In March of 2017, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas was involved in organizing the first Handmaid’s Tale-inspired action at the state capitol. That first action went viral and not long after, Handmaids began popping up all over the country.
NARAL Pro-Choice Texas strives to create a Texas where every person can access the full range of reproductive health services and have their decisions honored and supported, but we also recognize that restrictions on abortion access disproportionately impact communities of color. We are an organization that is currently and has traditionally been white-led, which means that in order to center those most affected, we must actively work on holding ourselves accountable as individuals and as an organization.
Through our policy and advocacy work, we hold state and local officials in Texas accountable for their attacks on reproductive health. We remain committed to relentlessly advocating for these goals through evidence-based policy analysis and bold actions. NARAL Pro-Choice Texas also recognizes that while initially effective, in many ways, the Handmaid’s Tale actions caused harm to the communities that we seek to serve and did not reflect our commitment to becoming an intersectional organization. Because our organization helped initiate the Handmaid’s actions, we feel a responsibility to share why we have decided to stop organizing and participating in this particular form of protest and apologize to those members of our community whom we have hurt.
The initial Handmaid’s Tale action felt deeply urgent. The Texas Senate was debating a ban on second trimester abortion and our organization knew we had act quickly. Our board and staff include people who were active during the fight against the omnibus anti-abortion bill passed in 2013 and have organized as part of abortion funds. We knew from our experiences in the wake of those devastating abortion restrictions both the damage this bill would have and the ability of the Texas Legislature to disguise devastating abortion restrictions beneath a pile of rhetoric, misinformation, and a hectic legislative schedule.
The first Handmaid’s Tale actions shifted the media’s narrative around the Texas Legislature’s anti-abortion agenda and garnered the public’s attention. In an effort to continue raising awareness, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas shared information on how we organized a Handmaid’s Tale action with anyone who asked and helped connect individuals both inside and outside Texas who were organizing sewing parties and planning protests. However, the rapid replication around the country and our continued push to utilize Handmaid’s Tale actions raised the issue of what message the protests were really sending.
Margaret Atwood’s novel and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale television show have received criticism for whitewashing the history of reproductive oppression in the United States (see examples here, here, here and here). In particular, the marginalization of Black and Latinx people in the Handmaid’s Tale reflects the marginalization of people of color in the feminist movement more broadly. And while people of color and indigenous people have faced reproductive oppression in the United States since before this country was founded, the feminist movement has rightly been critiqued for feeling the most urgency when white women are going to be affected.
Soon after they launched, the Handmaid’s Tale protests also received similar criticisms, particularly when many images of the protests only contained white women donning the red robes and white hats. Rather than unifying and lifting up the need for reproductive freedom, the Handmaid’s actions began to divide our movement.
As the actions began to multiply, we lost sight of the original intent of this as a tool to shine a light on a specific moment at the Legislature. More gravely, the pace of this growth discouraged internal conversations about accountability to the perspectives and criticisms of others within the movement who were trying to call us in to conversation about these protests.
As we began the process of listening and reflecting, we invited Ash Williams from SisterSong to Texas and they told us to ask ourselves, “Are you doing these actions because you have to or because you want to?” Initially we developed the Handmaid’s action because we had to bring immediate attention to the anti-abortion attacks of the Texas legislature, but as time went on it became much more likely that we were engaging in the actions because we wanted to — and that difference felt critical in parsing out the necessity and impact of the actions.
We realized that we had begun to bring red robes to spaces where the focus should have been on others, especially people of color. While the Handmaids activists had the intention to show up in those spaces to support others, the effect of the striking and somewhat unusual costuming meant that much of the attention focused on them instead of the people and causes the Handmaids wanted to show up for. And people of color who participated in the initial Handmaids actions gave us feedback that the actions were losing their impact and instead were making organizing spaces less safe for them.
We do not want to continue willfully engaging in actions that bring harm to members of our community, even if those actions may initially seem effective and successful. To do so is not true to our organizational values and does not build the inclusive, intersectional movement we need to achieve reproductive freedom for all people. We cannot ignore the voices who have told us that these actions are harmful to them. To do so would only perpetuate that harm.
We believe the Handmaid’s Tale actions and the growing community building up around them is an opportunity to finally have real anti-racist discussions with a group of predominantly white women. These are the discussions that many Americans were hoping would take place in the majority-white and female-identified groups that sprung up post-election.
But we realize that we can’t have those discussions and engage in truly anti-racist work while donning red cloaks. We have to take off the costume. We have to look at one another without the shield of a bonnet. We must be open to having hard conversations about racial inequality in reproductive health.
Our Executive Director, Heather Busby, describes her vision for a path forward for those who participated in the Handmaid’s Tale actions:
“I don’t want to discount the way the Handmaid’s protests have affected those who have participated. There’s value in the community, both online and in person, that has formed–through the people who have participated, who have gotten together in sewing groups. Good hearted people are participating in these actions and for them, the erosion of their reproductive rights is urgent. But the actions also present opportunities to have real dialogue if we take off the robes. It doesn’t mean we stop being active or stop being vocal, but there are other ways to advocate and other ways to protest. While a piece of me is reluctant and sad to ask others to stop — I know how meaningful and significant it has been for the participants to take on this role and participant in protest in this way — I also know it’s the right thing to do. I have one request of my white sisters: read the critiques from women of color — all of them. Don’t jump to defensiveness or make excuses. Don’t say anything. Just sit with the discomfort. Then sit with it a bit longer. It may take awhile; I know it did for me. Then let’s have a dialogue.”
NARAL Pro-Choice Texas is thankful for the tireless work of our volunteers, staff, and board who have fought every day during the regular and special legislative sessions to protect reproductive health in our state. We are grateful for our reproductive justice allies who have called upon us to engage in advocacy that builds, rather than divides, our movement. We promise to learn, to grow, and to move forward from this moment with compassion and care.
-NARAL Pro-Choice Texas