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Discussing ‘the F Word’ with Haile Eshe Cole: lecture on reproductive justice, feminism and gender at Amherst College

(Collegian File Photo)

On Oct. 23, the Amherst College Women and Gender Center hosted Professor Haile Eshe Cole to speak on reproductive justice, feminism and gender.

Held in the Keefe Campus Center, the lecture was part of “The F Word: No Apologies,” a lecture series where “notable feminists on campus share their stories of growth, success and their feminist journey unapologetically,” according to the Amherst College website.

The Women and Gender Center’s main initiative is to “hold programs that involve critical dialogue among intersectional feminism and gender,” according to SabriAnan Micha, an Amherst College junior sexuality, women and gender studies major, and program coordinator for the Women and Gender Center.

Cole is a visiting assistant professor at Amherst College, anthropologist and, according to her website, a “trained birth educator and birth companion (doula).” She also previously worked with the “Mamas of Color Rising,” a reproductive justice program that provides resources for working class and poor mothers of color in Texas.

According to Micha, Cole’s “current research focuses on the legacy of scrutiny and violence against Black women’s bodies and builds upon the birthing and reproductive justice framework to examine the current conditions of Black women in Texas.”

At the beginning of the discussion, Cole reflected on what feminism has meant to her throughout the development of her life.

“Feminism resonated with me in a way that allowed me to use it as a framework to explain what I was seeing or to explain the inequality based on gender and sex,” Cole said. “I think of my life growing up as a Black child in a small, conservative town in Texas and having these experiences that I wouldn’t necessarily articulate in the way I do now…but now being able to tell that this experience is messed up.”

Cole went on to declare racism to be the “leading cause for maternal and infant death for Black women.”

Cole additionally referenced a review of reproductive and sexual health disparities in the United States conducted by the Center for Reproductive Rights. As stated on reproductiverights.org, “African American women die in pregnancy or childbirth at a rate of three to four times the rate of white women.”

“A white teenage mom is more likely to have a better outcome than a Black woman with a Ph.D.,” Cole added.

Diane Lee, an Amherst College junior English major, asked, “If a Black woman with a Ph.D. is at more risk than a white teen mom, is there coalition building across class difference?”

Cole responded by saying that coalition building is messy.

“We’re talking about these oppressive ideologies that have stemmed from years and years of Black conditioning, and we have to re-educate ourselves and learn them,” Cole said. “Even when [Mama’s of Rising Color] sat in rooms that are diverse, class-wise…there was still room for judgement and there was denial.”

Cole also stated the three concepts that she puts on the forefront to center work on reproductive justice: the role of Blackness, the expansive and comprehensive nature of reproductive justice and the nature of life and death.

“How do we properly navigate conversations about birth justice?” asks Benedite Dieujuste, an Amherst College sophomore English and sexuality, women and gender studies major.

Cole replied that it is necessary to navigate cultural differences in order to create appropriate levels of birth justice.

“Some of the things that worked for Mama’s of Color Rising was allowing that space for people to talk about their experiences,” Cole said. “A lot of the times it’s not about us telling someone what should be important to them, but organically creating a space for them to have those conversations.”

Amherst College will continue to hold programs that focus on reproductive justice, abortion access and empowering students throughout the week, which is their Reproductive Justice Week.

Saárah Murphy can be reached at saarahmurphy@umass.edu.

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