(WOMENSENEWS)–As late as the 1960s, public debate about issues such as contraception, abortion and rape were conducted almost exclusively by male doctors, judges, legislators and covered–if at all–by male reporters. The burgeoning women’s liberation movement, however, was evolving arenas in which women were determined to “tell it like it is”–one of the catch phrases of the time–privately in consciousness-raising groups and publicly in “speak outs.”
In February 1969, a group calling themselves “Redstockings”–“red” for revolutionaries–had boldly disrupted New York City hearings on abortion laws where the only female among the experts allowed to speak was a nun. On March 21, Redstockings sponsored a speak out in a Greenwich Village church. (Churches were essential to the abortion rights movement, as well as the anti-war movement.) Twelve women testified about their illegal abortions, followed by dozens more in the packed audience. The women told of panic, fear, danger, humiliation. They detailed the exorbitant financial cost for some and the extensive physical cost for others, including extreme pain from the surgery without anesthesia, forced sterilization and self-inflicted injury. Among the female journalists allowed in was Gloria Steinem. She later credited the event with converting her from objective journalist to activist, and became the founding editor of Ms. Magazine.
Speak outs on abortion followed in other cities and, later, on other issues, like sexual harassment or rape. “Coming out” about having had an abortion became widespread, removing the deed from the shadow of secrecy and shame. Insisting on being heard in public debates became commonplace. In 1970, New York State liberalized its abortion laws. Male legislators took credit.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books, including “The American Women’s Almanac.” She takes her lecture-and-slideshow about activist women’s history–“The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change”–to campuses and communities around the country.