Forty years of creative actions for choice

The Radical Cheerleaders in action at UC Santa Cruz's Baytree Plaza on Nov. 7, 2007. (Santa Cruz IMC/~Bradley)

The Radical Cheerleaders in action at UC Santa Cruz’s Baytree Plaza on Nov. 7, 2007. (Santa Cruz IMC/~Bradley)

Today marks the anniversary of the 1973 passage of Roe v. Wade, the watershed Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion under most circumstances in the United States. Since then, there has been an ongoing struggle to defend women’s right to choose, which has involved myriad creative actions.

In the 1990s, for instance, my favorite part of a clinic-defense campaign was always the arrival of Church Ladies for Choice (CLFC). From a block away we knew they were coming; you could hear their laughter, smell the perfume, see the glam outfits. And when they arrived, whether it was snowing or brutally hot, they would gather up and start singing “hers” — “hymns” were just too sexist! We’d all sing along to the familiar melodies with rewritten, topical words. There was “Stand by Your Clinic” (to the tune of “Stand by your Man”) and “This Womb Is My Womb (“it is not your womb, and there is no womb, for Wandall Tewwy”). The dress code was consistently high camp or drag, with very hairy arms and legs popping out of over-the-top Sunday-best dresses and hats; CLFC tended to be mostly men.

Sometimes the LAW would show up as well — not the cops, but Ladies Against Women. Spoofing anti-feminist politics since the time of Phyllis Schaffley and Reagan’s inauguration, these were conservatively-dressed and well-heeled women (sometimes with members of the LAW Men’s Auxiliary in tow). With their white gloves and frilly demeanor, their manifesto declared “Repeal the Ladies’ Vote (Babies, Not Ballots)” and made calls to “Abolish the environment. It takes up too much space, and is almost impossible to keep clean” and “Restore virginity as a high-school graduation requirement.” Any woman could join LAW as long as she was able to bring along a pink permission slip signed by her husband.

At some point, with either CLFC or LAW around, we’d end up singing the old Monty Python song “Every Sperm is Sacred.” Placards held up by pearl-wearing, proper-suited women would proclaim, “No sperm deserves to be wasted! Arrest the masturbaters!”

All of these shenanigans drew a contrast with the abortion opponents on their knees in prayer, provided diversion and physical support for those who were being escorted into the clinics, and kept up the morale of those forming human-defense chains around the doors. Most of my experience with clinic defense was with the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force, an all-volunteer group founded in the 1980s to promote peaceful and safe access to women’s health clinics; many other cities in the United States had groups organized to defend a woman’s right to choose and access to safe clinics as well.

In New York City, WHAM! (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization) was founded in response to the 1989 Supreme Court ruling in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services that allowed states to bar the use of public money and public facilities for abortions. WHAM was greatly influenced by ACT UP’s tactics and operations on behalf of AIDS victims, especially in its commitment to in-your-face direct actions. WHAM disrupted the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court justice David Souter and, in July 1991, dropped a banner over the Statue of Liberty’s face that read “No Choice, No Liberty.” The message called on the federal government to “stop gagging women’s rights.” The NYC Clinic Defense Task Force and CLFC were two groups that emerged from the work of WHAM.

A little later on in the scene, the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) took to the streets across the United States, usually with its characteristic drum corps. Fueled by disgust and anger about Congress’s treatment of Anita Hill, William Kennedy Smith’s rape case and attacks on abortion rights, WAC deployed street theater, fax zaps (before the Internet!), guerrilla postering, pickets and marches. In 1992, WAC crashed the American Bar Association convention, demanding that it officially include a national lesbian and gay lawyers’ group and support abortion rights. The group also pulled off a fabulous pink-slip action: A month before the 1992 presidential election, dressed in pink slips, WAC women handed out paper pink slips giving the GOP notice that it had failed to meet the needs of women.

Probably the largest event in support of women’s rights and reproductive freedom was the 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, attended by approximately one million people, mostly women. Along with the more well-known groups like NOW, NARAL, ACLU, Planned Parenthood, NAACP and Feminist Majority, others like the Radical Cheerleaders jumped in as well to offer some of their “activism with pom poms and middle fingers extended.” They were dressed as steampunk cheerleaders, often in black, red, pink and more black with pompoms made from garbage bags. Chants were rewritten standards or stinging diatribes against the state, capitalism, and the oppression of women and girls: “My back is achin’, my bra’s too tight, my bootie’s shakin’ from left to right! Sound off, revolution! Sound off, revolution!”

To celebrate the anniversary today, there will be demonstrations across the country, both in person and online. In courtrooms, legislatures and clinics everywhere, the struggle over abortion rights continues — a struggle not only over women’s bodies but also over the imagination.

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