Professor Michele Goodwin: Histories, Narratives of the Body, and The Power of Empiricism

Professor Michele Goodwin, Janna Huang and Tiffany Hamidjaja

Professor Michele Goodwin is a renowned bioethicist, constitutional legal scholar, prolific writer, and podcast host. Her scholarship and advocacy have forged a path for justice in reproductive health and rights, civil liberties, and educational access. Even more importantly, her work scrutinizes the policing of bodies and identities in American law and interrogates the narratives that people, especially women and people of color, are told of themselves. In our conversation with Michele, we discuss the power of empiricism as a basis for public advocacy and how she navigates multiple mediums and engages different audiences. 

Janna Huang (BJS): Hi Professor Goodwin! Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us today. We are so excited and honored to be in conversation with you. Just to start things off, we were wondering if you could tell us a bit about your background, your family’s and community’s background, and how that has influenced your own academic trajectory?

Professor Michele Goodwin: That’s a great question. I grew up reared by my grandparents in my early years. There were two different sets of grandparents: one from the American South that were part of the Great Black Migration northward and the other that were Midwesterners, but had had some experience in the South multiple generations prior. Being an only child and having that kind of background with my grandparents was greatly influential in terms of how I came to understand the United States, how I came to understand life, and having a warm and loving upbringing with my grandparents. In so many different ways, having that fabric of love and care – stories about your worth, your intelligence, your contributions, all of those things – really matters in terms of what comes later in one’s life, because American society has something else to tell children of color.

Janna Huang (BJS): How has that love and care that you experienced in your upbringing shaped the things that you decided to pursue in college and afterward? 

Professor Michele Goodwin: I would go on trips to the South with my maternal grandmother, who’s from the South and specifically from Mississippi. That really was like going into another world. Going into Mississippi in the 1970s at a time when Black people still had no running water, no flushing toilets, limited electricity, and the comforts of American life, as a reality of life. In fact, my great-grandfather lived and died without ever having a flushing toilet. Those experiences, even if you don’t know how to articulate what all that means then, as a child, I observed it. As a sociologist, it’s interesting in terms of thinking about how that formed how I could observe, and then later on apply what I observed. 

In so many different ways, having that fabric of love and care – stories about your worth, your intelligence, your contributions, all of those things – really matters in terms of what comes later in one’s life, because American society so often has something else to tell children of color.

Tiffany Hamidjaja (BJS): Wow, that’s a really powerful experience. Here at BJS, we’ve long admired your work, but just for the sake of our readers who are getting to know you through this interview, could you tell us a little bit more about your research interests, what your focuses are, and a little more about the initial spark that you had that led to these interests and how you continue to pursue that throughout your career?

Professor Michele Goodwin: This process of observation led me to the desire to observe and learn more about people of the African diaspora in college. It’s also important to know where we begin. There are threads of it that continue and then other threads that evolve over time, so I was interested in learning about how people evolved and the law’s role in people’s evolution. Who do we become and how do we become as part of a question about our own agency and what we do? There’s also a question about the myriad other forces that interact and engage with us that end up shaping us? We are not alone in terms of our identification. Society does a lot, and has a lot to say who we are to determine that, and we’ve come to fight against that. That’s the whole enterprise of what immigration looks like and what American slavery looks like. There’s one narrative, which is that narrative of “here are these incompetent enslaved people who need this enslavement for the betterment of themselves.” It’s a narrative that was instantiated in society but supported and buttressed through the law. And then clearly, people were telling themselves a different kind of story, a story other than that. So I’ve been curious about the stories that we tell ourselves and the stories that society tells about us, and the law’s way of imposing and regulating those narratives. In some ways, those threads also carry out when one is thinking about who women are in society, who women of color are in society, what the stories that we tell about ourselves and what we understand versus the stories that have been imposed through social ordering through law. I remind my students about a case called Bradwell v. Illinois, which is a case that involved a woman who went to law school and wanted to become a lawyer. Her husband was a lawyer, and I’m sure she thought, “Well, if he can do it, I can do it too.” But the case went up before the United States Supreme Court because the state of Illinois barred women from becoming lawyers. In that case, it’s the court that says that she’s not suited for the practice of law, and that what she’s suited for is caring for her husband and caring for children. It was the law that created this inference. My work engages with those threads of seeing and thinking about those narratives of law continue, whether that has to be thinking about women, reproductive rights, reproductive freedoms, and reproductive justice. What are the narratives that women tell themselves versus the narratives that come from judges and legislatures? Or constructions dealing with race and policing and LGBTQ equality? Another important thread throughout is our bodies. Bodies and identities have been such a fixture within American law. The policing of bodies was the very first regulation in our country. It’s to designate who’s in and who’s out, who’s a citizen and who’s not a citizen, who has property, and who does not have property. All those delineations become crystallized through law and our socio-legal understandings. We’re going to fasten people to certain identities such that you can’t be fluid with your identity. One drop of whatever it is that we want to designate as being inferior is what you will always be. So it doesn’t matter that it was your great, great, great, great, great grandmother who happened to be Cherokee, Blackfoot, African, or Chinese, you’re forever that. You can never leave. And there’s a reason why we are never leaving, because that helps to support a project of white supremacy. Right? Because otherwise, why is it so complicated for a person to be whatever it is that they happen to be? And then that flows into the project of American eugenics and anti-miscegenation, informing how we see people, how we cabin people, and the law’s role in doing that. 

So, I’ve been curious about the stories that we tell ourselves and the stories that society tells about us, and the law’s way of imposing and regulating those narratives. In some ways, those threads also carry out when one is thinking about who women are in society, and who women of color are in society. What are the stories that we tell about ourselves and what do we understand versus the stories that have been imposed through social ordering through law.

Janna Huang (BJS): On the other side of this, which is communicating these different threads of thought to broader audiences, we love that you do so much public-facing work across very different mediums. Who are the different intended audiences for your work?

Professor Michele Goodwin: When I think about the purpose of my work, I want to be able to convey to people why they should care and why we should invest ourselves in it. And then I think about translation because not everybody’s going to have the capacity to hear it in the same way. I want it to reach. I don’t want it to just be a slap on the wall and it slides down. How does one penetrate? How does one get a message to someone in a language which they can understand? I think that that’s really important when we are doing the very sticky, thorny kind of work, where there has been stratification in society, where there has been animus in society, where there has been resistance. The tools and power of empiricism help with that across all of those spaces because I seek to write across the various spaces. I seek to write in a way that I can reach a reading public, such as in op-eds and commentaries. I seek to reach my colleagues through publishing in a variety of journals. I seek to reach courts through amicus briefs. But one of the things that’s consistent across those mediums is my deep desire to always ground in what is empirical and what is irrefutable. I think that that helps with the translation. That’s the importance of research. We only get to the empirical if we do the research, where then we can say, ” Okay, here’s a starting ground, here’s this space, here’s the law, here’s the practice, here’s what it was, here’s how many people were affected, here’s where they were affected, here’s how they were affected.” Those arcs are so important as a kind of grounding. I found it more important in recent years to do that kind of grounding, at a time in which people are, on substantive matters, reading less, at a time in which people are leaning more into social media for quick takes, at a time in which we really have kind of lost a sense of “how did we get here?” We do a very poor job in the United States of telling our histories, of being clear about our histories. I find it really important in my scholarship these days to always involve a grounding because otherwise, it’s missed. This is why I think with my book Policing the Womb, I could write about all of that. Or this weekend, I was on NBC News, and they were pulling up an article that I published seven or eight years ago, where I wrote about whether embryos are granted rights by state courts. If you’re paying attention and you’re doing the empirical work, you can say, “Based on the past and based on what is now, here will be the future,” while a myriad of other people are then surprised and in shock.

Janna Huang (BJS): We agree, it’s super important to have that empirical grounding that helps inform the policies that we create. In terms of navigating different forms of media, we imagine that writing for constitutional legal experts versus podcasts versus your academic colleagues or the general public is quite different. So how do you navigate these different forms of media while remaining grounded in your empirical work?

Professor Michele Goodwin: I don’t know if it’s using the muscle, or it’s just been natural, but for me sliding into op-ed and commentary, it feels very natural. Whereas I think for a lot of people, it feels hard, right? It’s difficult to capture a way of writing that conveys both the empirical and tells a story that the public can digest. But I think that people can do it, it just takes work if it’s not something that feels natural. But I think at the end of the day, it really is, why is this important? Why should people care? If you look across these different mediums, it helps us to understand what’s our starting place. We get to that starting place more quickly in an op-ed or commentary because we don’t have the luxury of 20,000 words. It’s 900. Why this is important has to be answered quite succinctly and right up front. And we have more room for our nuance with manuscripts and longer-length pieces. But there is something to say about being succinct on matters that are urgent. And, of course, one doesn’t want to treat those matters in trivialized ways, which is really why it’s important practice of the muscle to figure out how to give dignity and importance to a significant issue in only 900 words.

Tiffany Hamidjaja (BJS): One of the things that we admire about your work with Ms. Magazine and your On the Issues podcast. First, would you be willing to share with our readers a little bit about both of those? How did you get involved? And how did you start the podcast?

Professor Michele Goodwin: I had been involved with Ms. Magazine and the Feminist Majority by hosting events and collaborating on events that were held in their California office. So again, in thinking about how we can reach people at our academic institutions, or how we can go to where people are. If we have an event that is at the law school, let’s say, then let’s make sure that we’re bringing people in from the community. And if we have something at the community, let’s maximize bringing in the community, and then let’s also bring in people from the academy such that they’re involved with people where people are. Doing projects with Ms. Magazine in terms of writing the podcast came out of the period of COVID. And then thinking about okay, what could be another medium available to reach people other than writing or that includes writing and other elements. Ms.Magazine had long wanted to do a podcast and they wanted the right person. Others had approached me about podcasts. But I also wanted to be at the right place to do a podcast. And so it worked out really well. It’s a terrific medium. I mean, I love it. Just over the weekend, I was hosting an event for the Abortion Access Front, and I did a live recording with the CEO Lizz Winstead, who was the co-creator of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, and then founded and launched Lady Parts Justice, basically seeking to involve artists, especially comedians, and thinking about how comedy can be political. We just did a great podcast taping that I’m really excited about and can’t wait for the public to hear it. Just yesterday, we taped materials from an event for the podcast that focused on attacks on healthcare during times of crisis and war, which has been something that’s been in Gaza, Ukraine, and other parts of the world. These are very emotive kinds of issues. These are issues that are urgent, and there has been stress in trying to bring out discourse. When I think about the podcasting that I do, I really try to reach people beyond expertise. Your expertise is important, but I try to reach what is in the heart. I’m most proud of those episodes where people almost feel the journey of the person who’s on with me. When I think about this recording yesterday, getting to a space where there is a doctor who has expertise and tracks things concerning doctors who are in crisis zones. That’s an expertise. But then he offered more, and the opportunity opened up, and I sought it out. He told a story about being tortured in Syria when he was a doctor, about his three closest friends dying, and being tortured for over two weeks. And then being forced to sign a document that if he was to continue practicing medicine, he could no longer serve people who disagreed with the government. That’s something that if you just take the academic route, you don’t hear that story. But if you can actually reach people, you get something richer, deeper, and much more profound. And you can have both. So that’s what got me started with it. We’ve seen in recent conversations about how people of color, women of color, and women generally have been left out of spaces where they otherwise should have a voice. One of the privileges and pleasures that I have is actually picking up on the voices of people who otherwise have not received a platform for the issues that deserve to be platformed. 

Tiffany Hamidjaja (BJS): We’re curious about what inspires these conversations? How you choose who to talk to? 

Professor Michele Goodwin: It’s actually somewhat similar to how I pick what I write about in a longer form. It’s getting upset about something, or saying that there’s something that’s important that we need to be thinking about, something that’s been missed. This goes back to my grandparents. My maternal grandmother used to always be holding a court of women at the big dining room table, and there would be all these women from the community. There’s something that is common in some ways across old Black communities and other communities of color about a kind of respect vis-a-vis grandparents and elders. You’re supposed to be quiet, right? They can allow you to be around, but you’re supposed to observe, right? This isn’t about you dominating some conversation or acting like you’re the center of it. And that does a whole lot to teach you about listening. and learning it also teaches you something about food, because there’s often food in the middle of those kinds of things as well. So anyway, I think, when I, in my life, it’s, it’s interesting because I like bringing people together around food. I like bringing different people together such that different elements feed off of each other. Somehow all of that I think comes together and manifests when thinking about this podcast. I will also say that I’ve got a wonderful team of assistant producers as well, who are terrific people. I love their ideas. And the titles of our shows, that’s really where they make such an incredible role. I mean, in other ways, too, in terms of the whole function of how this gets to the public, they do a phenomenal job.

Janna Huang (BJS): Yeah. So yeah, the reason why we’re also asking this is because, you know, we’re running a graduate student-run journal that’s trying to interface with wider audiences. What advice do you have for graduate students in bridging our research to the public?

Professor Michele Goodwin: Well, you all are writing dissertations and theses, and that’s really important to nail that and to get that work done. But also think about once you’ve got that work, how can that work also translate? How can you use the knowledge production around that to then be harvested in these other ways to further tell important stories? As I say, expertise needs to be at the center of it. Have you been credible? Have you done the research? Evidence is really important. No matter what you’re doing, you’re centering evidence. With that, then you can test the waters. You have to prepare for blowback, right? Whenever you’re doing op-eds and commentary, that’s when you get blowback. That’s when you can get people who are smart, but also people who can also be unwise and vicious. But you can look past all of that when you’ve actually mounted something with strong evidence.  You can just decide to not even read it if you know you are correct. You don’t have to spend time on that. But you do need to be prepared for the possibility that those things will come. Sadly, in the state where we are in now as a country, where we’ve had a January 6, we have white supremacist marches, where there is a sense of threatened violence on American college campuses, the space of knowledge production has also become a space of violence. It’s particularly true in the knowledge production being done by women. You can go from the dismissal of women having any space or place to another end, where people are angry at what you have to say. where you’re documenting things that are in fact law cases, what other sociologists have said, but somehow, you know, people want to not just throw figurative arrows, but literal arrows as an unfortunate thing about the weaponization of the intellectual space in these times. 

Tiffany Hamidjaja (BJS): That leads well into our next question. There’s a politically and legally at stake with abortion and reproductive rights right now. We’re curious about what your current thoughts on what is happening right now? How do you think sociology, law, and bioethics can speak to this moment? 

Professor Michele Goodwin: So this is a moment of enormous crisis in our country. We’re in a time in which there are children who have been locked in cages and we have the federal government under the last president having the Department of Justice argue before federal courts that those kids don’t deserve soap and toothpaste. When you have a nation that has issued a ban on Muslim people from being able to enter the country. When you have a nation that is now gutted, but at the same time was severely chipping away at reproductive freedoms for women, singling out women and not men with no tax on vasectomies, and denial of people to get Cialis and Viagra. We see the kinds of attacks on families with children that are non-binary, such that kids now have to go forward and testify before state legislatures, exposing themselves such that they can say “Treat me with dignity, please.” Then we have states that have now banned books that have been written by authors of color, that have been written by survivors of the Holocaust. We have lawmakers that have said that these books should not only be banned, but should also be burned. When parents have to sign releases to allow their children to participate in storytime where the author happens to be black. We’re in a crisis, like how much more do we need to say? And one of the clear vehicles of being able to respond to that is in deciding who you get to elect but that being gerrymandered or suppressed away from people. I mean, with all of that and more, our environment, we’re at a time of deep distress, that at the same time is hard for people to recognize because there is also that which functions in a society. So if you’re able to actually cross the bridge to get into the other part of town to go to work. If you’re able to go to the gas pump and put gas in your car such that you can drive to work. If the light switch comes on in your building such that you can then walk to your office and so forth. All of those things give us signs of life as normal. So it’s hard to reconcile, for many people, life as normal against the backdrop of this kind of dysfunction in our society. It makes it very hard for people to be able to sustain focus and concentration on these other issues that are all around us. I try to think of ways to bring some light to that. The opportunity for voices to come together on that, which includes my voice, and the opportunity to sort of think forward, but in all of that, trying to reach people who might think, “Okay, I was able to cross the bridge, I was able to flip the light switch, I was able to do all of those things. Why should I care about this? An insurrection? Why should I care about kids who’ve been separated from their parents? Why should I care about what’s happening at our southern borders, you know, all of those kinds of things?”

We’re in a crisis…how much more do we need to say? And one of the clear vehicles of being able to respond to these crises is in deciding who you get to elect. That said, voting rights are being gerrymandered or suppressed, disenfranchising people. The chaos and pain make it very hard for people to be able to sustain focus and concentration on these other issues that are all around us. I try to think of ways to bring some light to that.

Janna Huang (BJS): That’s a really powerful way of putting it, bringing light to issues when everything is operating as normal. To maybe end on a relatively positive note, we were curious to know who or what is inspiring you these days to continue doing this work?

Professor Michele Goodwin: There are so many points of inspiration. It’s an important question. I’m inspired by Patricia Williams. I’m inspired by Dorothy Roberts. I’m inspired by Khiara Bridges. I’m inspired by Lori Andrews. I’m inspired by my students. I’m inspired by the legacy of my grandmothers. I’m inspired by someone like Charles Sumner who was a senator from Massachusetts, who was an abolitionist and invested time, mind, and body into the pursuit of abolition. I’m inspired by the myriad authors that I read, who helped to document these various periods of time in which I like to go back and center my research. I’m inspired by people who have yet to have their due but have done so much for the principles of democracy. I begin to think about the kind of women who did not have names for the purposes of how they were treated in the law, but who used their energy picketing in the 1950s and 60s. These women who got their heads literally beaten over the head, like Fannie Lou Hamer who is representing whole generations of women, who will sacrifice such that this democracy lives up to what is actually in its constitution. I’m inspired by Ruby Bridges’s mother. Imagine what it takes to say, “I’ll put my daughter to go to school with armed guards around her and people outside threatening to lynch her.” Having a six-year-old daughter, and what it must take to be in that frame of mind, where you have so much hope and the possibility that you risk so much, and your child and yourself and your relationship with your child, in order for this promise of the America that’s documented in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, to have a hope of being alive. So much inspires me. I appreciate what you all are, and what you’re both doing. So thank you, Tiffany and thank you Janna. I thank you so much. Wishing you the absolute best.

Dr. Michelle Bratcher Goodwin is a highly visible thought-leader, podcast host, professor, and frequent commentator on MSNBC, lending her expertise on matters of constitutional law, reproductive justice, and the state of American democracy. She is a distinguished professor at Georgetown University, holding the prestigious Linda D. & Timothy J. O’Neill Professorship of Constitutional Law and Global Health Policy. Dr. Goodwin is one to the most cited health law scholars in the world and a highly
regarded public intellectual with commentaries appearing in the NY Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Nation, the L.A. Times, Newsweek, Ms. Magazine and other publications. She has testified before state and federal legislators on matters of health and reproductive justice. Dr. Goodwin is the author of six books and over 100 articles and commentaries on matters of law, medicine, reproductive health, and biotechnologies. She is the 2022 recipient of the American Bar Association’s Margaret Brent Award and in 2023 she was honored by the California Women’s Law Center with their prestigious Pursuit of Justice Award. Dr. Goodwin is author of the award-winning book, Policing The Womb: Invisible Women and The Criminalization of Motherhood. She is the Executive Producer at Ms. Studios.