Black Maternal Mortality Shows Why Feminism Just Doesn’t Cut It

When the idea of feminism was brought up to me, I never saw it as an idea or movement that I should be a part of. Specifically, white feminism. As a result, I never bothered to call myself a feminist because why would I associate myself with something that does not include me? If I am going to be a part of a movement it should benefit all women and not just one particular sect of women, and in this case, white women. 

So, when talking about feminism and what it means to be a feminist, I always find myself asking the question: where do black women fit in perspective to this conversation?  Do they even fit in this conversation? Because if they did, why aren't all women doing more to tackle the problem of black maternal mortality in the United States? 

To be clear, I understand that feminists are fighting for many things such as equal pay and the ability for women to receive maternal leave and not fear losing their jobs. But, reproductive rights, which I would argue is one of the biggest battles many women are fighting right now, is one of the main areas in which the feminist voice has forgotten black women.

Black women have never had full control over their own reproductive health. From the time of slavery to now, racism and discrimination have prevented black women from entering motherhood on their own terms. Instead, medical racism coupled with modern day discriminatory obstacles that black women are forced to face, only leads to them being placed in life and death situations where black women remain unheard. 

Studies show that the United States as a whole is experiencing an increase in mortality rates compared to other developed nations in the world. This statistic is hard to comprehend when the United States spendsalmost double on health care per person than most countries in the world.

The reality is, black women are dying the most during pregnancy and up to a year after giving birth. In fact, black maternal deaths are comparable to that of women dying in underdeveloped countries. According to the CDC, for every 100,000 black women that give birth, 40 black women die compared to 12.4 deaths of white women and 17.8 deaths for women of other races.

These numbers are alarming when more than half of these deathsare preventable  if these mothers had received adequate and proper care. But, for black women, the problem is more complex and rooted in  medical racism. 

For black women who give birth in the US, their blacknessputs them in harms way. Black maternal mortality is not just an issue of care, but how biases towards black bodies and the systematic oppression that black women face negatively impacts them. In order to fully understand this problem, we have to take into account that black female bodies were once regarded as chattel and property who were forced to reproduce in order to maintain the system of slavery.  In essence, their value was determined by their ability to reproduce

Enslaved black women constantly being forced to reproduce caused for many women to suffer form reproductive health issues. Although white women were suffering from many of the same issues, doctors could not experiment on white women in order to find cures for reproductive issues such as vesico-vaginal fistula. Doctors like James Marion Sims, the Father of Gynecology, used the system of slavery as a way to advance his medical understanding of the female body. He preformed unethical experiments on enslaved black women. On every occasion these experiments were preformed without their consent and without the use of anesthesia.  

The history of black bodies being used for experimentationand scientific research goes back very far. The reason that his experiments were allowed is due to wrong beliefs surrounding the black body and their positionality as being less than. Beliefs such as black bodies being stronger and not experiencing pain in the same way allowed for them be characterized as not human. The most shocking part about these medically inaccurate beliefs is that doctors still believethem today and use them as a way to treat black patients. But, these racist beliefs are leading to the death of black women because when complaining about pain while pregnant, they are written off. They are accused of lying and being dramatic when in fact they are being aware of their own bodies.

Take for example, the case of Serena Williams. Williams wanted to avoid a C-section at all costs because of her history with blood clots. But, unfortunately she had to undergo one in order to deliver her daughter. After doing so, her health took a turn for the worst and even though she made nurses and doctors aware of her own health concerns, they stilldisregarded her pleasfor proper medical care. It was not until she almost died that doctors decided to listen to her and take proper action

But not all black women are as lucky as Williams was. The story of Kira Dickson shows that even when black women advocate for themselves, they are still not taken seriously. Black women are continuously not taken seriously because healthcare for black women since their introduction in the United States as slaves, has been non-existent. As enslaved beings, black bodies received medical attention on the premise that they were needed for slave labor. Black bodies were never meant to be cared for in the same capacity as white bodies. This is why after slavery, blacks had to create their own medical institutions in order to receive care due to mistreatment within white hospitals or just not being allowed in hospitals.

Lastly, the stress that black women experience as a result of being black in America, leads to the many pregnancy related complications for them. Studies show that on average black women tend to experience greater stressthan white women and even black men due to racism. Black women experiencing high levels of stress allows for various medical problems to generate and impact the quality of life for black women especially when they become pregnant. Stresses such as environmental racism, lack of access to quality health insurance, racial stereotypes and more, are some of the things that black women experience. These stresses are exacerbated by systems of oppressionthat have been present for a very long time and racial biases within the health field. 

So, feminism just does not cut it because black women clearly do not even have equal access to the same resources and care that white women do. Yes, it is unfortunate that anyone has to die while giving birth in the United States, but the root cause for the rates at which black women die, is a result of the United States continued racist treatment and disregard for the black female body. Until, the US is ready to begin the conversation surrounding their treatment of black bodies in the US (in every aspect), black women and their struggles will continue to be unheard and silenced. History shows that black women were not considered women in the same regards as white women. In order to differentiate between black and white women, black women had to be "othered" and defined as property. 

It is for these reasons that black women have had to create their own networks that not only celebrate being a black woman but also work as a channel to fight for issues that impact black women. Evidence of this is seen in the creation of reproductive justiceby women of color who are arguing that black maternal mortality is a social justice and human rights issue.

Until the feminist movement acknowledges the fact that not all women are treated equally, then black women do not really have a place in the movement. As their needs are not being placed at the forefront like many of the other issues that white feministare fighting for. In the end, it seems as if feminism is another way in which black women are silenced and forced to create their own communities of support in hopes that someone will listen. 


Alley OlivierComment