For me and millions of other women, inequality before the law has been the story of our lives. Most recently, advocates on both sides of the equal-pay issue seem to forget that personal stories are more compelling than statistics. They also ignore the fact that equal pay will not be resolved until we confront other issues inextricably linked with it.
My story begins in 1969, when my husband abruptly left my three very young daughters and me, stranding us without financial support. A few weeks later, I discovered I was pregnant. I knew it was impossible to give a new baby what it deserved while also giving my daughters what they needed. I made the difficult decision to have an abortion.
Because state law radically restricted access to the procedure, I had two choices: a back-alley abortion or humiliation before a hospital review board to obtain permission for a “therapeutic abortion.” Ironically, in order to grant me permission to do what was best for me and my daughters, the board would have to diagnose me as emotionally unfit to be a parent. To top it off, I also was required to get written permission from the husband who deserted us.
This situation changed everything for me and fast. I had a college degree, but suddenly I had no car, no income, and few alternatives. To keep our family going, I was forced onto welfare and relied on food stamps to keep food on the table. In the blink of an eye, my aspirations for achieving a comfortable middle-class life for my family were shattered.
That experience sparked a lifetime of activism that eventually took me to the front ranks of the national pro-choice movement, driven by a powerful desire to give women real choices to control their lives, choices denied to women of my generation. It also awakened in me a clear sense of the centrality of reproductive freedom as an indispensable human right – a right that underpins every woman’s ability to live in dignity, to enjoy full and equal citizenship, and to pursue a healthy and fulfilling life. This principle became a powerful and defining force for me and guided my professional work over my lifetime.
What most do not appreciate – even today – is that if women are not allowed to control something as fundamental as when they will and will not bear children, there is little hope that they will have an equal chance in the workforce or at the pay window. Demanding “equal pay” may seem less controversial than abortion, but it will never be a reality for most women without taking on the more daunting issue of abortion rights.
I have traveled a great distance since those wrenching days in 1969, and America has as well. The choice denied me has been recognized as every woman’s constitutional right, a right most Americans still support.
Sadly, dark forces have once again gathered upon the political horizons. Politicians, the courts, and an emboldened antichoice movement threaten the fragile state of women’s reproductive freedom in a way that feels eerily similar to those days in 1969. Is it possible that the arc of history could be bent into a circle so that, for many women, the journey will return them to that interrogation room, the back alley, or forced childbearing?
Two generations have grown up since Roe; although they have lived with the reproductive rights we won, they were not shaped by the struggle to win them. They support the right but increasingly lack the active commitment necessary to protect it against such determined opponents. As a result, the force defending the right of reproductive freedom is thin and fragile.
What can we do? First, recognize that the gains made in the past are elusive. Changes in the political power structure can empower anti-choice forces and change laws that affect the health and lives of all women, especially those most vulnerable.
Second, every woman or person who counts on a woman can get smart about issues and commit to some type of activity – call your elected officials and head to the polls for every election, not just the presidential ones.
Third, call for every single policy promoted by legislatures – whether federal or state – to include an analysis on how the policy would affect the lives of women. This approach would have great consequences given that the status of women has an enormous impact on society’s health and promise of a decent life.
Forty-five years ago, I was alone in a society that placed little value on my dignity, my freedom, my children, and my choice. Here we are, and here we have been. This is once again our moment and our responsibility. Our freedom belongs to us; it is our right, and it is our responsibility to protect it; and we have the power to do so. If we embrace this responsibility, a society that fully values women, supports children, and protects the freedoms that define America awaits.