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Introduction
Joan E. Biren (JEB)
 > Loretta Ross
Carmen Vázquez

Voices of Feminism Oral History Project
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The Power of Women's Voices

Loretta Ross

Loretta Ross was born in Temple, Texas, on August 16, 1953, the sixth of eight children in a blended family. Her mother, who brought five older children to her marriage with Loretta's father, had been the owner of a music store and a domestic worker; she was a housewife as Loretta was growing up. Loretta’s father, who hailed from Jamaica, was an Army weapons specialist and drill sergeant. After retiring from the military in 1963, he worked for the Post Office and often held additional jobs to support the family.

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Loretta Ross, 1987
Photograph by Charles Eldridge Wheeler
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Loretta Ross, age 3, on her great-
grandmother's porch in Temple, Texas, 1956
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Grade school portrait, circa 1960s

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.

Loretta Ross interviewed by Joyce Follet from the Voices of Feminism Oral History Project

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Loretta Ross (top left) was founder and commander of the Girls' drill team, Sam Houston High School, 1970
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Graduation from Sam Houston High School, 1970
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The buttons shown throughout are from the Loretta Ross Papers

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Ross Family Reunion at family home in San Antonio,
Texas, Summer 1980, shows Loretta (seated, far left)
with her 7 siblings and parents

Soon after enrolling at Howard University in 1970, Ross became involved in black nationalist politics and tenant organizing in Washington, D.C. She joined the D.C. Study Group, a Marxist-Leninist discussion group, and the South Africa Support Project. She became a founder of the National Black United Front and an officer of the City Wide Housing Coalition (1974-80). The murder of her friend and political colleague Yulanda Ward in November 1980, which she considered a political assassination, became a turning point in her life. She wrote the tribute to Yulanda Ward shown below.

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Tribute to Yulanda Ward by Loretta Ross, 1982
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In Washington D.C., circa 1975-76

Ross was also active in the anti-rape movement. "I was drawn to this movement," she explains, "because I had been kidnapped and raped when I was 11 years old." At age 15 she was also the victim of incest by a distant relative; she gave birth to a son, Howard, in April 1969. Because she chose to keep her child, Ross lost a scholarship to Radcliffe College. In 1979, Ross became the third executive director of the Washington, D.C., Rape Crisis Center, the first rape crisis center in the world and the only one at that time with a woman of color at its helm. In 1980, Ross and others coordinated the First National Conference on Third World Women and Violence.

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Event for Washington, D.C. Rape Crisis Center, 1980
(Loretta Ross was Executive Director) Photograph by Rick Reinhard
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Loretta Ross, 1985
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Flier for workshop on battered women
with Loretta Ross as keynote speaker, 1989

In 1976, Ross was one of the first African American women to sue the manufacturer of the Dalkon Shield, A. H. Robins, because the IUD had made her sterile at age 23. Her case paved the way for the class action suits that followed and nearly bankrupted the company. This event sparked Ross's activism in reproductive health issues.

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Article on National Black Women's Health
Conference, Spelman College, 1983

While serving as Director of Women of Color Programs for the National Organization for Women (1985-89), Ross organized women of color delegations for the pro-choice marches NOW sponsored in 1986 and 1989, and organized the first national conference on Women of Color and Reproductive Rights in 1987. As Program Director of the National Black Women's Health Project (1989-90), she coordinated the first national conference of African American women for reproductive rights. From 1980 to 1988, she was a member of the D.C. Commission on Women.

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Flier for film sponsored by the
National Black Women's Health Project, 1988
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Ross' To Do list,
National Black Women's Health Project
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Card given to Ross, undated
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Ross as Program Director for the
Center for Democratic Renewal, 1992
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"Why a Black Woman Fights
for Abortion Rights," by Loretta Ross 1992

Active internationally, Ross is a founding member of the International Council of African Women and of the Network of East-West Women. She has been a regular participant in International Women and Health Meetings and helped organize the delegation of 1100 African American women to the 1985 United Nations women's conference in Nairobi. She also participated in the UN women's women's conferences in Copenhagen in 1980 and Beijing in 1995, as well as the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994.

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Ross's calendar reflects her busy schedule as an international
speaker, organizer, and author

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Letter to Loretta Ross
from Grassroots International, 1986
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Loretta Ross addressing the League for Human Rights
of B'Nai Brith Canada, undated
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Loretta Ross (left, center)International Women's
Health Care Conference, Uganda, 1993
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Brochure for the Fourth World
Conference on Women, Beijing, 1995
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National Council of Spanish Women brochure
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At the Rainforest Action Network Conference, Tomales Bay, California, October 1994 (from left: Actor Woody Harrelson, Loretta Ross, unidentified man)
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From 1991 to 1996, Ross was the program director at the Center for Democratic Renewal (formerly the National Anti-Klan Network), which monitored hate groups and provided original research on the links between hate groups and anti-abortion violence. In 1996 she founded the National Center for Human Rights Education and served as its Executive Director until 2004. Ross was co-director for women of color for the 2004 March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C., which drew over one million participants.

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Poster for the Third World Movement
Against the Exploitation of Women, undated
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Poster for Ross lecture on the
anti-abortion movement, undated

In January 2005, Ross became National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective. SisterSong's mission is to connect reproductive rights to human rights. Ross publishes on the history of abortion in the black community and is co-author of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice (2004) with Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried, and Elena R. Gutierrez.

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Publicity card for book
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Linda Gordon (left) and Loretta Ross at Women's History
Outreach Conference, Madison, Wisconsin, 1994
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March for Women's Lives, Washington, D.C., undated

The Loretta Ross Papers are part of the Sophia Smith Collection. More biographical information is available in the online finding aid.

Voices of Feminism Oral History Project
 
In her oral history interview, Loretta Ross details her childhood and early education, family life and sexual assault. She traces and analyzes her political evolution from black nationalism in the 1970s to liberal feminism in the 1980s, and from human rights advocacy in the 1990s to reproductive justice organizing in the present. Her account sheds light on the interplay of national and international events in women of color organizing in the U.S. (Transcript 364 pp.)
 
    Read the full transcript of Loretta Ross' oral history
 
     Watch a video excerpt


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