Tag Archives: Margaret Sanger

Pat Maginnis: A Hero of Her Time … and Ours


Laurie and Debbie say:

In 1928, when Pat Maginnis was born, abortion was illegal in all 50 states (and many other countries) but according to Wikipedia, the laws were “unevenly enforced, at best.” According to the marvelous Lili Loofbourow’s profile of Maginnis in Slate, at some unspecified point, Maginnis

got her first abortion in Mexico and swore to herself that she would never again leave her own country to get medical care. She spent the next decade producing a list of legitimate abortion providers outside the country while also working quietly with those within it. Despite her best efforts, she would get pregnant twice more. But she would continue to have a sex life. And the horror of having to wrestle down her own fertility forged her into the formidable antagonist to the law that she became.

In the course of profiling Maginnis, Loofbourow delves into the history of abortion, something both of us know at first hand.

She came of age long before the sexual revolution, which meant she had a particular experience of—and a particular fury about—what women had been routinely expected to tolerate. It’s hard for statistics to express just how urgent the abortion conversation was in the 1960s, or how difficult it was to even have the conversation, given the laws. 

Laurie, who was born in 1942, remembers always having money on hand in the late 1950s for an abortion if needed, even when money was hard to come by, and also always having names of “good” abortionists for people who needed them–in effect, being part of an informal abortion underground. Debbie, who was born in 1951, remembers taking a friend to an illegal abortion in a nearby city in 1969 or 1970 — with meetings on street corners, surreptitious passing of cash, and bloody follow-ups because no abortionist at the time provided anything like aftercare. So we know just how urgent and difficult the conversation was.

In the same climate where we were doing those things, Pat Maginnis was making public statements on the streets of San Francisco,

The entire concept had become untouchable, a boogeyman. “The word abortion was taboo,” she says. “And I thought: That’s crazy. People won’t talk about abortion! They’re afraid to. I’m going to talk about abortion! ABORTION!” she yelled. “Women weren’t talking about it. They were afraid to talk about it.”

Maginnis wasn’t. She relied on logistical help from two women, Lana Phelan and Rowena Gurner, who joined her to form the Society for Humane Abortion’s central trio, which came to be known as the “Army of Three.” Maginnis was the fire, Gurner the strategist and organizational genius, and Phelan the organization’s eloquent mouthpiece. Gurner, like Maginnis, also worked full time, professionalizing the organization in her spare hours. She spent many nights sleeping on SHA’s floor.

Maginnis decided, without the support of her organization, to intentionally flout the law.

“I plan to leaflet for abortion until they get sick of me and arrest me or repeal the law,” Maginnis had announced to the Berkeley Barb when she launched her campaign on June 16, 1966. Her initial plan had been to distribute a thousand leaflets. A week later, when she hadn’t been arrested, she escalated. “My minimum goal is to distribute 50,000 leaflets by July 25, telling women where they can get abortions,” she announced through the press. When she finally was arrested…, she caused the city ordinance under which she was arrested to be ruled unconstitutional. She had no intention of stopping there. “I was arrested under a local ordinance,” she told the [Berkeley] Barb in 1966. “Now it’s the state laws that need changing.” …

As Gurner put it to the Barb: “We just want to get this law on trial. … We obviously and willingly broke the law. And we did it so that no DA could weasel out because of ‘insufficient evidence.’ ” It worked. They were arrested on Feb. 20, 1967, and faced (according to the Barb) a sentence of five to seven years in state prison if found guilty. While their hearing was in progress—in a courthouse in Redwood City—an unrepentant Gurner and Maginnis advertised that they were still looking for a place in Berkeley they could rent on Thursday nights to hold more abortion classes. 

Radical acts take many forms. Maginnis and her companions chose one of the most effective and most memorable is to simply stand up (or sit down, whichever is forbidden) and speak your truth, over and over, until the state is forced to take notice of you. A great majority of important legal changes begin with illegal activism, and a refusal to listen to anyone who tells you to stop.  This is perhaps made most clear when we look at Maginnis’s relationship to Margaret Sanger:

Her admiration of Sanger, though, is genuine. “Sanger took rotten eggs and tomatoes and rotten fruit thrown at her when she went out, and I don’t think people know that today,” she says. She understood that an organization with Planned Parenthood’s institutional heft needed to keep some distance from the SHA; Maginnis’ strategy of flagrantly flouting the law had made her something of a too-hot-to-handle legend.

Loofbourow goes on to describe what the Army of Three and the SHA taught in their classes, how they organized out-of-the-country trips for women needing abortions, the SHA’s response to the vicious (by the standards of that time, mild by the standards of our time) anti-abortion bill signed by Ronald Reagan in 1967, and exactly how Maginnis (and Phelan) induced their own abortions, her reaction to Roe v. Wade, and her sense of current abortion politics.

The first time we met, I asked Maginnis what she thought women should be doing now, as the country seems poised once again to try to control our bodies. “I’ve thought about that,” she said then. “If I was going to reinvolve myself at this point, what would be the entry point? Kind of like setting out a map, looking for an entry.” She doesn’t quite have an answer. Yet. … “Keep talking about the issue,” she says. “Sure, not everyone is a brilliant speaker, but I think people have to keep talking about it.” She looks at me, her eyes bright. “Don’t you?” 

We do.

Why the Fight for Women’s Rights to Our Own Bodies Goes So Deep

Lynne Murray says:

Social futurist Sara Richardson recently wrote a piece so profound that I felt I should have known her points all along. I lived through the change in attitudes she’s describing. Her conclusion surprised me because it’s so true and yet so invisible. Richardson explains:

When people look back on the 20th century from the vantage point of 500 years on, they will remember the 1900s for three big things…. One was the integrated circuit …. The second was the moon landing ….

But the third one is the silent one, the one that I’ve never seen come up on anybody’s list of Innovations That Changed The World, but matters perhaps more deeply than any of the more obvious things that usually come to mind. And that’s the mass availability of nearly 100% effective contraception. Far from being a mere 500-year event, we may have to go back to the invention of the wheel or the discovery of fire to find something that’s so completely disruptive to the way humans have lived for the entire duration of our remembered history.

Until the condom, the diaphragm, the Pill, the IUD, and all the subsequent variants of hormonal fertility control came along, anatomy really was destiny — and all of the world’s societies were organized around that central fact. Women were born to bear children; they had no other life options.

This set me to thinking how difficult it was to get a prescription for birth control pills in suburban Southern California in 1967. The pill was legal but you had to find a doctor who would write a prescription for you. I wasn’t about to ask my family doctor, who was my parents’ age and kind of creepy. Worse yet, he might have told my parents, who had made it plain that they did not want me to be sexually active. I knew the Pill existed, but information about where and how to actually get a prescription was not easily found.

A girlfriend in our little theater community suggested I go to a public health clinic. She outlined a strategy: tell them I was going to get married in another month and needed the pill. The song and dance she suggested made it clear that asking for a prescription without pretending to be almost-as-good-as married might not work. I didn’t feel equal to that deception and finally ended up honestly asking and getting a prescription from my dermatologist, who said he prescribed it for acne and would be glad to furnish a scrip. He was 10 years older and quite amused that I was interested in contraception. In fact. when he heard I was moving to San Francisco, home of sex and drugs and rock and roll, he asked if I could get him some marijuana. Although he was perfectly nice about it, he demonstrated how women are divided into good girls–owned by and obedient to a father or a husband–and bad girls–who want to have sex without consequences. Bad girls, being outlaws, are reasonable people to ask for illegal drugs.

Once I moved to San Francisco, I discovered Planned Parenthood and my problems getting reliable birth control simply by asking for it were over

Robinson describes the dangers of complacency:

If you’re a woman of childbearing age in the US, you’ve had access to effective contraception your entire fertile life . . .[I] t feels like we’ve had this right, and this technology, forever. We take it so completely for granted that we simply cannot imagine that it could ever go away. It leads to a sweet complacency: birth control is something that’s always been there for us, and we’re rather stunned that anybody could possibly find it controversial enough to pick a fight over.

She reminds her readers that the backlash is real and the threat is not imaginary:

Modern industrial economies have undermined the authority of men both in the public sphere and in the private realms; and since they’re limited in how far they can challenge it in the external world, they’ve turned women’s bodies into the symbolic battlefield on which their anxieties over this play out. Drill down to the very deepest center of any of these movements, and you’ll find men who are experiencing this change as a kind of personal annihilation, a loss of masculine identity so deep that they are literally interpreting it as the end of the world. (The first rule of understanding apocalyptic movements is this: If someone tells you the world is ending, believe them. Because for them, it probably is.)

They are, above everything else, desperate to get their women back under firm control. And in their minds, things will not be right again until they’re assured that the girls are locked up even more tightly, so they will never, ever get away like that again.

These things can take a loooong time to work all the way out.) Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will, in all likelihood, still be working out the details of these new gender agreements a century from now; and it may be a century after that before their grandkids can truly start taking any of this for granted.

Robinson’s article also gave me a renewed respect and appreciation for Margaret Sanger, who said: “No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”

Sanger waged a lifelong struggle to make reliable birth control available. She was instrumental in encouraging the invention of, and finding the funding to develop, the Pill. She lived to see the Pill made available.

Now it is time to honor her legacy and make sure that our rights to reproductive freedom are not wrestled out of our hands.