In this introduction, we reconsider how we can tell the stories of Black feminist thought and institutional feminist study through uncertainty and incommensurability rather than clear reproducibility of good and bad objects. We then consider the speculative place of reproductive history, metaphor, and technology vis‐à‐vis intersectionality as a foundational object of worry for and in feminist thought. Taking seriously the sustained focus on white women and white feminism as the quintessential bad objects and actors in the present of US feminism, we engage how the reproductive in Black feminism has been both an occluding and elucidating genre to refract Black women as subjects of a “white” field of feminism and the academy at large. We pay particular attention to the social reproduction of race in analyses of gestation, birth, and motherhood and the opportunities these sites represent for disorienting intersectional analysis rather than shoring up its contours. By challenging feminism's critical attachments to self‐evidently ethical objects, this introduction, and this issue, offer a way forward in feminist study that imagines uncertainty as a core method and value of feminist inquiry.
Contemporary feminism loves bad objects. It so often operates by identifying and disavowing the values that the bad object seems to certainly hold, be it a so-called Karen's angry tirade or a “gender critical” tweet. Decrying the bad object allows feminism to perform its striving goodness, its ethical orientation toward an ever further-off completeness. If only it can expel the bad and embrace the newly minted good. We are reminded of Naomi Schor's diagnosis: “What I mean is simply this: at any given time, within the carefully policed precincts of the academy, some critical objects are promoted to the status of good objects (say, not so long ago, dead authors) while others are tabooed (say, in the old days, experience)” (Schor 1995: xv).
But this is both too flip and too presentist, born from an exhaustion as scholars, editors, and teachers of the post-Obama, post-Trump, long pandemic, Black Lives Matter moment—scholars who work on Black feminism and note its status in both the academy and popular feminism as something approaching an article of faith, a program that, if everyone adheres to it, will bring justice across the board. While we note with excitement the move from earlier eras marked by the difficult inclusion of “Black feminism” and women of color (WOC) feminism into the academic feminist program, we also find in the contemporary moves the structural and discursive haunt of earlier moments and movements in the field (Lee 2000).
Feminism's long struggle with its “proper objects,” then, comes to the forefront of our 1990s-trained minds, its various tensions with gender, sexuality, difference feminism, dominance feminism, queer studies, transnational studies, and transgender studies, to name a few in its academic genealogy. At each turn, though tense, the “winning” side seemed foregone, righteous, a new good object to include in the pantheon of things feminism would claim responsibility and moral accountability for. These good objects necessitated the coproduction of bad objects—those demonstrating attachments to “women,” but also to other passé objects, including, among others, motherhood, lesbians, and radical feminists.
To make an object “good” for feminism, it needs to be radical, subversive of the normative that old feminism's bad objects represent. The naming wars—the endless transformation of women's studies programs and departments into gender, sexuality, and feminist studies programs and departments—may have stuck us with various solutions to the conundrum of objects in feminism, but they also leave us with the trail of feminism's attachment to narratives of itself as inclusive, capacious, ethical, and ever-approaching completion of its moral mission. They also, of course, leave a trail of disposed objects for us to mull over as a defining feature of the field.
We mention these genres of feminism's objects—their orientations toward the past, present, and future of the field, and the life cycle of feminism as a concept and how we narrate it being “born” and “coming of age”—as a way to highlight the reproductive metaphors and labor that hover over our conceptualization of what objects animate feminist research. By struggling with and sometimes disavowing its origins in bad objects, feminism performs not its surety but its own ongoing uncertainty about its projects, its attachments, and its use. These maybes, rather than a weakness, represent a different version of a script of Hortense Spillers's own terms in her canonical “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book” (1987), the matrilineal “belonging” of the Black child to the mother, in enslavement under partus sequitur ventrem and its afterlives, becomes the locus of tragedy and pathology for even and especially liberal interpretations of slavery's social effects on Black life. The baby that belongs exclusively to mother and isn't tethered to the paternal line is destined to be a social bad object in a field of relations that demands white paternal claims and resources for life paths to normative success, in the Moynihan-era moment that Spillers writes in, and against.
To claim the Black maternal is to argue for the possibility to reclaim risk as knowledge production, and to critique the systems that hold Blackness in constant negative relation to white forms (like the patriarchal nuclear family), and all genders and gendered expression in constant comparative relation to those forms, genres, and narratives of white ideal normativity. Here, the bad object becomes feminism's imagined old forms and attachments themselves, which as feminism revises, it leverages different claims against and revaluations of to narrate its coming into the present. Good and bad feminisms—not surprisingly in this moment narrated as Black and white feminisms—contest, contact, counter, and seem to ask us to take sides.
We work from the displacement that Spillers hints at when she talks of a grammar book of American—key for her—race that locks in not just systemic but symbolic, linguistic, and epistemological understanding of Blackness in relationship to whiteness as we approach bad objects in feminism. In this introduction, we reconsider how we can tell the stories of Black feminist thought and institutional feminist study through uncertainty and incommensurability rather than clear reproducibility of good and bad objects. We then consider the speculative place of reproductive history, metaphor, and technology vis-à-vis intersectionality as a foundational object of worry for and in feminism. Taking seriously the sustained focus on white women and white feminism as the quintessential bad objects and actors in the present of US feminism, we engage how the reproductive in Black feminism has been both an occluding and elucidating genre to refract Black women as subjects of a “white” field of feminism and the academy at large. We pay particular attention to the social reproduction of race in analyses of gestation, birth, and motherhood and the opportunities these sites represent for disorienting intersectional analysis rather than shoring up its contours. By challenging feminism's critical attachments to self-evidently ethical objects, this introduction, and this issue, offers a way forward in feminist study that imagines uncertainty as a core method and value of feminist inquiry.
All the Things a Bad Object Could Be Right Now, Because Feminism Is Its Mother
In the book chapter “Owning the Self in a Disowned World,” Patricia J. Williams (1991) begins a career-long investment in studying the futures of reproduction. Williams spins a story of various limit cases that test speculative futures of race, gender, embodiment, belonging, and legal rights and injury through scandalized claims of the womb, including its speculative dimensions as both an engine of legal innovation when a white woman who claims to have been “wrongly” impregnated with Black sperm claims wrongful birth harms in witnessing and managing racism against her mixed race daughter, which Williams then imagines as a reparations strategy for her own mother. Williams then does a witty, hilarious written dance, claiming in the next few paragraphs a manifesto on bringing the deep uncertainty and lack of choice in the paternal history of Black women's maternity in the United States to assisted reproductive technology (ART) through a secret war of drafted white sperm donors “smuggling in vials” of Black sperm:
I suggest guerilla insemination to challenge the notion of choice, to complicate it in other contexts. . . . What happens if it is no longer white male seed that has the prerogative of dropping noiselessly and invisibly into black wombs, swelling ranks and complexifying identity? . . . the symbolically sacred vessel of the white womb will bring the complication home to the guarded intimacy of white families. . . .
I suppose I'd better disclaim this as a serious exhortation, lest . . . I get arrested in this brave new world for inciting reproductive riot. But it is interesting to examine the image it evokes, the visions of white mothers rushing to remedy the depreciation of their offspring in suits about the lost property of their children's bodies . . . I am overwhelmed by this image: the vault of sperm banks. The clean container of white wombs. The swift messenger, the hermetic fire of white phallic power. The materia principas of semen, sperm, paternity. From dross into capital. The daughter's born blackness as accident, as awful, as “fault” that must be rehabilitated and deterred by adequate compensation. (Williams 1991: 188)
More of these cases have come true, as white women's “wrongful birth” of Black children shows that Williams was prescient in her speculative rumination on the future of rights and repair through the legal, and the thorny multidirectional question such questions of the reproduction of race and racial reproduction launch into the world as it is. Her playful language around retributive vision slides into the absurd realism of racism as it stands and haunts the Black feminist self. Williams's analysis of the reproductive takes up the legal aspect of Spillers's now lauded flesh, the stories others have told about the Black woman's body that “confirm the human body as a metonymic figure for an entire repertoire of human and social arrangements . . . in a constant opposition of binary meanings. Apparently spontaneous, these ‘actants’ are wholly generated, with neither past nor future, as tribal currents moving out of time. . . . Although one would be unwise not to concede its dangerous and fatal effects” (Spillers 2003: 205).
As Spillers's point is to become leery of repetition and what it culturally and ethically reproduces in its abstractions, we'd like to put these stories together—those of intersectionality as tension, as conflict, as vulnerable opening—in considering the object of reproduction, and the particular ways that it can feel easy to tag landmark cases of supposed racial mis-production in ART as bad objects easily understood through the paradigm of “white women's tears” that so often accompany the campaigns for remuneration, restitution, and tortuous wrong. In doing so, we hope to think on the limits of invoking dominant paradigms like intersectionality as feminist constants that represent only the diagnostic and curative, rather than what either as a starting point might generate, which is a state of less understanding across difference. What else might feminism be and become, if we highlight its own focus on uncertainty and not the individual objects and subjects it might designate as its proper domain?
In the late 1990s, Richard and Donna Fasano's story electrified popular media. A white couple was implanted with embryos from their own genetic materials as well as one from a Black couple, the latter erroneously. They were informed about a possible mix-up before the birth of the children. The white couple was sued for a DNA test and then was forced to relinquish the child, Akiel (whom they called Joseph), to his “biological” parents four months after the birth. They did so, but only after establishing a contract for visitation rights over their Black “birth son” and to recognize their birth children as brothers, with a court later severing this contract after the Rogers, Akiel's (Black) biological parents, sued to have the visits terminated. Donna Fasano's insistence on referring to the two children as twins and referring to them as “two healthy, normal boys” was roundly critiqued by critical race theorists as racial color blindness at its worst, most propertied pitch: I don't see race, I see what's mine.
Potential unease loomed, though, over reifying categories of biological belonging and biological racial identity as immutable, as well as issues of gestational labor, even through weaponizing the legal system against an African American family. A cascade of research around the fallacies of reproductive choice and the dismal maternal and infant health outcomes for Black women from scholars including Dorothy Roberts, Camisha Russell, Deirdre Cooper Owens, Dana-Ann Davis, and Robyn Wiegman (who reads the Fasano case in her 2002 article “Intimate Publics: Race, Property, and Personhood” and her subsequent chapter in 2012’s Object Lessons) followed.
But our own rehearsal here belies the fact that this case might feel obvious, but it was not, necessarily, from a legal or an intersectional feminist standpoint. Why does it feel like we—feminists, anti-racists—already know the stakes? Donna Fasano represents what we now call a Karen, an easy target, a bad (faith) white feminist object. The Rogerses, and Akiel, were her clear victims, taking her own understanding of her pregnancy with twins and her feelings around being disenchanted from normative notions of biological ownership and kinship after being alerted late in the pregnancy that there was a likely error, and holding on through the birth and the first four months to the performance of her expectations, of the normative, in a situation that factually and visually cued her and the world that it wasn't, in fact, “normal” at all to have one Black and one white child with two white parents. Donna Fasano's laying claim to Akiel, those feelings of white ownership on her part and on the mainstream white media's coverage, traffic in both white womanhood's claim to maternal care and protection unafforded to Black women's bodies in the history of the Americas and chattel slavery and in the disownment of Black children from their families during chattel enslavement to the whims of white owners. This is all in the shadow of partus sequitur ventrem, which, of course, claimed blood-belonging to Black mothers absolutely, while bestowing none of the custodial rights to keeping or claiming or caring for family. For African American life, then, the separation of biological parentage and custodial parentage is nothing new, and the specter of this hangs over the Fasano case.
But it is also a case about the reproduction of intersectionality itself, its spiky meeting points at intimate, tangled, embodied experience where historical experience meets physiological experience meets cultural-social experience in the wider context of infrastructure, structure, and institution (Wiegman 2002). The media circus around the Fasano case was always about what we might now call “white women's tears,” yes, but like the “switched at birth” stories about white girls mixed up in a hospital that were made-for-TV movies in the 1980s, they are about a culture confronting the unthinkable that is, of course, eminently thinkable if one studies African American women's history and other histories of radical dispossession: that what one knows—love, blood, kinship, race, belonging, property—is not at all certain or stable. Identity, even self and intimates’ identity, is not a given but a shifting set of identifications made legible by visual, genetic, social, emotional, and legal cues. Mama's babies become everybody's maybes, and engender many think pieces and an academic industry on the social and legal ramifications of ART, the future of Blackness in a world where one can “choose” their child's traits (which of course mate selection and patterns in “mate value” that reflect social segregation already produce), the ethics of medicine but also sociolegal practices such as trans-racial adoption and surrogacy that deeply implicate race and colonialism, and the social construction of gender, parentage, motherhood, and family writ large. Questions about whether sperm donation should be race-blind—and for whom—butt against calls for respecting cultural specificity and heritage as points of pride.
It is the 2014 Jennifer Cramblett case—where two white lesbians were inseminated with the “wrong” sperm—sperm they did not choose, and which they could identify as an error since their child was mixed race Black and white—that opened a(nother) floodgate of scholarship, including from Williams herself. Cramblett claimed that their neighborhood, their white families, and their community barely countenanced them as lesbians, let alone could set aside their racism in the mostly white suburb. She said that her own experience growing up in rural Ohio and with “limited cultural competency” made raising a biracial child particularly challenging. Her lawsuit described the trauma of “an unplanned transracial parent-child relationship for which she was not, and is not, prepared.” As Cramblett filed tortious claims for their biological kin as wrongful, it's easy to see them as bad intersectional objects for a nonetheless obvious error from the sperm bank/insemination doctors. And again, the fascination and the swift condemnation of their claims lays bare not just the “threat” of racial mixing in engineered reproductive futures, but also the threat these structural claims expose for the left around what constitutes just antiracist life and practices in the US, in a structural system that at every turn denies a thriving cohabitable life or social reproductive autonomy for Black and white and other citizens. The figure of Cramblett, weeping as she describes how she was not prepared to raise a Black-identified child in her white, anti-Black, homophobic community is one of Williams's images that overwhelm, after the fact, but not where she, or intersectionality, stops.
And here, in a post-BLM world, we have the latest celebrity case of mixed embryos—here where two couples were each inseminated with the other's egg, and both resulted in live births. Here, too, racial “appearance” was the motivation for suspicion around biological belonging, but is delicately articulated by the white family, the Crambletts, choosing to go public (while, again, the brown family remain unidentified, seemingly by choice) even as they must articulate a fiduciary harm. This time, they cannot be articulated through wrongful birth and hardships of racism on a white family, but instead through the grief over the lost experience of birthing one's “own” child. Pictures accompany this new case's story, with their previous biological child in full view in a picture with a blurred out baby face, replete with black hair visible and darker baby skin. Again, the urge to mock here the subtext of whiteness is great, and easy. It also elucidates the great fear of uncertain connection, by which the appearance of phenotypic racial characteristics is the only “way” to make visible the medical error or intimate deception.
This then is another legacy of Williams's call to expand selfhood in a “disowned world” and Spillers's articulation of Mama's Baby—that the designation of blood-belonging to a fixed identity to and through the mother is no salve, no promise of embodied subjectivity or personhood, nor is “achieving beyond all measure,” as Spillers powerfully articulates in “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe,” about the demographic statistics of Black women in the United States in regard to education and jobs.
More Objects, More Problems, More Feminism
These stories of reproduction aren't easy for feminism, not just because they appear to pit bad white actors against good and often silent Black subjects as victims, but because they unveil the thicker injuries of systemic, structural uncertainty and unbelonging that characterize late-capitalist life, and that feminism cannot have definite or universal answers to as it might seem to promise. It, too, has a will to reproduce itself as sure, as outraged, as clear. But reproduction and its thorny publics offer bad objects that produce beautiful, incommensurable, difficult questions around the limits of individual choice and “good” political action, and of right legal, historical, and social interpretation around embodied acts from radically different standpoints, and differential and even competing solutions. These are limit cases, spectacular failures and exceptions that fascinate as they expose the instability of intimate lives, the degree to which they are shaped by promises (Owens 2023), by fictions (Holloway 2014), by the law and culture that surround us at that moment, but that may not be always or forever right in their orientation.
These ARTs and their afterlives cases pivot feminism as not an endlessly capacious and reproducible paradigm that offers interpretative and ethical certainty, but as what performance scholar Diana Taylor calls a scenario—a replaying of a script with a difference from the archive, the material history, that creates the context for its reception. The grammars of these spectacles of racial reproduction align with Spillers's psychoanalytic articulation of their making, but also pivot, change and shift the “maybe,” and the bad object of property, the child—who must be authored, born, cared for in some capacity, who goes on, beyond the acute “situation” of their birth—to suggest the ways even feminism clings to its interpretive certainty rather than its potential to open up maybes that its constant revisions of its proper objects suggests.
Academic feminism, then, as it stands, is an ongoing, tense, and uncertain set of negotiations that are temporal and unstable. Embracing the “maybe” of feminism—uncertainty, complexity, the unfixed—doesn't mean giving up on the important histories of the field that have already been and are still being told. But what we hope to have traced here is feminism's potential as a site of naming incommensurability and vulnerability that is open-ended, unable to be completely resolved by an interpretive, conceptual, or analytic orientation.
This is an interpretation of feminism that is always self-implicated and interrogative of its attachments, to the difficult balance of holding on and letting go of the stories we have about ourselves as scholars and about the field of feminism as a political actor. Feminism must constantly grapple with bad systems writ large and bad objects in its academic homes. But it has other hard stories to tell about itself alongside these grammars, as Rachel Lee imagined even in 2000 around the “haunt” of WOC feminism to the constant articulated center of white feminist canon (Lee 2000). These are grammars of intra-Black, transnational, multiethnic, and intra-field conflict and difference, stories that have histories with the field as well from activism, labor, and social life, that might leave whiteness decentered, not the metaphorical referent. Feminism might speculate on difference, differently, and see what risks and questions and futures come to play when we insist on expanding its objects’ temporalities and forms, rather than disciplining its reproduction into the latest objects that cast it as triumphant and salvific.
This issue is filled with essays that confront what the author's themselves, not just the field, cannot, will not, or do(es) not know. Feminism allows them, and us, to contemplate other objects, not “ourselves,” to encounter both those objects and ourselves beyond ethical sorting. We remain awed at the many genealogies one can tell of feminism, and of its objects, and the affects and attachments they can yield beyond what we might think of as the proper objects and affects of “good” politics, and we find joy in tracing feminism's work on itself as an always potentially bad object. We want to end on the possibilities of that openness to imagining feminism's lineage as encompassing and including misunderstanding, uncertainty, and misinterpretation at its core. We imagine those feminist bad feelings as an alternate way of narrating the field, as it narrates itself, as ongoing and evolving, rather than preoccupied with a reproduction of itself in the same grammars we already think we know.