Loretta Ross is an academic and activist who has dedicated many years to advocating for women’s rights and reproductive justice. Most notably, she is a cofounder of SisterSong and Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, served as a previous Executive Director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, and is one of twelve women credited with coining the phrase and framework “reproductive justice.” Ross continues to be regarded as a voice of authority on women’s rights. She continually combats racism, sexism and sexual violence, particularly by creating coalitions by and for women affected by these inequities.
Loretta June Ross was born on August 16th, 1953, in Temple, Texas. Her father Alexander Ross was born in 1918, immigrating from Jamaica to the U.S. as a young boy and grew up in Baltimore. Her mother, Lorene Burton, was born and raised in Texas. Alexander Ross met and married Lorene Dolores Burton, who brought five children from a previous marriage to their union, in 1952. Ross was the sixth of eight children in a blended family. As Ross grew up, her father spent time in the U.S. Army, resulting in the family moving from place to place. They lived in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Los Angeles, California and Temple, Texas, where Ross was born. Alexander Ross eventually retired from the military in 1963 and then began to work for the Post Office, among other various odd jobs. Ross’s mother owned a music store before becoming a full-time stay-at-home mother while raising Ross and her siblings.
By the time Ross was ten, her constant moves allowed her to see different parts of the country. Attending Army schools and then public primary schools gave her varied educational experiences. Ross excelled in academics from a young age. She skipped grades in elementary school twice and was an honors student throughout her high school career. In an interview with the Voices for Feminism Oral History Project, Ross spoke about how her military background aided in propelling her academic career, stating, “And I think [moving around] really provided an advantage growing up. I mean, maybe families that stayed in the same neighborhood, in the same community growing up had a different advantage. But for us, we felt worldly, we felt cosmopolitan, we felt like all the little kids who never went anywhere were disadvantaged” (Ross 2004-2005). She further emphasized that the quality of the curriculum differed greatly between military schools and standard public schools. Most notably, military schools provided her with the tools to increase her reading level at a rapid rate.
Despite her many successes, Ross was no stranger to hardship. At the age of eleven, she was sexually assaulted and beaten by a stranger. She shared in an interview that she can hardly recall her life between the ages of eleven and fourteen due to the trauma of this event (Ross 2004-2005). Then, just four years later at the age of fifteen, she was sexually assaulted by a relative. She became pregnant at fifteen as a result of the second assault. Due to abortion being illegal at the time, she was unable to have the procedure. She subsequently gave birth to a son, Howard Michael Ross, in April 1969. Ross openly admits she initially had no intention of keeping Howard, and jokes that her lack of foresight regarding naming her son makes it evident she never intended to be a mother (Ross 2004-2005). When handed her son’s birth certificate, she hurriedly chose the middle names of her two favorite brothers (William Howard Ward and Alexander Michael Ross) as his namesakes.
Each of these life-altering events ultimately impacted Ross’s academic prospects. She was denied readmission to her high school due to her newfound motherhood. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, where she was to matriculate, also revoked Ross’s scholarship. Though the university could not rescind her acceptance, without financial assistance, attending Radcliffe was no longer an option for Ross. Ross’s dismissal from high school and loss of her Radcliffe scholarship was due to her high school counselor, who felt Ross had “personally let her down” (Ross 2004-2005).
Rejection and isolation deeply impacted Ross. Along with these educational setbacks, she experienced discrimination in her high school. Ross’s high school embraced Confederate imagery and historical figures, and racist ideologies greatly impacted her experience as a student. With few classmates of color, Ross’s pregnancy and outspoken behavior towards prejudiced events at the school (such as holding slave auctions to, as Ross described it, “bid on your classmates [to have them] be your slave for a day”) made her hyper visible (Ross 2004-2005). She ultimately became the target of many of her classmates’ vitriol. Transferring to Sam Houston High School (which had recently been desegregated to allow Black students to attend) allowed Ross to graduate.
Circumstances continued to improve following her high school graduation. In 1970, Ross was accepted to Howard University in Washington, DC. Her best friend, Lillian Martin, would also be attending Howard. Ross’s acceptance occurred at the last minute. She wrote a letter to the university in desperation to plead for her admission. Despite applying well past the deadline during the summer of 1970, after she had already graduated high school, she was accepted and granted a full scholarship. Ross set out to major in chemistry and physics (Ross 2021).
Howard opened her eyes to different political paths. She cites two books as raising her “political consciousness:” Alex Haley’s book The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Toni Cade Bombara’s The Black Woman (Valk 2010, p. 121). In attempting to immerse herself in campus life, Ross realized that issues of gender inequality were everywhere. This sexism was difficult to navigate, as the 1970s Black Nationalist Movement (which many Howard students aligned themselves with) argued that Blackness included embracing traditional gender norms. Gender roles were such a fundamental pillar of the movement that they were seen as “a foundation for black unity and community improvement” (Valk 2010, p. 121). However, sexism did not deter Ross from making her presence known in a number of campus groups. She was a member of the DC Study Group, a Marxist-Leninist discussion group, and the South Africa Support Project (Sophia Smith Collection 2009). Alongside these efforts, Ross became involved in conversations surrounding Black Nationalist politics and also helped address local housing problems by organizing tenants.
Ross left Howard University before completing her undergraduate degree. She eventually became an officer with the City Wide Housing Coalition and was one of the founders of the National Black United Front (NBUF). The NBUF was a larger organization made up of Black nationalist organizations. She continued to do this work from 1974 to 1980. In 1976, Ross received a type of birth control called an intrauterine device (IUD), named the “Dalkon Shield,” from the Howard University health clinic. Doctors had already found the device was defective prior to Ross's usage, but the clinic did not inform her of this fact. Following continued complications from the device, doctors diagnosed Ross with pelvic inflammatory disease. She was initially told it was a venereal disease, so by the time it was a clear misdiagnosis, her fallopian tubes had ruptured (Nelson 2010, p. 144). She had to undergo a hysterectomy. Ross asserted that “if her physician had diagnosed the infection in time she never would have lost her reproductive organs” (Nelson 2010, p. 144).
Infuriated by this case of medical malpractice, Ross sued the Dalkon Shield manufacturer A.H. Robins and won. Given the medical mistreatment she faced as well as the two sexual assaults she experienced, Ross became radicalized. She recognized what she had experienced— both in 1976 and as a child— was not specific to her, but instead a symptom of the racism and sexism that affected many women (Nelson 2010). Some women often experienced this trauma even more extremely, with many women being sterilized without their consent. This realization was enough to spur Ross to become a reproductive rights activist (Nelson 2010).
In 1977, Ross and a number of other Black women attended the National Women’s Conference in Houston, TX. Ross and the women with her at the conference developed the term “women of color” in hopes of helping achieve their political goals. Attending the conference with an agenda they called the “Black Women’s Agenda,” these women sought to challenge the organizers of this conference to better highlight non-White women’s narratives (Ross 2011). The organizers had created a document entitled “Minority Women’s Plank,” which Ross and others felt fell short in encompassing the lived realities of minority women (Ross 2011). Women of other races related to the need to have their unique experiences as racial minorities fully realized, and wanted to be included in the Agenda. Their inclusion meant that the “Black Women’s Agenda” was no longer an appropriate title. As a result, the term “women of color” was born. Ross emphasized the term “is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been ‘minoritized.’” (Ross 2011).
In 1979, Ross also became the third executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC). Created in 1972 by a group of white women active in the women’s rights movement, the DCRCC was the first organization of its kind in the U.S. At its inception, the DCRCC was solely meant to tend to the short term needs of survivors of sexual assault (Valk 2010). Other initiatives included crafting educational content and hosting programs meant to prevent sexual violence (Valk 2010). Over time, Black women held the majority of staff positions at the center. Founders of the center thought having primarily Black staff felt fitting, as many of the women who required DCRCC’s services were Black. The organization’s founders gracefully bowed out, encouraging Black women to continue their exceptional work with the community (Nelson 2010). The center still exists today with the following mission:
“The DC Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC) is dedicated to creating a world free of sexual violence through conscience and action. Our call to action obliges us to facilitate systemic change by equipping diverse stakeholders to respond to survivors of sexual assault with compassion, dignity and respect, regardless of race, class, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, immigration status, ability, age or religious affiliation.” (DCRCC n.d.)
Though the DCRCC initially primarily served women of color, staff determined that no person would be turned away based on their race. Sexual assault is a pervasive issue amongst women of all races, which is a reality Ross advocates for while also emphasizing Black women’s reproductive rights.
A year later in 1980, Ross’s close friend and colleague, Yulanda Ward, was murdered in what appeared to be an attempted robbery (Knight 1980). Ross and Ward attended Howard together. They were also in the National Black United Front together. Ward served on the DCRCC Board of Directors as Vice President and was also a leader in the City Wide Housing Coalition. Ross referred to Ward’s murder as a “political assassination,” and the traumatic loss of her friend served as yet another prominent turning point in her life (Sophia Smith Collection 2009). Ross also noted that Ward’s murder resulted in the end of the City Wide Housing Coalition (Ross 2004-2005).
Between 1980 and the early 2000s, Ross was involved in several political movements and events that focused on women’s rights and reproductive justice. In 1980, she began what would become an eight-year membership with the D.C. Commission on Women (Sophia Smith Collection 2007). In August of that same year, Ross and others who worked with DCRCC organized the National Conference on Third World Women and Violence, where activists addressed issues of racism within rape crisis centers. This event “marked the first time that black, Latina, Asian, and Native American women working in rape crisis centers (RCCs) and battered women’s shelters in the U.S. convened both nationally and autonomously” (Thuma 2015, p. 52). The diversity of attendees and their worldviews resulted in a variety of workshops and programs that addressed the multi-faceted lived experiences of the attendees.
Five years after the National Conference on Third World Women and Violence, Ross was hired by the National Organization for Women (NOW). NOW wanted to hire and elevate women of color to address larger criticisms about the feminist movement, particularly assertions from women of color that NOW was racist. As a result, Ross’s role was meant to “build coalitions between NOW and women of color organizations and to bolster the participation of women of color in NOW” (Nelson 2010, p. 136). She served as the Director of Women of Color Programs from 1985 to 1989.
Ross’s experience at NOW was not all she hoped it would be. When reflecting upon her time with the organization in a 2004 interview, she stated she was “never, ever sure whether or not [she] had any impact on NOW,” as it appeared that the organization had not made much progress in bringing in more women of color (Ross 2004-2005). Even so, she noted that NOW’s resources expanded her opportunities to connect with women of color activists (Ross 2004-2005). These opportunities included Ross organizing the first national conference on Women of Color and Reproductive Rights in 1987.
After leaving NOW, Ross went on to serve as Program Director for the National Black Women’s Health Project for a year. During her time with the organization, she coordinated the Black Women’s Health Project Conference. This conference was the first-ever national event for Black women that focused on reproductive rights (Sophia Smith Collection 2007). In the five years that followed, Ross became the Program Director at the Center for Democratic Renewal (previously known as the National Anti-Klan Network). Founded in 1979, the Center tracked hate groups. Since much of her career had been focused on combating “women’s rights and racism” or “housing and racism,” Ross was attracted to the work of the CDR due to its clear focus on “racism and white supremacy” (Ross 2004-2005, p. 249). When her time with the CDR came to a close, Ross went on to create the National Center for Human Rights Education in 1996. Ross described the center as “a training and resource center for grassroots activists aimed at applying a human rights analysis to injustices in the U.S.” (Ross 2004-2005, p. 2). Ross remained with the National Center for Human Rights Education from 1996 to 2004.
In the midst of her many other pursuits, Ross co-developed the theory of Reproductive Justice. While describing the theory, she emphasized “[Reproductive Justice] talks about [how] controlling the fertility of women is directly tied to attempts to control the populations of communities of color. … It’s becoming the connective framework that ties economic justice, human rights, reproductive rights, immigration rights, those kinds of things, together” (Ross 2004-2005). In 1997, Ross and her colleagues co-created an organization called SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. Sixteen organizations came together to create the collective, and each group belonged to different racial communities (SisterSong n.d.). Presently, the organization’s mission states:
“SisterSong is a Southern based, national membership organization; our purpose is to build an effective network of individuals and organizations to improve institutional policies and systems that impact the reproductive lives of marginalized communities,” (SisterSong n.d.).
SisterSong's diverse makeup allows for a sense of camaraderie amongst women of various backgrounds, while also encouraging accountability and mindfulness (Ross 2008). Ross attributes much of the collective’s growth to the “radical, progressive analysis” of women’s experiences, with this analysis being alternatively known as Reproductive Justice (Ross 2008). Those in the SisterSong Collective are tied together through their mutual experiences as women of color. From 2005 to 2012, Ross was SisterSong’s National Coordinator. During her time with SisterSong, she also received her B.A. in Women’s Studies from Agnes Scott College.
Based on her many years of activism, Ross has an extensive catalog of written work and speeches, and has taught a series of academic courses. In 1989 she co-authored the pamphlet "We Remember: African American Women Are For Reproductive Freedom.” Over 250,000 copies of the pamphlet were distributed (Jones n.d.). Other important texts by Ross include Reproductive Justice: An Introduction (2017), Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundation (2017), Theory, Practice, Critique and Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice (2004).
Ross continues to fiercely uphold humanitarian values and pursue activist efforts. In 2022, she was named the MacArthur 2022 Fellow for her many years of notable and impactful work. Ross was also awarded the Humanist Heroine Award by the American Humanist Association in 1998, the Champion of Reproductive Justice award by the Family Planning Associates in 2007, and was named as one of the Top 100 Feminists by Ms. Magazine. She also began pursuing a doctoral degree in 2008 in Women’s Studies at Emory University. Though not yet completed, she has credits towards a degree. Ross began teaching in higher education in 2017. She has worked at Hampshire College and Arizona State University. As of 2022, she works as an Associate Professor of the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College, where she teaches a course on “White Supremacy, Human Rights and Calling in the Calling Out Culture” (Smith College n.d.). Outside of academics, she continues to speak at public events, hosts her own podcast entitled “Dred Feminist with Loretta J. Ross,” and work on further writing projects and books.
Presented with many obstacles throughout her life, Ross continues to make space for all women to be seen. From the creation of the framework of Reproductive Justice to her creation of multiple humanitarian organizations, Ross has spent her life committed to activism. She continues to impart her wisdom to younger generations through her college courses, books, articles, and speeches. While reflecting on her childhood, Ross once said, “I always knew that I could carve out my own path and do what I wanted to do. . . . I've always known that I was not defined by my external circumstances” (Ross 2004-2005, p. 62). Ross hopes to make it clear to others that they, too, are not defined by their external circumstances and that change is not only a possibility, but an inevitability.
Image Descriptions & Media Questions
Video 1: In this video, Ross discusses the origin of the “Women of Color” to a group of college students.
Prior to this video, were you familiar with the term “women of color?” What contexts have you seen this term used in?
What does knowing the history of the term “women of color” add to your understanding? Why is it important to know the origin of the words we use?
Photo 1: Women of Color for Reproductive Rights pictured at the March For Women’s Lives in 1989. Ross was the National Co-Director for the march, which over one million people attended.
What expressions do you see on each of the women’s faces and what do you think they mean?
How does looking at this image make you feel?
Video 2: Ross’s MacArthur Fellow video describes both her professional and academic pursuits as an advocate for human rights.
Based on this video and the biography above, why do you believe Ross was selected for the MacArthur Fellowship, which “celebrates and inspires the creative potential of individuals?”
How does Ross’s story and continued passion about the topic of reproductive justice and humanitarianism make you feel? Why?
- Jones, Marian. “Beyond Choice, towards Freedom.” Lux Magazine, n.d https://lux-magazine.com/article/beyond-choice-towards-freedom/.
- Knight, Athelia. “D.C. Juror, Accused of Murder, Is Arrested on Robbery Charge.” The Washington Post. WP Company, November 20, 1980. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1980/11/20/dc-juror-accused-of-murder- is-arrested-on-robbery-charge/c067d10a-41ad-42e0-9e28-6ab23614189c/
- “Loretta J. Ross.” Smith College. N.d. https://www.smith.edu/academics/faculty/loretta-ross.
- Loretta Ross Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, SSC-MS-00504. Smith College, Northampton, MA. https://findingaids.smith.edu/repositories/2/resources/562.
- Nelson, Jennifer. "“All this that has happened to me shouldn’t happen to nobody else”: Loretta Ross and the Women of Color Reproductive Freedom Movement of the 1980s." Journal of Women's History 22, no. 3 (2010): 136-160. doi:10.1353/jowh.2010.0579.
- Ross, Loretta. Interview by Joyce Follet. Transcript of video recording, November and December 2004, February 2005. Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection. https://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/vof/transcripts/Ross.pdf.
- Ross, Loretta. “Loretta Ross: Reproductive Justice as a Human Right.” YouTube. Gender & Sexuality Studies and American Studies at Northwestern, October 28, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTVGGSli0mU.
- Ross, Loretta. “Loretta Ross of SisterSong on ‘Reproductive Justice 101’ Part 1.” YouTube, June 2008. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRcT_NMa6aI.
- Ross, Loretta. “The Origin of the Phrase ‘Women of Color.’” YouTube. Western State Center, February 15, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82vl34mi4Iw.
- “SisterSong.” Sister Song: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. n.d. https://www.sistersong.net/mission.
- Thuma, Emily. "Lessons in Self-Defense: Gender Violence, Racial Criminalization, and Anticarceral Feminism." WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly 43, no. 3 (2015): 52-71. doi:10.1353/wsq.2015.0065.
- Valk, Anne M. Radical Sisters: Second-Wave Feminism and Black Liberation in Washington, D.C. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
- “Vision.” DCRCC. n.d. https://dcrcc.org/about-us/vision/.
- Photo of Loretta Ross © John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation- used with permission.
- “March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C.” Loretta J. Ross papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass. https://compass.fivecolleges.edu/object/smith:510.
- Ross, Loretta. “The Origin of the Phrase ‘Women of Color.’” YouTube. Western State Center, February 15, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82vl34mi4Iw.
- Ross, Loretta. “Loretta J. Ross, Reproductive Justice and Human Rights Advocate | 2022 MacArthur Fellow.” YouTube. MacArthur Foundation, October 12, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sF_9VktvSPA.
MLA – Dawson, Shay. "Loretta Ross." National Women's History Museum. National Women's History Museum, 2023. Date accessed.
Chicago - Dawson, Shay. “Loretta Ross." National Women's History Museum. 2023. www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/loretta-ross.
- “Loretta J. Ross.” MacArthur Fellows Program. MacArthur Foundation. October 12, 2022. https://www.macfound.org/fellows/class-of-2022/loretta-j-ross#searchresults.
- “LORETTA J. ROSS.” n.d. https://lorettajross.com/.
- “‘We Remember: African American Women Are For Reproductive Freedom.".” The National Council of Negro Women, inc., 1989. https://ncnw.org/files/WeRememberBrochure.pdf.