“[N]ever . . . take any shit from anyone.” This attitude guided radical Black feminist Florynce “Flo” Kennedy’s life and advocacy. Contemporaries recognized Kennedy as “an outspoken activist for the rights of African Americans, women, sex workers, and members of the LGBT community.” In this way, Kennedy united social movements with divergent agendas. She believed that only through “unifying in struggle” could marginalized people achieve liberation. Though many might find this practice uncomfortable, Kennedy relished her work. Indeed, she reportedly remarked that “if you’re not living on the edge, then you’re taking up space.”
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, on February 11, 1916, Kennedy made waves as both an undergraduate and law student at Columbia University, where she was one of the first Black women to receive a law degree. As an undergraduate, Kennedy wrote an essay in which she argued that “[t]he similarities of the societal positions of women and Negroes are fundamental rather than superficial.” This piece marked an early example of intersectional theory. But Kennedy’s political advocacy extended beyond the classroom.
During her life, Kennedy advocated on behalf of sex workers; promoted racial equity and diversity in the recording industry by litigating on behalf of Black artists, including Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, and by protesting record companies’ discriminatory hiring practices; and displayed persistent solidarity with the LGBTQ community. As an attorney, she defended Black radicals, including Assata Shakur. She also challenged the Catholic Church’s tax-exempt status “on the grounds that it engaged in political activity by lobbying against more liberal abortion laws.” A bold and innovative advocate, Kennedy used her law degree to protect the vulnerable and challenge the powerful.
Citing her frustration with the repressive nature of the judiciary, Kennedy eventually transitioned from legal advocacy to other forms of political activism. One of her most noteworthy actions was organizing a “pee-in” to protest the lack of women’s restrooms at Harvard University. During her speech to protestors, Kennedy proclaimed Harvard “the asshole of the world.” She also compared women’s exclusion from the restrooms at Harvard to race-segregated bathrooms under Jim Crow. As Kennedy spoke, students dumped buckets of water, but did not actually urinate, on the steps of Lowell Hall. However, Kennedy also warned that if the Dean failed to provide women with access to a restroom, activists would return the next year “doing the real thing.” Though the pee-in’s immediate impact is uncertain, as of 2012, Harvard had ninety-one unisex bathrooms on its campus. Regardless of its direct impact, the pee-in exemplified Kennedy’s willingness to deploy unconventional—and often humorous—strategies to combat injustice.
When Kennedy died on December 21, 2000, her contemporaries publicly mourned her loss. Former New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins remembered Kennedy as a consummate champion of every “cause for the downtrodden.” Judge Emily Jane Goodman of the New York Supreme Court, a close friend of Kennedy’s, credited Kennedy with “show[ing] a whole generation of us the right way to live our lives.”
Despite her long and prolific career as an advocate and speaker, few pieces of legal scholarship make more than a passing reference to Kennedy. Although Sherie M. Randolph’s recent biography of Kennedy provides a historical account of Kennedy’s life, additional legal scholarship dedicated to Kennedy’s work is also warranted. Moreover, as underscored by Randolph, acknowledgment of Kennedy’s abortion access advocacy, which served as a model for later abortion rights litigation, including Roe v. Wade, “is absent from most histories of post-war feminism and the reproductive rights battle.” This Essay aims to fill that gap.
Contemporary emphasis on intersectional politics and renewed concern for abortion access render a review of Kennedy’s legacy especially appropriate. As an early proponent of intersectional theory, Kennedy sets an important example for contemporary racial and gender justice advocates. She displayed particularly masterful advocacy in relation to abortion access, seeking to legalize abortion “in all fifty states.” More specifically, Kennedy’s application of a reproductive justice framework, emphasis on intersectionality, and commitment to centering women’s experiences distinguished her activism for abortion access. Thus, Kennedy can serve as a role model for contemporary reproductive justice activists.
Revisiting Kennedy’s contributions is also timely given today’s broader political context. Currently, Black women such as Maxine Waters, Stacey Abrams, and Kamala Harris lead the nation. These women often face harsher backlash for perceived missteps and receive less credit for their successes than their white or male counterparts. Kennedy’s life provides occasion to reflect on these disparities.
Part I of this Essay discusses Kennedy’s advocacy for abortion access. Part II examines applications of Kennedy’s legacy to contemporary social justice movements. Part III concludes by emphasizing that Kennedy’s life and career can serve as a model for modern reproductive justice activists.
I. Kennedy’s Advocacy and the Dual Dimensions of Black Women’s Activism
Celebrated Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins identifies two dimensions to Black women’s activism. First, “struggles for group survival,” which “consist of actions taken to create Black female spheres of influence within existing social structures.” Second, “struggles for institutional transformation” comprised of “those efforts to change discriminatory policies and procedures” of prominent social institutions, such as the government and the workplace. In her abortion activism, Kennedy advocated along both dimensions.
A. Group Survival: Responding to the “Black Genocide” Argument
Through her advocacy for abortion rights, Kennedy demonstrated her commitment to Black women’s group survival. In 1969, Kennedy, collaborating with Diane Schulder, represented women challenging New York’s abortion laws. During the trial, Kennedy reportedly “pushed the limits of courtroom behavior to make points about social and cultural stigma surrounding women’s roles, sexuality, and abortion.” Indeed, when counsel for one of the intervenors objected throughout a line of questions, Kennedy moved to exclude him. Speaking directly to counsel for the intervenors, Kennedy intoned, “You have no business in the case, you are not entitled to be in this case, and I am simply not going to have my witness intimidated by these continual interruptions.”
Kennedy’s zealous advocacy asserted that “[w]omen were the experts of their own lives.” She viewed the “case as a very definitive platform for exploring the extent of the legalized oppression of women.” Her representation established a template for future challenges to abortion restrictions, including Roe v. Wade. Contemporary activists continue to employ Kennedy’s approach when organizing modern “abortion story-sharing” initiatives.
In 1970, New York reformed its abortion laws, rendering the suit moot. But Kennedy and other activists remained concerned. This inspired Kennedy and Schulder to write Abortion Rap. In this book, Kennedy and Schulder aimed to demonstrate “how the abortion fight is relevant to the fight for freedom for women.” To make their case before the general public, “a people’s tribunal,” Kennedy and Schulder presented stories of women who had obtained abortions; relayed an overview of the case; analyzed and challenged expert testimony; and responded to common criticisms of the right to abortion. The pair called on the Court to find the restrictions unconstitutional.
In the chapter entitled “Black Genocide,” Kennedy brought feminism to bear on the Black Power movement. More specifically, Kennedy challenged the Black Panthers’ opposition to abortion and birth control. She framed Black women’s struggle for reproductive justice in terms of the Black Panthers’ overarching desire for “far less government interference in the lives of black people.” Citing “religious programming,” the persistence of “the slaver’s social values,” and “male chauvinism,” Kennedy attacked the foundations of the Black Panthers’ objections to abortion.
She also emphasized Black women’s expertise. Specifically, Kennedy observed that several Black women, including “Shirley Chisholm, first Black congresswoman, and the many Black women who contacted [Kennedy and Schulder] for abortion information,” supported access to abortion. For too long, Kennedy and Schulder observed, “the nonwhite, and the urban and rural poor,” bore the brunt of “enforced limitation on reproduction,” which amounted to “oppression of women” by the state. Weaving together these strands, Kennedy concluded that Black men needed to defer to Black women’s experiences and preferences. It was time, Kennedy argued, for the Black Panthers to support access to abortion and ensure that “free choice prevailed.”
Critically, Kennedy’s emphasis on Black women’s autonomy coincided with a concern for their security. During the trial proceedings, Kennedy and Schulder did not ask Black women to publicly testify, as they “feared for their safety.” Kennedy and Schulder recognized that Black women faced “hostile responses both within and outside the black community” for seeking abortions. Though Kennedy drew on Black women’s experiences in her advocacy, she did so in the aggregate, preventing any one Black woman from facing violent backlash. In so doing, Kennedy exemplified the first prong of Collins’s formulation of Black women’s activism: ensuring Black women’s survival.
Additionally, Kennedy established abortion access as essential to the Black Power movement. Kennedy acknowledged the “bad stench of racism” attached to some family-planning activities. But she also underscored that “[w]omen hampered by children tend not to be in the vanguard” of the Black Power movement. Perhaps most pointedly, Kennedy emphasized that “Friends of the Fetus in the Black Community,” an anti-abortion group, “have permitted a number of potential revolutionaries to languish in orphanages and foster homes, despite widely broadcast pleas for rescue (for revolutionary or whatever purpose).” In other words, Kennedy concluded that the lack of abortion access actively harmed Black children. Accordingly, she argued that the repeal of abortion laws was necessary to prevent “state interference in the personal lives of Black people.” Hence, Kennedy established access to abortion as essential to both reproductive and racial justice.
Kennedy’s advocacy “directly challenge[d] the legal and customary rules governing African-American women’s subordination.” In the process, she furthered “[t]he black feminist ‘vanguard center’ ideology.” This ideology recognized that Black women’s multiple marginalized identities “best positioned [Black women] to lead a movement that would liberate all those dominated.” Kennedy took this call seriously.
In arguing for women’s liberation, Kennedy cautioned white feminists “not to use the Black women’s plight to make their case for them.” This is consistent with the second wave feminism’s “ethos of organizing one’s own.” Activists initially adopted this strategy during the civil rights movement. Specifically, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee introduced this model, as Black leaders dismissed white demonstrators from the group, calling on them to concentrate on combating racism within the white community. Women’s liberation activists still appreciated the gravity of racism. But most organizing occurred in intra-, not inter-, racial settings. Many contemporary social movements continue to organize around a single identity issue. Thus, understanding intragroup organizing dynamics remains critical.
In sum, Kennedy’s work created “Black female spheres of influence within existing social structures” of the Black Power movement. In so doing, Kennedy “equip[ped] Blacks”—both men and women—“to struggle.” Consequently, Kennedy’s advocacy promoted Black women’s “individual and collective empowerment.” By extension, she advanced the first dimension of Black women’s activism.
B. Institutional Transformation: Abortion Access and Intersectional Justice
Abortion Rap also sought to effect change along the second dimension of Black women’s activism identified by Collins: institutional transformation. Focused on “chang[ing] discriminatory policies and procedures of government, schools, the workplace, the media, stores, and other social institutions,” this dimension of Black women’s activism depends “on coalition-building strategies.” It is true that the chapter entitled “Black Genocide” targeted men in the Black Power movement. But understood in its entirety, Abortion Rap aimed to raze the broader legal landscape wherein “[r]estrictive abortions laws” remained on the books of “most states.” The results were transformative.
First, Kennedy emphasized the connection between racial justice and abortion access. In contrast to the mainstream media’s practice of “whitewashing” the feminist movement, Abortion Rap foregrounded the contributions of Black and Puerto Rican women. Moreover, Kennedy and Schulder gestured towards the formation of a broad women’s coalition to support abortion rights. Black and white women needed to form their “own ideas and strategies.” But no matter their race, in Kennedy’s view, all women deserved “the choice of deciding whether they wish to have babies.” This provided grounds for collaboration across racial lines.
Second, Abortion Rap anticipated contemporary critiques of the Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence, as it centered race- and class-based discrimination concerns. More specifically, Kennedy and Schulder acknowledged the possibility of forced abortion or sterilization. This threat was no mere theoretical specter. In the 1970s, “women of color, Medicaid recipients, and women receiving welfare benefits were sterilized at” high rates, such that “sterilization was the fastest growing method of birth control in this era.” Accordingly, Kennedy and Schulder recognized that “there might easily come a time when all women will have to fight against the imposition of abortions.” But that time had not yet come. Rather, the pair emphasized that activists should focus on securing “a finding of unconstitutionality” for abortion restrictions. Though not a panacea, Kennedy and Schulder believed that such a development “would surely minimize the proliferation of government regulations, guidelines, amendments, and rules” restricting reproductive freedom.
Finally, Kennedy and Schulder cautioned that despite legislative reform, “the struggle [was] just beginning.” The pair recognized that “[f]reedom for women is still dependent upon a change in the power structure of male-dominated institutions.” The Supreme Court’s recent decision in June Medical Services L.L.C. v. Russo underscores the prescient nature of this critique. Indeed, “women . . . are almost totally absent” from this and other recent abortion rights decisions by the Court. This absence is more than a symbolic failing. It also coincides with the passage of an unprecedented number of state abortion restrictions. As a result, abortion is becoming more and more inaccessible. Today, then, Kennedy’s warning from 1971 seems prophetic. Abortion Rap is more than the musings of a couple of radicals. It also reflects the vision of a pair of American Cassandras.
Ultimately, Kennedy worked to dismantle “the wringer” of systemic oppression, what civil rights activist Audre Lorde termed “the master’s house.” Lorde cautioned that the master’s tools would never dismantle the master’s house. But Kennedy saw no need for fancy tools. She recognized the relative political powerlessness of marginalized individuals, describing the oppressed as “termites.” Yet she also recognized that “if all the termites got together, the house would fall down.” Kennedy understood that bringing down institutions of oppression—most commonly the state, but also universities and other entities of centralized power—requires collective action. For Kennedy, this action depended on forming an intersectional coalition.
II. Lessons from Kennedy’s Life
A. Advancing Abortion Access Under a Reproductive Justice Framework
In the past decade, states have passed over 400 laws restricting access to abortion. Alongside the recent death of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a staunch defender of reproductive rights, these developments jeopardize abortion access across the country. Kennedy successfully advocated for abortion access in the pre-Roe v. Wade world. Channeling her legacy can empower contemporary reproductive justice activists to navigate a potential post-Roe future.
First, Kennedy’s work underscores the importance of adopting a reproductive justice—not just a reproductive rights—framework. The concept of reproductive justice was not formalized until the 1990s. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s discussion of abortion access alongside forced sterilization reflects reproductive justice concerns. Indeed, reproductive justice focuses on protecting “the right not to have a child” and “the right to have a child.” This expands on the “traditional reproductive rights” framework’s narrow focus on the rights to “abortion and contraception.” By extension, this approach better advances women’s equality and liberty.
Second, Kennedy’s legacy highlights the importance of intersectional advocacy. For too long, the reproductive rights movement has focused on the rights of middle-class and wealthy white women. This ignores the struggles faced by poor women, women of color, LGBTQ individuals, and people with multiple marginalized identities. Kennedy recognized the link between distinct forms of oppression. This recognition empowered Kennedy to build a broad coalition in support of reproductive rights. Adapting Kennedy’s approach, then, would enable contemporary reproductive justice advocates to better safeguard a host of reproductive freedoms—including, but not limited to, the right to a safe and accessible abortion.
Finally, Kennedy’s work highlights the importance of centering the voices of women. The erasure of women from discussion of abortion jurisprudence is not new. But it is concerning. Specifically, this erasure deprives women of agency, forcing them “to hope that powerful men will make really good choices on [their] behalf.” To prevent further omission of women’s experiences from abortion jurisprudence, advocates can channel Kennedy’s influence by affirming a woman’s inherent right to control decisions about her body. Centering the experiences of those seeking abortions can highlight the need for legal reform, providing grounds for legislatures and courts to affirm and strengthen reproductive rights protections. Thus, Kennedy’s Abortion Rap provides a critical blueprint for contemporary reproductive justice advocates.
What would the Court’s reproductive rights jurisprudence look like if it were guided by Kennedy’s legacy? We can only speculate. But given Kennedy’s commitment to intersectionality, under this framework, the Court would conclude that economic barriers to abortion, such as the Hyde Amendment, violate the Constitution. Similarly, the Court would hold that coerced sterilization is unconstitutional. And the decisions would focus on the experiences of women and other people seeking to safeguard their reproductive liberties—not the government, not the doctors, not those intervening on behalf of fetuses. Such an approach would advance both liberty and equality along intersectional axes.
B. Black Women’s Invisibility: A Call To Amplify Black Women’s Voices
During her lifetime, Kennedy’s race led to her intentional exclusion from media reports. For instance, Kennedy is conspicuously absent from photographs and news reports of a press event for Abortion Rap. This is consistent with the media’s pattern of “whitewashing [Kennedy] from other events where she was key” due to racism. Indeed, prior to a women’s liberation meeting at which Kennedy and Gloria Steinem were scheduled to speak, Betty Friedan reportedly called Steinem to insist that she disinvite Kennedy from the event, and she referred to Kennedy using a racial slur. Even within the feminist movement, then, Kennedy faced exclusion and resistance.
Kennedy’s colorful language also contributed to her erasure. Directing her ire at members of the clergy and judges, lawyers, and even President Richard Nixon, Kennedy refused to pull any punches. Her praxis boiled down to “kicking ass.” Kennedy believed in “[k]icking ass . . . where an ass is protecting the System . . . regardless of the sex, the ethnicity, or the charm of the oppressor’s agent.” As Gloria Steinem observed, Kennedy used her “humor [to] work for change, not against it.” No matter the backlash. This style led People magazine to dub Kennedy “the biggest, loudest and, indisputably, the rudest mouth on the battleground” for radical feminist politics. It also contributed to Kennedy’s exclusion from accounts of the social justice movements she led.
The relative paucity of scholarship on Kennedy’s activism is consistent with the political phenomenon of treating Black women as invisible. Despite Black women’s critical contributions to social movements, they account for a disproportionately low number of elected officials. Politically, “Black women became invisible through their dual minority status and its treatment by law and society.” Failure to account for the particular inequities Black women confront contributes to a host of problems, including “anti-Black misogyny” (“misogynoir”), mistreatment by the medical system, and murder by law enforcement officials. Moreover, “more than sixty thousand black women are missing in America.” This means that despite comprising less than ten percent of the United States’ population, Black women account for “nearly 37 percent of missing women.” In other words: Black women’s political erasure is not just a dignitary harm. Rather, reduced visibility correlates with heightened risk of bodily injury, including death. To address these injustices, society must first acknowledge them. Thus, highlighting Black women’s experiences is critical to addressing gender- and race-based violence.
Black women’s anger is also consistently politicized. Regarded as “irrational, crazy, out of touch, entitled, disruptive, and not team players,” Black women who voice their discontent face dismissal and disparagement. Perceived as “inconvenient citizens,” “Angry Black Women” face disproportionate censure for their activism. No wonder, then, that journalists and scholars often elide Kennedy’s contributions. How easy, under this racist and sexist framework, to dismiss Kennedy’s “radical, outspoken, and provocative rhetoric” as just the words of another “Angry Black Woman.”
Dismissal of Kennedy’s contributions on the basis of her fiery speech is misguided. As discussed above, Kennedy’s rhetoric served as a tool of survival. Employing seemingly outrageous language enabled Kennedy to highlight the true ugliness in society: the exploitation of people through “the wringer” of the system. Her “undisguised anger” constituted “a rhetorical super-power.” Through displaying her righteous fury, Kennedy inspired others to fight against oppression.
Today, erasure of perceived “Angry Black Women” continues to exacerbate inequality. Movements such as #SayHerName have attempted to foreground Black women’s experiences, but additional work is needed to dismantle this sexist, racist trope. Rage is constructive, not just destructive. To build a better world, society must stop reducing Black women to hidden figures of social movements. Recognition is not just a formality. Rather, recognition leads to liberation. Full recognition of an individual’s humanity is necessary to ensure that she is “fully free.” Thus, to secure equality, and with it, liberty, we must celebrate Black women leaders. Honoring Kennedy’s legacy is a good place to start.
Florynce Kennedy significantly advanced racial and gender justice in the United States. As demonstrated by her abortion access advocacy, Kennedy’s contributions to social justice typify the two dimensions of Black women’s activism identified by Patricia Hill Collins. Kennedy’s fearlessness can galvanize contemporary activists. Whether one commits to “kicking ass” or merely endeavors “not to lead an oatmeal existence,” Kennedy provides ample inspiration. Following her lead, contemporary reproductive justice activists can safeguard abortion rights while furthering broader racial and gender justice initiatives.