I’m Not “Fit” to Judge Another Woman’s “Fit”ness by Liz Cooledge Jenkins

In recent conversations around abortion rights—spurred by a leaked draft of a Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade—everyone has opinions. The financially comfortable, often-white, often-evangelical women in my circles have opinions. And these opinions often involve the lives and choices of materially poor women and women of color.

            In her recent book The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism, Rutgers University professor Kyla Schuller profiles seven pairs of feminist activists over the last two hundred years. Each pair includes one woman who operated from a framework of white feminism—a framework that, according to Schuller, “consistently…wins more rights and opportunities for white women through further dispossessing the most marginalized.” And each pair includes a woman who embodied intersectional feminism—a feminism that “expose[s] sexism to be a powerful structure of systemic inequality and attempt[s] to untangle its deep threads with other forms of domination, while also building new practices of care, coalition, faith, and solidarity.”[1] This is not just history but a live tension in the present day.

            In the aftermath of the Supreme Court opinion leak, I thought about Schuller’s analysis of one particular historical feminist: Margaret Sanger. Sanger did amazing work on birth control access and advocacy. At the same time, though, her legacy is complicated. According to Schuller, Sanger considered only about three-fourths of the US population “fit” to bear children.[2] In effect, Sanger wanted to provide resources for wealthy women to make choices about their bodies and families, but when it came to materially poor women, she wanted to lower birth rates in order to “[improve] the biological quality of the population.”[3] While Sanger claimed in theory that “unfit was not in itself a racial marker,” her practice of targeting “impoverished communities with high birth rates…unmistakably and disproportionately brought immigrants and people of color under Sanger’s regulatory gaze.”[4] In other words, Sanger was a materially privileged white woman who felt the need to enter into materially poor communities and communities of color and push the women in these communities toward a particular set of reproductive choices.

            I think about this, and I think about the white evangelical women I know today. Due in large part to a highly effective Religious Right campaign since the 1970s, most evangelicals hold much stronger anti-abortion views than the general public. For example, according to a recent Pew Research poll, 73% of Americans think abortion should be legal if the women’s life or health is in danger; only 51% of white evangelicals hold the same view.[5] (As a young-ish woman, neither of these numbers makes me feel fantastic.[6])

Some evangelicals justify their views along these lines: think of someone born to a poor, single mother—do you value their life?

My answer would be yes, of course. And I also value the life of the pregnant woman. When abortion is illegal, a materially poor single woman is not necessarily less likely to try to terminate a pregnancy she can’t afford, but more likely to pursue a method that would turn out to be unsafe. I value this woman’s life enough to want her to have access to safe, holistic reproductive care.

I value this woman’s life—and I also value her dignity. I respect her right to self-determination. This is what is missing from both Sanger’s judgments about “fit”ness and my own friends’ anti-abortion views. As a materially privileged white woman, I don’t think I have any right at all to tell a materially poor woman of color what reproductive choices she should or shouldn’t make—let alone try to force these choices through legislation.

Deep at the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that all people are made in God’s image.[7] This image-bearing-ness is something Jesus affirmed in women—all sorts of women—at every turn. Jesus affirmed the dignity and agency of women who were ostracized by their communities, like the Samaritan woman who had had five husbands,[8] and the woman caught in adultery who was dragged before a group of men for judgment.[9] Jesus drew attention to the remarkable faith and bravery of a woman widely considered a “sinner,”[10] and of another woman from an ethnic group that people of his own ethnic group considered “dogs.”[11] Perhaps these were the kinds of women the wealthier people of Jesus’ day would have seen as “unfit.” Jesus treated these women as the complex, worthy human beings they really were.

I see this as an inspiration—and as a challenge when I’m tempted to think I know better than another woman what she should do. I don’t want privileged women today to repeat Sanger’s mistakes, thinking we know what’s best for other women, and especially for women whose life experiences are very different from our own—whether what we think is best is birth or abortion. We all need community support when making weighty, difficult decisions.[12] But we thrive in mutually supportive communities of equals—not in one-sided, coercive relationships in which one person considers herself morally superior.

As a woman of faith, I want to embody the confidence of knowing I’m made in the image of God. At the same time, as a materially privileged white woman, I want to embody the humility of knowing I’m not “fit” to judge anyone else’s “fit”ness. I want to trust other women to make the choices that are best for them and their families. I want to trust the deep wisdom that resides in all women.

How different—and how much healthier and more healing—our conversations around reproductive rights might be if Christians learned to listen, to trust, to care holistically for all women’s wellbeing, to follow Jesus in affirming women’s agency, to recognize and honor the image of God in every woman.


[1] Schuller, Kyla, The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism (Bold Type Books 2021), 9.

[2] Ibid., 118.

[3] Ibid., 147.

[4] Ibid., 124.

[5] See https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/05/06/americas-abortion-quandary/.

[6] More on this at my blog.

[7] Gen 1:27.

[8] John 4:1-42.

[9] John 8:1-11.

[10] Luke 7:36-50.

[11] Matt 15:21-28.

[12] And, as Esther Nelson wrote in her post Abortion—the topic that won’t go away—or even morph, women do not take this decision lightly.

BIO: Liz Cooledge Jenkins is a writer, preacher, and former college campus minister who lives in Burien, WA. She regularly shares justice-minded biblical reflections, poems, “super chill book reviews,” and more at lizcooledgejenkins.com. When not writing or reading, you can find her swimming, hiking, attempting to grow vegetables, and/or drinking a lot of tea. You can also find her on FB (Liz Cooledge Jenkins, Writer) and Instagram (@lizcoolj).



Categories: Christianity, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, white femininity

Tags: , , , , , ,

9 replies

  1. It is beyond my comprehension that any woman can judge another when it comes to the issue of abortion – every woman is different and is situated in a larger context.

    Definition of intersectionality: Intersectionality shows us that social identities work on multiple levels, resulting in unique experiences, opportunities, and barriers for each person. Therefore, oppression cannot be reduced to only one part of an identity; each oppression is dependent on and shapes the other.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for this important perspective! Unfortunately, this same attitude of judgment seems to pervads our society. I love your phrase “mutually supportive community of equals.” This makes me think of how hard it can be to advocate for programs like food stamps and rental assistance/affordable housing that provide the most basic levels of support for people because of exactly these attitudes. Fortunately, though, I also see your concept emerging in the way local programs not only offer help but do it in a way that affirms dignity, such as referring to people as “guests.” Your essay really clarifies the importance of this attitude not only in relation to abortion, but in so many other areas.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I sooooo much agree with your final paragraph. Whoever taught Christians not to listen to anyone but themselves? Why are they the only men fit to judge others? Excellent post. Many thanks. Bright blessings for your good research and reasoned writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, Liz, for this essay. Seems that when women judge another woman’s “fit”-ness, they are embodying that overarching patriarchal value that insists on dominating over another. This: “I don’t think I have any right at all to tell a materially poor woman of color what reproductive choices she should or shouldn’t make—let alone try to force these choices through legislation.”

    Like

Trackbacks

  1. I’m Not “Fit” to Judge Another Woman’s “Fit”ness by Liz Cooledge Jenkins - Local Cincinnati News

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: