Two women stand in front of the Supreme Court building holding a sign that reads, "Keep Abortion Legal."

Abortion Rights and the Eugenic and Racist Origins of Having It All

As we await the high-stakes decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, state legislatures have been proposing and passing restrictions on access to abortion knowing that the Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade in the coming months. On May 2, a leaked draft of a majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito indicated that, indeed, the end of Roe is on its way.

With reproductive justice in crisis, it is important to understand how we got here. This piece will focus on one argument for invalidating Roe v. Wade written in the brief by the State of Mississippi and specifically highlighted in the state’s press release: “In 1973, there was little support for women who wanted a full family life and a successful career…In these last fifty years, women have carved their own way to achieving a better balance for success in their professional and personal lives.” The Mississippi attorney general framed the need for abortion access in terms of whether it was possible for women to have a career if they had children and noted a shift from the passage of Roe v. Wade to today.

The New York Times illuminated this argument with the attention-grabbing headline: “Mississippi Asks: If Women Can Have It All, Is Roe Necessary?”[1] “Having It All” is a phrase that captures exactly what the State of Mississippi discusses: women simultaneously being both perfect mothers and thriving career women. The phrase appeared in the late 1970s (soon after the Roe v. Wade decision) and became associated with the white feminist movement. However, “having it all” is a specific outgrowth of an older cultural ideal steeped in the eugenic thought and racist stereotypes of the 1890s. Both the State of Mississippi’s argument (and the association of “having it all” with the white feminist movement) perpetuate the myth that women combining motherhood with careers is a new development. This fails to acknowledge that Black women have long been working outside the home at higher rates than white women. Further, middle- and upper-class white women often rely on the low-wage work of other women, especially women of color, to “do it all.”[2] The State of Mississippi’s use of women “having it all” to argue for limiting access to abortion embraces the eugenic and racist origins of the ideal, capitalizing on the white mainstream press’ celebration of the ideal after Roe v. Wade.

Spraypainted sidewalk with the text: Defend Roe v Wade.
(Thomas Hawk/Flickr|CC BY-NC 2.0)

Examining the history of “having it all” illuminates how racism and reproductive politics are at the core of the ideal. In the 1890s, middle-class women and men debated in magazines and newspapers whether women could be perfect mothers while also working for wages outside the home. Those discussions coalesced around the named culture types, the “New Woman” and the “New Negro Woman,” which became the firsts in an iteration of cultural ideals that have led us to “having it all.” Supporters of both the “New Woman” and the “New Negro Woman” ideals needed to affirm that women would be perfect mothers while also doing productive work outside the home to allay anxieties about reproductive and gender roles amidst social changes.

Scholars have long established the connection between eugenic thought and the “New Woman,” in part because many discussions appeared in periodicals that endorsed eugenics.[3] Sarah Grand was an emblematic “New Woman” who advocated for women’s rights while using eugenic reasoning.[4] Eugenic fears that white women working outside the home would decrease the white birth rate led women like Sarah Grand to insist that white women who pursued careers would still have children and be good mothers. In an 1896 interview, Grand stated: “While being fully in favor of women entering the professions, speaking on public platforms, and taking their part in the movements of the time, I think that they should always consider their homes and families first of all.”[5] Grand affirmed that women should prioritize their domestic roles even as she encouraged women to do work outside the home. This is the foundation of “having it all” today, predicated on ensuring that white women would not abandon childbearing duties.

The “New Negro Woman” emerged concurrently with the “New Woman” as Black Americans contended with the “afterlife of slavery” (as termed by Saidiya Hartman). Some Black Americans also engaged with eugenic ideas, imbuing Black women with the responsibility to be good mothers.[6] However, Black women faced a much different reality than many white women. Black women participated in the labor force at higher rates than white women, had a long history of relegation to domestic work outside of their own homes, and confronted the racist stereotypes of the “mammy” and “Jezebel.” The aspirational image of the “New Negro Woman” was linked to the success of Black Americans in overcoming these realities upheld by white supremacy. When praising work by the leaders of the Black women’s club movement, Fannie Barrier Williams declared, “the woman thus portrayed is the real new woman in American life…[who] as if by magic has succeeded in lifting herself . . . from the stain and meanness of slavery.” The image of the “New Negro Woman” celebrated how Black women were doing it all as they economically and emotionally supported their families and communities while facing continued violence and discrimination. Praise for Black working mothers continued over the twentieth century.

Representatives Patricia Schroeder and Shirley Chisholm talking with students at Manual High School around 1982. (Denver Public Library)

On the contrary, the white mainstream press treated white working mothers with ambivalence until the 1970s.[7] As publications like Ebony commended Black women for being perfect working mothers, magazines targeted at white women continued to question whether working mothers could adequately tend to the home. However, the decades after Roe v. Wade were a turning point in how the mainstream media discussed working mothers. As more white women entered the workforce and access to reproductive rights increased, the tone in white women’s magazines in the 1970s and 1980s shifted toward promoting working mothers. Magazines called these women “supermoms” (a term that first appeared in women’s magazines in 1973), showcased images of smiling white women holding babies and briefcases, and utilized the language of “having it all” to describe white women working outside the home in a chosen career while mothering children. Capitalizing on the “having it all” phrasing to positively re-brand white working mothers emphasized how a white woman’s identity was not complete unless she had children at precisely the time when more women could choose not to have a baby.

Simultaneously, mainstream media demonized Black women for their motherhood by popularizing the racist stereotypes of “matriarch” and “welfare queen” in the 1970s. The disparaging “welfare queen” label, alleging that Black mothers had too many children and did not properly earn wages to support them, particularly contrasted with the lauding of white “supermoms.” While admiration for the double duty of working mothers perpetuated the cultural ideal of “having it all” into the twenty-first century, the structural support (e.g., free childcare and paid maternity leave) needed to ease the load largely did not appear. In place of governmental policies and programs, the low-wage work of women of color has supported primarily upper- and middle-class white working mothers’ ability to “have it all.”

The State of Mississippi explicitly demonstrates how the cultural ideal of “having it all” undergirds policy decisions by using it to support limiting access to abortions. “Having it all” began with racism and the eugenic imperative for white women to continue having children. The State of Mississippi relies on the power of “having it all” as a white aspirational image that obscures Black working mothers. Further, the use of “having it all” accurately indicates the desire for white women to birth more babies and all women to be good mothers. It does not acknowledge racialized disparities like the lack of economic value accorded to caregiving work and the lived realities of working mothers, caregivers, and pregnant people. Yet, the enduring racism in reproductive care means that limiting access to abortions, as the Supreme Court seems poised to do, will disproportionately harm Black women.

Notes

  1. While the State of Mississippi did not use the phrase “having it all,” both the press release and the brief discuss women having the ability to combine “career” and “family life,” using positive modifiers like “success,” “full,” and “rich.”
  2. Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, eds., Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (Henry Holt, 2004).
  3. See Wendy Kline, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom (University of California Press, 2001) and Teresa Mangum, Married, Middle-brow and Militant: Sarah Grand and The New Woman Novel (University of Michigan Press, 1998).
  4. For further discussion of the connection between eugenics and feminism, see Linda Gordon, The Moral Property of Women (University of Illinois Press, 2002).
  5. Sarah A. Tooley, “The Woman’s Question. An Interview with Madame Sarah Grand,” Humanitarian, vol.8 (1896), in vol. 5 of The Late-Victorian Marriage Question: A Collection of Key New Woman Texts, ed. Ann Heilmann (London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1998), 166.
  6. Michele Mitchell, Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
  7. Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (Basic Books, 2010), 227. Historian Jacqueline Jones noticed how the African American magazine Ebony was celebrating Black working mothers in the 1940s and 1950s before the mainstream press embraced white “supermoms” in the 1970s and 1980s.

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2 Comments

Rorry Zahourek,

Very useful and informative piece. thanks. Well documented also.,
Should be shared with the The NY Times and the Washington Post and other major news outlets

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