I’m A Black Handmaid And I’ll Protest As I Please
You may have seen a statement on the Women’s March page suggesting a list of Do’s and Don’ts including asking people not to protest in Handmaid garb at the 10/2 rally to Defend Abortion Access:
My response to this statement is long but please bear with me!
I came to read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood after checking out one of the poems from her book, “Power Politics”.
[you fit into me] BY MARGARET ATWOODyou fit into me like a hook into an eyea fish hook an open eye
Such a violent image evoked from so few words with so few syllables! I was intrigued and sought out more of her work. Enter “The Handmaid’s Tale”. “The Handmaid’s Tale” opening pages describe women in a gymnasium, whispering and communicating with each other by reading lips and with increasing horror you find out why. The U.S. government has been toppled in a faith-based military coup, established the Republic of Gilead and is rounding up young fertile women to serve as “Handmaids”, basically as breeders.
I read on as one by one the rights of women were taken away; not allowed to own property, have careers, handle money, or read. As a modern African-American woman, I instantly saw the parallels to American slavery. This is what happened (and is happening) to us, I thought.
“This is not a dystopian past or future”, says the Women’s March statement. I would submit that the women wearing “The Handmaid’s Tale” garments are one way of symbolically representing the past, the present and the future of the struggle and the fight for reproductive rights. This oppression has happened before, it’s happening now and it will continue to happen. The silent protests of the Handmaids is a warning, a prediction, a prophecy. The reason why the imagery of “The Handmaid’s Tale” resonates with people is because they recognize that what they are reading about in the book or viewing on the TV show regarding reproductive oppression is actually happening in this country and around the world, NOW.
In 2017, as a new activist, I was just finding out about Illinois House Bill 40, which among other things, removed restrictions on abortion coverage for Medicaid recipients. I was brainstorming with Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth and Scott Cross, my then Indivisible Illinois colleagues, on direct actions we could take to pressure then Gov Rauner into signing the bill as he had promised. When I was shown the pictures of the Handmaids in the Texas capital building, protesting the restrictive abortion rights legislation being passed in that state, I gasped. (Thank you Scott and Aisha Noble) I instantly got the reference from the book and felt I had to recreate this action in Illinois.
We had a lot of help for that first action! Mary Ewert and the McHenry County Citizens for Choice handmaids, handmaids who had been organized in Dupage County by Jax West, organizations like the HB 40 Task Force, Planned Parenthood, Personal PAC and Men4Choice, (and a donation of our first 12 capes and bonnets from Laura Tanner!). We proceeded to the Thompson Center, Chicago office of then Governor Rauner and stood in silent protest as Jessica Droeger read our manifesto and we did the point of shame at the building. We made subsequent appearances at Rauner’s mansion and outside his hoe-down at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield.
HB 40 was signed by Bruce Rauner on September 28, 2017.
Our work to get HB 40 signed was informed by the fact that these restrictions had a disproportionate impact on low-income women, women of color, immigrant women, and young women. Most of the women who were working with me as Handmaids; retired, white, older or middle aged, affluent, middle-class, past child-bearing age, etc. were not affected by these restrictions. They protested because the mission was bigger than themselves. We felt the urgency to use our silent protests to “give voice” to those who had, in a way, been silenced by being ignored.
Despite strong pro-choice majorities in Springfield, in 2019 the Reproductive Health Act (RHA) had stalled as thousands of anti-choice activists flooded the capitol. Our coalition decided we needed to respond in a way that would resonate deeply with our elected officials. We organized handmaids to stand constant vigil over the chambers and coordinated the largest Handmaid protest in our history, with 100 of us entering the capitol in protest. All who were there understood that day as the one where the fate of the RHA changed.
On May 31, 2019, the Illinois Senate passed the Reproductive Health Act.
I have read some of the critical race theories about “The Handmaid’s Tale”. While I appreciate and understand the concerns elevated about Atwood’s work, and agree to a certain extent with those criticisms, the Illinois Handmaids work has always centered those most hurt by these racist, repressive reproductive laws.
Margaret Atwood’s portrayal of white supremacy in the book were few and did not get translated to the Hulu series. In particular, I want to point out this passage in the “historical documents” of the book that most people miss.
“As we know from the study of history, no new system can impose itself upon a previous one without incorporating many of the elements to be found in the latter and Gilead was no exception to this rule. Its racist policies, for instance, were firmly rooted in the pre-Gilead period, and racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did.”
I wish she had explored this theme more because clearly Gilead was formed from the seed of white supremacy and I think it would have been a more realistic portrayal of the transformation of the United States to the Republic of Gilead.
The Women’s March declaration also says the use of Handmaid iconography erases the experiences of Black women, undocumented women, incarcerated women, poor women and disabled women from the history of reproductive oppression. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Illinois Handmaids have used our activism to support laws, issues and candidates who are progressive and pro-choice. The issues we defend are intersecting and disproportionately impact marginalized communities such as the Equal Rights Amendment, Menstrual Equity, repeal of Parental Notification Act, and the transgender prison crisis.
The announcement by Women’s March feels like a bit of an erasure of the activist work I, an African-American woman, have organized in Illinois and it’s quite hurtful. Black people are not a monolith and I resent being directed on how to interpret and react to a piece of art. Black women like Ida B. Wells challenged first wave White feminists who told her to get to the back of the line at the first Women’s March in 1913 and here in 2021, I would encourage my young Black and Brown activists to see that the Reproductive Rights work we’ve done here in Illinois is performed with intention, is valid and it’s effective.
My controlling mantra has been the statement that former state Senator Toi Hutchinson, an African-American woman, made when responding to a legislator who compared abortion to slavery. (Well, after she first posed, “Excuse me, my uterus has a question.”),
“There is nothing more intrinsic to freedom than bodily autonomy.”
I am proud to work with volunteers, Illinois Handmaids, and allies across this state and I am honored to be on this journey with you. We will continue to organize our vigils, to fundraise, to educate and to learn, together, for Reproductive Justice.
Co-lead Illinois Handmaids