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.
Waging Nonviolence is hiring a writer to interview leading movement figures and analysts and produce one Q&A-style article per week. The writer will work with our small editorial team to identify the interview subject each week. For the most part, we’ll be looking to hear from activists, organizers and scholars who can shed light on… More
By melding theory and practice, Philadelphia’s Vanguard S.O.S. are building skills and collective power.
The 1958 voyage of the Golden Rule offers important strategic lessons on how to confront an overwhelming evil and win.
On Facebook, a comment from the Catholic Peace Fellowship offers a reminder that the nonviolence community is by no means in agreement on the issue of abortion. The comment consists of a statement from 1974 signed by luminaries like Dorothy Day and James Forest. For them, resisting war and resisting abortion go hand in hand:
Read the whole statement here.
Violence is perpetrated daily upon women, via abortion on demand, in the name of “choice”, just as violence is perpetrated daily upon their children.
Waging Nonviolence supports this violence, although they claim to be against violence.
3,700 children and women are harmed by the violence of abortion on demand each day in the US, and Waging Nonviolence wishes for this violence against women and their children to continue, forever, unabated.
A more conservative, and less progressive, position regarding abortion on demand is unimaginable, especially for a group calling itself: “Waging Nonviolence”.
This purportedly nonviolent and progressive organization: Waging Nonviolence, desires for all American women to remain forever locked into one US Supreme Court decision, which was made for them by 7 old men during the misogynistic milieu of the 1970’s, to continue forever, and is the epitome and very definition of rabid — and dangerous — conservatism: keeping people locked into the morally bankrupt and hopelessly outdated political policies of the past.
I suppose Waging Nonviolence would have backed black chattel slavery too?
Shame on Waging Nonviolence for supporting unending violence against women and their children in the name of “choice”, and for refusing to seek better alternatives for women pregnant with children, such as health care, financial assistance, adoption alternatives, and whatever else pregnant women might need in order to give life, rather than death, to their children, as true progressives desire.
Thank you for your comment. Just to clarify, Waging Nonviolence is a publication and not an advocacy organization. The articles we publish represent part of a conversation we are trying to curate, not an agenda we are trying to pursue. Opinions and assumptions expressed represent those of our authors, not of the publication itself.
On the issue of abortion, we recognize that there is a difference of opinion about what nonviolence demands, and we hope to be a place where that discussion can take place in productive ways.
I was appalled at Bloch’s tone. I’m part of the nonviolent community who feels that surgically ripping apart fetuses that , at three months, look like us doesn’t easily fit into the nonviolent imagination that Bloch endorses. Tough stuff. But we all have lots to think about here, and for a long time.
GREAT ARTICLE! Normally I shy away from WNV because it is about 2 decades behind on gender and sexuality issues. But this was refreshing. Thanks!