Criminal Justice · Feminism · Reproductive Justice

Penalizing Motherhood

This was originally written in 2012, but is still very much relevant.

In the past few years I have seen black women’s motherhood criminalized by the state. This year it was Shanesha Taylor and Debra Harrell, the former arrested for leaving her two children in a car with the windows cracked during a job interview, and the latter arrested for allowing her daughter to play in a public park alone while she worked. 2011 saw the arrests of Kelly Williams Bolar and and Tanya McDowell for sending their children to schools not in their assigned districts. Whether accused of endangering their children or “stealing” educational services, Shanesha Taylor, Debra Harrell, Kelly Williams-Bolar and Tanya McDowell’s strategies for survival and getting their children an education were marked as signs of bad motherhood.

In her book, Killing the Black Body, Dorothy Roberts discusses how Black motherhood is criminalized and stigmatized through policies that either try to prevent Black women from having children (forced sterilization, coerced use of long-acting birth control), or penalizing and criminalizing black mothers who are on welfare or who are suffering from substance abuse (the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 and the media invention of the crack baby epidemic). A combination of bad public policies, unemployment, low wages, lack of affordable child care, violence and a host of other factors creates structural inequities that forces women into making impossible choices. Do I stay home with my children instead of going to work or a job interview because I can’t afford childcare, with rent and bills coming up? Do I use my family or friend’s address so my kid can go to a good school because I can’t afford to move?

Also, in The Color of Violence: An Incite Anthology, there is an essay that discusses how child welfare institutions disproportionately place Black children into the foster care system. Black children are taken away from their mothers and placed in white homes, where it is assumed that they will have a better life, because their mothers are poor. The mistakes some mothers make are not a result of willful neglect, but of lack of resources, poverty, and stress. Instead of connecting mothers to the resources they need to take care of their children and themselves, they have their children taken away from them.

There is definitely a war on women going on this country right now, and we need to start building broad coalitions that address how current policies are affecting different groups of women, but are damaging to all women as a whole. The mainstream feminist movement needs to take on not just a reproductive rights framework, but a reproductive justice framework, that recognizes how poor women and women of color are impacted by policies that not only restrict access to abortion and contraception, but penalizes them for having children in the first place.


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