From the Previous War On Women

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One by one, red states launch their offensives. As of this week, with the passage of Alabama’s and Missouri’s legislation effectively banning abortion even in the case of rape or incest, the tide of the the current war is turning. It’s surging in favor of those who are convinced that compulsory pregnancy is a better option than letting women decide what happens to their own bodies and lives.

I’m old enough to remember the years before Roe v. Wade. I easily recall the terror my friends and I shared at the prospect of unwanted pregnancy. No doubt there are those who think that was a good thing, a force that promoted our virtue.

Did our terror keep us on the straight and narrow? As much as we feared winding up “in trouble,” we were also caught in the quandary of all women in an era of traditional, still-unquestioned sexual roles. Our emotional and social currency hinged on our acceptance and approval by men. We knew in our bones that if boys didn’t want us, we amounted to nothing. And if they did want us, we were in danger. It was up to us to learn the steps of an impossible dance, that of keeping a boy happy without giving it up — “it” being virginity. We didn’t see virginity as a virtue so much as our one link to safety. “Keep the V,” my girlfriends and I would say to each other when the weekend was coming up and one of us was facing a high-pressure date.

Never mind our own awakening desires. Those wouldn’t be up for discussion for at least a decade.

The frail link to safety could easily be broken, literally, through coercion, accident or simple ignorance. And then we were left playing Russian roulette, a game rigged by our youthful fecundity. When I was a freshman in high school, the head cheerleader and the football captain had to get married. He finished his senior year. She left school to have the baby and we never saw her again. There were other girls who were sent off to the institutions created to swallow up unwed mothers, girls whose fates became a topic of whispered gossip, whose futures were forgotten.

I never personally knew anybody that tried to “get rid of it” either on their own or through a back-alley operation. But we all heard the stories.

It was as it had been for generations. My mother told me a cautionary tale from her own adolescence. There was a cousin of hers, an older girl, whose disgrace had come to light when she tried to end her pregnancy by drinking turpentine. In small-town, depression-era Iowa, shame rippled through the extended family and splashed through the town. The boy, the “guilty party” as my mother put it, was brought to the girl’s house where the town fathers conducted a deathbed wedding. The girl died soon afterwards, in agony but with her family’s honor at least acknowledged, if not restored. The boy, said my mother in tones of wistful resentment, went on and lived his life.

I was the youngest of three sisters, all of us born years apart. Between my middle sister and me there was a miscarriage. The worst part, my mother told me, wasn’t lying in the Catholic hospital, weak and bleeding, worrying about her girls at home and waiting for my father to return from a business trip, although all of that was bad enough. The worst part was the heavy load of unspoken blame and suspicion she sensed from the nurses. Until her husband arrived to lend legitimacy to the event, she said, “they weren’t sure I hadn’t done that to myself.”

My childbearing years, my own danger zone, is behind me now. It lasted a long time. I was ten years old when I had my first menstrual period, and 56 when I crossed the final threshold of menopause. According to those on the other side of the abortion divide, now in the ascendent, it was up to me to perfectly govern my fertility, every month for 46 years. The consequences of any slip-ups would be mine to bear, literally, for the rest of my life.

But I came of age when Roe v. Wade was new, just as the Pill arrived on the scene. We heralded the dawn of a new era. Our freedom, our responsibility, our dignity, and our sovereignty over our own lives had at last been recognized.

We were sure the helplessness and terror had come to an end. We had won the right to make our own choices about what would have more impact on our lives, our partners’ lives, our other children’s lives, than anything else.

Today I am thinking about the teen girls I work with, emerging into a world where the rules are quickly stacking against them, where the gains their mothers and grandmothers fought for are being hacked out from under them. I think about my grandnieces and the doors that threaten to shut on their lives.

That is hard enough to think about. Harder still is to imagine the children born of the unwilling mothers, an inevitable result of the current campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade.

If we lose the war this time, they will be the most heartbreaking casualties.

10 Replies to “From the Previous War On Women”

  1. Hannah

    Thank you for being so honest and vulnerable here! I was born after Roe v. Wade, and while fear of sexual assault/unwanted pregnancies/etc have been a very constant part of my life, abortion has always been present as kind of a background option just in case. It is interesting and even eye-opening to hear about your experiences living before Roe V. Wade.

  2. Laurie

    I was also born in pre-Roe v Wade days and, as maybe you could imagine, have conflicted thoughts on this topic. I consider myself an unapologetic feminist, a card-carrying liberal who once voted for Ralph Nadar, a strong supporter of women’s rights, Planned Parenthood, and the #MeToo movement.

    However. I was one of those teenagers who got caught. I “had” to get married before I graduated from high school. The very kind (female) OB-GYN who informed me of the pregnancy also offered me the (illegal) option of getting rid of it. I swallowed hard and refused. Today that baby is living in Colorado. My hubby and I just returned home from babysitting HIS baby.

    I want us to value women more, but I believe we have a non-negotiable obligation to protect the weakest members of society, including the unborn. I also believe we need to shift our attitudes toward children from viewing them as a burden, a liability, to viewing them as precious, a joy.

    I realize that it is completely unfair to ask a woman to carry a child that she doesn’t want to keep, but I also know there are many couples who desperately want a baby.

    I don’t want to demonize anyone; I don’t want to stand outside a clinic holding a jar of fetal tissue. I want to have a rational conversation and come up with the best option for everyone.

    Sorry for the ramble, Jan. As you might guess I have thought a lot about this particular topic.

    • Jan M Flynn

      Laurie, I salute your thoughtfulness and your willingness to have an authentic conversation on a topic that so often promotes nothing more than screaming from polar opposites. And yes, you clearly have thought long and hard about this.

      Your choice to continue your pregnancy was obviously a good one, the right one (if not the easy one) for you, one resulting in a wonderful daughter and a long, fulfilling marriage. Here’s the thing: you were given a choice. Hard as yours was, you made it willingly. I know I don’t have to point out to you the enormity of that choice, or its consequences that shaped your life forever. In your case, those consequences were a blessing.

      I wish it were true that there is a loving home waiting for every child who is born into an unsustainable situation for whatever reason. But you’re a professional educator: you don’t need me to point out how sadly untrue that is.

      Let alone the trauma of a woman who is forced to continue a pregnancy she can’t accept, to give birth when she is unwilling, or who is subject to the inward pain and outward judgment (still alive and strong) of giving up a child for adoption.

      The laws that have recently been passed would remove any choice a woman has, once she is pregnant through whatever means. Even if she’s been raped. Even if she’s been raped by her uncle.

      I would never encourage a woman to have an abortion. I would never suggest that abortion is trivial; I agree with Marian Williamson when she says that an abortion is a tragedy. But sometimes it’s a necessary one. That choice is an overwhelming responsibility, a staggering one. As women, we are life’s gatekeepers, and though we are far from infallible, I would far rather trust that choice to women than to lawmakers.

      Abortion is a hard thing, a sad and monumental thing. But taking it away as an option means compulsory pregnancy. I cannot accept that.

  3. Elizabeth

    Excellent blog, Jan!
    Yes, this issue makes my blood roll and my heart beating harder. I know I get upset and angry because when it comes to women’s rights, I am ready to climb that soap box and let my voice thunder.
    I’m your age Jan, and I too saught approval from boys when I hit my teens. But before that I absolutely always felt equal to my male friends; in fact, I enjoyed hanging with the boys and spending time with them. I wrote diaries at that age, twelve to fourteen when starting my period, and my take on boys completely changed. I still loved them but now, I had to like them in a different way. This changed me. And with my mom telling me to be a good girl, I grew into a sexually timid and cautious girl.
    It was important to find the right boy to be with. My mother knew only my dad since high school and I met ‘my guy’ in high school. I was in love and we eventually moved in together, had kids, then married, then moved to California from Denmark with a baby and a toddler. I was on the pill before I decided to have a child, was twenty two when I had my first child. I never went back on the pill but used an iud and got pregnant with our third child. My husband wasn’t too happy about it but I’m from a big family (oldest of five) and felt at home with children around me. I followed my instinct and after the third child my husband was fixed. That was his choice.
    But not everyone lives my kind of life and what is my pet peeve is that as a woman you must be in charge of your life and be able to make the choice. You must be able to follow your instinct. When a hard decision has to be made, I think often what we rely on is instinct. Because we have to live with it. My mother had two abortions, one in Switzerland, late 50’s, and one in Denmark, in the 60’s. She told me how she had to dress up poorly, put on black make up under her eyes, etc. to look destitute. This was before it was legal. My mother didn’t have the pill but other contraceptives that didn’t always work.
    Bottom line: I think the abortion issue is tied into female sexuality and independence. I appreciate my husband getting fixed, which gave me the freedom not to worry about getting pregnant. My mother was fixed after her fifth child, but such a larger operation, especially in the 60’s.
    Naturally, the best remedy is to be pro-active and we are fortunate today with accessible contraception. But sometimes, they fail. In regards to rape and incest, there’s no doubt, abortion must be an option. Again, this is about the woman’s rights! I do believe if men take responsibility on par with women and have a vasectomy after their childbearing years, we will have come far. Our oldest son had one performed after three children.
    This is a huge topic to discuss with so many variations and each case is different, but every time, a woman must have a say! And I can’t help comparing men’s right to kill at war, children included, no questions asked!

  4. Carrie Nyssen

    What a beautifully written piece. I’ve literally been in shock watching the crumbling laws once passed in an effort to create some equality for my gender. I really can hardly believe what’s happening. We will persist. We will rise.

  5. D. Wallace Peach

    Such a thoughtful post, Jan. I suspect that we are near the same age, and we are definitely in agreement. That government (mostly men) feels compelled to control women’s bodies and choices is repugnant. What these abortion laws say is that women are not intelligent enough and/or moral enough to make these decisions about our reproductive lives. It burns me. I used to work with single mothers who endured incredible poverty. The thought that the government would force them to have more children is cruel.

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      Cruel indeed. Nobody in their right mind thinks abortion is a great thing to do, but the alternative is compulsory pregnancy. Thanks for your comment.

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