Dr. Kaye Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)
By Dr. Kaye Whitehead
Arundhati Roy once wrote that “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” I would add that in these moments, as we watch what is happening in Texas with Senate Bill 8 and Senate Bill 4, we must remember to listen for her breath. We must not forget to be calm in the middle of the storm, unless we are the storm, and then we must destroy whatever is in the path that seeks to contain us and make us small. We must take their hands and their laws out of our wombs. We must remind them again that our bodies, even though they have long been seen as a space for the taking, for laws, political discussion, and religious debate, belong only to us. I say this as a Black feminist who understands that my visible and unseen intersectional scars are a road map telling the story of a country whose pursuit of manifest destiny cuts straight to the core of who I am. I also grew up in the church, and I was taught, as far back as I can remember, that I am a descendant of Eve, and, if you let men tell the story, I am defiant. I am wicked. I am headstrong and stubborn. I am cursed, and therefore must be controlled for my own good. “White men, all men,” my Black Feminist Theory professor once said, “must be stopped before they blow up the planet or take us into another war.” They must be stopped, I added, before they rip out our wombs (again) and lay them on the table as chits for the taking.
If Earth is a woman, then America, with all of its hatred, destruction, murder, inequities, and violence, is a man. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal. In Section 2 of the Fourteen Amendment, gender was introduced into the U.S. Constitution and being a man meant that you had protected rights. Two years later, when the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It said citizen, but it meant men.
In 1888, when Frederick Douglass argued that no man can either speak, vote, act or be responsible for a woman, he was one of only a handful of men who spoke out against the universality of man’s rule over woman. He said that since men had always ruled over women, they had come to believe that ruling over women was their right. It took decades of organizing and protesting before women could vote, attend school, own property, get credit cards and have body autonomy. Just like Black people had to fight to be free because of the color of our skin, women had to fight to be free because of our wombs. Today, women make up over 51% of the population, are the most educated, and hold positions from vice president of the United States to college presidents. Yet, Texas has reminded us that our bodies are not our own and when we become pregnant, either by choice or through tragic circumstances, we lose body autonomy. Pregnancy is the knife that cuts off our tongue. But this type of control, this universality of rule over a woman’s body, has always been part of the fabric of this country. Early on, American colonies followed the laws and ways of their mother countries and women and girls were vessels belonging to their father before becoming a femme covert, with no legal existence apart from their husbands.
One of the historical throughlines of this country is the work that men have done to control our bodies and cut out our tongues. This is what is happening in Texas with Senate Bill 8 and Senate Bill 4. SB 8 bans abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy (which for many women is the moment when they realize that they are pregnant); allows anyone to bring a lawsuit against medical practitioners who violate the ban; and provides cash bounties of at least $10,000 (plus legal fees and costs) to encourage any private citizen to sue anyone who is suspected of aiding, abetting or having an abortion after week six. SB 4 prohibits physicians from prescribing drugs that contain levonorgestrel, the effective ingredient in what is commonly referred to as the “morning-after pill,” to women who are more than seven weeks pregnant.
What is deeply concerning in this is the failure of the Supreme Court to prevent SB 8 from being enacted (which is yet another reminder of why elections matter). We live in a moment where we have a very conservative majority ruling the Supreme Court and interpreting laws and setting precedence that can shape this country for the next 100 years. (And before you argue that I am overstating the importance of the long arm of this moment, remember that Plessey v. Ferguson, the case that legalized segregation, was decided in 1896, and the case that overturned it, Brown v. Board of Education, was decided in 1954 and today, we are still dealing with racial discrimination, school inequity, and the fight to convince White America that Black lives matter today.) The battle over my womb is as contentious and as deep-rooted as the battle over my skin. Both belong to me but are being argued and debated, litigated and discussed by bodies and faces that are not like mine. “White skin and penises,” my professor once said, “are the radix causa of every one of my nightmares, and until I get their hands off my body and out of my womb, I will never be free. I will never be safe. And I will never be able to rest.” I am assuming that like thousands of women across the country and me, she has not slept well since Texas rolled out the blueprint that will be used by other states to gut or overturn the protections that Roe v. Wade provide. The road to freedom, to dismantle this legal salus in arduis, once again, goes through my womb.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (email@example.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the Founding Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, & Social Justice at Loyola University Maryland and the 2021 Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning radio host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She is the author of the forthcoming book, i speak for the unforgotten: tales from behind the wall. A newly minted Empty Nester, she lives in Baltimore City with her husband and her dog, BellaReds.
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