Dr. Evan Hart, Visiting Assistant Professor in African American Studies, used her 2016 Rothman Faculty Fellowship to travel to Smith College to do archival research for her current book project, “Building an Inclusive Movement: the National Black Women’s Health Project and the Battle for Health, 1981-1994.” Founded in 1984 by Byllye Avery, The National Black Women’s Health Project was the first organization devoted solely to the health concerns of women of color in the United States. Their independence from the National Women’s Health Network raised red flags among mainstream feminists who argued that all women shared the same health care needs regardless of race. Dr. Hart argues that the subsequent debate amongst feminists about makes a social movement “inclusive” created new organizational strategies modeled by the National Black Women’s Health Project but also exposed fractures in the feminist movement.
Byllye Avery and her allies were motivated to create a separate health organization for black women because mainstream organizations such as the National Women’s Health Network failed to address the health disparities between minority black women and majority white women. Such mainstream organizations frequently pointed to the presence and participation of black women on their executive boards and amongst the rank and file as evidence for their on-going efforts to address the concerns of all women. Avery and others criticized this view as “tokenism,” or using the presence of black women to legitimize the inclusive credentials of majority white organizations. The National Black Women’s Health Project would pursue a different model of inclusive social action: a model that encouraged independent minority organizing in order to respond more effectively to specific health concerns among minority groups but that also embraced continued coalition building between other minority organizations as well as larger, predominantly white, women’s health organizations.
This strategy brought initial success. In the late eighties and early nineties, minority organizations devoted to the health concerns of Latina, Native American, and Asian women opened their doors in response to the actions of the National Black Women’s Health Project. Additionally, the National Black Women’s Health Project built a powerful coalition with National Women’s Health Network in their opposition to an experimental contraceptive drug, Depo-Provera. While the National Women’s Health Network emphasized the burdensome side-effects of the drug, the National Black Women’s Health Project produced evidence proving that black women were under-informed about the “experimental” nature of the contraceptive and therefore could not give informed consent to its use. The combined work of both groups prevented Depo-Provera from being approved by the FDA until 1992. Prejudice, however, remained. The 1992 March for Women’s Lives produced conflict between NOW organizers and minority health organizations who were left out of the planning process since they were not official members of NOW.
The National Black Women’s Health Project transformed how minority women enacted change around health policies. Their example provided a different model for an inclusive movement focused on individual organization and the creation of coalitions. This model prevented tokenism and brought greater focus and care to the health concerns of minority women. Overall, Dr. Hart’s project pushes us to think deeply about what counts as inclusive and how to organize more inclusively to make effective progress in addressing serious social failings. Inclusion, it seems clear, is not just a matter of numbers but is a method of addressing existing disparities – health or otherwise. Without addressing the questions of power and the authentic representation of intersectional needs, numbers alone will not add up to an inclusive world.
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