before misogynist Christian domination removed female bodily autonomy, including the right of wahine to end a pregnancy, abortion was practiced by tipuna wahine and respected as their decision, which is just one of the reasons why so much land was passed down through female lines, particularly in Tairawhiti. While European women were considered chattels, our tipuna wahine were military strategists, commanding defence of mana whenua and mana tangata. While European women still struggled for constitutional power, tipuna wahine were being recorded permanently in history through art and geography as eponymous ancestors of entire dynasties, wielding political agency that their European counterparts could only dream of. White feminism has never been able to restore our pre-colonial levels of political power, nor would I expect it to, because the political power of wahine Maori is a much larger threat to colonial patriarchy and the colonielle power it supports.

There are further, important differences between white women feminist causes and that of marginalised women. White women feminism has, throughout history, rested on political and economic parity with their husbands and brothers. This in itself is a reflection of the colonial privilege enjoyed by white women, because hyper-incarceration of their husbands and sons, excessive police violence and targeting of their husbands and sons, and the forced removal of their children from their homes did not feature strongly enough in the lives of white women to feature in their rights campaigns. Indeed, white women feature across history not as allies in the fight against hyper-incarceration of our own brothers and husbands, but as drivers of further incarceration.

Indigenous, Black, Brown, and Migrant feminism must necessarily address and include our broader community because these very racialised experiences inevitably fall on our shoulders, too. Yet where are our white sisters when we stand up to Oranga Tamariki? Where are our white sisters when we protest the closure of a kohanga reo? Where are our white sisters when we call for an end to racist hyperincarceration?

Lawyer Julia Whaipooti calling upon the United Nations Permanent Forum to recognise the injustice of hyperincarceration of Maori in Aotearoa. Source: https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/te-manu-korihi/405435/government-urged-to-cede-power-to-maori-justice-advocates

For all of these reasons, standing for non-white women’s rights necessitates standing for Native, Black, Brown and Migrant rights in general, which we have yet to see from the colonielles in our midst (and currently dominating the space).

So I will say it again: Colonielles have nowhere near the requisite moral capital to halt the march of colonial patriarchy. Both colonielles and their colonizer husbands and brothers, still need to undertake their own healing journey and confront their own violent ideologies, a step which colonielles in particular are loathe to do, because they are addicted to their roles as damsels in distress, as victims of the system that they actually suckle off. The time that they are wasting in confronting these uncomfortable truths allows the white supremacist patriarchy to grow stronger every day.

The inimitable Sina Brown-Davis, wahine Māori/Pasifika activist who has led and supported grassroots justice movements for 3 decades, carrying on the legacy of leaders like Syd Jackson. A force of nature.

So what to do about all of this? Understand that the power of women on this land existed well before colonizer men and women arrived. Understand that it is literally soaked into the soil under your feet, flowing along riverbeds, surging along our coastlines. Acknowledge that Indigenous, Black, Brown, Migrant women have led political resistance without, and often in spite of colonielle presence for generations. Center the rights of Indigenous, Black, Brown, and Migrant women and non-men in all of your calls for justice. Understand how it intersects with oppression of our LGBTQI+ community, particularly of trans/irawhiti whanau, how it intersects with ableism and other forms of discrimination. Learn the art of radical decentering. Cede space, join the call for decolonization, and educate yourself.

That is what true feminism looks like in 2022.

Puangarua, Haka Ngahau a Rohe, Taitokerau Credit: Whakaata Maori
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5 thoughts on “White Feminism in the Age of Roe vs Wade”

  1. Tau kee! A brilliantly written piece. He paatai, did you coin the term coloniellism? (I think it’s fab!)

    1. Nga mihi! Yes, I tend to mongrel up a lot of words that make sense in my head I also vastly prefer it to Karen as two of my favourite people in this world are named Karen >.<

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