If Loretta Ross did not exist, the Left would have to invent her. Fortunately, she is not a figment of the progressive imagination. This unapologetic black feminist and civil rights activist keeps on stepping on, despite adversity, and accomplishes the extraordinary.
Ross’s latest step is to act as national coordinator of the Atlanta-based SisterSong, an influential women’s collective that crusades for reproductive rights. The group consists of almost eighty grassroots groups representing women of color who are demanding total control of their bodies.
Ross was in Chi-Town in May to honcho SisterSong’s tenth anniversary celebration and a national conference entitled “Let’s Talk About Sex.” The confab drew more than 1,000 women and girls for an unprecedented pow-wow on topics like sexual violence, HIV/AIDS, and abortion. It was a tribute to Ross’s organizing skill.
“She is well loved, feared, and a truth teller,” says Beth Richie, a feminist activist and professor in African American Studies and associate dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Richie, who has known Ross for more than twenty-five years, adds: “She travels in the fast lane of feminist politics.”
Ross is running at warp speed to promote what she calls a “pro-sex agenda.” I catch up with her at a budget hotel room in suburban Chicago. This plus-sized woman warrior, who favors flowing African boubous, insists that females of color, from their teens to twilight years, get three things: the right to have a child, the right not to have a child, and the right to parent children–all on their terms.
“Young people have a human right to have a positive sexuality,” she says. “Meaning, yes, young people have the right to use birth control without parental consent, abortion without parental consent.”
Even girls at the tender ages of eleven, twelve, thirteen?
Ross laughs heartily, her long, abundant dreadlocks swaying down her back. “There’s something mind-boggling about telling a girl she’s old enough to be pregnant,” she says, “but not old enough to use birth control.”
H er early life was no laughing matter. Ross was born in 1953 in Temple, Texas, the sixth of eight children in a churchgoing family. Her mother, a domestic, hailed from a “hog-raising farm family” in central Texas. Her Jamaican-born father was a U.S. Army weapons specialist and drill sergeant.
Like most Army brats, she moved around. Ross excelled at the books, skipping two years in grade school. Then came her first sexual encounter, at age eleven. Ross was separated from her Girl Scout troop during an outing to a San Antonio amusement park. She remembers accepting a ride from a soldier who was stationed at a nearby Army base.
“He took me into the woods and raped me,” she says. She didn’t realize she should be afraid, she recalled, “until he was hitting me in my face.”
She puts a distance on the event. “I considered myself lucky, because, nowadays, if that had happened, there’d be a body on CSI in the woods. But back in ’64, he was not concerned about leaving a witness. He dropped me off on the street where I lived.”
Gripped with shock, guilt, and fear, she hid the incident from her parents with the help of her older sister.
At fourteen, she was abused again by her mother’s adult cousin. She got pregnant and gave birth to her only child, Howard Michael Ross. She decided to keep the baby. It cost Ross a ticket to Radcliffe College. The school withdrew its scholarship offer, she says. “In the ’60s, being pregnant was a lesser sin than keeping proof of the pregnancy,” she says.
She eventually moved with her son to Washington, D.C., and enrolled at Howard University, where her activism took off. In the early 1970s, she joined up with an early mentor, Nkenge Toure, a Black Panther and executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, the first of its kind in the United States. Ross began work at the center, and later took the helm in 1979.
After that, she did a stint directing Women of Color Programs for the National Organization for Women. From there, she went to the National Black Women’s Health Project, and then on to the Center for Democratic Renewal, where she took on the Klan, neo-Nazis, and anti-abortion groups.
While an organizer at SisterSong, she served as national co-director of the April 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., perhaps the largest women’s rights march in U.S. history. She also played a prominent role in helping to organize the U.S. Social Forum this June in Atlanta.
D espite her movement orientation, she does take an interest in mainstream Presidential politics.
“I’ll tell you the most contradictory thing a girl can do,” she says. “I’m sending Barack my money and giving Hillary my vote.”
“The Clinton power base is a centrist power base that fundamentally doesn’t appeal to my radical roots,” she acknowledges. With a wicked grin, she adds, “But, long ago, I accepted that no one as radical as me was ever going to be found dead in an electoral office.”
A t fifty-four, Ross calls her decades in the trenches a “therapeutic privilege.” Why is battling racism and sexism therapeutic? “Because everybody has to deal with it,” she explains. “I don’t know anybody who is exempt from the effects of male and white supremacy.”
Then with one of her trademark husky chuckles, she adds: “But a few of us actually get paid to do something about it.”
Illustration by Martha Rich
Laura S. Washington is a senior editor of In These Times, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, and a professor at DePaul University.