Intersecting Feminism and Disability Rights

“The construction of gender depends not only upon the male body and female body, but also upon the nondisabled body.” – Activist and teacher Eli Clare, Exile and Pride

I first became interested in the intersections between disability justice and feminism upon reading a blog post by Elsa S. Henry titled “Pro Choice Should NOT Mean Ableist,” written in response to Texas State Representative Senfronia Thompson, one of the major defenders of reproductive rights in the pivotal summer of 2013. Henry did not respond so much to Representative Thompson’s proposal (an exception to the 20-week abortion ban for victims of rape and incest) but more so to Thompson’s claim that access to abortion in these cases is necessary because children of incest are often born “retarded” and “deformed”; the potential disability of the fetus, seen as a burden to the mother and a limit to quality of life, is framed as a justification for abortion in itself. Henry’s problem with the ableism in the reproductive rights movement is not so much with people potentially aborting disabled fetuses as it is with the ableist rhetoric that implies disability inherently leads to a limited quality of life and experience of motherhood. She just wants “people to stop using my life and my disabled body without consulting me, without hearing my voice.” Disabled people have as much a right to reproductive choice as able-bodied individuals, but are often forgotten in the reproductive rights movement. Despite the gaps found between these two communities that have cropped up in the fight for reproductive rights, there are many historical and theoretical links between feminism and disability rights that should be explored, for they overlap and enrich each other.

One historical link between gender and disability is present in the suffragist movement in the United States. According to Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa Douglas Bayton in “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” the major opponents of suffrage relied on the claim that women are disabled in order to keep them from getting the right to vote, by arguing that (1) “women had disabilities that made them incapable of using the franchise responsibly”, and (2) “because of their frailty women would become disabled if exposed to the rigors of political participation” (23). Here, the concept of disability was conceived as being neither capable nor deserving of public participation, and was used as a weapon against the suffragists. Most suffragists failed to address disability itself as a wrongfully stigmatized identity; instead, they also used disability in their counterarguments by distancing themselves from the disabled label without questioning whether ability should be used as a criteria of deserving political and social rights.. In arguing that women were capable of political participation and thus were entitled to it as a right, the suffragist movement also implicitly argued that “differences in capacity, if present, would be justification for political equality” (25). Although the growing disability studies field has frequently examined the intersections of gender and disability, there are still many gaps between the feminist movement and the disability rights movement that leave disabled women in limbo; one such gap is within the reproductive rights movement.

In her essay, “Disability Rights and Selective Abortion,” Researcher and lecturer at UC-Berkley Marsha Saxton points to a key difference in the idea of reproductive freedom according to the reproductive rights movement and the disability rights movement:

“The reproductive rights movement emphasizes the right to have an abortion; the disability rights movement, the right not to have to have an abortion. Disability rights advocates believe that disabled women have the right to bear children and be mothers, and that all women have the right to resist pressure to abort when the fetus is identified as potentially having a disability” (88).

There has long been a complicated relationship between the reproductive rights movement and eugenics, as seen in Saxton’s references to the 1920s when American birth control activist Margaret Sanger and the American Birth Control League allied with the American Eugenics Society; “the resulting coalition supported the forced sterilization of people with epilepsy, as well as those diagnosed as mentally retarded and mentally ill” (89). Though many current reproductive rights advocates would not condone forced sterilization, the recent development of prenatal screening and selective abortion, according to disability rights activists, is in part motivated by residual and ultimately flawed eugenicist reasoning that disabled children are harder to raise and will necessarily live inferior lives in comparison to able-bodied individuals. Of course, there is no clear consensus on how to regard selective abortion within the very diverse disability community; while some regard it as a potential “genocide,” others have used selective abortion to avoid having a disabled child (91). Saxton argues that these gaps can be reconciled by having members of the two movements meet to discuss these issues. The disability rights movement can enhance the reproductive rights movement by providing clarity about prenatal diagnosis, challenging eugenicist uses of reproductive technologies, and supporting the rights of all women to maintain personal control over reproduction (96). Reconciling these two movements requires placing disabled women and their experiences closer to the center of feminism and feminist theory.

Disabled women also experience central sources of discrimination and sexism, often to a greater degree than able-bodied women, including domestic violence. A report from Women’s Aid, a domestic violence shelter in England, illustrates the distinct challenges of disabled women who experience domestic violence.  In the full-length report, interviews with disabled women revealed that it is “common for abusers to use the woman’s impairment to perpetuate various kinds of abuse, often including insults about the woman’s condition and ridicule” (33). When disabled women reach out about the abuse they are experiencing, others, including family, police, and social agencies, often sympathize with the caregiver/abuser. One woman movingly explains this:

“People pity him because he is taking care of you and so noble. So people are reluctant to criticise this saint or to think he could be doing these terrible things…people don’t really ‘see’ disabled women. And people don’t easily see a disabled woman as a wife, partner, and mother. So I think for some people it’s hard to think well this might be a woman who’s being sexually or physically abused by their partner…because disabled women don’t have sex, do they?” (37).

Ableism construes disability as not only a limitation on an individual quality of life, but also a “burden” on those willing to enter intimate relationships with disabled people, especially if they are their primary caregiver. The barriers for disabled women in finding help and ways out of  abusive relationships are exacerbated by the idea that they should be grateful that anyone is willing to be with them. This is but one symptom of sexism in which disabled women have distinct insights, but are often pushed into the margins.

If the feminist movement is to truly become more inclusive of all women, the voices of disabled women should no longer be silenced for the sake of convenience or inability to sympathize. This includes not only within the activist circles of feminism, but also feminist theory in academia. In “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory,” Professor of English at Emory Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues that both fields can and should provide many insights to each other, as seen in the work in feminist disability theory. The fundamental goal of “feminist disability theory…is to augment the terms and confront the limits of the ways we understand human diversity, the materiality of the body, multiculturalism, and the social formations that interpret bodily differences” (334). That everyone will eventually experience disability in their lives makes disability relevant to everyone’s lives, and thus, as Disability Justice activist Mia Mingus writes, “ableism is connected to all of our struggles because it undergirds notions of whose bodies are considered valuable, desirable and disposable.” Understanding disability both as a social concept and as an interpretation of bodily diversity can lead to richer theory and more effective activist work for both fields. This work should be undertaken not only to access these benefits, but also to make feminism more inclusive and representative of women of intersecting identities and their experiences.  

Author’s Comment:

The Disability Studies Reader is awesome – everyone should read it if at all interested in disability justice.

It also contains work from Professor Garland-Thomson (quoted above), who is an influential disability studies scholar and also works at Emory in the English and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies department! She has been a major part of the growing Disability Studies Initiative on campus, which has started an undergraduate chapter this year.


Henry, Elsa S. “Pro Choice Should NOT Mean Ableist.Feminist Sonar. Web. 9 July 2013.

Baynton, Douglas C. “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2013. 17-33. Print.

Saxton, Marsha. “Disability Rights and Selective Abortion.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2013. 87-99. Print.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2013. 333-353. Print.

Mingus, Mia. “Changing the Framework: Disability Justice.” Leaving Evidence. Web. 12 Feb. 2011.

Women’s Aid. “Making the links: disabled women and domestic violence.” Women’s Aid. Web. 2 July 2008.

Megan Taylor is an Emory alum, Texas. She is also the treasurer of Feminists in Action. 


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