Meet the Women Trying to Be the New ‘Left Flank’ of the Repro Rights Movement

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Sep 03, 2015

It’s no secret that, politically, it’s a tough time for the reproductive rights and justice movement. Scores of laws restricting abortion, and even contraception, have passed state legislatures in the last few years. Women are being incarcerated for the outcome of their pregnancies. Recently, undercover operatives from the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress have videotaped and deceptively edited footage of Planned Parenthood employees discussing the sale of aborted fetal tissue. Anti-abortion politicians have used the videos in a renewed push to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving state funding. 

Among those working to protect abortion and birth control access there is a strong sense that they’re losing. Feminist activist/writers Erin Matson and Pamela Merritt feel this way, and their response is a new direct action organization: Reproaction.

Merritt, who is best known for her popular Angry Black Bitch blog, has worked for Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri and Progress Missouri. Matson started her career in corporate advertising—"’Mad Men’ still exists," she says—but went on to serve as acting vice president of the National Organization for Women and an editor at RH Reality Check.

Both Merritt and Matson show cynicism toward the traditional advocacy methods of many non-profit organizations. Reproaction is their response. I met with Matson and Merritt in a Washington, D.C. coffee shop near their August launch to talk about how their work will be different. 

What is the gap that Reproaction is trying to fill?

Matson: We see ourselves as a left flank within this movement. We see ourselves as fiercely independent and know that while we are not opposed in working in coalition or collaboration, that a lot of this work may need to stand alone. It’s not that folks have not thought about this, it’s that there are consequences to participating in [direct action]. This work isn’t safe for everyone to do. There can be strong professional consequences. Frankly there is a lot of fear in this movement about losing all of our power. [Pamela and I] see ourselves as taking bold direct action, having a willingness to call out both the left and the right on their misdeeds—anyone who stands in the way of increasing access to abortion.

According to your site, you two formed Reproaction "to increase access to abortion and advance reproductive justice.” Why call out abortion access as opposed to other issues central to reproductive justice?

Merritt: It’s an educational tool. There are awesome organizations like Sistersong that have been doing amazing work and are responsible for educating me and so many others. But in D.C. there are people who are trying on the clothes of reproductive justice [and] still operating from an organization that talks about 93 percent of their services not being abortion, as if that is some sort of disclaimer of respectability. When we say "abortion" and "reproductive justice," it’s not to separate the two, but to go ahead and say the A word, which is so terrifying to so many people. If we say the word with an apology in our tone, we cannot be reproductive justice advocates.

Pamela, do see a connection between this new work and your writing at Angry Black Bitch?

Merritt: As someone who has been writing about how black women have been needing to connect to their anger, the idea that the response to oppression should be measured and civil is something I’ve never understood. Anyone who has read my blog would understand that.

I’ve been frustrated and angry for a long time. I took about a year off from the blog because the anger turned into rage and I don’t think rage is very constructive. [My main question was], "How do I advocate for the people I love and care about?" All of the theory and process that I worked through in over a decade of writing is what I’m applying now. That blog was absolutely necessary for me to understand how it all fits.

Has the timing of your launch, particularly during the Black Lives Matter movement, shaped the work?

Merritt: The other day when Julian Bond passed away, I spent the entire day watching "Eyes On the Prize." I was watching the history of a movement that allowed us to be sitting here in a cafe in Washington, D.C. When you look back at all of the things that [I] have as a black woman in the U.S., every right I have is because somebody took direct action. Every single one.

We were reminded of that through the killing of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and others that layered on each other to escalate things. We have all of these instances that because people took direct action in response, we are reminded. We have constant reminders in this country of how you can send a very quick and clear message to those in power. Then we just forget it.

What kind of campaigns will Reproaction be working on?

Merritt: One of the campaigns we launched is #HeyPopeFrancis. Pope Francis has been framed in the media and in the press as this transitional renaissance pope who is so unpopular with conservatives because he is shaking things up. We [are] asking people what they would like to see the pope talk about. I’ve had people say: "Why on earth are you encouraging people to talk to the pope?" [Because] he’s coming here to address a joint session of Congress. He’s a leader on a lot of social policy issues and we want to make sure that people are weighing in. [We will] find a nice creative way to deliver [the messages].

What do you think the role should be for white women in this movement?

Matson: I’m really grateful that you asked that question. We want [Reproaction] to be a place where you are welcome to come and be a part of this no matter who you are. That said, because we are a reproductive justice organization, racial justice is at the forefront of how we are proceeding. Part of the origin story of Reproaction is that I got a seed funding grant to explore this. As someone who is a ridiculously privileged white woman I feel a very strong ethical sense that it would have been unethical for me to take this and run. This effort needs to be led and founded from the top by women of color and not just white women.

How do you see the role of white women in the movement beyond your role and organizational structure?

Matson: I don’t have a perfect answer, and I don’t think anyone does. Anyone who pretends to better get a quick side eye. [Laughs.] One of the most important things I think as a white person speaking to other white people is that we need to shut the fuck up and listen, step back and share power, embrace the leadership of women of color. Unfortunately, what I see a number of my white feminist sisters doing a lot of time, [is saying] they have to find women of color [to work with]. They totally erase all of the work and leadership that is actually happening. [But] I believe very strongly in all hands on deck. It’s also dangerous to say: "OK, well, hey I’m white and I hear you, I need to step back and create space, and so that actually means I just shouldn’t do that work." That’s privilege, and that’s disgusting.

Merritt: It drives me crazy.

Matson: We all have a moral obligation to ensure the human rights and dignity of all people. You don’t get a get-out-of-jail-free card: “I’m this progressive who really cares, so I’m just going to go away.” That’s not cool either.

Merritt: What really bothers me is when white feminists ask society to lean into discomfort when they themselves won’t. You’re not going to have permanent scars, usually. The other thing that concerns me is that our country is shifting and feminism has to shift with it. Activists act, first of all. You need to put on your walking shoes, as my grandmother used to say. We should all be committed to a lifetime of learning.