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Posts from January 2006

Over my shoulder #8: Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, which I’ve been re-reading in parts recently, as a source for WikiPedia contributions on Andrea Dworkin and a new entry on Women Against Pornography. I mention, off to one side, that things are often more complicated than they seem, and that this is relevant to one of the most frequent questions that Roderick and I most frequently get on our qualified defense of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, and our passing comments about anti-pornography radical feminism, in our paper on libertarian feminism.

Brownmiller has been discussing the fights over municipal anti-pornography civil rights ordinances authored by Dworkin and MacKinnon in 1983-1984.

Andrea mailed me a copy of the ordinance on December 29, the day before it passed by one vote in the city council. I hadn’t even known that she and MacKinnon were in Minneapolis and working on legislation, but on reading the bill I quickly concluded that it was unworkable–full of overblown rhetoric, overly broad and vague intentions, tricky and convoluted legal locutions. Any court in the land, I believed, would find it unconstitutional, an observation I offered in my usual blunt manner when Andrea called a few days later to get my endorsement.

I assured her I would not go public with my negative opinion. I still cared tremendously about the issue, and for all its flaws, I figured the ordinance might be a valuable consciousness-raiser and organizing tool. In a bad lapse of political judgment, I failed to perceive how it would polarize an already divided feminist community by providing an even better organizing tool for the opposition. Not that what I thought mattered at that point. I had ceded leadership in antipornography work to those willing to carry it forward when I’d retreated to finish my book on femininity, just then reaching bookstores after a very long haul.

Few people noticed my absence from the national list of ordinance supporters. Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Phyllis Chesler, and the new leadership of Women Against Pornography had already sent Dworkin and MacKinnon their glowing commendations. I thought it was fucking brilliant, Robin Morgan remembers, just brilliant the way they circumvented the criminal statutes and obscenity codes identified with the right wing, and took a new path through the concept of harm and civil rights discrimination. Robin, coiner of the slogan Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice, did not se any constitutional problem. If I had, she concedes, I doubt that it would have affected my position.

The ordinance was vetoed within days of its passage by Mayor Donald Fraser, who maintained that the city did not have the financial resources to defend the law’s constitutionality in court. Seven months later it came up before the council again, with minor modifications. This time around, pornography was defined only as a contributory factor, not central to the subordination of women. Dorchen Leidholdt flew to Minneapolis to help with a petition drive. Upon her return, she persuaded Women Against Pornography to contribute a few thousand dollars from its dwindling treasury to the effort.

The switch from a plucky, inventive campaign to educate the public about pornography’s dangers to the promotion of new legislation was a huge change in direction for WAP, although given the times, it was probably inevitable. Mehrhof and Alexander, the last of WAP’s original full-time organizers, had already resigned, needing a more reliable weekly paycheck than antipornography work could offer. Increasingly frustrated, the remaining activists had lost their faith in the powers of hand-cranked slide shows and hastily organized protest demonstrations to curb a phenomenal growth industry which was taking advantage of the latest technologies (pre-Internet) to create a multibillion dollar X-rated home video market, Dial-a-Porn, and public-access television channels.

Although WAP backed the ordinance, other antiporn groups were not so sanguine about it. In Washington, political scientist Janet Gornick recalls, the ordinance split her group, Feminists Against Pornography, right down the middle, and ultimately she resigned. We were black and white, lesbian and straight, and almost every one of us had been a victim of sexual violence, says Gornick, whose own activism had started six years earlier, after she was stabbed on the street, dragged twenty feet, and raped a block away from the Harvard campus in a crime that was never solved. FAP was doing very daring direct-action things in addition to the usual slide shows and Take Back the Nights, she relates. We were waging a small war against the Fourteenth Street porn strip north of the White House. But the minute I heard about Minneapolis, I knew it was a strategic catastrophe. It broke my heart. Before then we’d always maintained that we wern’t for new legislation, that we weren’t trying to ban anything. Some of our younger members just couldn’t comprehend that very committed feminists–our elders, our leaders, who were pulling us along by their rhetoric–could make such a big mistake that would lead the movement astray.

… The decision to ally herself with FACT and against the ordinance had come only after some tortured soul-searching by [Adrienne] Rich, whose previous expressions of faith in Andrea Dworkin had attributed to her leadership the greatest depth and grasp. In a special statement for off our backs, optimistically titled We Don’t Have to Come Apart over Pornography, the activist poet wrote, I am less sure than Dworkin and MacKinnon that this is a time when further powers of suppression should be turned over to the State. The lawyer and writer Wendy Kaminer, another early WAP member, went public with her opposition to the ordinance a year or so later.

–Susan Brownmiller, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (1999). 319-322.

The American Indian Relief Council are scammers, swindlers, and flim-flam men.

I recently received a letter in the mail from the American Indian Relief Council, signed by Brian J. Brown. Maybe you have too. Mine was printed on bright yellow paper, and goes like this, except that it is printed in ALL CAPS:

Dear Mr. Johnson,

A true emergency may soon confront the Indian people here on the Sioux reservations of South Dakota.

As you know, Americans in the cold-weather regions of our nation have seen heating fuel costs spiral out of control.

Here in Indian country on the northern plains — with winters that can be as bitter as most anywhere in the world — this can be a matter of life and death.

The cost of propane fuel — which is used by most of the people on our reservations who have any heat at all in their homes — has climbed every year.

And experts are already predicting even higher prices this year — which were already too expensive for thousands of Sioux families.

undsowie. I’m used to getting lots of junk mail from non-profits, and I’m used to high-pressure sales tactics; if I think the cause is worthy I usually pass over it in silence and put myself down for a small contribution. But a couple of things raised an eyebrow: the sheer intensity of the high-pressure pitch (escalated by the sensationalistic use of the phrase freeze to death, emphasized just like that, three times in the course of the letter), my unfamiliarity with the organization, the fact that they were a subsidiary council of a suspiciously vague-sounding charitable organization rather than an independent organization exclusively concerned with a specific group of Indians, and a number of small signs (starting with President Brian J. Brown) that this might not be an organization directed by the Lakota Indians themselves. So I checked up on them through Google. It’s a good thing I did: the American Indian Relief Council is using high-pressure sales tactics because they are swindlers. They sound like they aren’t run by Lakota Indians because they aren’t run by Lakota Indians. If you like throwing your money away on white people’s comfortable offices, then by all means give it to them. Otherwise, don’t.

Here’s the breakdown on AIRC, courtesy of In These Times (April 2001). Emphasis is added:

Charitable organizations are latching on to Native American causes because they are an easy sell. Americans feel guilty about their nation’s treatment of Native peoples, and they give money with the intention of correcting history’s wrongdoings, says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. These charities exploit the tremendous reservoir of goodwill that exists worldwide for Indian people, agrees Vernon Bellecourt, an American Indian Movement leader.

… One rogue charity, the Rapid City, South Dakota-based American Indian Relief Council (AIRC), gained notoriety in the early ’90s when it was accused of dumping useless textbooks and outdated gardening seeds on the Sioux reservation as part of its relief program. One of the AIRC’s largest services was its employment-training program, which consisted of hiring Native Americans to make fundraising calls. Employees blew the whistle on the organization’s dubious fundraising pitches, which they said were manipulative exaggerations and lies. They complained that the money the AIRC raised for Native Americans wasn’t making it to the reservations.

Eventually the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office sued the AIRC in 1993 for lying to donors about certain reservations, claiming they were hit by catastrophic natural disasters and needed funds to prevent famine and death. The lawsuit also charged that the AIRC overvalued the prices of goods it donated to tribes–like the expired seeds–listing them at market value. In 1999, AIRC President Brian Brown settled the lawsuit and agreed to pay the state $350,000.

But instead of shutting down the AIRC, Brown–who had previously been sued by the attorneys general of Connecticut and Pennsylvania in 1991 for inflating commodity values and deceiving donors–discreetly downsized the group’s South Dakota operations and shifted its focus to the American Southwest. The AIRC has been born anew under a different parent organization, National Relief Charities (NRC), which operates two new subsidiaries–the Council of Indian Nations and Southwest Indian Relief–in Apache Junction, Arizona. Brown keeps a low profile in his current office, tucked away in a nondescript industrial park outside of Portland, Oregon.

However, the charity’s makeover is entirely superficial. The NRC is still distributing a pitiful portion of its revenues to the constituency it purports to serve. According to the NRC’s 1999 federal tax filings, it earned more than $8.3 million in donations last year, but only 30 percent was spent on programs. In contrast, Brown’s salary has hovered at about $120,000 for the past two years. The National Charities Information Bureau, an Arlington, Virginia-based watchdog group, suggests charities should spend a minimum of 60 percent of total expenditures on programs and services, with the available balance going to fundraising and administration.

— In These Times (2 April 2001): Indian givers

In case you were wondering, their 2004 Form 990 reports that they raised $17,494,328 in revenue in 2004, and their spending on programs and services had climbed … to 50.6%. President Brian Brown raked in $168,669.

Where you can give

The bad news is that although AIRC are a pack of flim-flam men profiting off the penury of others, Plains Indians are facing a real crisis from the spike in propane heating costs. We’ve had the good fortune of an unusually mild winter this year, but that good fortune only goes so far.

The good news is that it’s not all bad news. There are lots of scamsters out there looking for a quick buck from you, and an increasing number are using sympathy for American Indians to get it. But there are also lots of good folks, many of them living on or by the reservation, providing real mutual aid who could benefit from whatever help you can offer. The best place to start is by finding groups directly associated with the actual reservations, and directed by the Indians that they claim to benefit. That is to say, by finding efforts that have more to do with mutual aid and less to do with the pretense of charity for others. As an example, here’s what I found, with the help of Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation, for groups on the Pine Ridge Reservation (home of the Oglala Sioux Tribe) that are helping folks out with heating costs this winter:

Update 2006-10-06: Last year I listed a number of groups, including Cangleska, Inc., OST Healthy Start, PTI Propane, and Bob’s Gas Service, which offered help with heating costs in Winter 2005. I recently got a note from Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation pointing out that this information is out-dated for Winter 2006. Since the information and the groups offering help change so often, the best thing for you to do is check out the latest information from the Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation Lend a Hand with Utilities page.

I’m sending $20 by PayPal to the Cangleska shelter tonight. (In case you’re interested, I found Cangleska’s Form 990 for 2004; it reports $2,815,490 in expenditures with $2,730,924 on services, meaning that 97% of expenditures go directly to services.) Please do give what you can. It’s important. And, as I was reminded tonight, it’s also important to keep an eye out for those who exploit our sympathy for the poor and suffering in order to make a fast buck. There is real need out there; unfortunately need all too often draws scamsters like circling vultures. You can help out; just make sure that you check up to find out who it is that you’re helping.

Whiteness studies 101: Ethnicity

(Link thanks to Women’s Media Center 2006-01-25.)

Matea Gold and Meg James, Los Angeles Times (2005-01-24): UPN, WB to Merge Into New Network:

NEW YORK — UPN and the WB will cease operations this fall to make way for a new broadcast network called the CW, aimed at young, ethnic viewers, CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. Entertainment announced today. …

Because, you see, old white people don’t have an ethnicity. Only colorful people do.

We put the “Arch” in “Anarchy”

Quick review.

ANARCHISM … the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government — harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.

— P. A. Kropotkin, Anarchism, for the Encyclopedia Brittanica (1905). Emphasis mine.

From the Left today, Scott at Angry White Kid comes out for fair government elections:

It is already hypocritical enough for Israel and the U.S. to claim to support democracy in Palestine while the U.S. monetarily favors one party and Israel to tries to block voting in East Jerusalem. Assuming they are fair, the world must respect the results of the elections.

— Angry White Kid (2006-01-25): The So-Called Palestinian Elections. Emphasis mine.

Meanwhile on the Right, non-voting LewRockwell.com contributor William L. Anderson is shocked! shocked! to discover that,

… people like Fitzgerald do not give a rat’s behind about Constitutional rights.

And demands to know,

For that matter, how in the world can Sarbanes-Oxley even be Constitutional?

— William L. Anderson, LewRockwell.com Blog (2006-01-18): Sarbanes-Oxley and Patrick Fitzgerald. Emphasis mine.

I am an anarchist. I don’t respect the results of any government elections, and I don’t give a rat’s ass about Constitutional rights, either. That’s part of what being an anarchist means: government elections don’t permit anything, and government Constitutions don’t forbid anything, because they have no legitimate authority over anyone at all. I take it that this is part of what being an anarchist means: if you take seriously an election’s or a Constitutional convention’s claim over the lives of its subjects, then you are accepting the legitimacy of a form of government. Anarchists don’t.


This isn’t to offer a brief against voting, or against mentioning the Constitution in some argumentative contexts. It’s perfectly reasonable to look at voting, or appealing to the text of the Constitution, as a low-cost, if often ineffective, tactic of self-defense. It may even be worthwhile to try to use appeals to majoritarian popular sovereignty or to the Constitution as dialectical starting points, to try to get your conversation partner away from galloping Caesarism towards trotting Caesarism, and closer to the point where they will stop caring about The Will of The People and Constitutional Rights, and start caring about the will of people and human rights instead (although I’ll have more to say on dialectical strategies sometime soon…). That’s all fine. But it is one thing to use these arguments in the right contexts, and quite another thing to take them seriously and treat them like we ought to care at the end of the day.

A little more Socratic irony, please.

Roe v. Wade Day #33

This post is part of Blog for Choice Day: January 22, 2006.

Today is the 33rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, which took the boots of the State from off the necks of millions of women across the United States. There’s a lot not to like about the specifics of the reasoning, and it’s sometimes frustrating that Roe is the ruling that we’ve got to celebrate, or at least defend. But January 22 is a jubilee day, the capstone victory of a remarkable, explosive struggle — which took place over the course of just under 4 years, from the decisive beginning of the pro-choice movement among radical feminists in early 1969, to the decision in January 1973. (There was a small, barely effectual abortion law reform movement before 1969; but February and March 1969 marked the beginning of the abortion law repeal movement, and also the beginning of the pro-choice argument — that is, early 1969 is when the argument shifted from feeling sorry for the poor girl in dire circumstances, to women demanding that they had a right to the determine how their own bodies will or will not be used.

Abortion on Demand and Without Apology!

Like most anniversaries, this one is partly about remembering and honoring. Today there are three things that I want you to remember, or to learn.

First, you should know all about two months that made all the difference. This is from Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution:

February 1969 was an important month in the abortion struggle. Larry Lader, a biographer of Margaret Sanger, summoned a handful of professionals in law and medicine to the Drake Hotel in Chicago for the organizing conference of NARAL, the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws. (NARAL became the National Abortion Rights Action League in 1974.) The conferees targeted specific states where they believed the repressive codes could be knocked down. New York, with its liberal constituency, was a top priority. Bills ranging from modest reforms (in cases of rape and incest) to outright repeal of all criminal penalties were already in the legislative hopper.

Betty Friedan, one of the main speakers at the Chicago NARAL meeting, reflected the changing political climate. At NOW’s founding convention in 1966, she had bowed to a clique that insisted that abortion rights were too divisive, too sexual, and too controversial for the fledgling organization, but since then a groundswell of younger members had stiffened her spine. NOW was being inundated by kids, one member observed. The kids from New York, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and elsewhere pushed through an abortion plank at NOW’s 1967 convention.

And the kids were forging ahead with their own tactics. On the same wintry day in mid-February when NARAL’s founders were traveling to Chicago for their first conference six state legislators held a public hearing in Manhattan on some proposed liberalizing amendments to the New York law. Typical of the times, the six legislators were men, and the spekaers invited to present expert testimony were fourteen men and a Catholic nun.

On the morning of the February 13 hearing, a dozen infiltrators camouflaged in dresses and stockings entered the hearing room and spaced themselves around the chamber. Some called themselves Redstockings, and some, like Joyce Ravitz, wre free-floating radicals who were practiced hands at political disruptions. Ravitz, in fact, had been on her way to another demonstration when she’d run into the Redstockings women, who convinced her to join them.

As a retired judge opined that abortion might be countenanced as a remedy after a woman had fulfilled her biological service to the community by bearing four children, Kathie Amatniek leaped to her feet and shouted, Let’s hear from the real experts–women! Taking her cue, Joyce Ravitz began to declaim an impassioned oration. Ellen Willis jumped in. More women rose to their feet.

Men don’t get pregnant, men don’t bear children. Men just make laws, a demonstrator bellowed.

Why are you refusing to admit we exist? cried another.

Girls, girls, you’ve made your point. Sit down. I’m on your side, a legislator urged, raising the temperature a notch higher.

Don’t call us girls, came the unified response. We are women!

The hearing dissolved in confusion. When the chairman attempted to reconvene it behind closed doors, the women sat down in the corridor, refusing to budge.

Stories appeared the next day in the Times (Women Break Up Abortion Hearing), the New York Post (Abortion Law Protesters Disrupt Panel), and the Daily News. Ellen Willis slipped out of her activist guise to do a report for Talk of the Town in The New Yorker. Nanette Rainone filed for WBAI radio and the Pacfica network. Barely a month old, Redstockings, with an assist from the radical floaters, had successfully dramatized the need for woman as expert in the abortion debate.

Five weeks later, on March 21, 1969, Redstockings staged a public speak-out, Abortion: Tell It Like It Is, at the Washington Square Methodist Church, a hub of antiwar activism in Greenwich Village. For some Women’s Liberation founders, the speak-out was the movement’s finest hour. Astounding, is the way Irene Peslikis puts it. It showed the power of consciousness-raising, how theory comes from deep inside a person’s life, and how it leads directly to action.

Peslikis had organized the panel and coached the women who were willing to speak. The idea, she says, was to get examples of different kinds of experiences–women who’d had the babies that were taken away, women who went to the hospital for a therapeutic abortion, women who’d gone the illegal route, the different kinds of illegal routes.

Three hundred women and a few men filled the church that evening as Helen Kritzler, Barbara Kaminsky, Rosalyn Baxandall, Anne Forer, and a few other brave souls passed a small microphone back and forth. Baxandall broke the ice with a touch of humor. I thought I was sophisticated, she joked into the mike. My boyfriend told me if he came a second time, the sperm would wash away, and I believed him.

Another woman recounted, So there I was in West New York, New Jersey, and the doctor had these crucifixes and holy pictures on the wall, and all he wanted was nine hundred dollars. I took out a vacation loan and I’m still paying it off.

Judy Gabree hurtled forward. I went to eleven hospitals searching for a therapeutic abortion. At the tenth, they offered me a deal. They’d do it if I agreed to get sterilized. I was twenty years old. I had to pretend I was crazy and suicidal, but having the abortion was the sanest thing I’d done.

More women added their personal testimony. I was one of those who kept quiet. Irene Peslikis had asked me to be one of the speakers, but I chose an easier path and played Village Voice reporter. My front-page story, Everywoman’s Abortions: The Oppressor Is Man, was the only substantive coverage the landmark speak-out received. Some retyped it in Chicago for the newsletter, which carried the news to activists around the country.

Another journalist, in aviator glasses and a miniskirt, was taking notes in the church that evening. She hovered near Jane Everhart, a NOW member, and whispered What’s going on?

Everhart whispered back, Sit down and listen!

Gloria Steinem was a friend of Women’s Liberation in 1969, but she had not yet thrown in her lot with the movement. Her plate was already overflowing with causes. Gloria spoke out against the war in Vietnam on late-night talk shows, raised money for liberal Democrats and Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers, and wrote earnest pieces on all of her issues for the popular magazines. Genetically endowed with the rangy limbs and sculpted features of a fashion model, Steinem glided through the rarefied world of radical chic expertly building her political connections. Beneath the exterior of the celebrity journalist was a woman who yearned to save the world.

Steinem received a shock of recognition when a Redstocking quipped, I bet every woman here has had an abortion. Hers had been done by a Harley Street practitioner in London during the late fifties after she’d graduated from Smith. Later she would say that the speak-out was her feminist revelation, the moment that redirected her public path. That night, however, she was working on a tight deadline. She threw together a hasty paragraph for the political diary she wrote for New York magazine. Nobody wants to reform the abortion laws, she explained in print. They want to repeal them. Completely.

The Redstockings abortion speak-out was an emblematic event for Women’s Liberation. Speak-outs based on the New York women’s model were organized in other cities within the year, and subsequent campaigns to change public opinion in the following decade would utilize first-person testimony in a full range of issues from rape and battery to child abuse and sexual harassment. The importance of personal testimony in a public setting, which overthrew the received wisdom of the experts, cannot be overestimated. It was an original technique and a powerful ideological tool. Ultimately, of course, first-person discourse on a dizzying variety of intimate subjects would become a gimmicky staple of the afternoon television talk shows, where the confessional style was utilized for its voyeuristic shock value. Back then, personal testimony was a political act of great courage.

–Susan Brownmiller, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, pp. 106–109

Second, you should know why they were out there, putting themselves on the line for this, and why doing that had such a remarkable impact in so short of a time. I think we can find some of the reasons in Lucinda Cisler’s wonderful, hauntingly prescient Abortion law repeal (sort of): a warning to women (1969).

… The most important thing feminists have done and have to keep doing is to insist that the basic reason for repealing the laws and making abortions available is justice: women’s right to abortion.

… Until just a couple of years ago the abortion movement was a tiny handful of good people who were still having to concentrate just on getting the taboo lifted from public discussions of the topic. They dared not even think about any proposals for legal change beyond reform (in which abortion is grudgingly parceled out by hospital committee fiat to the few women who can prove they’ve been raped, or who are crazy, or are in danger of bearing a defective baby). They spent a lot of time debating with priests about When Life Begins, and Which Abortions Are Justified. They were mostly doctors, lawyers, social workers, clergymen, professors, writers, and a few were just plain women—usually not particularly feminist.

Part of the reason the reform movement was very small was that it appealed mostly to altruism and very little to people’s self-interest: the circumstances covered by reform are tragic but they affect very few women’s lives, whereas repeal is compelling because most women know the fear of unwanted pregnancy and in fact get abortions for that reason.

… These people do deserve a lot of credit for their lonely and dogged insistence on raising the issue when everybody else wanted to pretend it didn’t exist. But because they invested so much energy earlier in working for reform (and got it in ten states), they have an important stake in believing that their position is the realistic one—that one must accept the small, so-called steps in the right direction that can be wrested from reluctant politicians, that it isn’t quite dignified to demonstrate or shout what you want, that raising the women’s rights issue will alienate politicians, and so on.

Because of course, it is the women’s movement whose demand for repeal—rather than reform—of the abortion laws has spurred the general acceleration in the abortion movement and its influence. Unfortunately, and ironically, the very rapidity of the change for which we are responsible is threatening to bring us to the point where we are offered something so close to what we want that our demands for radical change may never be achieved.

–Lucinda Cisler, Abortion law repeal (sort of): a warning to women, ¶Â¶ 2–10

Cisler goes on to review four different restrictions or limitations on abortion-law repeal that she thinks could make for just this sort of roadblock. One of the best sections in the essay is her discussion a restriction with which we are all too familiar in the post-Roe world:

3: Abortions may not be performed beyond a certain time in pregnancy, unless the woman’s life is at stake. Significantly enough, the magic time limit varies from bill to bill, from court decision to court decision, but this kind of restriction essentially says two things to women: (a) at a certain stage, your body suddenly belongs to the state and it can force you to have a child, whatever your own reasons for wanting an abortion late in pregnancy; (b) because late abortion entails more risk to you than early abortion, the state must protect you even if your considered decision is that you want to run that risk and your doctor is willing to help you. This restriction insults women in the same way the present preservation-of-life laws do: it assumes that we must be in a state of tutelage and cannot assume responsibility for our own acts. Even many women’s liberation writers are guilty of repeating the paternalistic explanation given to excuse the original passage of U.S. laws against abortion: in the nineteenth century abortion was more dangerous than childbirth, and women had to be protected against it. Was it somehow less dangerous in the eighteenth century? Were other kinds of surgery safe then? And, most important, weren’t women wanting and getting abortions, even though they knew how much they were risking? Protection has often turned out to be but another means of control over the protected; labor law offers many examples. When childbirth becomes as safe as it should be, perhaps it will be safer than abortion: will we put back our abortion laws, to protect women?

… There are many reasons why a woman might seek a late abortion, and she should be able to find one legally if she wants it. She may suddenly discover that she had German measles in early pregnancy and that her fetus is deformed; she may have had a sudden mental breakdown; or some calamity may have changed the circumstances of her life: whatever her reasons, she belongs to herself and not to the state.

–Lucinda Cisler, Abortion law repeal (sort of): a warning to women, ¶Â¶ 19, 21

Third, you should know what the women of Jane did in Chicago to help make their sisters’ ownership of their own bodies a reality, without the blessing of the male experts and in defiance of the male State. Here’s Brownmiller, again:

Radical women in Chicago poured their energy into Jane, an abortion referral service initiated by Heather Booth, who had been a one-woman grapevine for her college classmates. In 1971, after Booth’s departure, some of the women took matters into their own hands and secretly began to perform the abortions themselves. Safe, compassionate terminations for a modest fee became their high calling–a model, as they saw it, for women’s empowerment after the revolution.

Leaflets appeared in the Hyde Park neighborhood of the University of Chicago bearing a simple message: Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane at 643-3844. The number rang at the home of one of the activists who volunteered to be Jane. As word spread and the volume of calls increased, the service acquired its own phone line and an answering machine, a cumbersome reel-to-reel device that was one of the first on the market. Volunteers, known inside the service as call-back Janes, visited the abortion seekers to elicit crucial medical details (most important was lmp, the number of weeks since the last menstrual period), then another level of volunteers scheduled an appointment with one of the abortionists on the group’s list.

At first the service relied on Mike in Cicero, who was fast, efficient, and willing to lower his price to five hundred dollars as the volume increased. Mike gradually let down his guard with Jody Parsons, his principal Jane contact, an artisan who sold her beaded jewelry and ceramics at street fairs and was a survivor of Hodgkin’s disease. The clandestine abortionist and the hippy artisan struck up a bond. When Mike confessed that he was not in fact a real doctor but merely a trained technician, she cajoled him into teaching her his skills. Jody’s rapid success in learning to maneuver the dilating clamps, curettes, and forceps demystified the forbidden procedures for another half dozen women in Jane. If he can do it, then we can do it became their motto.

Madeline Schwenk, a banker’s daughter who had married at twenty, six months pregnant with no clue whatsoever about how to get an abortion, moved from counseling to vacuum aspiration after Harvey Karman, the controversial director of a California clinic, came to Chicago to demonstrate his technique. Madeline was one of the few women in Jane who was active in NOW, and who stayed affiliated with the Chicago chapter during the year she wielded her cannula and curette for the service. I’d get up in the morning, make breakfast for my three kids, go off to do the abortions, then go home to make dinner, she reminisces. Pretty ourageous behavior when you think about it. But exciting.

Jane’s abortion practitioners and their assistants were able to handle a total of thirty cases a day at affordable fees–under one hundred dollars. A doctor and a pharmacist among the women’s contacts kept them supplied with antibiotics.

Fear of police surveillance in radical circles had its match among clandestine abortionists who relied on a complicated rigamarole of blindfolds and middlemen. Jane straddled both worlds. Abortion seekers gathered every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at a front apartment, usually the home of a Jane member or friend, and were escorted by Jane drivers to the Place, a rented apartment where the abortions were performed. The fronts and the Place changed on a regular basis. New volunteers, brought into the group by counselors and drivers, went through a probation period before they were told that women in Jane were doing the abortions. The news did not sit well with everyone. Turnover was high, from fear and from burnout, although the service usually maintained its regular complement of thirty members.

Jane lost most of its middle-class clientele after the New York law [repealing the state’s abortion ban] went into effect. Increasingly it began to service South Side women, poor and black, who did not have the money to travel out of state, and whose health problems, from high blood pressure to obesity, were daunting. Pressure on the providers intensified. Audaciously they added second-trimester abortionsby induced miscarriage to their skills.

On May 3, 1972, near the conclusion of a busy work day in an eleventh-floor apartment on South Shore Drive overlooking Lake Michigan, Jane got busted. Seven women, including Madeline Schwenk, were arrested and bailed out the following day. The Chicago Daily News blared Women Seized in Cut-Rate Clinic in a front-page banner. The Tribune buried Lib Groups Linked to Abortions on an inside page. Six weeks later the service was back in buinsess. Wisely, the women facing criminal charges selected a defense attorney who was clued in to and optimistic about the national picture. She advised them to hang tight–some interesting developments were taking place in Washington that could help their case. (After the January 1973 Roe decision, all outstanding charges against the seven were dropped.)

The activists of Jane believe they performed more than ten thousand abortions. It’s a ballpark figure based on the number of procedures they remember doing in a given week. For security reasons they did not keep records.

–Susan Brownmiller, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, pp. 123–125

It’s important to remember that, although the occasion for celebrating January 22 is a Supreme Court decision, the repeal of abortion laws wasn’t a gift handed down out of benevolence by a gang of old men in robes. It was struggled for, and won, by women in our own times. Women who stood up for themselves, who challenged the authority of self-appointed male experts and law-makers, who spoke truth to power. Radical women who took things into their own hands and helped their sisters, in defiance of the law, because they knew that they had a right to do it. Radical feminists who built a movement for their own freedom over a matter of months and decisively changed the world in less than five years. It’s not just that we owe Kathie Sarachild, Joyce Ravitz, Ellen Willis, Lucinda Cisler, Heather Booth, Jody Parsons, Madeline Schwenk, and so many others our praise. They do deserve our cheers, but they also deserve our study and our emulation. They did amazing things, and we — feminists, leftists, anti-statists — owe it not only to them, but to ourselves, to honor them by trying to learn from their example.


The other thing that anniversaries are good for is to renew commitments and lead us forward. What’s going on today, and what can we do?

(These are links I caught throughout the day of January 22. Most of them came from Feminist Blogs or from NARAL’s Blog for Choice Day round-up.)

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