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Loretta Ross interviewed by Joyce Follet, November 3-5, 2004, December 1-3, 2004, and February 4, 2005

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Link to transcript of Loretta Ross interview
Link to transcript of Loretta Ross interview
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Link to video

Scope and Contents

In this lengthy interview, 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.)

Dates of Materials

  • November 3-5, 2004, December 1-3, 2004, and February 4, 2005


Conditions Governing Access

This interview is open for research use without restriction. Tape 21 (pp. 331-332) and pp. 132-133 and 137-141 of the unedited version of this interview was formerly closed at the direction of the narrator until January 1, 2020.

Conditions Governing Web Access

At the direction of the narrator, the recording of this interview may only be placed on the web if access is restricted to the Smith College community. Please consult with special collections staff at to inquire about the existence of or access to digital copies.

Conditions Governing Use

The interviewer and narrator have transferred copyright of this interview to Smith College.

Biographical / Historical

Loretta Ross was born in Temple, Texas, August 16, 1953, the sixth of eight children in a blended family. Her mother, who brought five older children to her marriage with Ross, had been 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.

Loretta attended integrated schools - Army schools through second grade, then public schools. She was double-promoted in elementary grades and was an honors student in high school. When Loretta was 11 years old, a stranger beat and raped her. At age 15 she was 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, she lost a scholarship to Radcliffe College.

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 considers a political assassination, is a turning point in her life.

After being sterilized by use of the Dalkon Shield at the age of 23, Ross found her way to reproductive rights and anti-violence activism. She became one of the first women to win a suit against A.H. Robins, manufacturer of the device. In 1979 she became director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, the only center at the time run primarily by and for women of color. In that capacity she organized the first National Conference on Third World Women and Violence in 1980. While serving as Director of Women of Color Programs for the National Organization for Women (1985-89), she 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. In response to the Supreme Court's Webster decision in 1989, Ross co-coordinated production of the pathbreaking statement "We Remember: African American Women Are For Reproductive Freedom." As Program Director for 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.

From 1991 to 1995, Ross was National Program Research Director for the Center for Democratic Renewal (formerly the National Anti-Klan Network), where she directed projects on right-wing organizations in South Africa, Klan and neo-Nazi involvement in anti-abortion violence, and human rights education in the U.S. In 1996 she created the National Center for Human Rights Education, a training and resource center for grassroots activists aimed at applying a human rights analysis to injustices in the U.S.

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.

Ross has served on numerous boards (including National Women's Health Network, SisterLove Women's AIDS Project, Men Stopping Violence) and testifies on women's health and civil rights issues before Congress and the UN as well as via such national media as the Donahue Show and Pacifica News Service. She 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).

Ross was co-director for women of color for the April 2004 March for Women's Lives. In January 2005, she became National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, a growing network of Native American, Latina, African American, Asian American and other women of color groups. SisterSong's mission is to connect reproductive rights to human rights. SisterSong promotes reproductive justice through a combination of the Self-Help approach to internalized oppression and the human rights approach to structural inequality.

Ross completed a bachelor's degree at Agnes Scott College in 2006 and plans to enroll in a women's studies graduate program at Emory University in the fall of 2007.

Language of Materials