By Carolyn Kitch
Racism must be a “continuing theme” in the consideration of all issues m the women’s movement, Boston Municipal Court Judge Margaret Burnham told an audience of about 500 at Wheelock College Friday night.
Burnham, a black woman, was one of a three-member keynote panel at the opening lecture of the fifth annual New England Women’s Studies Conference, which was held this weekend at Wheelock and Simmons Colleges, focusing on the theme of “Women and Racism.”
“What women are told they ought to do today is simply what upper-class women have always been able to do. This is a cultural ideal that does not include the underprivileged, working class women,” she said.
Burnham, a member of the Boston Alliance Against Racism and Political Oppression, said the New Right factions active during Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign “are triggering racist sentiments to work against the women’s movement,” particularly in the areas of federal funding of abortions, employment opportunities, and militarism.
“The New Right offers to white working class citizens, who are unhappy with their present standard of living, an ideological package of social issues, using the old ‘blame the victim’ syndrome,” Burnham said. Women cannot win in the issues unless we talk race and class.”
Burnham, who received a standing ovation from the crowd composed primarily of women’s studies students, turned the podium over to Tia Cross, a photographer and teacher of courses on anti-racism.
Cross criticized the Reagan Administration for building up military spending while making human services “scapegoats.”
“They are telling white people that things will get a lot worse for them if they don’t get together against people of color,” she said.
Cross explained her own involvement—as a white woman—in the struggle against racism and her experiences with other whites working on the problem.
“White people cannot approach the issue of racism because they feel guilty or feel that it is the politically ‘right’ stance to take. White people must see blacks as human beings, not as an idea,” she said.
Dr. Helen Rodriguez, a staff pediatrician at New York’s Roosevelt Hospital and the third panel member, addressed the issue of racism by referring to illegal sterilization procedures used on underprivileged women in Latin American countries and parts of the United States.
A native of Puerto Rico, Rodriguez noted such social policies can be carried out for years in foreign countries while women whom they affect are completely unaware of the procedures.
“This policy can affect a literal wiping-out of certain types and classes of people” she added.
Rodriguez explained that underprivileged, and particularly Hispanic, pregnant women in the United States often sign papers while in labor which include a consent clause for a sterilization operation after delivery of the child. These women, she said, have no idea what will happen to them, particularly if they don’t understand English well.
After researching these practices during the late 1960’s, Rodriguez founded the National Committee to End Sterilization Abuse. At that time, she said, sterilization abuse “was not seen as a real issue by white women in the health professions.”
She cited the failure of American health professions to consider the meaning of childbearing in foreign cultures and their assumption that “population control” was “a good thing and a special right of all women” as barriers to the understanding of sterilization abuse.
“What is most important about our recognition of sterilization abuse is the understanding we have gained that we have to place in context the relationship between class and race issues and the problem itself,” she concluded.
The conference continued on Saturday with workshops, panel discussions, and films on the issues of sexism and racism, all held at Simmons College.