The 2014 midterm elections are fast approaching, and Planned Parenthood Action Fund has just rolled out its campaign to help educate voters about candidates’ positions on women’s health. “We know that women’s health is a winning issue and that no candidate will be able to win without a plurality of women,” the group’s president, Cecile Richards, said in a statement announcing the launch of the effort, dubbed the “Women are Watching” campaign, which is expected to spend more than $18 million in at least 14 states.
All this is great news for those of us who are big supporters of access to birth control and safe abortion care. And yet, the announcement has left me feeling cold and disconnected.
It was just over a week ago that I was ravenously reading the #TakeRoot14 hashtag on Twitter, inspired by the activists who had converged in Oklahoma at this year’s Take Root conference (“red state perspectives on reproductive justice”). Attendees were there to discuss, among other things, how the reproductive rights movement must get beyond the traditional pro-choice framework, which fails to account for the ways in which race, gender, and class intersect and converge to shape the lives of women of color.
A week later, the most prominent and well-funded reproductive rights advocacy organization in the nation has demonstrated that it will be relying on the same old campaign formulas designed to educate “key voters” about candidates’ position on abortion and birth control. The problem with this approach is that it is blind to the fact that most women in this country are concerned about more than just birth control and abortion. It’s that broader group of women—Black and Latina women, specifically—who will be delivering electoral victories for Democrats, which, essentially, also means we will be delivering reproductive rights victories in 2014, just as they have in elections dating back to 1980. To put it bluntly, abortion is not driving the gender gap in voting. So why is Planned Parenthood acting as if it does?
On the one hand, I get it. I understand that Black women are a reliable voting bloc for Democrats. And as a tactical matter in an election, it makes sense for Planned Parenthood to focus on grabbing voters who still remain unconvinced that forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term is a gross infringement on their rights as human beings. But as a matter of movement-building, the repeated refusal to recognize us for the electoral force that we are leaves us feeling disconnected from an organization that relies on us to deliver reproductive rights victories, but rarely gives us credit for doing so.
Consider the recent election of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. In each of those races, Black women propelled the candidates to victory. Yet, Planned Parenthood credited “women” with the victory in Virginia. Not Black women. Women. And yes, the distinction matters, because in this white-centric world in which we live, claims that McAuliffe’s victory was driven by “women voters” leaves the indelible impression that white women were the deciding factor, and that’s simply not true.
Left in the hands of white women, Republican candidate Ken Cucinelli, who would have been a disaster for reproductive rights, would be in the Virginia governor’s mansion right now. (Although, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the McAuliffe win may not turn out to be as much of a coup as Planned Parenthood has touted it as, considering, as RH Reality Check’s Erin Matson recently wrote, that Gov. McAuliffe reappointed William Hazel, who was instrumental in adopting and carrying out anti-choice policies as Gov. Bob “Ultrasound” McDonnell’s health secretary.)
Let’s also not forget that if it wasn’t for Black women, we would be face-palming our way through a Mitt Romney presidency right now.
So where is our recognition? Where is the campaign strategy that centers our concerns? Where is the voter education model that emphasizes the unique importance to women of color of issues beyond abortion and birth control? Where are the NARAL Pro-Choice America candidate score cards that include candidates’ positions on, for example, voter ID laws? And really: Can a sister get a shout-out for keeping Mitt “Planned Parenthood? We’re Gonna Get Rid of That!” Romney out of the White House?
“Women are watching and we’re ready,” Planned Parenthood’s 2014 midterm elections campaign informs us.
But which women are watching and ready? Certainly not white women. As a voting bloc, white women don’t seem to care much about reproductive rights. But Black women do, while also realizing that there are issues that are equally if not more important that threaten our health and well-being. And the behemoth reproductive rights organizations persist in their failure to recognize that.
For example, one of the most important issues facing Black women in the 2014 election cycle—as in the 2012 election cycle—is voter suppression. Republican voter suppression efforts target us because they know that we make up the “gender gap” that has, since 1980, helped Democrats win in election after election.
Considering that the upcoming midterm elections will be the first major election since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder, and considering the intensity with which lawmakers in states like Texas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia have pushed barriers to voting, it seems to me that reproductive rights organizations must place voter suppression at the top of their priorities list.
I said as much on Twitter last Friday:
— Imani ABL (@AngryBlackLady) February 28, 2014
And the response?
— Planned Parenthood (@PPact) February 28, 2014
— NARAL (@NARAL) February 28, 2014
While I appreciate the responses, a blog post and a two-year-old press release is insufficient to address the very real threat of disenfranchisement facing women of color across the country.
Maybe I shouldn’t complain. Maybe I should be happy that Black women are viewed as a reliable voting bloc who will, by and large, vote for more choice and more justice.
But taking our votes for granted is not conducive to movement-building. And I can’t help but feel disheartened at the expectation that we will continue to deliver reproductive rights victories that are then recast as victories for “women voters.” The bottom line is this: It’s not “women” who are getting it done. It’s Black women voters.
A little recognition for that fact would be nice.