How the First Abortion Speak-Out Revolutionized Activism

“I can tell you what the psychological and sociological impact of the law was me: It made me furious!‘ a woman shouted through the crowded auditorium at the New York City Department of Health.

It was February 13, 1969, and a phalanx of female protesters had dramatically disrupted the serious negotiations of New York State’s Joint Legislative Committee on the Problems of Public Health. The issue debated was whether or not the state’s 86-year-old criminal abortion law should be liberalized, allowing legal abortion in cases where a woman’s physical or mental health was at risk, or if she was the victim of rape or incest.

Many of the protesters were members of Redstockings, an offshoot of the New York Radical Women best known for organizing the 1968 Miss America pageant protest — an event that inspired the legend of bra-burning feminists. Marginalized by the radical left, feminist arsonists like Shulamith Firestone and Ellen Willis launched their own liberation movement. Redstockings saw themselves as an intellectual action group that took their ideas and their anger to the streets with provocations.

That morning the committee had assembled a group of lawyers, doctors, politicians and members of the clergy to testify. Among those 15n experts, there was only one woman: a nun, who considered abortion a mortal sin. Sitting in the audience, a young activist named Kathie Sarachild (born Kathie Amatniek) sprang to her feet, “Now is the time to hear from the real experts…women!” Florynce Kennedy, a radical lawyer and brilliant provocateur, knew exactly how to draw the attention of the crowd. Kennedy asked, “Why don’t we shoot a New York state legislator for every woman who dies from an abortion?”

Seymour R. Thaler, a New York State Senator from Queens and a Democrat, initially tried to placate the protesters by telling them he sympathized with their frustration.

“We’ve had enough hearings, you’re absolutely right to be impatient,” he said. However, when it became apparent that the angry women would not be able to rest, the committee meeting was moved to a smaller room that was closed to the public. The police barricaded the door to keep out the angry feminists.

Eventually, at the end of the day, several women were allowed into the room to testify. As reported by news day, Kindergarten teacher Gale Greenwood quietly told the panel that she had an illegal abortion when she was 17. Ten years later, she still didn’t have good options if she got pregnant again. “Men have no right to decide these questions,” she explained, looking at them. Another added: “we want to be advised. Even if we accepted your definition of experts – and we don’t – you couldn’t find female doctors or female lawyers?” Senator Thaler accused her of “acting out her personal pique against men”. She hit back: “No personal pique. Political Complaint!

The private is political: Born out of New York Radical Women, the slogan spread like a meme through the liberation movements of the late 1960s. The decision to dissolve the Joint Legislative Committee was the culmination of a series of awareness-raising sessions over the past few months. One of the group members, 25-year-old artist Irene Peslikis, was emotionally scarred by her own illegal abortion as a teenager. Not out of guilt, but because the trauma “woke me up that there is no escape, that I am a woman and that my freedom is restricted in my rights,” as she writes in Abortion Without an Excuse: A Radical History for the 1990s.

Beneath the sexy veneer of the swinging ’60s, 1969 American society remained stubbornly unliberated when it came to female pleasure and bodily autonomy. Information was hard to come by: A feminist recalled that her dorm classmates had shown her how to use a tampon because her mother was convinced it would destroy her virginity. The FDA approved the birth control pill in 1960, but in many states unmarried women under the age of 21 did not have legal access to it. And abortion was then an illegal act in most states unless the pregnancy endangered a woman’s life. Abortion providers, whether backyard operators or licensed physicians, risked fines and jail time.

Some abortion reformers have sought to relax existing laws slightly, while essentially retaining restrictions that place abortion at the discretion of licensed physicians under very narrow conditions. But the feminist protesters at that committee meeting did not want courts to decide when, how and if a pregnancy can be terminated. They wanted to repeal the laws altogether. Anything less than a free on-demand abortion would be a band-aid for a bad law.

Lucinda Cisler, a regular participant in the New York Radical Women as well as the mainstream National Organization for Women, was happy to distribute her version of a model abortion law. It featured a blank square that read, “This is the abortion law every state will have if the current abortion laws are repealed.” New Yorkers for Abortion Law Repeal, an organization Cisler co-founded, vowed to create “positive laws.” to set up public abortion and contraceptive clinics. A graduate of the Yale School of Architecture, Cisler could be found at women’s marches and meetings across the city. She also referred women to reputable providers or to services such as the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, co-founded in 1967 by Baptist minister Howard Moody, who felt a moral obligation to help women. Across the country, other clergy and feminists began forming similar ad hoc organizations. Members of the Chicago-based organization Jane began performing abortions themselves.

Pro-abortion rights protesters during a sit-in in New York, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2022. By Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

After the feminists’ intervention at the committee hearing in February 1969, a flood of mainstream media coverage followed. The tone was often condescending: “Gals Squeal for Repeal, Abort State Hearings,” the headline taunted New York Daily News. Redstockings founding member Ellen Willis took a break from her usual rock and roll column for That New Yorker to report on the hearing for the magazine. She explained that it was absurd for women to have to beg male doctors “to grant them a real fundamental right as a privilege…Only the pregnant woman herself can know if she is physically and mentally ready to bear a child.” How the First Abortion Speak-Out Revolutionized Activism

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