Week 12: Body Politics and Sexual Sovereignty


Image of WARN, Women of All Red Nations report
Cover of the Women of All Red Nations' annual report in 1979. Library Hill Foundation Records, 20th Century Organizational Files, Southern California Library (Los Angeles, California).


“Colonial politics have been and remain reproductive politics.”
– Brianna Theobald, Reproduction on the Reservation: Pregnancy, Childbirth,
and Colonialism in the Long Twentieth Century


Secondary Readings

Koikari, Mire. Pedagogy of Democracy: Feminism and the Cold War in the U.S. Occupation of Japan. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.

The U.S. occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952 is sometimes celebrated for democratizing women, in part due to the role the U.S. played in helping draft a Japanese constitution that enfranchised women. Koikari’s book challenges this notion, demonstrating that it was “an extraordinarily complex and problematic instance of Cold War imperial feminism in the Far East” that included U.S. efforts to regulate working-class Japanese women’s and U.S. soldiers’ sexuality. The chapter “Making the Body Respectable: Cold War Containment and Regulation of Sexuality” traces how that U.S. concern around soldiers’ infections of venereal disease led to the indiscriminate round-up and detention of poor Japanese women, many of whom worked as prostitutes. These round-ups led to mass grassroots protests by Japanese feminists, leftists, and middle-class women. Koikari explores how their protests not only challenged U.S. imperialism but also reinforced notions of respectability and “both enforced and challenged the dominant structures of power.” This book and chapter would be good to read alongside Katharine Moon’s book Sex Among Allies about the centrality of prostitution to U.S.–Korean military policies in the 1970s.

Teaiwa, Teresia K. “Bikinis and other S/pacific N/oceans.” In Militarized Currents: Toward a Decolonial Future in Asia and the Pacific, edited by Setsu Shigematsu and Keith Camacho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Teaiwa explores the legacies of Euro-American incursions into the Bikini Atoll and the Pacific basin. Prior to hundreds of nuclear tests on the Bikini Atoll and surrounding islands, American military personnel forced the Bikini people off the island and into cycles of dislocation and resettlement before some returned in the mid-1960s, though it was still highly radioactive. Teaiwa juxtaposes the colonization of the Bikini Atoll with the bikini bathing suit, a commodity designed for the colonial male gaze to idealize and exoticize the female body in the post World War II mass-consumer economy. Both had profound gendered impacts, particularly on Indigenous women who have been treated as exotic and disposable by Euro-American consumers. In more recent years, Pacific Islander women’s decolonization efforts have been intimately tied to nuclear and sexual politics, recognizing how recent tourism industries have objectified and colonized both the beach and island women’s bodies for commercial exploitation.

Theobald, Brianna. Reproduction on the Reservation: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Colonialism in the Long Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

In chapters that alternate between deep ethnographic historical research on the Crow reservation in Montana from the late 19th century to today and those that take a broader sweep of Native American history, Theobald’s book is the first history of reproduction that centers Native American women. It demonstrates that, as she puts it, “colonial politics have been and remain reproductive politics.” She traces various ways in which Native women’s reproductive lives have been a focus of colonial policies and a source of scrutiny by the federal government, including the involuntary sterilization of Native women in the 1930s. Theobald charts how Indigenous women have exerted agency around their reproduction. Although not all of these women self-identified as militants or even activists, they engaged in political resistance through reform efforts, through midwifery, and in 1978, through the creation of Women of All Red Nations (WARN), which centered women’s reproductive justice before that term had been coined. As Theobald writes, “WARN and other Native women transformed the ongoing struggle for Native sovereignty and self-determination by insisting that women’s reproductive health and autonomy be recognized as fundamental to those efforts.”

Hobson, Emily. Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

Hobson’s book demonstrates that the U.S. LGBTQ movement’s radicalism did not die out after Stonewall only to emerge again with ACT-UP in the 1980s. Rather, Hobson’s book argues that the gay and lesbian left was a strong movement in the 1980s and particularly in its solidarity with Central America, opposing U.S. military interventions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Hobson explains that the LGBTQ left “drew inspiration for sexual as well as other freedoms from anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist movements around the world.” In the chapter “Talk about Loving in the War Years: Nicaragua, Transnational Feminism, and AIDS,” Hobson specifically explores the dynamics around transnational lesbian feminist activism between U.S. and Nicaraguan activists, demonstrating how important affective relationships and romantic portrayals of Nicaragua were to energizing U.S. transnational solidarity. Hobson’s work also shows how Nicaraguan activists themselves controlled what information they shared with U.S. counterparts about sexual politics in order to gain their support.

Nelson, Jennifer. Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement. New York: NYU Press, 2003.

Nelson’s book charts the pivotal work that women of color did to shape a powerful reproductive rights agenda that emphasized an end to forced sterilization; the provision of health care, child care, and a living wage; and access to safe abortions and birth control. Focusing on New York City, she highlights Puerto Rican women in the Young Lords and African American women in the Black Panthers. Both groups spoke out against the long histories of imperialist and racist policies of sterilization in their communities. They worked in collaboration with each other and other groups to demand improved health care for women as well as access to birth control.

Thuma, Emily. All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence. Champaign: University of Illinois, 2019.

This book charts the making of anti-carceral feminist politics among U.S. women of color and gender nonconforming, sexual nonconforming, or queer feminist radicals who were at the center of this activism. Their demands encompassed racial and economic justice, prisoners’ and psychiatric patients’ rights, and gender and sexual liberation. The book weaves together activism of the Young Lords, the Third World Women’s Alliance, the Combahee River Collective, the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, and many other groups and activists who took an intersectional approach to violence against women, criminalization, and incarceration and who saw U.S. imperial militarism and U.S. domestic law enforcement as intertwined. Campaigns around women like Joan Little, a prisoner who was raped by a prison guard and then killed him in in self-defense, became coalitional spaces for a range of activists who drew connections between the rights of women to self-defense against sexual violence and anti-racist and anti-carceral politics. Catalyzing events like these led to legal victories and the legacies of the struggles and movements continue to galvanize activism today.

Primary Sources

Jordan, June. “Poem About My Rights.” In Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.

Jordan’s poem draws parallels between colonialist penetration in Africa and sexual assault of Black and Brown women in the United States and elsewhere. She looks at the ways that perceptions of Black women’s bodies and personhoods are tied up with histories of both colonial and personal assault. She also talks about her own personal resistance to these narratives around her self.

Randall, Margaret. “To Change Our Own Reality and the World: A Conversation with Lesbians in Nicaragua.” In Our Voices/Our Lives: Stories of Women from Central America and the Caribbean. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995. First published 1993 in Signs.

This is an edited transcription of a conversation that Margaret Randall conducted with Nicaraguan lesbian and gay activists in 1991. Many of these leaders had been extremely active in the Sandinista revolutionary movement and had experience as political organizers. Others were health workers who labored to raise awareness about sexual and reproductive health around Nicaragua. This conversation covers a wide variety of topics, from gay and lesbian inclusion in the FSLN party, general experiences coming out, relations with other gay and lesbian activists, and public perceptions of homosexuality, to feminism, perceptions of reproductive and sexual rights, and women’s organizations. The leaders also talk about their experiences with international groups of gay and lesbian activists, including groups from North America, and how their own Nicaraguan political activism shaped their own queerness. They discuss how the international AIDS crisis shaped their interactions with the international gay and lesbian community as well as their work raising awareness about sexual health in Nicaragua.

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